Theology Is For Everyone

Theology Is For Everyone May 23, 2023

Matte Downey

*Editor’s Note: This is a contribution from Martha Elias Downey, author of Go Wide, which came out today!


Some years ago, I was wandering through a crowded antique store when I came across a musty old book about mysticism. I was a graduate student in Theological Studies at the time, looking for something to jumpstart my thesis, so I plunked down eleven dollars and took the book home, eager to explore the wise and wonderful words between the covers. A few months later (yes, it took me that long to get through it), I read the last page and said to myself, “Well, that was disappointing.” I had read other mystical writings in the past and found them bristling with spiritual energy, so I knew the subject matter wasn’t the problem. Why then did the contents of this particular book seem so dull and uninteresting? What was I missing?

I had already decided to write my master’s thesis on the topic of mysticism, so I included those very questions in the preliminary chapter. After reading it, my professor made a keen observation. “It seems you are looking for an encounter.” And there it was. My a-ha moment. The book-of-disappointment was a historical overview of mysticism in the church and, as such, adopted a more objective point of view. I wanted to encounter mysticism, to get up close and personal, to hear the inner whisperings of the mystics as they pursued union with the divine. The book could not give me that, but its author intrigued me. So I wrote about her. Why was she fascinated with mysticism? How did it reflect her own spiritual journey? I switched from an objective approach to one focused on encounter.

And that is what I try to bring to my writing, be it an academic article, a spiritual reflection, a lecture or sermon, a poem, a play, a book, a blog, or a social media post. Because my training is in systematic theology as well as dramatic theology, I look for stories that hold together from beginning to end on all fronts. I also spend a lot of time asking questions, especially about the theologies and practices I was taught in the evangelical church and the various experiences I had as a leader in the church for over twenty years. There is as much to unlearn as there is to learn.

I have lived through a significant amount of upheaval and reorientation in my spiritual journey. Sometimes I wonder why I still love theology, especially when theology doesn’t always love me back. The answer is simple. I study theology because I believe it is encounter all the way down. It is about living into relationships. The biblical texts are filled with depictions of people who are having encounters. And they don’t always get it right. We read about violence and revenge, about lies and misunderstandings, about greed and thievery. We also read about generosity, compassion, hospitality, and forgiveness. Basically, we are reading stories about what it means to be human and what it means to encounter the divine in that humanness. And we are invited to see ourselves in these stories.

Theology is not just for scholars, teachers, preachers, priests, and religious professionals. Theology is for everyone who wants to explore what it means to live into the story and mystery of the world in a good way. Theology is for the curious, the doubters, the questioners, the creatives, the thinkers, the doers, the helpers, the wanderers, and the wonderers. All are welcome.

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