In my young career as a black minister and aspiring theologian, I have struggled with one question: Is contemporary theology only for the intellectual one-percenters?
Much of the theology studied and produced today is inaccessible, not only to collective members of the church, but to less-educated unchurched people. Can I hand a copy of James Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power to a homeless black man marginalized by an oppressive society on the street and expect him to comprehend Cone’s vigorous academic writing? Can I invite a high school dropout to a lecture by the incomparable Dr. Willie James Jennings and expect them to participate in a vigorous discussion afterward?
The answer to both questions, sadly, is no.
The reality is, much of theology is trapped within an archaic, elitist structure. Most written work is imprisoned within the confines of “proper” academic writing, which holds scholarly work to a lofty standard for it to be deemed as worthy of reaching the masses. But who are the masses? Who is this scholarship intended to reach? Littered with intellectual jargon, potentially life-giving theological reflection is reduced to being impactful only to those who can comprehend and internalize its true meaning. The reality is, many people within the United States and beyond are not familiar or comfortable with the rigidity of the academic writing style. What of that high-school dropout who missed out on their SAT vocabulary coursework? Or what of the naturalized American citizen whose grasp of the English language is still in its infancy?
So how can people who do not reside within academia gain access to the treasure trove of knowledge that is Christian theology?
Capitulating to oppressive standards of academic excellence does more harm than good. Even those who have infiltrated the academy in hopes to transform it can find themselves burdened under the weight of conforming to the standard. And our collective allegiance to a system that has marginalized most of its participants at one time or another makes us complicit.
For the brilliant theologians who teach and research at seminaries or divinity schools, part of their work is training the next generation of future pastors for church leadership. Catholic and many Protestant church leaders have received a thorough theological education (though not all). They possess master's and doctoral degrees that solidify their ability to grasp the tenets of theology. But for those theologians interested in changing the world for the better, they must offer work that is easily understood by the masses, especially the marginalized population they are seeking to assist.
For this reason, according to John Koessler, chair of Pastoral Studies at Moody Bible Institute, many pastors are moving away from theological content, instead focusing mainly on practical application. All-inclusive theology would be able to have a direct impact on all people, not only those with the intellectual precision to mentally joust with complicated texts. I dream that the young gang leader on the South Side of Chicago can pick up a transformative piece by one of our great scholars and be transformed with the same conviction as the lecture audience. Or that the residents of Flint, Mich., crippled by environmental injustice can understand and execute the suggestions of a top environmental theologian. I dream that those suffering under the burden of nihilism can find hope in some of the brilliant words of a caring scholar without giving up simply because they don’t have a thesaurus next to them to help with the “big words.”
The pivotal discussions on race, gender equality, environmental justice, and ethics occurring within theological spaces are conversations that all should have the ability to partake. If those within the academy allow some of their work to resist the oppressive parameters of academic writing, people can be more educated than previously believed.
Imagine that kind of impact.