I fell in love with theology in college. I was a chemistry major, but my search for a God that was lovable, for a church that had enough spaciousness for a curious mind, and for a spiritual community that embodied the equality of women and men led me to enroll in as many religion classes as would fit into my schedule. After years of internal struggle, I found hope in the writings of the pioneering feminist and liberation theologians.
I discovered that Christian theology was much more diverse than I had ever known and that there was a conversation about God that had been going on for thousands of years. No one in any church had ever told me about this before, but I knew I wanted in. I wanted to be a part of the conversation – to read, to study, to experience, to think and to discuss. Who is this God of the universe and what does it mean to be a student of Jesus’ way of life?
So I went to seminary, because I wanted to keep studying theology. Seminary was amazing. I listened to theologians who described a God I had never even imagined and who wrote books about questions I had never even thought to ask. In many ways, I felt like I had found what I was looking for: a God who was complicated, compassionate and beautiful and a faith community that embodied equality and set me free to think. To be encouraged and trusted to think freely as a Christian was such a gift. It was such a rare gift. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it since.
In one of my theology classes, my professor departed from her lecture to plead with us. “Teach the people in your congregations to be theologians.” In her words, I found my calling. I wanted to help create the kind of church that set people free to become theologians. I’ve spent the last nine years doing just that.
Together, with some talented colleagues, we created a class specifically designed to draw out the inner theologian within each person. For the past five years, I have sat at the feet of theologians in Stillwater, Minnesota, and listened to them publicly present what they believe about God in their own words. After witnessing the theological testimonies of over one hundred people, I am convinced that the theological landscape within Christianity is much more complex than most practicing Christians want to admit. After hearing hours and hours of presentations from these theologians, I have yet to find two people who have exactly the same theology. Though some might see this theological variety as a problem, I have been overwhelmed by people’s courageous and articulate statements of their personal theology.
People are deep, wise, insightful, articulate, curious, respectful, brave and more than capable of doing this kind of rigorous theological work together in community. We don’t all think about and describe our experiences of God in the same way, and that is what makes theology so fun. If everyone agreed with each other there would be nothing to talk about; there wouldn’t be a conversation that has been going on for thousands of years to join.
What I’ve uncovered through this process is a whole lot of theological variety, not only about lesser theological points, but about the big things, too. Christians have said all of the following things. God is Triune. God is more than the Trinity. I don’t believe in the Trinity. God is all-powerful. God isn’t all-powerful. Jesus is the second person of the Trinity. Jesus is fully human. Jesus’ death saves us from our sins. Jesus’ death was a tragedy with no salvific power in itself. God loves all people equally. God favors Christians and only saves those who believe in Jesus. I don’t know if I even believe in God right now.
These theological sound bites do not really represent the fullness of all that I have seen and heard. I cannot even begin to describe the beauty and sacredness of these shared moments of listening to person after person find their theological voice. I have been learning and thinking about what it means to be Christian in the midst of this much theological variety.
We need to stop pretending that we all believe the same creeds and hold the same orthodox beliefs and instead acknowledge that Christian community can thrive when theological diversity is nurtured. The job of people with theological degrees is to teach people how to do theological reflection, trust people to think for themselves, and listen curiously as they speak with their own voice about what they believe. I firmly believe that Christian community grows stronger and deeper as people learn both how to express themselves theologically and how to listen to people who have arrived at a very different set of beliefs than their own.
To create communities of theologians, we need to adopt the following three practices.
1. Treat each other like theologians.
The woman who questions the divinity of Jesus is a theologian. The man who has lots of doubts but still thinks God is real and present in his life is a theologian. The college student who wonders if God really loves her without condition is a theologian. The grieving son who is angry at God is a theologian. Seeing people this way is a great equalizer. If we all start engaging each other as theologians, faith communities will be a lot more dynamic.
2. Take the risk to be honest and vulnerable.
We have to trust one another enough to say what is really on our hearts and minds. Most people have been keeping at least some aspects of their theology hidden because they have never felt truly free to say what they believe. It’s sad, but a lot of people don’t think church is a safe place to talk about what they really believe about God. It requires a lot of courage and vulnerability to be honest with yourself and others about your theology, but it can really be worth the risk to have these kinds of conversations together.
3. Embrace the multi-theological nature of Christianity.
There has never been one, single orthodox way to be a Christian. Never. That is a simple fact of history. Once we all accept that there is diversity, being theologians together in community becomes less of a debate about who is right and more of a community of people on a journey together. In the coming months and years, I hope we can create these kinds of communities together – communities of curious and compassionate theologians who learn and grow as we join in this centuries old conversation about God.
The Rev. Siri C. Erickson is a Chaplain of the College at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN. She is an ordained ELCA pastor and a graduate of Carleton College and Claremont School of Theology.