On Being a Theologian

It’s always a little uncomfortable when people I don’t know well ask me what I do for a living.

“I teach for Fuller Seminary,” I say.

“Oh? What do you teach,” they invariably respond.

“Theology and Church history,” I reply, not wanting to add the various other topics I teach to the list. Those sum up my specialties.

“…,” they generally respond, at least for an extended moment.

I’ve learned to expect this uncomfortable moment and that gives me pause in my responses. Which isn’t right, I know. I should be bold and confident in responding about what is both my vocation and my calling.

“Why I teach theology and church history!” I should say with expectant respect.

Yet, I know that when I give my answer about what I do most people don’t know what to say in response. I have a bit of an alienating job title when it comes to small talk.  Which is problematic because I have a fair bit of trouble with small talk to begin with.

I really could use a job title with a conversational hook, like my teacher friends whose jobs involve relatable subjects and relatable experiences with kids and learning.  Or my friend who works for the Grammys.  “Who have you worked with?” “What are they like in person?” Or a friend who leads art classes at wineries. Now that’s a job that can go all sorts of different conversational directions.  So many more come to mind.  Jobs that bring conversation with them.

theologianI teach theology. People don’t seem to know what to say about that.

I am, to be even more bold, a theologian.

I confess being insecure about using that title.  But what else should I call my job? I do, in fact, read about, write about, and teach theology.  Even still, I’m uncomfortable about that being my job title.

In contrast, most people are comfortable with their job titles (even if they don’t always like their jobs). Titles are usefully descriptive.

Job titles give an indication about how a person spends their time. How they make their money.

I doubt scientists trouble themselves too much with assuming the appellation of one who  studies and teaches science. That is a badge of honor.

Painters paint.  Bankers bank.  Plumbers plumb. Electricians electrify. Politicians politicize. Teachers teach.

Theologians theologize. They speak about God.

That is quite a weighty subject. A noble subject.  It is the driving subject of most of my life, taking center stage during the last twenty years.  I am, I might say, God-obsessed.

Though at times I might rather say I am God-haunted.  I can’t let go, not that doing such is a theoretical impossibility, rather that I am not necessarily the one who has been doing the holding.  I’ve been shaped, pulled, turned, bumped, cajoled, empowered, envigorated at various points to keep at this topic of theology. It is my profession, both vocational and confessional.

I am not insecure about the topic, that it is important and worthwhile. In thinking about the title “theologian” I am confronted with insecurity about myself.

I know myself, for the most part.  Dare I use the title “theologian” to describe who I am and how I live?  Do I genuinely theologize?

I remember what I’ve done. What I’ve said. My mistakes, my frustrations, my doubts, my sins. I think about others who have known me over the years, during seasons of confusion, instability, hypocrisy.  Not that I’m the worst of sinners or have some deep horrible secrets.  But enough to cause me to consider my current role with echoes of embarrassment and shame about who I’ve been at times, and who I sometimes still am.

Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to theologies of hope, which do not discount the past but invite the past into a renewed reflection in light of God’s work in Christ.  I am not a theologian because I deserve the title, but because I seek to be someone who moves past the past into celebrating revitalization and experiencing new patterns and perspectives that are more fully oriented in God’s work and identity.

I speak, teach, write words about God as part of the continuing process of seeking what is more, better, possible in my life and in the lives of those around me. Like Paul says in his letter to the Philippians, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it.  But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

A theologian is one who prays truly, the early Christian leader Evagrios wrote, adding, that one who prays truly is a theologian.  In and through my life I seek to pray and pray truly. Theology is not a destination, it’s a way, and being a theologian is about walking on the path, understanding how to use the map and compass, recognizing the flora and the fauna, sharing this with others who are interested.

Even if I am who I know I am–most unlearned and least among the faithful–God has invited me to be who I fully can be in light of the fullness of who he is.  It is a task I humbly embrace, a calling that compels me to live and learn and act and teach, daily entering into again my humility and my hope.

Hasten, O God, to save me; come quickly, Lord, to help me.  In that prayer I find my confidence.

 

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