The Importance of Amateur Theologians

There are two very important aspects of the Christian theological enterprise that need to maintained in order for the church to be (or become) healthy. First, there need to be professional theologians. Second, the discipline of theology needs to be accessible to amateur theologians.

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The terms “professional” and “amateur” are intended to refer to more than the status of being paid for thinking and writing. It is certainly true that someone who is paid to think theologically and express those thoughts cogently (we hope) for others to read should be able to be more productive theologically and, perhaps, research and think more deeply. However, the bigger concern here is the training for becoming a theologian. The discipline of theology needs to be accessible to those that have the professional credentials (read advanced degrees) in the discipline and those that don’t.

Recently, a group of professional Catholic theologians got together to call on the New York Times to silence columnist Ross Douthat. It wasn’t just any Catholic theologians, it was a group of leading Catholic thinkers from Georgetown, Loyola, St. Thomas University, Yale, Harvard, Lasalle, and more. In other words, a pretty big group of well-credentialed theologians got together to call for the muzzling of one journalist.

What did Douthat do to incur their wrath? He argued that there is a movement that is pressuring a change in Roman Catholic doctrine to permit individuals who have been divorced and remarried to participate in Communion. This, he argued, is a bad thing for the Church. He also made the assertion that the Pope himself is involved in pressuring the church to change. This is a bold accusation for a Roman Catholic to make.

The Issue Under Debate

For those of us in Protestant circles, particularly we low-church Baptists, it may not be clear exactly how monumental this shift is. In brief, I will attempt an explanation of the problem without much nuance.

In the Roman Catholic tradition, marriage is one of the seven sacraments as is the Lord’s supper. Marriage, by their definition, is essentially (and not merely incidentally) the spiritual union of one man and one woman before God. There is, then, an actual event that happens when a couple is wed; it isn’t merely the case of two people being legally associated to keep society in check. The only way out of marriage, then, is for one spouse to die or for the Church to annul the marriage. The annulment process basically says that the marriage never really was a marriage, which frees the individuals up to pursue other ventures. If the marriage is not annulled by the Church, then whatever occurs in the legal system is irrelevant because the two individuals are still married according to God and the Church. If a couple divorces without an annulment and remains celibate, this is unhealthy but acceptable. However, if one of the divorcees remarries without the annulment, this second marriage puts the individual in a state of unrepentant sin and thus the individual is barred from receiving the sacrament of Communion.

According to Douthat, there is a move afoot within the Roman Catholic church to change the Church’s practice by a) removing the requirement for annulment for remarried divorcees to take Communion and also b) expediting the annulment process including creating a “no-fault” annulment category. Douthat correctly argues that this reflects a significant change to the Roman Catholic doctrine of marriage; if this change is made in the practice of the Church is tacitly admitting that marriage is dissoluble, which is something they have denied for centuries. The change would be huge.

The issue of the doctrinal change is, in itself, interesting from a historical-theological perspective. However, the response that it engendered is more significant for the way that theology is done.

The Response to Douthat

Douthat’s critics, which include a host of heavyweight Catholic theologians, have called for the editors of the New York Times to shut him up. They write:

Aside from the fact that Mr. Douthat has no professional qualifications for writing on the subject, the problem with his article and other recent statements is his view of Catholicism as unapologetically subject to a politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism really is. Moreover, accusing other members of the Catholic church of heresy, sometimes subtly, sometimes openly, is serious business that can have serious consequences for those so accused. This is not what we expect of the New York Times.

Of course it isn’t what anyone expects of the New York Times. The so-called “newspaper of record” is so far left of center politically that it always amazes me that Douthat is able to survive from week to week. Sometimes I click through to his columns even when I’m not interested in the topic just to increase his web-traffic so that maybe, for a little while longer, the New York Times will continue to allow a more or less conservative columnist to continue writing. Douthat isn’t what we expect of the New York Times because his voice is a reasoned dissent from the liberalized mainstream.

However, the more significant question is why someone has to have “professional qualifications for writing on the subject.” It seems odd that theology is such a difficult topic that only those who have special training should be able to have any opinion on the subject.

I’m a Southern Baptist working on a PhD in Theological Studies. I regularly deal with “bubba theology,” which is generally a painful and draining experience. However, for every blog post, newspaper article, or sermon I encounter that has poorly done theology, I encounter another where someone without the guild certification—an amateur theologian—is doing quite as well as many professional theologians.

In fact, as a Southern Baptist, I am thankful for the many “amateur theologians” that managed to reclaim the denomination’s theology from the so-called professionals during the Conservative Resurgence. It seems, though, that the concern is not as much for Douthat’s qualifications, as for his conservative opinion.

Liberalism and Elitism

There is an assumption by some academics that good theology is liberal theology. Being a conservative myself, I obviously question this truth. However, the feeling is so entrenched that a a pair of California sociologists (they are professionals so we can trust them) argued that it is the liberal theologians and church leaders that will save the planet if only their silly conservative parishioners will cooperate. In their article, “Why Conservative Christians Don’t Believe in Climate Change,” Bernard Zaleha and Andrew Szasz write:

“There is also a longstanding recognition that liberal policy statements from national denominational bodies frequently do not filter down to the individual congregations, which often will not tolerate too much liberalism from their pastors, ministers, and priests. Church conventions and liberal seminaries may be doing an excellent job promulgating the urgency for increased environmental concern; getting congregants to internalize and act on these ideas has so far proved to be a much harder life.”

Liberal theologians would likely never have written this so clearly. However, sociologists writing in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists are apt to be more frank, and more hopeful that conservative Christians won’t find their article.

There is an assumption native to much of academia that pushing boundaries and formulating innovative doctrines is good theology. Confessing traditional orthodoxy is repressive, repetitive, and thus bad theology. There is a condescension native to the way much liberal theology is done; only the backward are concerned with reconciling the way things have been understood. The amateur, unencumbered by a commitment to such chronological snobbery, is more likely to find resonance with tradition than to seek new territory to make a name for himself.

Rather than admitting their bias against tradition, which is nearly sacrosanct among some Roman Catholics, these professional theologians just called on the amateur to shut up because he isn’t an expert.

It may well be that he is not an expert, but their letter to the editor failed to show why Douthat’s comments were inadequate. They simply assert that he is unsuited for the field and should keep his comments to things about which he has been properly trained. To my conservative mind, that seems a bit pretentious.

The Importance of Amateur Theology

In reality, the amateur is not entirely unsuited to discuss the merits of changing Roman Catholic doctrine or practice. He likely has not read as much on the topic. He also probably has less professional capital involved in his pet theory or theological innovation being the newly approved version. However, as an amateur theologian or, as some might call him, a layman, Douthat is well positioned to know what has been taught and recognize that this new thing is something quite different. It doesn’t matter how many supporting sources can be cited, he recognizes the thing for what it is.

Laypeople doing theology is not a problem to be confronted in the church, but an indication of the strength of the church. When theology is driven from above, by an elite class of scholars, it has a tendency to miss the most significant practical needs of the world around. When theology is done within the pew in addition to in the ivory tower, it an indication of vitality and intellectual activity.

The church needs to have professional theologians who are doing work, engaging important critical issues, and debating fine points of theological nuance. This is essential if the integrity of confessions of faith is to be maintained against the tide of change or, perhaps, revised in expression (not content) in response to cultural change.

At the same time, the church needs to have intelligent people, who may lack the credentials or full training, to stand and shout “stop” when the scholarly guild gets out of hand. Douthat provides that for the Roman Catholic church, just as others provide it for other denominations.

Douthat may be right or wrong, I’ll leave that for the reader to decide. However, his position as a layperson critiquing the professional theologians is essential to keep them honest.