I Am a Lay Theologian


By Andrea Lingle

All theology must come with an adjective.

Are you ready for a little grammar lesson? In the sentence "I am a lay theologian," there is a subject, I, and a predicate, am a lay theologian. The adjective lay modifies the predicate noun theologian not the subject I. And this feels important enough to risk your eyes glazing over with terrifying flashbacks of diagramming sentences.

Let's start with the subject and the verb:

I am

When Moses encountered the bush burning in the wilderness and received the instructions to go back to Egypt as a prophet and a liberator, he first had to become a theologian. 

Who shall I say that you are?

I am what I am. I will be what I will be. 

God answered Moses's theological inquiry with a verb of being, am. As a side note I once had all the verbs of being memorized. (I would admit that I still do, but it's too embarrassing). It is in this Divine image of pure being that we are made. So, I am and I will be, and there is no modifier—no adjective—to my identity as a bearer of the Divine Image. I do not have a qualifier to my being.

But I have a qualifier to that which I do.

When I try to talk about who I am beyond my pure existence, a predicate noun (a secondary statement of who, what, where I am), is useful: 

a lay theologian

I am a lay theologian. I purposefully call myself a lay theologian, because it means that I come to the burning bush with a slant, an agenda, a point of view. I am, and I am an unordained, pew-riding, hymn singing theologian. The adjective tells you how the theology I do begins to hint at the fullness of God. 

Why do I care about adjectives? Well. I'm an editor, so there is something deep within me that believes, like my kids believe in the importance of birthday cake, that understanding adjectives will unlock the mysteries of—everything. Is that too strong? Perhaps. It never helped with statistics. So, everything less statistics.

Adjectives are important because they refuse to assume that my point of view captures the whole.

By claiming to be a lay theologian, I expose the fact that, as hard as I work, I will never encapsulate the nature of God because I can only ever explore it from my point of view. This is where it gets exciting. When we apply adjectives to our work in the world, we open ourselves to the grace of community. 

My view is important. It belongs. In fact, it is irreplaceable. Let me say that more clearly. Once I see that my point of view, my adjective, is part of the whole, I can see that the whole is not complete without my point of view. BUT, my point of view is not complete without the whole. 

In Larry Duggins's book, Together, he posits that community can be a means (John Wesley's term for method or way) for grace to pour into a person or people. Community as a Means of Grace teaches us that we are all needed. We are all beloved. We are all part of bearing the image of this wild is-ness which is the Divine.

So, what is your adjective?