O is for Ordinary Theology

Ordinary Theology – the phrase was originally coined by Jeff Astley – is the kind of theology which ordinary believers do everyday, by contrast with academic theology. It needn’t be in opposition to academic theology; people with theological training might do some ordinary theology as well, and people who do ordinary theology might benefit from the work of academic theologians if ways are found for them to access it. Ordinary theology is different to academic theology, though: Astley identifies, as some of its key features, that it is contextual, that it is tentative and more likely to ‘show the working’, and that it is a celebratory or kneeling theology, more closely related to prayer and liturgy than to the intellectual work of a ‘desk theology’. It is also a learning theology, one which is engaging in a continuous process of looking at things in new ways and incorporating new ideas. (Read more about Astley’s understanding of ordinary theology in his book about it.)

What implications does taking ordinary theology seriously have for us? For me, it means that there is a need to take seriously the casual writing and remarks of the members of a religious community, as well as the official statements of their hierarchy or trained commentators. It means that a good number of the Quakers who say things like, “I’m not a theologian, but it seems to me that…” are underestimating themselves: they may not have academic training in theology, but this does not disqualify them from doing theology carefully and thoughtfully and hence from being ordinary theologians.

It also means that there is some Quaker theology to study – although academic Quaker theologians do exist (they didn’t, contrary to some rumours, die out with Barclay), books of academic Quaker theology are few and far between. Ordinary Quaker theologies, if by this we mean the thoughts of Quakers about theological topics, are easy to find. I use the plural because they are very diverse; but because ordinary theology has this tendency, noted by Astley, to be tentative and to show its workings, it’s often possible with a careful reading to get at some of the motivations and community pressures which lead people to speak and write in particular ways.

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