From Late-Night Debates to Late-Night Newborns and Dissertations: The Priest, the Professor, and the Politician

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“Impassioned political visionary Thomas Jefferson was not without ironclad convictions. Nevertheless, he wrote, “I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.”

Joel Day (07), Ben Kautzer (07), and Gaelan Gilbert (07) have followed Jefferson’s lead to the letter.

While PLNU undergraduates, the three comrades would debate politics, religion, philosophy, and literature all night, every night, with the lights out in Goodwin Hall or with bottomless cups of coffee at Denny’s. Debating “the old verities and truths of the heart,” as Faulkner described them, became the lifeblood of their friendship, shaping their individual beliefs, intellectual passions, and characters, and launching them into marriages, children, and extraordinary careers—birthed out of the kind of spiritual wrestling and revelations that mark true brothers in Christ.

While their differences became more pronounced as they matured, the life trajectories of the three alumni remain deeply entwined in surprising ways. All three studied overseas during their junior year—Day in Poland, Kautzer in Scotland, Gilbert in Greece—and each had career-defining semesters. The three welcomed newborns within months of each other. After Kautzer defended his dissertation in June in the UK, Gilbert and Day defended theirs on the same day in mid-July, in Canada and the U.S.

And they’re still close friends, their lives in sync despite distance and time.

“At PLNU, we developed a friendship sparring over the big ideas of history,” Day said. “We debated together, lived together, went through breakups with girlfriends, met our wives, attended class together. It’s great to have friends who can challenge you and respect you at the same time.”

Gilbert and Kautzer were roommates from the first day at PLNU, and Kautzer and Day were rivals on separate high school debate teams, becoming championship PLNU debate partners. The three became roommates during their senior year.

“It became all about the quality of our arguments, about discovering truth,” Kautzer explained, “but also about the value of friendship. Socrates and Plato wrestled as friends with the deep aspects of life, and we see friendship emphasized in the Gospels as well. Jesus said, ‘I no longer call you servants but friends.’”

Gilbert, too, still feels the impact of the friendships keenly.

“I’m still struck by how formative those years were,” he remarked. “We were on the threshold of stepping into new directions in the world. The impact of our time together was enormous. Our conversations gave us glimpses into the kind of people God created us to be.”

A “funny reminder” of the impact of those years, Gilbert confessed, is when his wife catches him referring to Day and Kautzer as his roommates, still. Those late-night debates about politics, religion, and literature were catalysts for three destinies, each friend taking up threads of the conversations in his life’s work.

Joel Day: The Politician

Day is fascinated by solving puzzles of the most urgent, complex sort. The puzzle, for example, of how we define identity, or how identity shapes politics and political violence, as in religious terror movements.

“At PLNU, I learned there were more puzzles than answers in the social sciences,” he said. “One difference I could make in the world, I realized, was to identify and answer those puzzles on an academic level, to then offer policymakers a toolkit to respond to problems. I hope I can bridge that divide between theory and praxis in my career, perhaps someday bringing my academic expertise into public service or elected office—we’ll see.”

As a sophomore, Day won the National Security Act Foundation’s David L. Boren Scholarship to Kraków, Poland’s Jagiellonian University to study Eastern European politics and security issues. It was in Poland that Day’s interest in security studies became a life calling. He went on to receive his master’s in international relations at the University of San Diego, and his Ph.D. in international studies from the University of Denver, where he was also a research fellow at the Sie Center for International Security and Diplomacy.

Day is currently an assistant professor of security and global studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell (UML). He is also a research associate at UML’s Center for Terrorism and Security Studies. His articles have been published in the Journal of Peace Research and Journal of Strategic Security.

At the heart of Day’s studies is his passion to create alternative approaches to the discourse of violence and terror—on both an academic and political level.

“Right now we have a problem in the social sciences in that we think and talk about identity in terms of big groups—Christian, Muslim, Hindu,” he said. “My work aims to question these large categories and shift our gaze toward the performances of identities. Considering what individuals and groups do in their everyday activities and how they define their activities will deepen our understanding of identity.”

Day believes this approach gives us “analytical leverage” as we seek to understand and solve global terrorism.

“It’s not that ‘Muslims’ contribute to violence—that’s a brute observation,” Day said. “Rather, groups that do X are more likely to contribute to Y.”

The Discourse of Faith in the Social Sciences

Day’s Christian faith allows him to examine religious violence “from an insider’s perspective.” Much of the work in the social sciences, he explained, privileges secularism, bracketing religion out of the discourse.

“It’s a blind side in the social sciences,” Day said. “My education at PLNU, however, taught me not to take religion for granted or set it aside. When I arrived at the University of Denver to study this subject, my professors were surprised to work with a student who actually knew about sacred texts.”

Day advises congressional and presidential campaigns on national security issues, advocating for interfaith dialogues and long-term economic development as the foundation for combating violent radicalism.

“The solution to terrorism abroad is remarkably similar to our political needs here at home—get people working, respect pluralism, and make sure people’s voices are heard by the powerful,” he said.

A Bio Fit for a Politico

For a political junkie, it was fitting for Day to meet his wife Lauren Ries (08) at a Model U.N. convention—in Las Vegas. When the PLNU faculty-chaperone was giving guidelines for the trip, “no drinking, no gambling, and no getting married,” Ries turned to Day and joked, “Hey, do you want to get married?”

“‘Yeah,’ I thought secretly,” Day admitted. “‘Give me another five years.’ And the rest is history.”

It was also fitting for Day to hear about his wife’s pregnancy via Google Chat while he was in Israel’s West Bank.

“The next day, as rocks were being thrown at my car by this group of radicals, not only did my past life flash before my eyes, but for the first time, my future did as well,” he said. “I was going to be a father, responsible for the life of another. That moment was a game changer.”

One year after that West Bank Google chat, Day’s routine was grueling, yet rewarding.

“Nap time was dissertation time,” Day explained. “I treasure that experience. Coming to age in my career, finishing my dissertation, bringing new life into the world, seeing my son roll over or laugh for the first time, all because I was at home with him, writing. I am very, very lucky.”

Ben Kautzer: The Priest

Kautzer has been involved in church life since childhood, but as an adult, his devotion was elsewhere, initially set on achieving success in business.

Everything changed during the first day of his first theology class at PLNU.

“The class absolutely fired up my imagination,” Kautzer explained. “I realized what inspired me most deeply were those late-night questions about our relationship with God—so I threw my shoulders into the work of theology.”

Kautzer earned a dual degree in philosophical theology and managerial and organizational communication. During his junior year, he spent a semester at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, with coursework in philosophy, politics, biblical hebrew and contemporary theology. Kautzer was set on an academic path, but several of his PLNU professors “made this complicated for me,” he said. A long internal debate began as he faced what seemed to be an impossible choice.

Two Roads Diverge … then Converge

One of Kautzer’s PLNU professors was both an academic theologian and a Nazarene pastor, teaching during the week and overseeing his church on the weekends. Kautzer was challenged to consider “what it means to love and serve God in academia, and also embody that vocation in church life,” he said.

He began attending his professor’s Nazarene church in the inner city, which hosted one of San Diego’s largest food distribution centers.

“Church itself was quite interesting,” Kautzer explained. “A large percentage of members were homeless or poor. It was very formative for me, because it was the same Christ we were meeting when we were exchanging tins of beans, meeting at the shelter, or gathering at the Lord’s table.”

Kautzer began to consider the relationship between “the Christ we meet in worship and the Christ we meet in everyday life, in service,” a question, he explained, that “put a massive splinter in the back of my mind.” He decided to write his master’s thesis on works of mercy, thinking through those inner-city experiences, and how simple acts of love define Christian life and worship.

“Serving among the poor during those years while studying theology provoked me to ask how to hold those two worlds together,” he explained.

Kautzer earned his master’s in philosophical theology at the University of Nottingham, England, where he began to explore how specific political and theological changes in culture were displacing works of mercy from the core ethical and liturgical practices of the church.

In his studies, Kautzer said, “I sought to reclaim the tradition of the works of mercy from the supplemental margins of secular ‘volunteerism.’”

Kautzer then enrolled in doctoral studies in theology at Durham University, where he began to write about the “everyday theology” within “the ordinary gifts of food and drink, prayer and compassion, shelter and hospitality … ecclesiastical practices capable of challenging the bureaucratic institutionalization, indeed elimination, of human compassion.”

In his first year of doctoral work, however, Kautzer “had a little bit of a crisis.” It suddenly became clear to him that his future wasn’t heading where he’d expected. “My studies weren’t pointing me toward a classroom, but toward a congregation,” he said. “Mercy needs to be thought about deeply, but also lived.”

And so began a discernment process that lasted more than two years, with Kautzer visiting parishes, consulting with priests, reading and praying fervently.

God’s call was finally confirmed by two experiences that “felt almost identical.” The first occurred while Kautzer was teaching St. Augustine’s Confessions to Durham undergraduates. He was struck by a recognition that came from the depths of his soul.

This is what I’m supposed to be doing, he realized.

The second revelation happened while he was giving his first sermon at Holy Trinity Church in Nottingham. As he “opened God’s word with the people of God,” he explained, that same sense of “fittingness” possessed his soul. The “massive splinter” in Kautzer’s mind was healed.

“Finally, I felt free to pursue my calling in the church.”

Family of God, Family of Kautzer

Kautzer met his wife Joanna at the Anglican parish he joined upon his arrival in Nottingham. They married in 2009. He began seminary training at Ripon College Cuddesdon, Oxford University, as an “ordinand” in 2013, while also serving in local churches, schools, and hospitals. A few weeks before he submitted the first draft of his dissertation, the couple discovered their son, Ted, was on the way.

“As you step into parenthood,” Kautzer explained, “it recalibrates your time and how you interact with people. Being in my own parish now, wearing a formal clergy outfit and walking around our neighborhood at all hours of the night with a buggy, trying to get Ted to fall asleep, I bump into all kinds of people. It’s a great chance to talk.”

In three short weeks this past summer, Kautzer graduated with his doctorate; turned 30; was ordained; moved to a new home in a new city; began his new position as assistant curate at Earley St. Nicolas, Oxford Diocese; and became a father.

Ted was born on June 6, only 10 hours after the farewell service at Cuddesdon for his father, the priest.

Gaelan Gilbert: The Professor

Gilbert took up the conversation thread that encompasses all others, he said—no doubt a point of debate with Day and Kautzer.

“The study of literature is a gateway to studying anything you want in history,” Gilbert explained, “because it’s the study of language. If something has been written, it’s fair game for literary study.

“As a culture, we tend to forget who we are and why things are the way they are,” he continued. “Looking backward through reading is key to looking ahead clearly.”

Throughout high school, Gilbert’s teachers, family, and friends encouraged him to pursue English literature studies because he enjoyed reading and writing so much. His PLNU professors added fuel to the fire, and awakened his desire to teach.

“I realized then that being a literature professor is the best job in the world,” Gilbert said. “What’s better than sitting in a room and talking about books? But seriously—I learn so much from my students. It’s a relationship that I’m still absolutely inspired and challenged by, the lifeblood of my literary study, and what inspires and motivates the questions I pursue in my research.”

Green Youth, Eternal Questions

Gilbert’s doctoral thesis focused on the literary figure of speech prosopopeia, a type of personification, in the work of three writers of the late Middle Ages. He examined the political context framing the writers’ use of fictional legal personalities.

“The way the law, for example, relies on figures of speech to get things done,” Gilbert explained. “When the agency of anything but a human being is being represented by personification, it can cause all kinds of problems, as when today’s corporations are treated as ‘persons’ in legal terms.”

As a Christian scholar, Gilbert’s larger project is to trace the importance of the concept of the person in literature.

“Christianity introduced the notion of a person as a unique, unrepeatable, and substantial entity,” Gilbert explained. “Literature, law, and visual art were never the same because of this. I ask my students, through reading Dostoevsky, for example, to consider the human experience of belief in the face of immense suffering. The class always gets out late because students always want to keep talking about this subject. As Ivan says in The Brothers Karamazov, ‘We in our green youth have to settle the eternal questions first of all.’”

Orthodoxy and Icons

These “eternal questions” had inspired Gilbert to travel to the Greek island of Paros for a semester as a PLNU junior—with his soon-to-be wife, Meg, a PLNU art major he met in an English literature class. It was there that they first encountered the Eastern Orthodox church.

“One day Meg and I walked into an Orthodox church built in the 300s in the main village,” he recalled. “An afternoon service was going on, all in Greek. Despite the language barrier, something struck us deeply.”

After the Gilberts married in 2007, Gaelan earned his M.A. from SDSU. In 2010, they moved to Canada for his doctoral study. It was with this geographical move that they decided to become “catechumens,” or early learners, in the Orthodox church, ultimately being received in 2011.

Gilbert accepted a position as an assistant professor of English language and literature at St. Katherine College, in San Marcos, California, an Orthodox Christian liberal arts college. He has taken on key leadership roles in the newly established college, including director of the Arts & Humanities Program, Forum Lecture Series coordinator, curriculum development officer, and managing editor of the literary journal, St. Katherine Review.

“We’re trying to blaze a new trail here for Orthodoxy’s place on the landscape of higher education in America, and I get to wear many hats,” Gilbert said.

The Lessons of Parenthood and Friendship

The Gilberts now have two daughters, Florence and Rosalind.

“Becoming a father is a school for virtue, which partly means seeing your own faults,”  Gilbert said. “Fatherhood, like the teaching classroom, is a place where you learn your limits.”

At the same time, Gilbert catches parallels in parenting that enrich his literary study of persons. “Personhood is manifest most of all in the face,” he said. “ This occurred to me when I noticed our infant daughter returning our smiles. Even a newborn child can perceive and understand a smile as a loving, personal presence, long before language develops. This is truly amazing.”

Kautzer, Day, and Gilbert, now joined by their wives, continue their lifelong debates. They Skype often, and visit when they can. Their destinies continue to interweave.

“The conversations continue,” Gilbert explained. “It’s an illustration of what C.S. Lewis thought was the ultimate point of reading literature: we seek the depth of experience with another person. And the most sublime friendship of all was initiated by our Father God through the gift of His son Jesus Christ.”

Kautzer agrees: “Friendship with God is what existence is for,” he said, “so to be able to experience true friendship with each other teaches us about what it means to be friends with God and friends with Christ.”

“Consider how the infinite God could become a single human person without losing anything,” Gilbert adds. “We were always coming back in our late-night discussions to Colossians 2, how the fullness of God is in Jesus Christ—and that God made us in His image, His eikon—that we are living icons of God.”

BY ANNA COX

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