Can a Religious Outsider Be a Theologian?

When I was an undergraduate studying religion and a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School I was taught that theology is written by religious insiders, and theologians are religious insiders.  Non-Christians cannot be theologians of Christianity or write Christian theology, and the same goes for other traditions.  Theology is “faith seeking understanding,” as the scholastic theologian Anselm believed.   This position was by no means universal, but I was surprised by the pushback I garnered when I questioned it, as if I was missing the point by separating theology from religious identity.

Some questions of definition are purely philosophical.  This is not one of them.  How we define “theologian” impacts, at least tacitly, who can have jobs at universities.  How we define “theology” impacts which texts are anthologized.  These definitions impact what people read.  They impact whether religious outsiders feel empowered to engage in theological discussion.

So it behooves us to consider whether theology really is “faith seeking understanding.”  Take a work that is uncontroversially theology, say, the Summa Theologiae.  Suppose Thomas Aquinas wrote it as a pious satire, and he was really an atheist.  Were this supposition true, the Summa would remain theology.  And the same goes if any theological work were to have a religious outsider as its author.

One might grant that the Summa remains theology, but atheist Aquinas would not be a theologian.  He is only a satirist that happens to write theology.  Maybe so, but we don’t require that anthropologists be cultural insiders.  Indeed, most anthropologists are cultural outsiders.

Or consider religious studies, the academic study of religion.  Scholars of religion are not exclusively outsiders.  For instance, a Christian can be a historian of Christianity so long as she deploys the methods and perspective of a historian.  In the same way, we should admit a non-Christian can be a Christian theologian so long as she deploys the methods and perspective of a Christian theologian.

The insistence that theologians be insiders becomes even stranger when we consider that religious identity is itself fluid: Being a Jew or a Hindu has more to do with which family a person is born into than what creed she confesses.  Not everyone agrees that being Christian is simply a matter of self-identification.  Muslims commonly believe that all people are born Muslim (though we may fall away as a result of upbringing).  With all this complexity, it’s cleanest to de-couple religious identity and membership within the tribe of theologians.

How may we more fruitfully distinguish theology and religious studies?  Religious studies is an outsider perspective.  Whereas, theology is an insider perspective.  It may borrow from philosophy, literature and art criticism, history, and other fields that comprise religious studies, but it also proceeds from insider sources of authority: scripture, the utterances of esteemed persons, traditional commentaries or dogmas, personal religious experience, etc.

What does an outsider doing theology look like?  She has to be open to reading scripture as an organic whole—more like a cohesive work of literature than a bunch of historical sources cobbled together.  For instance, she must be receptive to reading Genesis as Paul does: Christ is the “second Adam.”; God established salvation through faith with Abraham.  She is not compelled to parrot dogma and ignore scholarly criticism any more than religious insiders doing theology.  But she must imagine herself as being addressed by scripture.  She must sympathetically work into the insider mind like the anthropologist works into a culture. 

Outsiders are sometimes better positioned than insiders to produce good theology.  Consider the sola scriptura doctrine of traditional Protestantism.  If scripture really is the only source of religious authority, it is unproductive to bring strong biases to the text, as many religious insiders do.  For instance, that God is a Trinity, that the meaning of the Bible is what it means in plain English, that God’s values are liberal values, etc.

Religious outsiders have biases too, but they are different biases.  They are less likely to valorize God, more likely to perceive His actions as problematic.  This, in part, is why Daphne Hampson, a non-Christian, made significant contributions to feminist Christian theology.   Religious outsiders often readily accept the conclusions of Biblical criticism.  This is partially why Baruch Spinoza, who was excommunicated from his Sephardic Jewish community, influenced Jewish theology after his death.

These outsider theologians began with understanding, not faith, and theology is better for it.   We realize that theology is not “faith seeking understanding.”  Theology begins with understanding.  Its end is contributing to faith.