Am I a Theologian?


I recently had a friend ask:

At what level of academia would it be correct/fitting/appropriate to call oneself a theologian?

Here was my first response:

I have a perhaps unpopular view on that, which is 1) education has almost no bearing on whether one is/isn’t a theologian proper 2) it is only appropriate to refer to oneself as a theologian if someone else has used the term for first… And then only sparingly. I’d resort to “Catholic author/writer/apologist.” But I think this betrays my view on theology in general, which is completely removed from academia and what elites like to call “theology” today
The context for this question was an individual who was appealing to their “theologian” credentials in order to win a debate, yet it has prompted further reflection on a question that I frequently pondered during graduate school:

What does it mean to be a Theologian?

When I first posted my blogger profile (it seems so long ago!) I wrote that I am a “wife, mother and theologian-in-training.”  I’ve had multiple discussions with my husband about how I feel uncomfortable claiming the title of ‘theologian,’ despite having two degrees in the subject.  For starters, it seems that even a master’s degree isn’t sufficient to be considered a ‘master’ anymore– and that’s not unique to academic theology. One wouldn’t claim the title “anthropologist” or “linguist” with just a master’s degree, would they? As I see it these days, it’s a doctorate or nothing; but, I have to admit that my overall hesitancy lies less in the academic realm and more in the religious.

In my heart, I understand ‘theologian’ to be something quite different from one who has studied theology.  Rather, one has to practice theology in order to be a theologian.  But again, this practice cannot be merely academic.  It must be lived.  What does this entail?   I seem to remember a professor at some point saying Augustine defined the theologian as “the one who prays best.” Forgive me for not perusing the entire Augustinian corpus to verify this, but admittedly I have incorporated it into my thoughts on theology.

This means that the theologian, properly speaking, is one who has a committed prayer life, pursues virtue, goodness and all that is holy and sees his/her life and work as a prayer to God.

My view also hinges on the fact that “theology” can be understood in many different ways. One can look at it as merely one academic discipline among many others. Or it can be The Science, which all other disciplines serve. Yet, theology can also simply refer to the beautifully complex reciprocal relationship of love between God and man.  The word breaks down (simplistically) to “God-speak,” which not only means our speech about God and to God, but it also encompasses God’s speech to us through conversation in prayer, the sacraments and Sacred Scripture.

You can see why I might think that calling oneself a ‘theologian’ is not to be taken lightly.

But with this sort of definition, we can see becoming ‘theologians’ is a task given to all of us.  Some may pursue it more academically than others, but we are all called to pray, to live our lives as holy as possible and to enter into a loving relationship with God. At its most basic level, being a “theologian” can simply mean: being a saint. 

We are all called to be saints, but the saints would be the first to tell us that this is a process and we must use our time here to train to become holy.  Paul uses the analogy of Christian life as the life of an athlete in training.  He says:

“Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one.” (1 Cor 9:24-25)

When I wrote my original profile, it read “theologian-in-training,” but as time has passed, I’ve realized that I’m not just a theologian-in-training, but I am also a wife-in-training and a mother-in-training and quite literally I am still a Dominican-in-training. I am these things by virtue of having a husband and having children and having made promises within the Order, but I am also called to become more fully a wife, mother and Lay Dominican with each passing day.  These are vocations– they are paths to holiness– and simply being a ‘wife’ doesn’t mean that I know how to be a good one.  It takes practice, patience, discipline, commitment to my vows, a willingness to let my husband help me become a better wife (and vice versa) and a firm trust in God to help me along this path.

If we understand every aspect of our lives to be wrapped up in this idea of training to truly become wives/husbands, mothers/fathers, theologians (add: teachers, writers, scientists, doctors, engineers, etc.) then we understand what this life is about.

I am: “myself-in-training.” We are all “saints-in-training.”

So to go back to the original question of when someone can call themselves a “theologian,” I confess I remain a bit agnostic on the issue. Certainly someone with a doctorate in theology might want (or even feel the need) to claim the title on a CV or a journal article. In an academic sense, they have earned it. Yet many Doctors of the Church never earned degrees of any sort, let alone in theology. And someone with a doctorate can be very, very wrong about the Truths of God– shall we still call them a theologian? I am happy to let my credentialed-colleagues duke it out on this one. I will remain comfortably on the sidelines and assert that Being a Theologian, in the sense of Being One Who Talks With and Listens to God, is something to which we must all aspire, regardless of academics. It is THE goal of all of our training in every aspect of life to Be With God. So while we are all called to be theologians, I think very few of us can ever properly be called Theologians. And that’s humbling, especially for those of us who have studied theology, but it is right.

At the end of the day– perhaps more importantly, at the end of our lives– your academic credentials, the titles you’ve been given, the titles you’ve tried to live up to and the titles you’ve failed to achieve, they all count for nothing. So just keep training. Strive and push yourself to live every aspect of life as a humble, holy pursuit of God, so that you will be blessed to say with Paul and all the saints:

“I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim 4:7)

So, what’s on your training schedule for today?


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