Reflections on the Theologian, the Layperson and Theological Expertise
Theology: the field of study and analysis that treats of God and of God’s attributes and relations to the universe; study of divine things or religious truth; divinity.
Theologian: a person versed in theology, especially Christian theology; divine.
1) a person who is not a member of the clergy; one of the laity;
2) a person who is not a member of a given profession, as law or medicine.
Two or three years ago, I had a bit of a run-in with a ‘proper theologian’, a man who had been trained at the prestigious American theological college, Fuller Theological Seminary (and who actually has that written as a subtitle on his Facebook profile!).
I made the mistake of placing a Grace-based comment/reply to an article on his personal blog, where, of course, all his sympathisers, sycophants and toadies also dwelt. I received a sharp and painful broadside from him in reply, and my mental picture was one of this guy surrounded by lots of stern, frowning, joyless grey men all with their arms folded, nodding in silent agreement with him. In essence, he told me that he knew exactly what the truth actually is, and insinuated that how dare I (a mere layperson) presume to teach something different. There was no flexibility, no love, no joy, no compassion and no gentleness in his reply, just more of a ‘get stuffed!’ kind of feel to it – a rigid, dogmatic reply leaving no room for discussion which clearly wouldn’t have been welcome anyway. I know a couple who attend the church where this chap is the assistant minister, and they too have had similar problems with him. The lady of the couple was even invited out ‘for a coffee’ by this bloke so that he could set her straight on her doctrinal differences. She refused to go, and good for her, too.
So, this leads us to the question: should ‘proper’ theologians, and especially the arrogant ones like this chap, be considered to be somehow ‘superior’ in their knowledge of the things of God? Should we modify, ignore or push down our own insights because these people tell us we are somehow wrong? Should we have respect for them bordering on total submission and an acknowledgement that in fact yes, they are right, and who am I to argue? Like the ancient Israelites did under Moses and, later, under their religious leaders like the Scribes and Pharisees?
Well, you’ve probably guessed by now that my answer would be an emphatic ‘No!’ 😀
“There are many amongst us who believe within themselves that they can never become good theologians, that they could do better in almost any other realm. Yet they cannot imagine that their existence could be anything other than theological existence. Even if they had to give up theology as their vocational work, they would never cease to ask the theological question. It would pursue them into every realm. They would be bound to it, actually, if not vocationally. They could not be sure that they could fulfill its demands, but they would be sure that they were in its bondage. They who believe those things in their hearts belong to the assembly of God. They are grasped by the Divine Spirit. They have received the gift of knowledge. They are theologians.”
-Paul Tillich, ‘Shaking the Foundations, The Theologian’
Training and expertise in a subject, especially in one like theology, does not preclude other, ‘untrained’, people from also having expertise in the subject. You can indeed have experts in a subject who have not studied it; however a lifetime of experience in the field can give the equivalent of an education in the subject – just by experience rather than study. This is why learned societies like the Royal Society of Biology – of which I was a Member (and a Chartered Biologist) up until my retirement in April – allow the membership of people who have years of experience in lieu of study.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that nearly two years’ experience of coping with Covid-19 lockdowns, talking-head discussions and social media misinformation can in any way substitute for a proper medical, biological or epidemiological education for the average man in the street. Experience, remember, is also moulded by opinions in the process of gaining that experience, and many of those opinions will be incorrect. The University of YouTube is not definitive on matters technical. The only people who say education/qualifications have no value are the people who themselves have none. All that is achieved by people who say they’ve graduated from the ‘University of Life’, or whose alma mater is the ‘School of Hard Knocks’, is simply to advertise their lack of a University education; in my opinion it’s simply best not to say anything 😉 There’s nothing wrong with a lack of a University education, just so long as you don’t then pretend to be an expert in something you haven’t a clue about. That, in the case of medical issues, can be dangerous, indeed even lethal.
On a Covid-related thread, I once saw some oik saying, “Experts. Huh. What do they know?”
Almost a self-defeating question!
Of course, I firmly believe that having expertise is important, and having experts to put that expertise into practice is also important. If I needed some work doing with something like plumbing or gas engineering, I wouldn’t have a clue, so I’d call in the experts who do know what to do. Otherwise I’d flood my house or blow it up. A conked boiler needs an expert to come and fix it!
If someone’s up flying with me in an aeroplane, they’d be well-advised to leave the flying to me – the trained expert!
If you’re going into surgery, would you prefer the services of a trained and experienced surgeon, or the guy off YouTube?
I think I have made my point 🙂
So, what do experts know? Well, a damn sight more than most people, that’s what they know. That’s why they’re the experts, and that’s why we should listen to their advice.
It almost goes without saying, doesn’t it?
But when it comes to theology, I personally think it’s somewhat different. You see, in terms of theology, none of us really knows anything with 100% certainty, especially not anything provable, and especially when one person’s experience of God is different from someone else’s.
Even what I consider to be my own, personally absolute assurance of God’s existence, and His total love for me that I have experienced, could still be some sort of mental illusion or something. In theology, we are all still learners, and always will be.
So theology, possibly uniquely, does not require training in the sense of the teachers tell you about God and about how to experience Him, and what it feels like when you do. Even a trained theologian has to find that out for themselves.
Yes, it’s vitally important to remember that it is also good to listen to trained theologians because they can open up for you aspects of faith that you’d never even dreamed existed, and it’s always good to ask an expert on such things – provided that expert approaches the subject in a constructive way, and not in a total put-down way like that Assistant Minister bloke did in my introduction to this essay.
But, at the end of the day, the theologians’ input should be just one of the many facets of the issue at hand that you consider, and in the final analysis you must still form your own opinions, whether or not the theologians (amateur and professional!) agree with you about them. The Holy Spirit within you is a far better, and more authoritative, teacher than all the world’s theologians put together 🙂
So, your experience of God is therefore your own, and is equally valid – in fact individually, specifically and personally valid for you – no matter what anyone else says. You have the same right to comment on the things of God as does anyone else, professed theologian or not, because theologians do not have a monopoly on God, or on humanity’s knowledge of Him. One lady, in a thread I was commenting on, asked me what theological qualifications I have, like degrees in Divinity and that sort of thing. While I reluctantly told her that, yes, I do have qualifications in theology, I wasn’t any more specific than that, and I also said that anyway here in the UK we don’t tend to stand as much on that sort of thing as they do in the USA. The validity of what I write does not depend on my qualifications, but on the fruit that it bears in people’s lives, including my own.
And it’s the same for you too; even simply sharing words of comfort with someone who is upset about something counts as theology, because you are, simply by being there, bringing the Presence, comfort and healing of God into that situation without even trying. And that doesn’t need any quaifications at all. And that’s theology in and of itself. That makes you a theologian in my book! 🙂
Therefore, I trust that you can now see that theological knowledge is not the exclusive property of those who are theologically trained. While such trained people have a valid contribution to make, so does the layperson/ So everyone can indeed be a theologian, even if only because of the simple fact that God deals with each of us in a unique way; we each have the same Spirit of Christ dwelling within us. Each of us has our own personal experience and knowledge of God – which is, after all, theology: Knowledge of God.
And no-one can take that away from you, nor can they deny it or rubbish it in any way. It’s yours; cherish it <3
Grace and Peace