Theologians need strangers to help study faith outside of academic footnotes

It is easier not to tell strangers that I study theology.

Perhaps other theology students or theologians may not agree. They may love opening up to strangers on airplanes, in coffee shops, and on the street about what they are doing with their lives. But I suspect that many, even those more outgoing than me, can relate to the nervousness felt the moment someone asks what I study or what I do.

The temptation is to tell the stranger that I am an accounting student, a diversion an older theology student once recommended. True, this will more than likely make the stranger no longer interested in delving into the details of my academic life and interests. However, there is also the unfortunate danger that the other person will actually be an accountant, in which case you are now stuck pretending that you know something about their field.

Though I have developed skills for cordial conversation and fruitful discussion, on a deeper level, I can be shy and introverted. Often, I would rather keep to myself, a rule I only break when I realize I have not been outgoing enough, I want to participate more in some discussion, or I am invited to contribute to NCR. So when someone on an airplane clearly wants to chat from Boston to Detroit, usually that is enough to make me consider impersonating an accountant. But one thing my theological studies have taught me is that the worst theology is done at the exclusion of strangers.

This points to the tension inherent in the task of theology. On the one hand, we study the intellectual tradition of the church. We sit for hours, basking in the brilliance of church fathers and discovering the riveting history of the church throughout the ages. But there is a danger of getting stuck here and forgetting that we are studying only a small portion of the church's history. There are always more voices to be heard than those celebrated in academic footnotes.

Studying academic theology risks forgetting the reason for asking the questions in the first place. So a reality check is sometimes in order. Encounter with someone who does not have a studied theological reason for believing or not believing is necessary. It is important to hear the honest, sometimes tension-filled words "I stopped going to church because ..." or "I keep going to church in spite of my strong disagreement with ..."

On the other hand, theologians also have lives. We come from a context. We approach our work with concerns and interests shaped by those lives. We seek academic theology out in the first place to give clarity to the meaning of the experiences we have already had.

But when immersed in our research, we sometimes must be reminded of our experiences and the experiences of others. Theologians need strangers. If we do not engage strangers in theological discussion, we limit ourselves to only engaging other professional theologians. We insulate theology in the comfortable walls of our vocabulary and ideas. Without constant connection to those living the Christian (or non-Christian) life through their own vocation, we lose contact with the subject of our theologizing. We lose a fundamental perspective for doing theology, which we need if we are going to do our task well. To do good theology, we have to be willing to talk to strangers, even when the universe brings them to us randomly and without invitation.

Theology is not a game. It is not done simply for the joy of making a connection between A and B and discovering the justification for a claim about C. The moment someone finds out you do theology, they see an opportunity for their voice to be heard by someone who has made it their life's purpose to provide a sophisticated voice in the church that represents theirs. Theologians must listen to the subjects of our pondering. Our Christian call to solidarity impels theologians to commit to a life in service to the church of the poor. We do theology for those we meet in coffee shops, on airplanes and especially on the streets. Their voices reveal new questions to be asked and reflected on and the task that is yet to be done.

So even if it may make us antsy, or if our preference is to sit quietly for the duration of the flight, engage us if you get the chance. You may be doing us a favor. We may discover that your narrative is quite important to our own work. But be prepared for the story of our encounter to show up in books, articles or lectures in years to come.

[Zachary R. Dehm is currently working toward his Master of Theological Studies at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.]

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