Ask a Theologian a Question
The famous and very influential Baptist radio preacher Vance Havner once said “Happy is the Christian who has never met a theologian.” Of course, he must have meant something like “professional theologian” because he was a theologian in some sense. Everyone who undertakes to interpret a sacred text such as the Bible is automatically a theologian on some level. In fact, I would go so far as to say everyone who thinks about God is in some sense a theologian. But, of course, there are theologians and then there are theologians.
I was recently referred to as a “theologian” by someone whom Time magazine once called America’s “best theologian.” So I guess I am one. I get paid to teach Christian theology. I guess I am a theologian. I can’t deny it. I confess. And yet, I resist the common idea that a “theologian” is someone with all the answers about God and who thinks he (or she) is right about everything. There are so many negative stereotypes about theologians that I hesitate to admit to being one!
When I meet a stranger–on a plane, in an airport, wherever–and she asks my profession I often say “I teach history–church history–at a seminary.” If I say “I’m a theologian” I generally get a blank but somewhat puzzled if not slightly hostile look. (Once someone asked me if that’s the study of bugs!)
I used to look up to “real theologians”–those men and women whose profession is studying and teaching about God. From a relatively early age they were my heroes. And I often wanted to ask them a question–usually a burning one that my pastor or my dad or my uncle (a denominational executive) could not answer.
One time, sometime in the late 1980s or very early 1990s (I think around 1990) I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with Catholic theologian Hans Kueng. (I can’t add the umlaut to the “u” so I here do the next best thing which is follow it with “e.”) I was eager to ask him some questions about his theology and had read many of his books including his massive Christology book that almost no one else read (because it is extremely technical–about Hegel and the value of his philosophy of religion for Christology). I actually served as his chauffeur for three days at a conference. So I had him as my “captive audience” for several hours throughout those three days. However, most of the time, when I asked him one of my burning questions, his answer was something like “I answered that on page 289 [I’m inventing that number] of Christsein (On Being a Christian).” Needless to say, I was disappointed.
Here, on this blog, I have often considered simply inviting readers to ask me questions. Now there’s a scary proposition! I don’t claim to have all the answers.
Some years ago a young woman enrolled in the seminary where I teach. When asked why she came such a distance, passing over many similar seminaries, to attend this one she said “Because Dr. Olson said in the class I visited [during a “preview event” for prospective students] that he didn’t know the answer to a student’s question.” She explained that she grew up in a church and attended a Christian college where leaders and teachers claimed to know too much. She wanted to attend a seminary where the professors admitted they don’t know everything! For some reason our seminary’s PR people didn’t adopt the implied motto for recruiting students: “Come to a seminary where the professors don’t know everything and admit it!”
Well, to cut to the chase, I am here inviting people to “Ask the theologian” anything. Of course, I will have to be selective–just like any newspaper or magazine columnist who writes and publishes advice or information in response to questions submitted by readers. All I ask is that you ask sincerely and don’t be upset with me if I can’t answer. I will answer as many as I can–some with “I don’t know.”
There really are no stupid questions asked sincerely. I have never shamed a student or anyone just for asking a sincere question–however odd or unusual it may be.
But, please expect my answer to be rooted in my use of what has come to be known as the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”–Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. I am not a philosopher, economist, political scientist, sociologist or anything BUT a Christian theologian who happens to work out of a broadly evangelical Protestant and even baptist tradition. (I do not capitalize “baptist” in this case because I mean more than just churches and organizations that use the word “Baptist.” To be “baptist” includes Baptists, Pentecostals, Mennonites, Brethren Churches, and many, many more in the “free church” and “believer church” traditions.)
So, I invite, with great fear and trepidation, anyone to ask a sincere question. I will devote the next WEEK (June 1-June 7, 2016) and try to answer good questions (sincerely asked) that come in later–as possible. So expect to see this invitational post several times over the next week. After that I will return to my normal mode of posting my opinions and inviting responses.