What is an Amateur Theologian?
Amateur Theologians is not simply the name of this project. It is much more. Amateur theologians encapsulates our approach, understanding, and expectation of theological reflection. In other words, the title of this project is shorthand for describing a particular kind of theologian. Strictly speaking, then, we are setting out to be and define a particular kind of theologian rather than a distinct type of theology. As I see it, amateur theologians approach the task of theology with a fundamental disposition of love and humility. They understand the nature of theological reflection to be not only intellectually stretching but also dialogically and perennially demanding. Moreover, they expect that the theological journey will be one of continual transformation that shapes their beliefs, character, and desires—more on this anon.
Amateur Theologians are Motivated by Love
While the word “amateur” typically brings to mind a person who pursues an interest as a non-specialist or unprofessional, this is not what we mean to communicate by amateur theologians. Although Casey and I (Dan) are amateurs in that sense, there is another sense in which regardless of how far we take our studies, we will always consider ourselves to be amateur theologians. In fact, I would suggest that a person can be both a professional theologian while still considering themselves to be an amateur. Let me explain. At the heart of the English word “amateur” is the Latin “amator” meaning lover. In French “amateur” has a similar sense. It is this sense of “amateur”—derived from the etymology of the word—that I would like to appropriate for our definition of what an amateur theologian is.
Drawing from this insight I would like to insist that amateur theologians are amateurs in the sense that they are individuals and communities that pursue theological enlightenment being primarily motivated by love. What do they love? They love God. More specifically, amateur theologians, as amatores, love the triune God revealed in Christian Scripture. What is more, they love God’s creation and the people of God. This is fundamental for being an amateur theologian. To love God, his people, creation, and all things that bring glory to the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is what it means to be an amateur theologian. The motivation that spurs on amateur theologians to the task of theology is in the end love. Amateur theologians are, then, lovers of theology because theology has to do with the theos who has invaded their lives through the dynamic power of the gospel.
Amateur Theologians Pursue Humility
Not only are amateur theologians marked by a love for God and others, they are also characterized by humility. If love is the motivation, humility is the disposition. There are at least two reasons for this. First, this means that the amateur theologian understands that theological reflection is essentially dialogical. In other words, theological reflection involves an ongoing discourse between the discoverer and other thinkers of the past and present. So, rather than seeing themselves as autonomous thinkers possessing self-authority, amateur theologians understand that if they were to ignore the voices of others, it would be to their own hurt. Similarly, theology is best pursued in the context of community. This community involves one’s immediate community, the wider Christian and secular community, as well as voices from the past. This recognizes the conversational aspect of the nature of theological reflection.
Second, the modifying adjective “amateur” is meant to instill in the theologian an attitude of humility, reminding them that God’s revelation of himself in Christ and the Scriptures are gracious gifts. Indeed, one of the expressed goals of Amateur Theologians is to cultivate an attitude of humility and exalt the one who is altogether lovely and worthy of eternal praise. There is, then, a sense in which the term amateur is meant to remind the student of divinity that the theological journey is perennial. In other words, you will never know it all; you will always be on a journey of theological formation and discovery. This aspect has to do with the way amateur theologians understand the nature of theology. Suffice it to say, as older theologians did, that our theology is incomplete and is best described as a pilgrim theology—a theology for sojourners and exiles who see through a mirror dimly. Therefore, both the grace of the possibility of theological reflection and the never-ending journey of theological reflection is meant to work in the theologian a spirit of humility.
Putting Love and Humility Together
With all that said, amateur theologians do not pursue theology as merely an abstract intellectual exercise, but rather theological contemplation is a form of worship, an expression of love for the one whom theology explores. For amateur theologians, theology should be an articulation of a shared experience of God within a community that is defined and shaped by the gospel. Amateur theologians do not understand theology as being merely intellectual since theological reflection reaches beyond the life of the mind into the visceral and sapiential dimensions of the human person. Indeed, we are more than mere brains or thinking things. For right thinking does not necessarily lead to right living.
While right thinking is necessary, it is not sufficient for right living; we need something more, we need transformation. Theology, then, must reach down into the depths of our person, transforming our desires and patterns of thinking. We must be renewed in our minds which involves more than coming to believe new propositional truths. It also includes who we are in our longings, desires, and loves. This means that theological refection is best when accompanied by other spiritual disciplines and practices. It also means that theological refection must lead to action. If our theology does not have legs then it is useless in the Church and the world. Just as faith works through love, theology as an articulation of faith needs to be embodied in the real world. I believe that theological refection can be a means of spiritual transformation—I have experienced it—but not if it fails to change the way we think and live. It is my belief that theological reflection can shape who we are as disciples of Jesus if it is motivated by love and pursued in humility. This is not worship of theology but theology as a means of worship.
The Call and Place of Amateur Theologians in the Church
There is one misunderstanding that I hope to avoid. In saying that amateur theologians are humble lovers of God, I do not mean to say that those who do not find theological discourse and reflection enticing are neither humble nor that they fail to love God. While statements that claim that “everyone is a theologian” are legion, the differences, as I see it, between amateur theologians and unwitting theologians are twofold:
First, amateur theologians pursue the theological task with intentionality and joy. Theological discovery is for them a spiritual discipline, an act of worship, and a way of loving God with their whole person—mind, heart, and strength. With that said, one need not appropriate this degree of theological reflection as a means of spiritual formation in order to love God and live humbly. The contrast here is not between those who study theology and those who do not, but rather between those who study theology in humble devotion to God and those who undertake the task as a purely intellectual exercise.
Finally, amateur theologians are those of the body of Christ who are called to set out in clear terms the nature of the Christian faith. Although every Christian can learn to navigate the Christian life by “intuition” or other spiritual disciplines, amateur theologians find delight in reflecting on the dimensions of the Christian faith in order to understand both the broad and specific descriptions, connections, and relations within it. The difference is like that between individuals who learn to travel through their hometown because they are familiar with it and those who in addition to their familiarity also know the name of every street, attraction, and establishment. While the former could not tell a stranger the names of the streets or how to find the best cup of coffee, the latter is able to help visitors find their way around, keeping them from getting lost and experiencing the best the town has to offer. While every Christian learns to navigate the Christian life through the assistance of the Spirit, the amateur theologian wants to know the ins and outs of the Christian faith in order to articulate and convey it to the visitor or to someone who is a stranger to Christian faith. Haphazard directions given to someone who isn’t familiar with the landmarks and avenues of a town will either get them lost or frustrated. Conversely, clear directions with street names and approximate distances ensure to a greater degree the expectation that the stranger will make it to their destination. This I suggest is the calling and place of amateur theologians in the Church.
Written by Dan Marino