“Who Do You Think You Are?”: On Doing Theology as a Non-Theologian

Introducing my talk on Pietism and Christian colleges last Thursday morning at Messiah College, my friend Devin Manzullo-Thomas underscored that my training is in the history of international relations. It’s not something I hide in such settings — I’d pointed out exactly the same thing before a similar talk earlier in the month — but hearing it aloud from someone else did awaken that voice in the back of my head that sneers, “Who do you think you are? You don’t know what you’re talking about — you didn’t even study these things in grad school!”

At a later conversation, I agreed with my questioner’s observation that Yale is a great place to study religious history, but had to admit that I’d never taken a course in that field — or so much as said hello to Jon Butler, Lammin Sanneh, or the late Jaroslav Pelikan.

In fact, zero is also the number of theology, Bible, church history, Greek, and Hebrew courses I’ve taken in my life.

So who do I think I am, talking about anything relating to theology, the church, the Bible, Christian higher education, etc.?

Yale Divinity School quadrangle
For the record, I did visit Yale Divinity School a few times while researching a paper on the just war tradition… – Wikimedia

For whatever reason, no one has made much of a stink — within my hearing or reading — about my utter lack of credentialed expertise on many of the subjects about which I write, speak, and teach. I daren’t guess how many times I’ve said something trite or foolish about theology in the presence of theologian friends, yet they’ve never corrected me.

Less fortunate in this respect is Rachel Held Evans, target of comments like the following, from New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III:

Ben Witherington III…I wish Rachel had continued her studies in a formal way and been better trained in Biblical interpretation and how to deal with difficult ethical and theological issues. I have seen what happens when Christian college kids come to seminary and realize in their first year of seminary that college has given them just enough reading and training to make them dangerous and half-baked when it comes to understanding the world, the flesh, and the Devil.

Rachel with her keen mind has overcome not only some of her context but some of her education, but it would have been so much better if she had continued that education, not merely by continuing to read, but by having good dialogue partners who are not just pastors, or peers. But alas, this apparently has not happened, and as result, she uses her blog and her books to promulgate her heartfelt convictions, even when, had she run them by some older and wiser professors of faith, she might have thought better of some of the things she has said and is saying.

I haven’t read Evans’ newest book, Searching for Sunday, Witherington’s review of which is the source of his comments. But I’ve read enough of her blog to know that I’ll probably share some of his ambivalence with her work — and with her propensity to interpret evangelicalism in light of her particular experience of its pathologies.

Still, his tone is off-putting, especially the paternalistic lament that Evans had failed to “run [her heartfelt convictions] by some older and wiser professors of faith.”

She doesn’t name names, but it was hard not to think of Witherington in reading Evans’ blog post last Friday, entitled “Why a Seminary Degree Doesn’t Have to Make You A Jerk“:

The truth is, my lack of seminary training is something I’m deeply insecure about. Every writer struggles with self-doubt, and the refrain most commonly caught in a loop in my brain is: Who do you think you are? What do you know about God or faith or church? You haven’t even been to seminary! What could you possibly teach anyone?…

Regardless of how well they know me or my work, these guys tend to approach our conversations with a paternalistic familiarity that makes me uncomfortable, immediately rendering me the student and them the teacher.  I am not criticized; I am “lovingly corrected.”  We do not discuss where we agree or disagree; I am informed of  what I got right and what I got wrong.  It’s not a peer-to-peer conversation; it’s a session of “pastoral counseling,” initiated by a man who is not, in fact, my pastor.

Evans, Searching for SundayWhat they don’t realize, of course, is that I am intensely aware of my lack of theological qualifications, which is precisely why I read a lot, cite my sources, ask questions, listen, apologize when I get stuff wrong, and refuse to fake my way through Q&A sessions when the honest “A” is “I don’t know.” It’s also why I invite comments and critiques from faithful collaborators—pastors, scholars, artists, scientists, doctors, parents, blog commenters, and editors—who often know more about a given topic than I and whose insights improve my writing by miles. My gifts and training are in creative writing. My interests are in matters of faith. I know I am not entitled to respect, but on my better days, I am of the conviction that regular people can talk about God too, and perhaps even prophesy.

I wouldn’t want to ride this populism too far — somewhere down that road looms the anti-intellectualism that led some of my Pietist forebears to disdain exegetical and historical training for their pastors, or the “folk religion” that Roger Olson so often bemoans — but I’m certainly sympathetic to Evans here. If theology is a disciplined attempt to understand God, then “regular people” (including folks trained as creative writers or diplomatic historians) can and should do theology. And while they can’t do this well without mentors and conversation partners, they need not defer to those with a guild card.

Roger suggests some helpful guidelines here, at the conclusion of a 2013 blog series asking “What Is Theology and Who Does It?” He insists that “theology… is not something just anyone can do well. It is a discipline into which one is trained,” requiring knowledge of biblical exegesis and hermeneutics, Christian traditions, logic, skill in communication, and sensitivity “to human spiritual experience” and the surrounding culture. But he also acknowledges that good training is not a perfect defense against bad theology, and that there is ample theological wisdom outside of the circle of academic theologians.

Perhaps most importantly, given that Evans’ book is about her return to the Church after a period as a post-evangelical non-churchgoer, Roger argues that

theology… is a church-related discipline; it is not a “free floating” discipline disconnected from any particular commitment or community. The church needs theologians and theologians need the church. And yet, to a certain extent, a theologian’s job is to question the church—not as a chronic skeptic or gadfly but as a faithful prophet. He or she is a servant of the church and at the same time one who challenges the church to examine its beliefs and practices.

3 thoughts on ““Who Do You Think You Are?”: On Doing Theology as a Non-Theologian

  1. A “separated” theologian is less helpful to anyone than a theologian involved in the church. While we need to be able to comment, criticize or encourage the trajectory of our churches, all theologians should face the important challenge of making theology accessible to anyone who will listen.You should be able to ask a theologian questions and not be nervous about being wrong or intimidated by the language or content of the answers.
    In fact, I think the role of “Popular Theologian” should be encouraged and developed among us as vital to our growth and well-being in the Body of Christ.

  2. That’s a curious shot at Christian colleges producing graduates with “dangerous and half-baked” beliefs. Is that something Witherington has elaborated on elsewhere?

    He seems to be thinking about a certain type of theologian and theology that must be connected to a particular “commitment or community” because it is primarily *for* them. That is fine as far as it goes, but does it adequately solve the problem of operating within a closed loop, especially when ecumenical or merely intra-evangelical dialogue makes clear the limitations of a single group or tradition defining what “evangelical,” “gospel,” “orthodoxy,” (etc.) are?

    Of course theology for a particular construction of “the church” is not all there is in theology either — some things are fairly universal and capable of producing broad consensus over time regardless of individual commitments and perspectives. “Julius Wellhausen was a bad man” has not held up well as a counter-thesis to the documentary hypothesis, for example.

    If the real foe really is “bad theology” then maybe the examples of bad theology that are often singled out for special attention by Evangelicals should be the more persistent and native species common to the conservative protestant environment, not so much the outliers like Evans. If people like her are prone to “interpret evangelicalism in light of [their] particular experience of its pathologies,” and Witherington is keen to address “bad theology,” especially in the lay evangelical world, aren’t they the perfect dialogue partners? I imagine there is much they can teach each other and agree on as pathologists.

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