Is it Disbelief or Just Different Beliefs?

Part 13 of the OnFaith Forum “Disbelief in the Pulpit.”

In this OnFaith Forum, Disbelief in the Pulpit, we asked contributors: What should pastors do if they no longer hold the defining beliefs of their denomination? Do clergy have a moral obligation not to challenge the sincere faith of their parishioners? If this requires them to dissemble from the pulpit, doesn’t this create systematic hypocrisy at the center of religion? What would you want your pastor to do with his or her personal doubts or loss of faith?

If a pastor/priest loses his/her faith in the sense of agreeing with “the new atheism” as expressed in the recent bestselling books by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, then I think it would be hypocritical for them to continue in their professional role. Or they might give themselves a brief period of time to see if this is their settled opinion.

But I don’t think this is the issue that many clergy face. Rather, the issue is what they learned in divinity school versus what they think that many in their congregations think. Contemporary seminary education — mainline Protestant and Catholic — leads to a different understanding of what it means to be Christian than what much of “common Christianity” affirms.

By “common Christianity,” I mean what most Christians took-for-granted until a generation or two ago — and perhaps about half (or more) of American Christians still assume to be the heart of Christianity. This “common understanding” sees the afterlife as the central issue that Christianity addresses. Our problem is that we are sinners and deserve to punished, indeed condemned. This is where Jesus comes in: his death was the payment for our sins, and those who believe this will be forgiven and thus go to heaven.

In most mainline Protestant and Catholic seminaries, with varying degrees of intensity and clarity, this understanding is undermined by what candidates for ordination learn about the Bible and the Christian tradition. Christianity is not primarily about the afterlife, despite the emphasis placed upon life after death by much of common Christianity.

It is about transformation this side of death — the transformation of ourselves and of the world.

When clergy sense a difference between this understanding and what their congregation thinks, I encourage them to be discerning. If their congregation is mostly elderly and unlikely to survive beyond the death of its members, and if their elderly flock is not using “common Christianity” to judge and beat up on other people, then there may be no need to try to change them. Clergy in situations like this might see themselves as chaplains in an old folks home.

But if clergy are in intergenerational churches with a potential future, then I encourage a different approach. Seek to bring your understanding of Christianity into your congregation. This can be done in sermons, but especially in adult theological re-education. It is a crucial need in our time, and there are resources: reading groups; video series groups, especially videos produced by Living the Questions. Clergy can lead these, though they need not. Laity can also do so.

My impression: the timidity — apprehension, fearfulness — of some mainline Protestant and Catholic clergy to convey their richer understandings of the Bible and Christianity has contributed to the decline of Christianity in our time. There are millions of people who cannot accept the beliefs of “common Christianity.” Let conservative Christianity have a monopoly on “common Christianity.” But those of us who care about Christianity and its future should not imitate that.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Marcus Borg
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  • Counterww

    Brother.This liberal theologian needs to know one thing and one thing only:1) to love the Lord thy God with all your heart, mind ,and soul. To do this is accomplish God’s will on earth and this means being charitable, loving ,kind, helpful to widows, give to the poor, and accomplish what needs to be accomplished in the context of people’s physical NEEDS, not wants, and their spiritual deficiencies- that they need the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross to pay for their sins.

  • just_me1

    “adult theological re-education”? This sounds like something I read in 1984. It sounds truly frightening. What you really mean to say, sir, is “adult religious brain re-washing.” Surely you are not so frightened of your fellow humans’ independent thinking as to feel the need to judge (1) are they so old and mild as to be harmless? or failing that(2) do they need to enter adult theological re-education?”

  • GiveMeThat

    The totally inappropriately named “Jesus Seminar” which Borg is one of the leaders denies pretty much all the fundamental beliefs of Christianity. To them, Jesus was a happening dude that grooved his friends.The “Jesus Seminar” people like Borg have taken scissors to the New Testament, cutting out huge swaths (such as the entire book of John – guess no John 3:16 for them). What you have left is a tasteless gruel that no one wants. Hence, the rapid decline of liberal denominations.Instead of ex-communicating the heretic, the once-Christian Episcopal denomination has made Borg the canon theologian for the cathedral of Oregon. What an outrage. It is good that the denomination is hemorrhaging membership so that less people are exposed to his toxin.

  • NaN_

    Every time a religious authority opens his or her mouth, it sounds more and more like a feeble attempt to keep a dying show on the road. Hang it up, Marc. Your “Jesus on Ice” show is now so far past its expiration that Six Flags won’t touch it.

  • Secular

    It does not come as a surprise to me that there are pastors who are not believers. Even a cursory reading of the scripture is so offensive to ones sense of decency and fairness. It does not matter which religious scriptures they are. No wonder the clerics are going to definitely doubt all this fairy tale stories. I personally do not see how anyone can find any semblance of ethics and morality in the scriptures. Take for instance the story of Abraham, he is considered the father of Judaism, Christianity & Islam and revered as a pious prophet by nearly 3 billion people is beyond belief, to me. This is the person, who I consider as a totally fictional, according to the scripture lived for 150 years or so, at age 80+ presents his wife (albeit she was also his niece) as his sister twice when he was sojourning in foreign lands. Not only that he also gives her away to the Pharaoh, to be his wife. All this because, he fears for his life in the barbarian foreign lands, where he was seeking refuge. According to the scripture the Pharaoh himself puts it together apparently due to the pestilence the Abrahamic god spreads in Egypt. Look at the atrocity, Abraham passes of his wife to the king’s harem, as he fears his life and the people of Egypt get punished, whereas Abraham gets huge dowry for giving away so called sister to the harem. Does anyone think that there is any justice or fairness in this. Abraham himself goes unscathed, according to the scripture. How does anyone rationalize this. In the end it is the Pharaoh who realizes it and for the sake of his people corrects the error that he was duped into by Abraham and exiles him & his wife. As if once was not enough he repeats this again with Abimelech, with similar results. Then this pious “Pond Scum” goes on to bed his slave girl, gifted to him by the Pharaoh, to have a son. Then proceeds to disown both the mother and the child when his wife gives him a child. Which of the noble pastors would be so kind towards John Edwards, I would like to know. Then this father of the religions goes on and is willing to sacrifice his own child. This is touted as his supreme faith in his god. This same scoundrel could not muster the same faith in his god when he felt his life would be in danger, but when it came to his son he seemed to have gained this extreme faith in his god. In face of such vile stories it is no surprise that folks profess unbelief, albeit in private. I want to hear from the theist who can attempt to rationalize their reverence to Abraham, in light of the above. And to top it all of, this fellow after his wife of how ever many years passes away, he had to have another woman to keep his bed warm in the night – how sick is that.

  • Secular

    It does not come as a surprise to me that there are pastors who are not believers. Even a cursory reading of the scripture is so offensive to ones sense of decency and fairness. It does not matter which religious scriptures they are. No wonder the clerics are going to definitely doubt all this fairy tale stories. I personally do not see how anyone can find any semblance of ethics and morality in the scriptures. Take for instance the story of Abraham, he is considered the father of Judaism, Christianity & Islam and revered as a pious prophet by nearly 3 billion people is beyond belief, to me. This is the person, who I consider as a totally fictional, according to the scripture lived for 150 years or so, at age 80+ presents his wife (albeit she was also his niece) as his sister twice when he was sojourning in foreign lands. Not only that he also gives her away to the Pharaoh, to be his wife. All this because, he fears for his life in the barbarian foreign lands, where he was seeking refuge. According to the scripture the Pharaoh himself puts it together apparently due to the pestilence the Abrahamic god spreads in Egypt. Look at the atrocity, Abraham passes of his wife to the king’s harem, as he fears his life and the people of Egypt get punished, whereas Abraham gets huge dowry for giving away so called sister to the harem. Does anyone think that there is any justice or fairness in this. Abraham himself goes unscathed, according to the scripture. How does anyone rationalize this. In the end it is the Pharaoh who realizes it and for the sake of his people corrects the error that he was duped into by Abraham and exiles him & his wife. As if once was not enough he repeats this again with Abimelech, with similar results. Then this pious “Pond Scum” goes on to bed his slave girl, gifted to him by the Pharaoh, to have a son. Then proceeds to disown both the mother and the child when his wife gives him a child. Which of the noble pastors would be so kind towards John Edwards, I would like to know. Then this father of the religions goes on and is willing to sacrifice his own child. This is touted as his supreme faith in his god. This same scoundrel could not muster the same faith in his god when he felt his life would be in danger, but when it came to his son he seemed to have gained this extreme faith in his god. In face of such vile stories it is no surprise that folks profess unbelief, albeit in private. I want to hear from the theist who can attempt to rationalize their reverence to Abraham, in light of the above. And to top it all of, this fellow after his wife of how ever many years passes away, he had to have another woman to keep his bed warm in the night – how sick is that.

  • Secular

    It does not come as a surprise to me that there are pastors who are not believers. Even a cursory reading of the scripture is so offensive to ones sense of decency and fairness. It does not matter which religious scriptures they are. No wonder the clerics are going to definitely doubt all this fairy tale stories. I personally do not see how anyone can find any semblance of ethics and morality in the scriptures. Take for instance the story of Abraham, he is considered the father of Judaism, Christianity & Islam and revered as a pious prophet by nearly 3 billion people is beyond belief, to me. This is the person, who I consider as a totally fictional, according to the scripture lived for 150 years or so, at age 80+ presents his wife (albeit she was also his niece) as his sister twice when he was sojourning in foreign lands. Not only that he also gives her away to the Pharaoh, to be his wife. All this because, he fears for his life in the barbarian foreign lands, where he was seeking refuge. According to the scripture the Pharaoh himself puts it together apparently due to the pestilence the Abrahamic god spreads in Egypt. Look at the atrocity, Abraham passes of his wife to the king’s harem, as he fears his life and the people of Egypt get punished, whereas Abraham gets huge dowry for giving away so called sister to the harem. Does anyone think that there is any justice or fairness in this. Abraham himself goes unscathed, according to the scripture. How does anyone rationalize this. In the end it is the Pharaoh who realizes it and for the sake of his people corrects the error that he was duped into by Abraham and exiles him & his wife. As if once was not enough he repeats this again with Abimelech, with similar results. Then this pious “Pond Scum” goes on to bed his slave girl, gifted to him by the Pharaoh, to have a son. Then proceeds to disown both the mother and the child when his wife gives him a child. Which of the noble pastors would be so kind towards John Edwards, I would like to know. Then this father of the religions goes on and is willing to sacrifice his own child. This is touted as his supreme faith in his god. This same scoundrel could not muster the same faith in his god when he felt his life would be in danger, but when it came to his son he seemed to have gained this extreme faith in his god. In face of such vile stories it is no surprise that folks profess unbelief, albeit in private. I want to hear from the theist who can attempt to rationalize their reverence to Abraham, in light of the above. And to top it all of, this fellow after his wife of how ever many years passes away, he had to have another woman to keep his bed warm in the night – how sick is that.

  • Schaum

    Spidermean2 is now SPIDERNEUTERED!Given three simple algebra problems to solve,Spiderneutered proved he has no understanding of mathematics by his inability to solve any of the problems until I gave him the formulas to use. He claimed as unsolvable a problem which thread-member Arminius had no problem in solving. Then we discovered that Spiderneutered is not an engineer (what a surprise that was!) but a student! DanielInTheLionsDen then exposed Spiderneutered’s lack of even rudimentary knowledge of Euler; he further showed that Spiderneutered copied, and ALTERED, to suit his own purposes, a definition from Wikipidia. Thread-member Barferio exposed Spiderneutered’s confusion of sexual reproduction with self-replication, and also repeatedly asked Spiderneutered questions about meiosis, which of course Spiderneutered could not answer because he knows even less about science than he does about math. Spiderneutered highlighted his ignorance of physics by confusing mass with energy – to him, such concepts as ‘acceleration’ and ‘speed of light squared’ are not worth consideration! Additionally, Spiderneutered further illustrated his incompetence in mathematics with the astonishingly stupid claim that “x=x+1” doesn’t work in math! And of course there are the lingering questions about his relationship with his nephew…The combined efforts of members of The Spirited Atheist blog have definitively discredited Spiderneutered as the lying, ignorant, and incompetent fraud we have long known him to be.

  • cassie123

    Secular — you have gotten the point! That is what the Bible is about! We are all as filthy as Abraham. None of us deserve love especially from a perfectly just God. In fact, we not only deserve not to be loved, but we deserve an eternal punishment (according to the law). But God loves us anyway. God loves us so much that He can even use what most would consider the vile of the vile to father the nations (Abraham). God loves us so much that he found a way to save us from what we deserve — a sacrifice…something to take on the punishment for us — but there was only one who could do that — His own Son! Praise God for His perfect love. I am no better than Abraham, yet God loves me. What other religion can say this??? Only in Christianity does God take the loveless, the lowly, the poor, the humble and make them kings (perhaps not in earthly material riches…but partakers in His eternal kingdom). It isn’t about what you do…it is about what God has done for you. Once you understand this principle, which is imbedded all over the scriptures, you understand the Bible and the point of Christianity.

  • PSolus

    cassie123,That is a disgusting and perverted belief system that you have espoused.Please, keep it to yourself.Thanks.

  • Secular

    cassie123,What kind of convoluted logic is yours. The so called god not only condones the vilest transgressions of Abraham but rewards him. Any dogma/doctrine that considers Abraham as a prophet and revers him and in some muddled thinking deems that god had sent someone else to the earth tortured him to expiate the sins of Abraham and other is not worth any respect. What kind of a god is this blood thirsty scum-bag this yaweh? If he was so concerned about mankind and justice, he would have horsewhipped Abraham, at the least, for his slimy activities. You want the rest of the world to buy into this cockamamie stories? Grow up and think like an adult.

  • DaveHarris

    Churches serve many functions besides enforcing some sort of theological purity. Many people don’t even care about theology, or understand it. For many, the church is an extended family, there to provide support when needed, or just company. People find their spouses through churches, and sometimes get buried there.I can see a non-believing clergyman staying on just for these functions. Of course, there’s always the risk of being “called out” as a heretic by one of the more orthodox members of the congregation. That may be the best reason for leaving.

  • ThomasBaum

    cassie123 Concerning your post of March 18, 2010 1:11 PM.You wrote, “Once you understand this principle, which is imbedded all over the scriptures, you understand the Bible and the point of Christianity.”So did you come to the conclusion that God’s Plan is for absolutely everyone to be in God’s Kingdom?Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • JoeFogey

    “Our problem is that we are sinners and deserve to punished, indeed condemned.”What a load of self-loathing masochistic tosh. We are not sinners – sin is a meaningless concept that we would all be better off without. We are, like all previous generations, evolved beings facing a daunting future. We owe it to our children to try to face it realistically, without looking over our shoulders for saviours, and without expecting personal survival except through future generations of humans.

  • cassie123

    This is only disgusting if you think you are better than other people. If you think you are better than other people, then you cannot understand. Humility is required. The sooner you realize that you cannot save yourself, that there is no possiblity that you can earn anything, the better you will be. Christianity is so unique. All other religions require you to do this or do that in order to earn love from god (or gods). However, in Christianity it is not what you do. I don’t have to be perfect. I cannot earn love. God loves me and He loves you. He loves you so much that He gave you the ability to choose not to love him, to even find him disgusting. When I do choose to love God, I want to do the right things (again, although I must admit I am not perfect). That is why a lot of Christian groups participate in charities. The love of God causes them to spread that love to other people by helping them. Of course, you do not have to participate in the charity to spread love.Don’t just take one person from the Bible and extract what you dislike about him. Abraham also worshipped God. Abraham also did a lot of good. God promised to allow him to father the nations. God did not take back his promise even after Abraham did not exihibit perfect faith in God. Read the Bible. Look at the whole book. There is no denying of the theme. Remember, God knew you before you were even born. He loves you even if you decide not to love him. That is a God I can put my faith in.

  • PSolus

    “This is only disgusting if you think you are better than other people.”Your belief system is not disgusting to you only if you are mentally ill.”If you think you are better than other people, then you cannot understand.”I am better than you in that I am not mentally ill.”The sooner you realize that you cannot save yourself, that there is no possiblity that you can earn anything, the better you will be.”I do not need to be saved — I am not mentally ill.”Christianity is so unique.”It isn’t unique; it is simply more disgusting than some of the other ignorant, superstitious beliefs.You really should seek some help for you mental condition.

  • lepidopteryx

    Cassie, there are a couple of issues with the substitutionary atonement of Ieshua.Punishing the innocent for the sins of teh guilty is a terrible idea. Suppose there was a mass murderer on death row and some gentle soul who had never so much as swatted a fly offered to be executed in his place. Would that be acceptable? Would it absolve the murderer of his guilt?Ieshua lived and died over 2000 years ago. You can’t punish or forgive a crime that hasn’t happened yet. Suppose this same gentle soul had put in his will that his execution was to be considered full payment for any future murderer’s debt to society? Would that be acceptable?I don’t believe in heaven or hell. I don’t believe in eternal reward or punishmnet based on one’s actions during a finite life span. I believe the multiverse is a convex mirror for spiritual energy. If you put kindness out there, it is reflected to you magnified. If you put malice out there, it too is reflected to you magnified.