In the midst of the interesting debate sparked off by Geoffrey Holsclaw concerning who qualifies as a theologian a sentiment has been expressed by some. It can be summed up in the phrase, ‘we all think theologically, therefore we are all theologians’. Or, in a slightly weaker guise, ‘if one thinks theologically, one is a theologian’. Of course the debate itself is attempting to work out what it means to think theologically. Is theology necessarily connected with thinking about God? Is it something one can only do from within a confessional community? Is theology a specifically Christian mode of reflection etc.
But lets bracket out these questions for a moment as the Church and Pomo site has a good discussion on these issues already. Instead lets assume that everyone does think theologically from time to time so that we can interrogate whether that means everyone is a theologian. This of course does not mean that everyone is a good theologian. The claim is that we should really talk about different degrees of theological reflection (from sustained and coherent to fleeting and incoherent).
The interesting thing about this statement is that it both seems eminently reasonable and unreasonable at one and the same time. In a way it seems to be both obviously true and obviously false. What I would like to do is attempt to clarify why this is the case by arguing that the confusion comes from a misunderstanding of the idea of ‘degrees’.
I remember in the early days of my philosophy training the lecturers, in a vain attempt to make philosophy appeal to the first year students, would start their classes with mind experiments. One of these mind experiments involved asking when a pile of sand could be called a beach. We know that a single grain of sand is not a beach and we know that the place where we sunbathed last year is. So how many grains of sand does it take?
By thinking in this way we are confronted with the idea that quantitive change leads to qualitative change. While 100 grains of sand is not a beach, nor 101 grains, the minor quantitive changes gradually build to the point when we acknowledge a qualitative change (the point when the majority of us would say that the pile of sand was a beach). The move from the mere quantitative changes to the qualitative (or substantial) change happens in peoples perception. We can, for simplicity, identify three different moments,
- The point when the vast majority would simply see a pile of sand
- The point where the majority would be divided
- The point where the vast majority would see a beach
In a similar way is this not how we should approach the question of who is a theologian? While it seems obvious that Karl Barth, for example, is a theologian it seems equally obvious that my three year old nephew is not. The majority of people would easily be able to tell the difference, just as it is obvious that my local GP is a doctor while the mechanic who puts a plaster on the grazed knee of their child is not.
There is however a grey zone where the serious debates take place. This is how we ought to approach the question that Geoffrey has raised. It is taking place in the grey zone where the perception of quantitative change begins to blur into qualitative change. And this can go two ways, as the conversations take place some whom we previously thought where theologians may, for the majority in the debate, begin to look more like, say, sociologists of religion.
So instead of saying that we are all theologians and that it is just a matter of degree, perhaps we should rather say that it is precisely because it is all just a matter of degree that we are not all theologians.