Who Needs Theology?

I recently read the book Who Needs Theology?: An Invitation to the Study of God by Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, and I would like to interact with their thesis, discuss the argument, evaluate its helpfulness and consider how it has impacted the way I think about God and the nature of theology.

With a background in financial planning and only having studied business and finance before seminary, theology was a whole new field of study for me.  The only knowledge I had on theology coming into seminary was my own assumptions and preconceived notions.  Overall this book laid the foundation and parameters for me on what is considered theology, the different levels of theology, and why theology is important to engage in and study.

From the very beginning, I was presently surprised to learn that I am already a theologian. Per Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, theology is considered “any reflection on the ultimate questions of life that point toward God.”  Without having completed a theology degree, I am proud to claim the title of theologian, as I have reflected on ultimate questions of life that point toward God.  However, this challenged my thinking.  At one point, I had thought carrying the title of theologian required some sort of prerequisites, credentials, or proof.  After all, to be a financial planner I had to put in ample amounts of time doing extensive studying, taking rigorous exams to earn licenses and certificates, and staying up to date with the latest data and education.  Thinking on this further, I began to have mixed thoughts about the way being a theologian was defined and the study was explained.  I was a bit skeptical and yet excited.  The definition and description in the book made sense to me, but I found it too easy to call myself or anyone else a theologian.  I began to wonder how individuals with degrees in theology would feel if I called myself a theologian after reading one book.  I know I would roll my eyes at anyone who called themselves a financial planner, who didn’t have what I consider the necessary credentials.  Yet, the way Grenz and Olson explained theology, they would argue that anyone who engages in keeping track of how much money is saved and spent would be considered a financial planner.  And I would argue to them there’s obviously much more to it than that, such as retirement planning, investment planning, estate planning, tax planning, etc.  I even went as far as thinking to myself, “surely there’s more to being a theologian than what they claim, because I wouldn’t need to pay so much money in tuition and take so many courses if I could simply call myself a theologian without a degree.”

As I continued reading, things started to become more clear to me.  The levels of theology spelled out on the “spectrum of reflection” Grenz and Olson referred to really helped me come to a better understanding of their claim and thesis.  Given that there is folk theology, lay theology, ministerial theology, professional theology, and academic theology, this made me feel better about calling myself a theologian.  Before reading further, I had some immediate thoughts about this spectrum. I thought I might fall somewhere between folk theology and lay theology, and then I wondered what the difference even was.  I also wondered what the difference between ministerial and professional theology was.  Purely out of my own assumptions and rationale, I thought maybe lay theology was some form of workplace ministry or something one does part time when they have a full-time job in a different trade, like I had been doing at the start of seminary.  I thought ministerial theology was for the ministers and pastors of the world, and academic theology encompassed professors and all those who are writing peer-reviewed articles, journals, and books, whose full-time jobs are in the academic realm.  But then what was professional theology?  This showed me just how naive I was when it came to the study of theology.  Then I related it to the example of my own previous trade.  If I told someone outside my field that there was a financial representative spectrum that consisted of stockbroker, financial advisor, and financial planner (in that order), they would probably not understand the differences between each either.  So, I found it interesting and helpful to relate my own naivety of theology to the naivety of most of my previous clients.

As I read the explanations of each of these different levels of theology, I had more clarity.  The clarity came from understanding what each of the different levels are.  With understanding, also came appreciation because I can appreciate that not everyone’s knowledge or understanding of something is equal, just as the corresponding chapter name (Not All Theologies Are Equal) implies.  Yet this new understanding stirred up new thoughts.

Starting with folk theology, I began to wonder how many people I’ve encountered who would fall into this category, and whether I was ok with that.  If folk theology is defined by Grenz and Olson as “unreflective believing based on blind faith in a tradition of some kind,” I have mixed thoughts on what that means for those people’s minds and souls.  I’ve had these thoughts for some time, but never had a label or term for this type of theology.  I think it’s safe to say we all know people or have encountered people who seem so overjoyed almost all the time and are always smiling.  When I see these people, I honestly think it’s a little weird for them to be constantly smiling.  I also wonder what that type of joy feels like.  Then when I engage in a conversation with them, I begin to wonder if it’s authentic.  I even wonder if it’s an instance of “ignorance is bliss.”  In the cases where it is ignorance, I envy them and feel a sense of sorrow for them at the same time.  I envy them because they are so joyful all the time, and seem like they don’t have a care in the world.  I also feel a sense of sorrow because I wonder how much they really understand and what their relationship with God is really like.  Then I wonder if I ought to do something to challenge their thinking and reflection so they can grow in their understanding, but I’m concerned about bursting their bubble.  Yet I don’t think it’s fair for them to have blind or false faith; so, I feel both compelled to poke the bear and, not ruin their joy. The use of “spectrum of reflection” by Grenz and Olson really clicked with me.  I never put my finger on the “reflection” piece of my own reflection (as odd as that sounds).  What it comes down to is these people may be completely fine with sticking to their shallow traditions or blind faith because they’re simply not as reflective as other people.

After really thinking through this, I thought “I must be a lay theologian.”  But I must confess: I doubted myself too. I thought “What if I am a folk theologian, and I’ve been too blind to realize it?” Then I came to understand what Grenz and Olson considered lay theology and accepted that is probably where I presently fall on the spectrum, hoping that I will continue moving on the spectrum as my time continues at seminary.

When I read about ministerial and professional theology, I found the differences very interesting.  I had no idea that there was some sort of formal delineation and hierarchy like this.  I had seen the pastors at my church often reading books from other more well-known and established pastors, and assumed that’s where some of their thinking and material came from or was provoked by; but it was a bit of a surprise to me to me that there were designated theologians out there to assist pastors in their vocation.  I once boarded with a former pastor who now ministers to other pastors in his area and state for his vocation, but it didn’t really click with me that he would be considered in a different tier of theology or that he was more reflective.  It makes sense to me now, but it makes me wonder exactly what these support systems and delineations really look like in a regular and practical sense.  It was both eye opening and intriguing, to say the least.

Then the last level of reflection, academic theology, got me back to a deeper level of provoking thoughts and my own reflection.  Going into this I had not expected academic theology would have a negative connotation to it.  However, after reading their explanation, I can understand why.  I’ve heard many times that there can come a point where someone gets so convicted because they may have the head knowledge of God and the Bible, but it never touches their heart.  Then when it does, there’s obvious transformation.  I can see how academic theology would fit the mold of those who don’t allow the head knowledge to travel to their hearts.  I can also see how there can be a dangerous line of being reflective in a positive way, and then going so far as to “cutting reflection off from faith and seeking understanding for its own sake”, as Grenz and Olson put it.  I can honestly even see how I’ve toed that line in my own life already, with the little knowledge and understanding I do have.  I’ve gotten to points where I’ve gotten so caught up in the mystery of something that I lose sight of the point of trying to understand the mystery – to understand God.  Similarly, to the thoughts I had with folk theology, I began to wonder what the lives of academic theologians looked like and how much it affected their relationship with God.  I also began to wonder if academic theologians really knew that they were academic theologians, and that it wasn’t a good thing to be one.  How many people in the academic realm had gone down this path without even realizing it?  I also found it interesting that two professors could publish a book about theology and identify being academic theologians as negative.  I even thought “they must have confidence for knowing the irony of this and facing it head on anyway.”

Although I obviously understood (to some degree) who needs theology and why it’s important to study (otherwise I wouldn’t be in seminary), being introduced to this “reflection spectrum” was eye opening.  Understanding the different levels of reflection and theology helped me come to a deeper level of understanding why theology is important for everyone and why it’s needed by everyone.

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