I’ve been asked why I call myself a theologist and not a theologian. It’s simple enough: theologian feels wrong — too high-falutin’, too posh, too domineering. It allows of no accident or serendipity. It’s altogether too damned intimidating.
The dictionaries have both words meaning the same thing, though the OED seems to think that theologist is rarely used nowadays. If so, it’s way past time to resuscitate it. Theology for the people, you might say.
There’s that “ian” ending to theologian, to start with. I trained as a psychologist, not as a psychologian; a close friend is a sociologist, not a sociologian. Stick that “ian” on to the end, and whatever it is seems to become more a matter of belief than of study or observation. As in Christian.
So perhaps it’s inevitable that when I think of a theologian — with apologies to the many fine theologians I know — I still tend to think of a black-robed divine closeted away in his (always his) study or cell, reasoning out the dictates of his faith. The word is somehow redolent with churchness, with the smell of incense and beeswax, the chants of monks and the echo of cold stone floors. There’s a kind of whispery reverence to it.
A theologist, on the other hand, feels far more secular. The word feels right for someone like me, an outsider with a strong sense of the inside, an agnostic freelancer in the world of religion, exercising her right to equal-opportunity criticism and/or appreciation.
This way, I get to enjoy the synchronicities. Walking into a conference of Muslims for Peace held at Rutgers University, for instance, I recognized the vibe instantly: 600 believing Muslims gathered together to celebrate Muhammad generate a similar atmosphere of warmth and excitement, family and mutual support, as 600 orthodox Jews gathered together to celebrate, say, Moses.
Speaking at that conference, I found my words being acclaimed with a call and response very like Hallelujah-praise-the-Lord in a Baptist church. Then as admired Sufi sheikh Hisham Kabbani took the stage, with his long white beard and white turban and white robes, I could as well have been in the presence of a great Hassidic rabbi. In fact, I was.
Sheikh Kabbani is a theologian worth the full weight of the word. Me, I’m just a plain everyday theologist. That means exploring, getting lost here, discovering something there. It means I’m often outraged, sometimes delighted, occasionally stumped. It means that every answer I come up with leads to a hundred more questions. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.