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.