When I'm asked what I do, the reaction to it can be sort of funny: "I'm a systematic theologian" I'll say.
Often there will be a long pause, and the person will grin and boldly say, "And...I have absolutely no idea what either of those words mean."
"Fair enough," I say with a grin right back. "You're in good company."
Let's start with the last one first: theologian. The word comes from two Greek words: theo, namely 'God,' and logos, namely 'word.'
So a theologian is somebody who has some words about God.
A systematic theologian is someone who tries to put those words about God into just that: a system (I joke that I'm not systematic about anything outside of my theology and puzzles: outside of that, my life is sheer chaos).
But there are other kinds of theologians: pastoral theologians attend to the study and practice of worship, pastoral care and congregational life; biblical theologians wake up every morning eager to think about the ancient texts, the languages used in them, and how the Scriptures have evolved and come into our own hands; historical theologians study the way that religion, faith and worship are transmitted and manifest themselves in different eras, cultures and contexts.
But that's not all.
There are further ways of honing theological thought: feminist theologians consider God and religion from the perspective of women. For example, even the word "theology" suggests a masculine take on God: the word "theos" is male. Some religious feminists will speak therefore of thealogy, or call themselves thealogians: thea is the Greek feminine form of god, and by using it, a person can demonstrate that although God is neither male or female, we can speak of God as both. Womanist theologians think about God from an African American woman's perspective. Liberation theology comes especially out of Central America, and views God and God's agenda from the perspective of the poor. Mujarista theology looks at God through a Latina lens, and Black theology through an African and African American lens. Biblical literalists believe that faith should be developed through what they believe is the infallible Word of God.
Point is, there are a lot of ways to think about God. Point also is, no matter what your system is, it's incomplete. Your theology will never encompass all that it should.
God is too big, life is too short, and the world is too wide to be able to claim that you and you alone have it all figured out.
That said, a person can still say something about God: one can still have a logos or two about theos (or thea).
In fact, a word not only can, but must, be said about God. The word 'God,' as I said in my last column, has to be meaningful: the less reflective one is about God, the less heft one's belief has, the more dangerously haughty it can be, and the greater the odds are that one misses out on insights that might enrich, augment, cement or change our views for the better.
So regardless of whether your inclination is more toward being a historical, pastoral, biblical, systematic, feminist, womanist, black, mujarista, liberation or a literalist theologian (not that that list is complete), the next trick is to figure out whether your words about God make consistent sense within your framework, whether they make sense when intersected in the world, and whether you are comfortable with the necessary lapses, inconsistencies, holes, and mysteries your theology contains.
And all that fun from the same comfy chair that you use to systematically put together your puzzles, while ignoring the rest of the chaos around you.
Anna Madsen is a "freelance theologian," living with her two children in Two Harbors. Through OMG: Center for Theological Conversation, she offers a place for individuals and groups, laity and clergy, to come for questions, conversation, and study, and she also regularly presents, blogs, and writes.