What Makes Someone a ‘Theologian’?

Back when I was in school at the University of Chicago, I had the opportunity to have lunch, one afternoon, with the Poet Laureate of the United States. On the one hand, this was a truly special event, one the likes of which I have never again repeated. On the other hand, and as you will read below, it was one of those things that ‘just happened’ around the UoC and so, as one might expect of a grad student, I approached the meeting with a somewhat cavalier attitude.

Near the end of the luncheon, student guests were given the opportunity to ask questions. I jumped at the opportunity. Feeling rather clever, I asked, “what makes someone a poet?” I had written more than my fare share of poems in school, in love, in my journal, and I guess I was looking for a little bit of validation.

I don’t recall the exact answer that he gave, but the feeling of disappointment that it left with me abides to this day. It had something to do with being published or reviewed or appreciated or some such things. I guess I hadn’t really expected any different. One does not become Poet Laureate without a keen appreciation of how to go about getting one’s work recognized. But, I guess I was looking for a little grace.

In a recent class that I’ve started teaching here in Houston, the question came up the other day, “what makes someone a theologian?”

Here’s my chance, right!?!

After telling the above tale of my encounter with the Poet Laureate, I outlined the following sense that I have about what makes, or fails to make, on a theologian. My hope is that I set forth something that is a little more grace-filled and egalitarian  that what I had been offered. I’ll let you be the judge of that, however.

What makes one a theologian? Saying something cogent about God, that’s all.

For too long the church has dressed up theology in the roves of academics and professional thinkers. Even priests, pastors and other religious professionals are hesitant to describe their work as being that of a “theologian” unless they posses some kind of advanced degree or have published some kind of critically acclaimed book or article. Its a sad state of affairs and, I fear, it has caused the average rank-and-file of the church to shy away from even trying to have, much less share, thoughts about God with other folks. It seems, that the cloistering of Theology might had had a significant adverse effect on evangelism.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There is a place for the professional theologian in the church culture. And, similarly, we need to be willing, even as we open the doors of theological inquiry to be aware that there is such a thing as “good theology” and “bad theology.” But, we can’t fall into the trap of assuming, though, that the professional/amateur and /good bad spectra are coincident or overlapping in any way. Universities often pay for bad (or at least ill-informed, inconsistent or incoherent) theology. There is not reason why good (cogent, well-argued, inventive, internally-consistent) theology can’t be produced for free by folks who don’t get paid for such things.


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