“Listening to the Marginalized”? The Role of Theology in the Church Today

On Saturday, New College hosted a conference entitled, provocatively, “Does the Church Need Theology?  Addressing the Gap Between Professor, Pulpit, and Pew,” which I had the privilege of helping organize.  The conference was a great success—well-attended by a wide range of constituencies, with enthusiastic dialogue from all, and a hunger at the end for further discussion in future conferences.  Best of all, most everyone present seemed to agree with the premise that we need more theology, not less, in our churches—which is a premise one can hardly count on in these postmodern times.  

In the opening talk, Paul Nimmo advanced the claim that theology, as “talk about God,” is something that everyone who is a Christian does unavoidably, even if inarticulately, and is thus not merely the proper province of the learned.  The subsequent speakers amplified this emphasis and it was presupposed in much of the group discussion, which focused on how we might render clearer and more articulate the latent, largely unvoiced theology in the congregations.

As a Protestant, I of course cannot but hail this emphasis, for the priesthood of all believers might be just as well stated as the preacher-hood of all believers, or even the professor-hood of all believers.  Reflection upon revelation is not the exclusive preserve of an enlightened or authorized elite, but arises spontaneously by the illumination of the Spirit in every heart that feeds in faith upon the Word of God.  Nonetheless, it is perhaps needful in these democratic days to disentangle this wonderful Protestant doctrine from some of its more bastard descendants.  For Paul Nimmo was equally insistent in his claim that there remained a discipline of focused and regulated reflection to which some Christians were called as a vocation, a theological vocation that had as its task the guidance and, when necessary, the correction, of the whole Church.  Of course, this discipline remains itself always open to correction by the whole Church and by the Word, bound to be forever listening to the voice of Christ and the voices of His members.  Needless to say, this latter claim failed to generate as much enthusiasm, though it was more underemphasized than openly repudiated. 

As someone training for this theological vocation, I cannot but be conscious of the awkwardness of speaking up in its defence.  Perhaps due humility would dictate that I should simply take to heart the admonitions of yesterday, and leave others to offer an apologetic for the theologian, if one needs to be given.  I shall not take this humblest of courses, but I am at least sufficiently cognizant of my bias that I offer these thoughts more in the manner of musings than of an apologetic.  

Some present at the discussion seemed to be operating on the basis of an unvoiced syllogism: “theology” is something that every Christian does and is called to do, thus the “theologian” does nothing unique, and therefore, we need not bother to listen to theologians, but should instead focus merely on empowering the theologian within each one of us.  Perhaps no one quite said it that way, but many remarks inclined in this direction, and only a deaf man could be unaware that the spirit of this syllogism suffuses much of the contemporary church, both liberal and conservative.  But the “syllogism,” if indeed syllogism it is meant to be, is one hardly worthy of the name.  We might with equal plausibility assert that since each one of us, every day, is called upon to make judgments about human behavior, determining motives, discerning patterns, and predicting future behaviours, that each of us is a psychologist, a sociologist, and an anthropologist, and therefore we have no need of the disciplines of psychology, sociology, or anthropology.  Of course, perhaps I have chosen my analogy poorly, since more than a few of us (myself included) are likely to feel at times that a world without psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists might be a nice world indeed.  

So let’s try the analogy of science.  All of us inevitably “do science.”  We all interact with the physical world around us, analyze what we see, observe patterns, form generalizations.  When I notice that certain shifts in wind and certain cloud formations are likely to presage a thunderstorm, I am doing primitive meteorology.  When I determine that olive oil and vinegar will tend to separate, and need additional ingredients, well-mixed, to form a stable dressing, I am doing primitive chemistry.  I could go on, but I think you get the point.  Of course, no one would deduce by this ubiquity of scientific engagement with the world that the vocation of dedicated scientists was pointless.  Indeed, we can extend this analogy further.  People puzzle over how the highly specialized reflections of trained theologians could become in any way useful for the everyday life of the ordinary Christian.  But the specialized reflections of trained scientists are if anything still more abstruse and bewildering.  Yet they are regularly brought to bear on the lives of ordinary people—usually not directly from the Chemistry department at MIT to the kitchen, but mediated through various strata—the researcher, the textbook-writer, the cookbook-writer.  The same mediation can bring knowledge from professor to pulpit to pew. Now, the analogy is far from perfect.  I think we ought to insist that everyone should be a theologian in a more actively engaged and self-conscious sense than everyone should be a scientist, and that, since theology is nourished by faith, not just reason, the gap between layman and specialist ought to be much narrower in theology than in science.  Indeed, we must also insist that, because of this primacy of faith, which the poor widow may have in far greater abundance than the tenured professor, theology as a discipline has an urgent duty to listen to, and be corrected by, the voices of ordinary people in a way that the discipline of chemistry certainly does not have.  Yet the analogy should be enough to prove that the “professor-hood of all believers” does not obviate the value of professors. 


Unsurprisingly, though, there was a more radical version of this call for “theology from below” articulated at the conference, an insistence not only that we should be getting our theology by listening to one another, but by listening to what N.T. Wright wryly refers to as “that blessed postmodern category, the ‘marginalized.'”  We were strongly exhorted by Kathy Galloway to “do theology by listening to those on the margins.”  One contributor to the group discussion even expressed an objection to one of the questions they were supposed to reflect on: “What difference would more theological reflection make for practical Christian ministry, such as serving the homeless or counselling broken families?”  She said, “Why ‘serving the homeless’ instead of ‘being with the homeless’?  Why ‘counselling broken families’ instead of ‘listening to broken families'”  Of course, these are very fair concerns.  

Perhaps we do need a kind of ‘affirmative action’ in theology, giving particular weight to the perspectives of the marginalized, precisely because they have been marginalized.  Theology has had, and continues to have, more than its fair share of imperialism, as, within each tradition, a privileged elite of established perspectives force themselves upon everyone else as “the answers.”  Merely ministering sympathetically to the poor, the oppressed, the homeless, can be a way of preserving the us/them distinction, maintaining our superiority as we condescend to give them aid, thus putting them in our debt.  So “serving the homeless” that doesn’t include a commitment to simultaneously “being with the homeless” is at best of limited value, and at worst could perpetuate the ugly patterns of inequality.  Likewise, “counselling broken families” that does not seek first to attentively, patiently, and earnestly listen to them, that seeks to merely give them answers instead of giving them a voice, can be a form of arrogance more than of love.   

Nonetheless, as much value there is in these emphases, I think we need to be careful.  For “being with the homeless” without serving them, and “listening to broken families” without counselling them is not love either.  Most people who are suffering, broken, or marginalized want help; they would rather be brought out of their pit instead of just having us jump into it with them for the sake of solidarity.  I was particularly struck by this thought when Kathy Galloway asserted that “Jesus spent his time listening to the marginalised—to tax-collectors and prostitutes—and so should we.”  Well, hang on a minute.   It is undoubtedly true that Jesus gave particular focus in his ministry to the marginalised, as liberation theologians and many others have helpfully brought to our attention.  But I can’t recall many scenes in the gospels in which Jesus sits down with a group of tax-collectors and prostitutes and says, “Now tell me what you think about the kingdom of God”; “Please, share with me your experience of God.”  Of course, he may well have done so.  Indeed, I doubt not that in the close relationships he formed with many of his disciples, Jesus took a great deal of time to listen to them and find out what they thought.  But the gospels tell us little of this.  What they seem to think most important is not that Jesus saw fit to listen to the marginalized, but that he preached to the marginalized.  Jesus brought the kingdom of God to them; he did not invite them to recognize that they already had the secret to it within themselves, if only they would give voice to it.   

To those who are lost, searching for answers, disempowered, the most loving thing that we can do for them is what Jesus did, to go them and show them the way, tell them the truth, give them new life—that is, preach Jesus to them.  The point I am making here is not really about prioritizing spiritual needs over physical needs.  By all means, we need to show Christ’s love by caring for people’s physical needs.  But when it comes to caring for spiritual needs, we shouldn’t convince ourselves that it is arrogant to claim we have anything to offer them, so we should simply profess ourselves empty-handed and insist that they do the talking.  We do need to give a voice to the voiceless, but they will only have a true and authentic voice when they have Christ, and we cannot bring Christ to them without theology. 


A final musing I would like to share here is my suspicion that, if we ask who the most marginalized voices in our society today are, we might well answer “those of the past.”  The question was raised in small group discussion—”Can we sustain a commitment to orthodoxy while developing our theology in engagement with the marginalised?” or something to that effect.  A “theology from below,” it seemed, was in tension with the claim of theology to encapsulate age-old received truths, so much so that one person saw the slogan “Jesus Christ: the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow” as scandalous.  And yet, in all this fervour for democratic theology, we should not forget what I think G.K. Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead”—the voices of all those who have gone before us.  These, our forebears in the faith, are now the voiceless, and they are, in our fast-paced and forgetful society, at risk of being the most marginalized of all.  Any theology that claims to take its cue from those on the margins must be willing to take its cue from the Church of ages past.  Otherwise, we risk setting up an imperialism of the present, condemned to be always transcending itself, and trampling on whatever it has received from the past.  To do theology merely by listening to one another is to condemn ourselves to hearing a monotonous voice indeed, for with all our diversity, we today share far more assumptions (so many of them, no doubt, silly and groundless) than we realize, and we must appear from the perspective of history provincial indeed.  

So, by all means let’s have the priesthood, and the preacherhood, and the professor-hood of all believers, but let’s make sure it’s really that of all believers—of a rabbi from Tarsus, a beggar from Assisi, a crazy monk in Wittenberg.  Understood this way, the doctrine that seems to blame for wild individualism can be one of the greatest safeguards against it.  Understood this way, we can insist that theology as a discipline does have some answers to offer, without being arrogant—because theology recognizes that it has received these answers as a gift, and its calling is to share this gift, enriching it in each generation with new gifts gained in conversation with all the saints.  


In a subsequent (much shorter) post, I will explore what seem to me are perhaps one or two of the more serious problems plaguing the current relationship between theology and the church and what might be one or two of the most promising solutions.    

2 thoughts on ““Listening to the Marginalized”? The Role of Theology in the Church Today

  1. This may be something you're going to address in your next post(s), but I'm gonna ask it anyway. What do you think of the gap between theologian and pastor these days? In the early church, the writers of theology were, by and large, bishops and pastors and the like, but the Reformation (or perhaps Scholasticism?) seems to have changed that. Obviously there are some now who are both pastor and theologian, but it seems more prevalent now that theological duties of writing books and the serious study of Word are left to the professors while pastoral duties are left to the pastors and that disconnect seems unwise to me.Or this could all be my limited knowledge of the larger world of theology and such a disconnect could be only in my head.


  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Hey Brittany,Yeah, I will address this somewhat in my follow-up post, but one or two remarks here. The change probably came in neither with the Reformation nor with Scholasticism, but with monasticism. Once there was a group of educated Christians who were not bound to minister to particular congregations, and had the leisure of an isolated life of reflection, it was natural that these should start to become the primary theologians. (Not, of course, that these monastic theologians were wholly disengaged from practical ministry and preaching; on the contrary, many were very active churchmen). In their early days, universities looked an awful lot like monasteries, and it was natural therefore that the model of the full-time theological scholar should transition fairly seamlessly from its home in the monasteries to the universities (at which, indeed, many monks taught—think Luther). The Reformation simply followed this existing phenomenon to a considerable extent, though in fact I think it would be fair to say that actually quite a number of leading early Protestant theologians were ministers, not academics—Zwingli, Bullinger, Calvin, Bucer, Cranmer, Luther (though he was both). Of course, it was natural that as Protestantism gained enough of a foothold to create its own university institutions, there should come to be a larger number of Protestant university theologians as well.That's all by way of history. But I think it's important to emphasize that this division of labor is not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, I think it would be a bad thing if pastors, who already have a very full plate caring for the needs of their members, were required to be the primary theologians as well; and although it might be a good thing if most professional theologians had some experience in parish ministry, I don't think it should be a prerequisite. There are different gifts, and we would actually be harming poor innocent parishes by inflicting upon them an academic doing his three-year stint of parish ministry or whatever. So a division of labor is fine, but we need to keep this from becoming a division of worlds, so that neither pastor nor theologian reaps the benefit of the other. That's a lot of what this conference was about, although actually most of the discussion turned out not to be on this point. But anyway, I'll say more on this front in a coming post.


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