Ordinary Theology – Taking It Seriously

Theology; a word that confuses most. Even within academic circles, people aren’t really sure what theology is all about. Truth be told, there are a number of different ways to approach answering the question: “what is theology?” For most, it would suffice to say that it is an academic subject which focuses on the religious belief and ideas found within major religion, namely in this case, Christianity. But there’s a problem with this. Whilst it is entirely accurate to say that theology is an academic discipline (I should know, I have a degree and a Master’s on the way!), for those within the Christian faith it is so much more than this. People use theology to govern their lives, they use it to understand life’s great mysteries yet, in the midst of all the theologising done by ordinary people, it’s left to the academics to determine what is theologically ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. This simply won’t do anymore. We live in a world where every aspect of our lives is governed by somebody higher up the pay scale than us. Can we really allow our faith to suffer the same?

Theology, for the most part, has been conducted by the clergy or by people who have a long and complicated string of letters after their name. These people take the ideas that have been posited before them, attempt to make sense of them, and then offer their own thoughts and ideas as to how best apply them to today’s context; in some cases, it’s decided to scrap such ideas all together and pursue a new path of believing. What is seldom acknowledged, is how these new theologies and ways of thinking apply to those who make Christianity what it is; those people without whom, Christianity would not exist. People like the little old lady down the street who has attended the same church every Sunday for her whole life, or the man who spent his youth in a religious family and to this day maintains his Christian faith whilst working in a hotel restaurant. These people haven’t necessarily been to university, and if they have they probably didn’t study theology, yet when they sit in the pews on a Sunday morning they’re expected to listen and accept the theological musings of the man/woman stood in front of them. How are they to make sense of the theological jargon spewed out by clergy and theologians alike? I’m guilty of this myself. Whenever I speak to my mother (no longer a believer but relevant to this story), I hit her with a fist full of Christology, attack her with theodicy and finish the job with a salvific kick to the chest. These words mean next to nothing for the ordinary believer, so why aren’t theologians and the clergy changing the way theology is done?

There are a few theologians and academics who are attempting to solve this problem. Thanks to the likes of Jeff Astley, Leslie Francis and Ann Christie who have awarded their time and academic careers to talking to the ordinary believers, the field of ordinary theology is beginning to emerge. Albeit in its infancy, it is definitely onto something positive which may offer a positive change to Christian theology and perhaps Christianity as a whole.

From what I’ve read of Christie’s work, from conversations I’ve had and indeed from the research I’ve conducted myself, it is so blindingly obvious that the things I read at university from famous Christian thinkers like Hick, Barth, Scheiermacher, Ruther etcetera, bear no relation to what people sat in the pews actually believe.  Are these theologians more qualified to speak about the ins, the outs and technicalities of the Christian faith more than the people who live and practice it?

Apparently so, which is why the whole of my undergraduate study was devoted to studying academic texts and articles that discussed some area of theology. So now I have all this knowledge and because I apparently understand the Christian narrative better than those without a theology degree, am I more Christian than the little old lady? Of course not. So here we are at the very point of this article. Why are we not dedicating our time to studying the beliefs and theology of the normal, ordinary believer?

Astley and Christie wrote in a 2010 article, that in order for the Christian church to have any hope of moving forward into the next millennium, it has to take ordinary theology seriously. The Christian narrative is theology, and in order to been relevant to those who prescribe to the faith, it must take heed of what people really believe. There is no use in theologians spending all their time constructing elaborate and difficult-to-understand theories if the people for whom they are actually designed, cannot access them or make sense of them!

Christianity is a group of people who share common beliefs and practices. My fear is Christian theologians have neglected the majority of the group in order to pursue a theology best suited for themselves, whilst hoping that everyone else will just plod along agreeing with what they published in their latest book. Instead, we should be listening to what real Christians think; we should be taking heed of what real Christians believe. That way, I believe that Christianity will cease to be a faith full of doctrinal contradictions and denominational splits. It may become a faith that openly welcomes a spectrum of beliefs and views that all point to a common end. It may become a faith shaped by the people who make it. It may become the Christianity that I know so many of us are so keen to see emerge.

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