5 Things People Assume About Theologians

by Anna Blanch on June 3, 2011

In my experience, and after almost 2 years as a doctoral student in Divinity (Theology and Literature), I’ve been struck by how taken aback people often are when they find out what it is that I spend my time writing about.

So, I present to you, from my own limited experience, what i’ve gleaned from their reactions to me, the 5 things people most often assume about theologians

1.Theologians are Men.

It is definitely the case that Theology is heavily dominated by men. At least in the situations I’ve found myself in, Theology is dominated by caucasian men much older than I. This is not the beginnings of a feminist theological rant, rather an observation of the status quo. But, not all theologians are men. And not all theology done by men is good simply because it is written by a man. Similarly, there are some fine women theologians, from whom I’ve learned a great deal; both positive and negative.

2. Theologians are Old.

I guess many of the ones you’ve heard of, or your minister or pastor talks about might be old; or indeed, dead. Luther and Knox and Calvin and Bonhoeffer and Barth are most certainly not still kicking around ideas at the pub on a friday night. I’m not criticising experience here nor the years of wisdom offered. But, last time i checked, I’m not 70, and neither are my colleagues or most( of my) professors. We’re not all Rob Bell, either, for the record.

3. Theologians don’t read anything else other than theology, and if you do you’re not really a theologian.

So, there’s real theology – either biblical studies or systematic depending on your personal bent – and then there’s “soft” theology. I work predominantly in theology and the arts. I know there are plenty who question whether or not there are better ways I could be using my time, that I could be looking at “hard” theology. If it’s not clear, i think this hard/soft dichotomy is pretty much a bunch of hocum. Even though i shouldn’t need to say it, I’m not saying that biblical studies, systematic theology, and interdisciplinary theological studies perform the safe functions. But, i think there’s a richness of experience in exploring how we live day to day and the enacting of our faith and those things we believe about God and his word than in focusing narrowly on one piece of scripture. That may be (and is) the  (important) task of another; it is not mine. At times it’s a bigger challenge to make sure that I’m using basic principles of reading well in relation to scripture because I’m crossing text types and genres so much. In reading so widely, I’ve felt encouraged and challenged by the way in which reading well in general serves me in reading scripture and writing about biblical texts.

4. If you are a woman working on a PhD in Theology then you must also be ordained.

Must, as in, well, why wouldn’t that be the natural end…Maybe it is part of a journey for some women working on their PhDs in Theology. But, the blind assumption is problematic. Being ordained isn’t a fait accompli for men doing their PhD in Theology either – as if ordination were somehow like a gateway to a higher plane of existence. But, for me, and for a great many women, because of the schisms and strain that the ordination of women has wrecked, it is a potentially much more troublesome matter. Vocation should not necessarily be tempered by politics, but by scripture and the greatest commandment – to love one another, as I have loved you. In loving one another though it becomes apparent that these matters are not simple and are not mere matters of personal choice and one’s own sense of vocation or calling. In short, I have no plans to pursue ordination. But, I will not second guess the way God may work in my life and in my future. In short, it’s not helpful to assume either in the positive or the negative that because a person, be they woman or man, is working on a doctorate in theology then they are, or will, or will not be, ordained.

5.Theologians don’t write anything of practical value to the church today.

Indeed, their waxing lyrical just gets in the way of the practical stuff, like cashflow and pastoral care and music we like, and doing things the way we’ve always done them. I know plenty of theologians seeking to serve their local church, and who may also be involved in the ministry lives of their local church. I am. and i’m not the only one. Academic theologians certainly need to, in general, do a much better job of descending from the ivory tower a little more often.  I know that I see it as an important part of who I am to be finding ways to make accessible the important lessons from church history, from the word of God, from the ways in which artists, and poets and authors have explored the church and have sought to express what they know of God’s character. I don’t always hit the mark. But, i’m definitely earnest in my pursuit of sharing clearly and in ways that are easily understood.

Related posts:

  • Nathan

    6. Theologians are German, or have German sounding names.

    • http://thingsfindothinks.com AndrewFinden

      or alternatively must use their middle initial and / or have some numbers at the end of their name.

      • http://goannatree.blogspot.com Goannatree

        ….i guess i'm guilty of that one. i often use my middle initial for professional stuff. I think lawyers do that more though…..

    • http://goannatree.blogspot.com Goannatree

      you think that's a general perception? – i guess in the mid 19th century this was true…not so much now.

  • http://in-fraction.blogspot.com Thom

    Theologians know everything.

    • http://goannatree.blogspot.com Goannatree

      mmmm….or that we know nothing of import to everyday life. Both are equally off the mark I think. I certainly don't know close to everything….most days i'm lucky to know what i need to know to get through the day.

  • http://curaanimarum.blogspot.com/ Eric

    Really enjoyed this. I'm not studying for a PhD but I am a man working in full-time parish ministry (RC) and the deaconate question comes up about 100 times a year. People assume that it must be my goal. I'm with you though, wherever God needs me to be, there I Am. Hard for people to understand sometimes when you don't appear to have the kind of aspirations they think you out to.

    • http://goannatree.blogspot.com Goannatree

      why do think this kind of ministry hierarchy is assumed?

      (thanks for joining the discussion.)

  • Shawna Atteberry

    Sweet. I'm not the only theologian in the 31DBBB Challenge! I agree with everything you said. I'm a feminist theologian who wants to make that branch very practical for women. To be honest if theology doesn't work out into your everyday life, it's not theology: it's philosophy as far as I'm concerned.

    • http://goannatree.blogspot.com Goannatree

      It's good to see you here too! I'd be interested in hearing more about what your interested in!

  • ccematson

    As you and Eric pointed out, #4 works for men, too. All the older ladies who attend my university chaplaincy's services know I'm studying theology, am the volunteer sacristan and head altar server, and live with our Jesuit chaplains in a small community with other students. So it's difficult to explain to them that, no, I'm not going to be a priest. (I mention the older ladies because they're almost always the ones vocalizing the assumption, and trying to convince me otherwise – thinking that they're "encouraging" a hesitant vocation.:-))

    Also, here's another assumption I've run across: All women theologians are feminist theologians (i.e. particularly interested in the questions of feminist theology). Just like all members of a particular (non-white) race must be professionally focused on black/Hispanic/etc. theology.

  • http://reachzionfitness.blogspot.com/ Jessica Manuel

    I am new to your blog, but anticipate it will be a must read. Our interests align in some ways. Are you presenting at The Uncanny Homecomings conference in Iowa this August? Here is the CFP: http://call-for-papers.sas.upenn.edu/node/41431 I'd love to hear more of your work. Follow me on twitter: @ReachZionFit

  • John

    Your religious provincialism is quite evident here.
    What about theologians, or there equivalent from non-Christian traditions?
    And are you fully prepared to take into account the report of the entire Great Tradition of humankind when you do "theology"

    And does theology really have anything to do with the Radiant Transcendental Being who is alive as all beings and things?
    Everything that you could possible say about "God" is just an extension of your own individual background, and of your social conditioning too.
    Most of which is completely unconscious in the sense that it is the invisible script which is patterning every minute fraction of your body-mind-complex.
    Three metaphors.
    In our normal everyday sanity we are like tiny stick-figures running around on the tip of a gigantic iceberg – most of the iceberg with its vast bulk and momentum is under water.

    We are all like tiny fragments of Humpty Dumpty''s broken shell lying on the ground. From the thus fragmented "vision" we thus try to account for the totality of our existence-being. What would Reality begin to look like from the all-inclusive perspective of Humpty Dumpty before he/she was shattered into fragments.

    Plato's Cave. In our conventional normal state all that we can really see are brief flickers of light on the dark walls of the cave. We thus try to imagine and describe Reality altogether based on these brief flickerings. What would Reality look like, and how would you describe it if you began from the all-inclusive perspective of the Conscious Light in which the cave itself is appearing, and which is the source of the flickering light(s)

  • http://www.margaretalmon.com Margaret Almon

    Another myth is that Theologians are very serious. I took a theology class from a man who loved walking down the hall chanting "Brueggy-Man, Breuggy-Man"

    • http://goannatree.blogspot.com Goannatree

      That's right Margaret! That's a quirky example. I have met quite a few dour theologians – but i've also met plenty with a good sense of humor and a penchant for silly jokes and pranks.

Previous post:

Next post: