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What Makes a Theologian

Posted on: May 12, 2019

Category: Theology

Quest Thoughts: What Makes a Theologian?

As a student, I followed theology very closely. Like in sports, I had my idols, and I would measure new theologians and their ideas against my tried and true idols. Although I am not as much a fan of Paul Tillich's (1886–1965) as I used to be, I remember first encountering theologian and critical theorist Graham Ward's work and wondering how his thinking measured up against Tillich. It was somewhat like asking how Sydney Crosby measures up against Wayne Gretzky. In my mind, Ward received a passing grade.

The question that Ward often asks is the same question Tillich also famously asked: What is a theologian? My question, what makes a theologian, is slightly different. For both questions, there is one similar response, but my question has a second half to it that the first question lacks.

Both Tillich and Ward describe a theologian as someone on the boundary between the sacred and profane. For Tillich, theology is about being on the boundary, with one foot in and one foot outside the religious community. For Ward, the same can be said. In a 2008 interview with The Other Journal, Ward stated that the theologian "straddles two worlds," the ecclesial and the secular. To the question, What is a theologian? this is the right answer. A theologian is someone filled with doubt. As such, this individual welcomes the world and its questions into religion but also addresses religion to the world. The theologian is in neither camp. The theologian is the doubter with allegiances to both camps. To be a theologian is to be about the question.

If the pursuit of "the question" (and frankly we don't know what the question actually is, but we do know that it is always there) is the identity of the theologian, then there is a second half to the theologian. The second half is the character of a theologian. This is my question: What makes a theologian? That's the character question neither Tillich nor Ward address.

My answer to the second question is courage. It is too easy in life to go with the everyday customs of our economy, adopt the attitudes of our peers, presume the rightfulness of our culture. The parable of the talents in Matthew (25:14-28), where there are three servants given money and the last one buries the money for safekeeping, is often interpreted with the customs of our normal capitalist society. It is our default habit to think this parable extols investment and gives credit to wise financing, but ancient people would hear it differently.

To the ancient mind, hiding the money is the right thing to do. When you go away somewhere distant, as the master does in this parable, the act of burying treasure was standard. Indeed, Jesus has another parable about buried treasure (Matt 13:44). In both parables, our modern ears focus on value: treasure, money, wealth all resonate in our psyches. We do not hear "fear" in the stories, neither do we sense the threat of authority or the risk to our lives. We need to hear the parable of talents in reverse. The two servants who invested money and made profit did not have the commission of the master to do so. Their job was to protect the master's integrity. They should have buried the money, not engaged in behaviour that falsely represented the master. The money entrusted the servants was the whole property of the master; it was not theirs to risk. As we read that parable today, we need to hear the ancient reversal of expectation the parable holds. The two servants who put the property at risk are regarded as acting "normal" whereas the "normal" servant (who buried the money) is portrayed as abnormal. The parable reverses the expected world; it surprises the reader with the abnormal. We need to hear that reversal of expectation instead of hearing that Jesus was a capitalist.

The parable of the talents sets up my point about courage. In a theological sense, courage is not about bravery. It is not about doing in the normal world an extraordinarily normal thing. This is not in any way to disparage people who do extraordinary acts or who found the courage to act with amazing decisiveness in a crisis. Of course, such acts are incredible and to be respected. On a theological level, though, courage means something else. Like in the parable of the talents, it means to live accordingly to rules not in place…or maybe not yet in place. Courage involves both reading the world differently and being in the world differently. In a Jesus sense, it involves being in the "Empire [Kingdom] of God" when the Empire of God does not exist and may never exist. This is the character part of theology.

What difference does the character question make? In truth, living in the Empire of God, which does not exist, while living in world empires that do exist may not make any difference at all. World empires have a way of trumping the images of reversal that emerge in the non-existent Empire of God. So, why theology? The answer to that why is theological courage. The theologian adopts courage because the point is the question, Can we live differently? That question involves human hope, and human hope depends upon courage. It is courage that makes a theologian because it is courage that hopes against hope.

©By David Galston

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