Jason Cather '05 nears doctoral degree

For Jason Cather '05, persistence in the face of adversity led to spot at the University of Chicago

Jason Cather '05 was intimidated when he arrived from Maryville College to the University of Chicago's Divinity School.

"My very first week there I had this sense of: 'Oh my goodness what am I doing?'" he said.

But as someone who lost his parents as a child and struggled with mental illness, he was not one to give up.

And the words of his Maryville College advisor, Dr. William Meyer, stuck with him. The professor of philosophy had told him: "be proud of this," "keep writing," and "don't let the feeling that it's difficult overcome you."

Meyer, himself an alumnus of the University of Chicago, had encouraged Cather to follow a unique educational path at Maryville College with a self-designed major. He knew that, while Cather was exceptionally bright, some of the issues he'd struggled with limited his concentration span and kept his grades low.

"I helped him get into a unique non-degree program at the University of Chicago to give him a taste of what a high-powered graduate institution would be like and to give the University of Chicago a chance to see Jason's intellectual talents for themselves," Meyer said.

"From there, Jason's talent and work ethic finally came together, and he has thrived ever since," he added.

Cather is now finishing a doctoral program, and was named this year as a fellow of the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion, which is the Divinity School’s institute for advanced research.

Learning to study

The foundation for Cather's present success was laid at Maryville College, where he first overcame some of the issues that had hounded him and found the stability he needed.

"I sought help for my mental illness issues," he said. "When that started to get better, I realized I didn't have good study habits. I was still very much struggling to get my work done, even though now I was in a place to do it. I didn't have the habit of sitting down at my desk for hours on end to write a paper."

Meyer, along with Cather's other professors, organized a way to help him. They gave him after-hours access to empty classrooms, where he could concentrate better than in his residence hall room. There he would set a timer for one hour to sit down to write, pretending that he was taking a final exam.

"I would outline my paper and go home and re-write that and edit it and turn it in," he said. "That's actually what I do now. I work that way. It helped me develop my method for writing that I still use."

Pursuing an idea

While Cather learned at Maryville College to train his mental capacity on a specific subject and write effectively, he was also gripped early on by the idea that now informs his life's work: the ontological argument.

After grappling with a complicated and academically unsuccessful freshman year, he decided to spend a year in Germany. On his own and with plenty of time to reflect, he read John Locke's Second Treatise on Government.

"I realized that I had a desire to talk about this, and to think about this, and to ask questions about the ideas in this book," he said. "I needed to be some place where that could happen."

So Cather returned to the College, enrolling in Modern Critiques of Religion, taught that semester by Meyer.

"That's actually where I first encountered the ontological argument, and Kant's critique of that, and I was hooked from that moment on," Cather said.

The ontological argument, which seeks to demonstrate the existence of God by disregarding the physical world and relying on reason alone, can be traced back to St. Anselm, a 12th century Benedictine monk and Christian philosopher.

According to Meyer it is "one of the classical rational arguments for the existence of God."

"The ontological argument is significant to teach to undergraduates because the predominant modern assumption is that the question of God is not a rational one," he said. "The ontological argument challenges students to think about these deeper questions about the nature of existence and to reexamine their assumptions of what they mean when they refer to 'God.'"

Cather's doctoral thesis focuses on the work of Charles Hartshorne, a 20th century proponent of the ontological argument.

"I am studying his version of the argument," Cather said. "Some later 20th century philosophers have criticized it, and I'm responding to those criticisms."

Finding family

Cather was born in California but, after his mother passed away when he was 11, he was raised by his grandparents in Townsend, Tenn. He was estranged from his father, who had never been in the picture.

"Looking back on it I feel like Townsend is a nice place to be from and to spend time," he said.

Despite the hardship, Cather found at Maryville College a new sense of direction and confidence in his abilities.

"When I got to the University of Chicago they expected us to read complex philosophical texts, come to class and be able to discuss them," he said. "That's exactly what I had been asked to do at Maryville College. After I turned in my first assignment I knew this was exactly what I wanted to be doing, and I was ready for this."

But he also left the College with the beginnings of his new family in place. He and his wife, Megan Shegrud '05, have a year-old son together. She majored in Spanish and now teaches in the Chicago public school system.

"She was working at the library," Cather said of their introduction at Maryville. "I came in one day and saw her and I spoke with her and she was interesting and beautiful, and we took a couple of classes together."

It took a year and a half for the couple to come together, but when Cather proposed he did so in Maryville College's Lamar Memorial Library.

"I snuck her in because that's where we met," he said.


Now that Cather is nearing the end of his time in graduate school, he reflects on the excitement he felt when, as a Maryville College undergraduate, he first visited the University of Chicago on a Lilly Grant his professors helped him secure.

"They had a shelf in the lobby of faculty publications, and when I looked those were the same books that I had been reading for my classes that semester," he said.

Soon Cather will be on the academic job market, and his voice takes on a note of surety when he talks about his plans.

"I'm going to look for a small liberal arts college where I can pay it forward and try to be the kind of mentor and teacher that I had," he said.

By Gerhard Schneibel, News & New Media Writer

Maryville College is a nationally-ranked institution of higher learning and one of America’s oldest colleges. For more than 200 years, we’ve educated students to be giving citizens and gifted leaders, to study everything, so that they are prepared for anything — to address any problem, engage with any audience and launch successful careers right away. Located in Maryville, Tennessee, between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the city of Knoxville, Maryville College offers nearly 1,200  students from around the world both the beauty of a rural setting and the advantages of an urban center, as well as more than 60 majors, seven pre-professional programs and career preparation from their first day on campus to their last. Today, our 10,000 alumni are living life strong of mind and brave of heart and are prepared, in the words of our Presbyterian founder, to “do good on the largest possible scale.”