What’s the Value of a Theological Degree?

I’ve been taking some time off from blogging as my new job gets some traction. Woo hoo! (Well, woo hoo for jobs, boo hoo for not as much blogging activity). Side projects are starting to become more central to my purpose at work, and I’m loving it. And I’ve changed the design on here, it feels more like home to me. But I’m back, eager to blab about a cool class I took!

On Monday I finished a fantastic 4-session class called “Building Your Personal Theology.” It wasn’t at a college, a university, a seminary, or even a continuing education institution. It was at Trinity Lutheran Church in Stillwater, Minnesota. As I start my job there, I get to be a student of the classes and ministries that I will be eventually be sharing with other faith communities. But before I can teach them or share them, I have to be a student and do some learning. My goodness, did I learn.

Untitled_small BYPT

The values of this class are:

1. Everyone is a theologian. – The break down of the english word “theology” is – the (“y”) study of (“log”) God (“theo”). So if you have studied, thought, had a question or talked with someone about God, you are doing theology. You are a theologian.

2. Congregations are multi-theological. – Each one of us has come from different ethnic backgrounds, unique experiences, perspectives and attitudes. These experiences (along with the Christian tradition and the Bible, in some way), inform the questions we ask about God and the insights we have about God. This means that Christianity is a wide stream, full of diverse understandings of God, Jesus, faith and the Holy Spirit, and that’s a beautiful thing.

Now, as you might know, I hold a M.A. in systematic theology. The homework for session 1 (there was homework!! I was so excited.) was from Transforming Christian Theology where Phillip Clayton writes “As long as there are professional theologians, those who don’t carry this honorific title begin to assume that they can’t do theology or aren’t allowed to” (pg. 19). I started to shrink in my chair. Wait, aren’t I one of those professional theologians? Aren’t I one of the sacred “key-keepers” of orthodox (“right thinking”) theology? I mean, even though I jive with the Lutheran pow-wow around the priesthood of all believers, I still feel like I have something special with my theological degree. I mean, I dedicated countless lattes and hours in the library writing this behemoth thesis about theology – and you want me to believe that my classmates at Trinity who do not have master’s degrees in theology are just as much as a theologian as I am??

I brought this identity crisis this to Siri Erickson, the writer, creator and teacher of this class. In a very understanding and gracious way, she invited me to think of my degree in a different way. Besides, she also has a theological degree (Master of Divinity from Claremont), maybe she would understand my conundrum. She asked me, very simply,  “What is the value of your degree?” Being the external processor I am, I fumbled through an answer, and ultimately found her insight to be profound: Maybe the value of a master’s in theology is not in collecting facts and theories about God and being “smarter” than all the “stupid” people who don’t know things about God. Maybe the value of a theological degree is the gift and opportunity of being a theological voice coach to others, as I have been given the passion and gift of theological reflection and inquiry – and that’s something to be shared, not hoarded.

Perhaps this was the key. In earning my degree I have experienced that I have a gift for theological reflection, and as I’ve been entrusted with this gift, I can coach others to find their own theological voice. A theological voice coach! Awesome!

So our class, just 3 of us participants, wrestled with our thoughts on God using this framework: God loves, heals, is, relates, envisions, guides, reveals and creates. The last class is reserved for our presentations of visual representations of what we individually believe about God. Being the procrastinator that I am, I sat down at my cubicle desk at 1pm before the 6:30pm class and started writing. I spent the next 5 hours creating this thing. I didn’t realize I cared so much about it, but who am I kidding, I do have a degree in theology, right? Who knew, the theological degree holder is passionate about what she believes about God!!

Through a ladder exercise in session 1 of 4 (conversation partners ask repeated questions on importance about a single initial phrase about who God is, a Benedictine practice), I discovered that “God is hope” lies at the core of my theology. Bearly getting into college, moving to Minnesota, getting married; so understanding God as hope is new for me, but I went with it. In all of my short-answer homework for session 2 & 3, God as “love, justice, and peace” showed up, but not once did I mention “hope,” which I think means that my head is still catching up with my heart. But in my presentation, the idea that “God is hope” ran like a red thread throughout the pie pieces.

Picture of BYPT

My classmates’ presentations were beautiful. One of the participants was an older pretty quiet man from California, and he spoke about how, to him, God is love. I feel like culturally we don’t often expect men to talk about love with such depth and emotion. But this man spoke with such depth and passion, and I would have had no clue that he held this conviction so close to his soul, unless this class was available to us. It was a privileged to hear everyone unfold their theology – moms, grandpas, and then me, the strange staff person. Strangely enough, this is the most home I have felt at my new job. I can’t wait to teach this class myself and be a theological voice coach!!

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