As I’ve been encouraged to envision myself as a theologian, a common question arises: “What does a theologian do?” A tempting response would be: “a theologian theologizes theology.” It has just the right amount of obscurity and tongue-in-cheek wordplay that hints both the elitism and self-delusion so often criticized of the theological academia. Instead, a more productive approach would be to narrow in on the word “theology”: the seed and fruit of the theologian’s labors.
“Theology” etymologically is “the study [logia] of God [theos].” After answering my dad’s question of what I was studying, he responded, “That’s a thing?” And those who recognize theology tend to treat it with distant reverence: “What a holy (and complicated) study!” So, despite theology’s varied reputations, I would like to put forth three descriptors: theology as a luxury, a tool, and worship.
Theology as a luxury
We start here because this descriptor has sobering realities contemporary theologians must address. Initially, “honor” came to mind, but it sounds too positive. “Luxury” rings with some negative connotations I wish to convey and confront. (“Privilege” also came to mind, but it seemed overused.)
Reading theology is an arduous task. As one professor said, “it is like learning a language”: both require time, patience, and immersion. Not only do you have to read the text but also read it twice, thrice, and even up to 10 times just to comprehend one sentence. What’s more, these texts are not timeless truths. For example, Thomas Aquinas’ magisterial Summa Theologiae breathes in and wrestles with the medieval Aristotelian renaissance. Without some grasp of Aristotelian thought, a reader could easily get lost when Aquinas speaks of substance and accidents or first and secondary causes (like I do!). And, sure, there are “lay-level” theological literature, but even these demands a good deal of time, critical reflection, and, if fortunate, conversation partners. But not everyone has the time, energy, or interest to read theology. For many, life demands too much from them, and theology has too many hurdles. Theology is a luxury that not all have the time or energy for.
Another very real and lamentable hurdle is the academic guild itself. Often seared as “the ivory tower,” the guild has many conversations that might never reach relevance to those outside and at the foot of the tower. These conversations come in the form of conferences, articles, and monographs — most being “illegible” to the laity. Is this entirely the guild’s fault? Some might be inclined to say a roaring “yes,” but I think it’s more complicated than that. Again, not all are interested in theology; it is an “acquired taste” luxury. The once flourishing symbiotic relationship between the theological guild and the Church has been dwindling in the past centuries. And the blame is on both sides: some from each side refuse to hear the other out.
What’s more, the guild is getting harder and harder to enter and survive in: the number of PhD holders may have risen, but the number of full-time positions have been stagnant (or lower); adjunct positions have burgeoned, but they are woefully unsustainable; getting a rigorous education risks crushing financial debt; and because theology is stigmatized as “illegible” or “inaccessible,” there is less and less market, thus less and less future sustainability. Theology is a luxury not all contribute and benefit from it.
Theology as a tool
There’s no escaping it: this luxurious type of theology tends to look formal and exclusive. Yet, anyone outside the tower can and, undoubtedly, does theology. This is what J. Todd Billings call “functional theology”*: it consists of operative assumptions one has about God, world, and self. Thus, everyone does theology. Even the atheist who says “there is no God” makes a theological statement. Unlike the more luxurious and formal theology, the stuff of functional theology is an collection of subconscious half-thoughts and split-second decisions. Another way to understand functional theology is as a filter: whatever goes in one ear is filtered through her theological assumptions. For example, the statement that God is father is filtered differently for one with a healthy relationship with her father than another with an abusive father. Whatever one filters in or out is what her functional theology affirms or denies. And if left unchecked or unobserved, functional theologies can go awry and become destructive. So, here, I would like to introduce theology as a tool.
On the one hand, theology is inescapable because everyone has a functional theology. On the other, theology is a luxury, for formal training and a wealth of information are relegated to a small group of people. This small group can be “dangerous people” in the church. That amount of training and precision (and, possibly, arrogance) can be a destructive force to new believers and church veterans. One poorly executed theological disagreement can lead to a broken relationship or church-splits. Therefore, formal theology is best understood as a scalpel: an unbelievably sharp tool that demands painstaking patience and care. Scalpels are most often used on live bodies; formally-trained theologians must remember they are dealing with living, complex people not lifeless, raw material. And such a powerful tool can bleed or heal.
Theology as worship
This then leads to my final descriptor: theology as worship. Theology as a luxury and a tool without worship is dull, uninspiring, and elitist. Theology can easily be self-serving, self-vindicating, and self-worshiping, even with God as subject-matter! No, theology must aid the theologian and her communities to worship God truly and spiritually. Part of this task requires the once flourishing symbiotic relationship between the theological guild and the Church to be renewed and refined. To be sure, the theologian is not be the church’s yes-(wo)men, for there are times for the theologian to be a prophet(ess). But the theologian is never to be severed from the Church; the theologian is the Church’s servant. And because not all have the opportunity or resources to be formally trained, it is the task of the already-trained theologian to teach, build up, and nurture critical yet generous functional theologians. This again does not mean that the trained theologian does not hear from silenced and “untrained” voices. Often times, these voices are the most crucial to the church’s flourishing. In the end, the theologian carefully observes but not judgmentally, diligently delves into the academia’s and Church’s rich resources, and applies the scalpel when conditions are optimal to remove that which hinders the worshiper’s worship.
I want to conclude with a plea to aspiring and established theologians: become servants of the Church and the greater world. Yes, continue to hone your craft, learn the technical language, and publish things of substance. But do not forget to build the Church so that it is better equipped to serve the world. Do not deconstruct for the sake of deconstructing, but continue to apply the scalpel on our functional theologies. We entrust our bodies under your care; do not forsake our worship.
*I was introduced to this concept in Todd J. Billings’s The Word of God for the People of God.