Reading and commenting on someone else’s writing is not always the easiest thing. But as eternal students of faith, we often face the task of picking up a book or an article, reading it quickly, analyzing its usefulness, and incorporating the pieces of that message we need for a project or that we need simply to stimulate our own thinking and theological pondering. And so, in this next writing reflection, I have chosen to read and comment on Chapter Three of our text, We Are Theologians: Strengthening the People of God, by Frederica Harris Thompsett.
I picked this chapter, titled “All Can Be Theologians”, because the idea resonated strongly with my own faith worldview. One of the things that I admired about the Anglican tradition (long before I considered studying at VTS) was the tradition of what I would describe as lay theologians, most specifically, female lay theologians. Over the years, I was repeatedly drawn to the works of Evelyn Underhill, Diana Butler Bass (who might not think of herself as a theologian, but who definitely IS one), Phyllis Tickle and more. And I marveled at a tradition which from the outside looked so formal and hierarchical but that on the inside supported the work and writing of its lay membership (even when that lay membership was female).
Theology is one of those words that I am somewhat suspicious of, in general, but Thompsett makes a great case from the very beginning that my suspicion is wrongly placed. Her working definition of the word theology is simple and comforting: theology “is a people’s understanding of God, humanity, and the world (pg. 55)”. And with that definition in mind, I totally agree with her basic premise that not only is it possible for us all to be theologians, we as people of faith are obligated to take up the careful study of the theology that guides our lives. We must understand it to live it; we must understand it to communicate it to others around us. And as Thompsett writes, without an understanding of why we worship as we do or why we believe as we do, our religious and faith identities are incomplete. She may write of the importance of the church’s theology and I from my Baptist perspective may be more concerned with my individual theology, but the importance of the work and the understanding of that work is the same.
In the next pages of the chapter, Thompsett reviews the theological characteristics that make up the Anglican faith perspective, and in the midst of this discussion, I came to understand many of the reasons that I am comfortable studying in an Episcopal Seminary even though I do not feel drawn to worship as a full member of the Episcopal Church. And that comfort stems from qualities that the Episcopal church (if Thompsett is accurate in her description) embraces on a corporate level that are similar to my own beliefs at the personal level: the necessity for reasoned study of the Scripture, the rejection of the doctrine of infallibility, a resistance to the imposition of doctrinal belief (except at the most fundamental level of the Creeds), the belief that it is baptism not ordination that invites us all into ministry and worship, a deep belief in the goodness of God’s creation, and, springing from that understanding of creation, a deep respect for all life. Thompsett makes it clear that Anglican theologians value not only human nature, but also human experience as they work together to expand their understanding of God through theology — again, as she defined it–the people’s understanding of God, of humanity, and the world, and how those things all work together as part of God’s great creation.
Reading Thompsett’s chapter gave me words for the commonality of faith that I have come to feel during these first few months of study among my Episcopal friends and truly helped me to understand the affinity I feel for the teaching I have experienced and the people of great faith I have had the chance to meet. I may not be ready for deep discussions of the theology of the Atonement and the Incarnation on my own, but I have a much better understanding of the foundation of the great tradition that has so gratefully welcomed me to study along side them.
What I thought at first was “other people’s theology” turns out to be not so very far from my own.