Like many kids raised in an Evangelical home, I was told that “everyone is a theologian.” I never believed that, though. My mother was a missionary, my father the director of a non-profit outside of New Orleans that pooled financial resources of religious communities to better help those in need. More, my mother was a “PK” – a preacher’s kid – and while she was away building schools and hospitals, I would sit on a pew next to my grandmother absorbing my grandfather’s sermons, was driven to school each morning with a cassette of Christian music in the car tape deck, and was told each time my father delivered a hitchhiker to their destination that, according to Hebrews 13:2, they might have been an angel. Everyone might think about God now and then, or be able to articulate a view of the world they found themselves in, but were they a theologian? I wasn’t convinced. Some families, thought about God more than others. They “made space” for God in their homes more than others. And some people, even from an early age, ask questions that no parent can really answer and begin moving towards serious study of religion and tradition, finding not answers but more thorough questions.
I’m not sure when I began to notice a difference. Raised by the family I was born into, a lot of those early questions may have been contextually appropriate. It was all I knew. But the first time I realized my questions were not age-appropriate was in the 5th grade. Though not Catholic, my parents enrolled me in a private Catholic school. Catechism began that year for students, and was taught by a woman determining whether she was called to be a nun. Apparently, I asked so many questions and insisted on such complex answers that she called a meeting with my parents. Both of them found it funny and the teacher began to give me what I asked for – serious answers both in and out of class, textbooks for the next three years (6th, 7th, and 8th grade in addition to my assigned 5th grade curriculum), and the promise that I could ask her whatever I wanted, but if she said “we’ll talk about it after class,” I had to respect that and not press her further in front of the other students. The following year my parents separated. I moved with my mom and began attending a Pentecostal school in another part of the state. Wanting to be a good parent, my mother tried taking me to the church that the school developed out of, but when the pastor said “Bugs Bunny is of the devil… think about it now. You know what I’m saying is true!” and that I, a child of 13 at the time, would go to hell for wearing an X-men shirt, I couldn’t help but say -out loud, in the middle of service – “You’re crazy. I’m a kid, but even I know enough to know what you’re saying is wrong.”
Contrary to what you might think, I’m not proud of those events. It’s popular in our culture to laugh at the ignorance of others, but I try to refrain from teasing someone’s religious convictions. I’ll admit, I find religious humor particularly appealing because I study religion so much, but never at the expense of someone. However, the statement I made that day in church was true. Even though I was a child, I knew enough to see the pastor’s fallacy. It’s hard to say that I disagreed, “but still respected the pastor, as a person.” I guess it’s hard to say that because it’s not true. I didn’t respect the statement, and I didn’t respect the individual for making it. Ignorance under the banner of religious freedom or religious expression is an egregious offense to me. If you truly believe people are going to hell, you have a responsibility to tell them, not talk about them. And once you have discussed the matter with them, your responsibility ends there. Perhaps, in the case of violence, that responsibility will transfer to some other agency, say law enforcement or child services. But the religious mandate is always dialogue, not monologue from behind a lectern. Which is to say that, at an early age, I was already constructing levels of meaning in my head. I accepted that there was a difference between what a spiritual leader said, what a sacred text said, what a chosen god might say, and what I said. Within all of this is the idea of theology.
While I disagree that “everyone is a theologian,” I think that almost everyone has a concept of the divine and will, is, or has accepted or rejected that concept. That’s a very loose sentence, but I feel it is too demanding to make a categorical statement or force people to be something they are not. That is, if we change the terms a bit, could we say everyone is a writer even if they are illiterate? Everyone is a fashion designer because they wear clothes? Might we say “everyone is an economist” because they can process the idea that there is such a thing as money and that other people have it too? And when we say “everyone,” do we include those who are not self-aware like the mentally challenged? How far are we supposed to go in forcing people to assume an identity they do not see within themselves, see themselves wanting, or with which they could conceivably concern themselves?
All of these, I’m aware, are very privileged questions. Sitting in a chair on a deck overlooking a beach as I type these words, I am privileged in having the time, space, and distance to make such claims. But more than this, I believe it is a privileged statement for theologians to assume everyone is interested in the issues of their field, for indeed it is only theologians who make this claim. Still, the world has reached a point where religion is an issue in front of all us. Like politics, or fashion, or war, religion appears in news telecasts, online articles and bookstores, the lives of coworkers, and even holidays that we are at least dimly aware that “everyone” – perhaps not us, but someone we know – has strong feelings about religion. Theology, then, is serious consideration of religion. The formal definition might say something about a “systematic and rational study” of God and the nature of religious ideas, or the practices of a religion. Beyond this, and perhaps this is why I take such issue with the sweeping claim that “everyone” is familiar with theology, is that Theology is a “learned profession acquired by completing specialized training in religious studies, usually at a university, seminary, or school of divinity.” I feel it dilutes the value of those who have studied, and assumes too much of those who have not.
We might say that theology is a sliding scale then, where some are more educated on the topic than others. We might also say that many of the issues that theological thought considers are addressed in and by other areas of interest. Philosophy, say, or even gender theory, history, ethics, and sociology. When we assume that everyone shares our interest and attention, we inherently assume that they possess at least a minimal working knowledge of those interests and that it holds their attention when we speak of it. Having worked with churches for over a decade, I know the signs a congregation will make when a pastor or guest speaker begins talking above their level of interest. They will yawn, their eyes will glaze over, and before too long, nod off. Or, changing examples, I recall with a great measure of humor the times when my father, who in addition to his non-profit work was an accountant specializing in finance, would ask me when I came home from grade school, with sharply increasing alarm, what I had learned in school that day. “Did you learn about balances yet? Debits and credits? No? Just algebra?? My god! What are they teaching you?!” Some things are not relevant until other formative issues have been discussed.
For me, my family made it a point that the foundational idea was God. God was everywhere, always watching, always generous and kind, but – like a parent or family member – would correct me if I did something unbecoming of the respect of the family. In this, “God” was familiar. But God, in being familiar, was not exclusive. It was not that God had thousands of families across space and time, but rather than all human life was important because all humans were family with each other and God was part of that family as well. As I got older and my questions more developed, I believe my questions became more philosophical, not theological. When my parents divorced in 1994, I was convinced that God must not be real. after all, if my family could stop loving one another and the news so evidently displayed hatred among the “family” of the world, then where was this God of family and love? If God was love, and love could come and go or be diminished, then God could not be a true god. Perhaps there were challengers to that title, if there was such a thing as spiritual reality after all. This is, in a restricted sense, the kind of question philosophers have dealt with and as you may have noticed, it was a conclusion based on logic and reason. If x and y come to z, and x is not the value we supposed, then z is not the value we hope for but something else entirely.
While I acknowledge that
- most people did not grow up in a household where religion was as prevalent as it was in my family,
- minds and personalities are like fingerprints – each one is unique,
- statistically speaking, I am in the minority of individuals interested in religion enough to professionally study it, and
- of those interested in religion enough to professionally study it, I maintain that many of the questions addressed by theology are addressed, at times more comprehensively, by philosophy.
Nevertheless, for those inclined towards religion, theology offers a unique tilt to philosophical, ethical, and moral questions that inform their personal life in ways no other arena of study or interest can provide. That is, while I am not particularly loyal to theology alone, I believe serious consideration of spiritual beliefs, church practices, the theology behind both, and ultimately one’s own concept of God is vitally important to the world today. Everyone is not a theologian, but they would do well to know how theology informs their neighbors, workmates, and the geopolitical landscape.
For the progression of linear thought, I will be addressing Christian theology. Full disclosure: I consider myself a Christian, not an Evangelical as shall become evident over the course of this series. It is in turns surprising, ironic, and frustrating that I lean heavily towards Judaism, which I feel is a more robust, cohesive, and complete religion at times than Christianity which is too often fractious and abegnating to its own harm. Many, indeed all of these internal disputes center around theological differences – who is a “real” Christian and who is pretending. I do my best to stay away from such discussion, believing that anyone who makes an informed decision to self-identify as Christian is most likely “enough” of a Christian to be one. Disputing this makes as much sense to me as denying someone who does not eat meat is not a vegetarian. Perhaps there are conditions which make this untrue, but the common meaning is sufficient except for the most precise of connoisseurs.
In like fashion, debating someone’s religion is only meaningful at a professional, even scholarly or academic level – not a pastoral or common level. But I shall return to discussion of these degrees in my next chapter. For now, it remains true that I am a Christian who resists Evangelicalism, embraces liturgy and often leans toward Judaism in theology and Buddhism in spiritual disciplines (another distinction that will be discussed in the course of this series). That I feel it important to make these distinctions, which shows the variety of Christianity (indeed, all religion) as much as it does the deep, broad, and abiding misunderstandings around theological insight. Christianity is inherently Jewish, making it in some sense redundant to say so. It would be like saying I was born in Louisiana, which means I was born in America. One is derivative of the other, making the statement redundant.
Continued: Differences in Theologies (coming soon!)