Doubt, Truth, and Wonder in Ministry

Part 23 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?

Every man wonders, and a man who is sure, beyond any doubts, has no faith. Without faith it is impossible to please God and a man displeasing to God has no business speaking for Him. The man without wonder is unfit for philosophy let alone ministry.

It is the great mistake of the age to think that the believers are the ones invested with certainty. We are people of faith and living by faith is sure evidence that we don’t claim to know, if by knowing one means being beyond doubt.

A good person looks at the world and wishes it were not the way it is. There is much good to see, but too much that falls short of easily imaginable glory. Most of us realize that is and ought are two different things and we long to see what ought to be.

Of course, it is possible that this longing is a delusion and that the world is not a fit place for human dreams. Nature may have produced, by perversity, beings that wish they did not live by the mere laws of nature. Humanity may be alone in a great empty cosmos and left in sorrow.

Perhaps this is true, or perhaps not. Perhaps there is room for hope, and out of examination of reality motivated by hope can come enough evidence to make hope reasonable.

Religious people call reasonable hope, based on evidence and experience, faith. When we are very sure of something, because of accumulated evidence and experience, religious people are apt to go ahead and say they know, but this sense of knowing does not preclude continued doubts.

It demands them.

Many different religious answers have tried to answer the demands of hope, but only Christianity fully succeeds in doing so. Christianity refuses to give up on reason and live as if all hope is lost. A sort of cocky confidence that does not belong to a religion of faith can be found in both some atheists as well as those who try to live as if wishes were reality.

We know that this side of death all knowledge, such as humans can have it, will begin with wondering and that wondering will never end. We believe and ask God to help our unbelief.

Recently a study showed that many ministers don’t believe what they preach. This is disturbing for many reasons, but the worst is that most of the people cited in the study have stopped wondering. They claim to know what they preach is wrong, but go on preaching it.

The odious stink of their hypocrisy is only exceeded by the stench of a mind gone rotten. To take money for teaching what you believe is infinitely worse than not believing it. It is even worse to give up on faith and live in the dreadful certainty, the mental death, that is at the heart of so much that is wrong with the world.

History shows that the man to be feared is the one certain of atheism, as in North Korea, or certain of some form of theism, as in Iran. The man of faith is too humble to kill for his beliefs, because he has found them too wonderful to stain with blood.

A man should boldly proclaim what he knows, because only then can his community and experience fully reveal any errors he has made. The Christian pastor risks his mostly deeply held beliefs to public scrutiny every time he preaches a sermon. To lie about what one holds to be true is to remove oneself from any check.

It is the habit of the budding tyrant to dissemble and placate his audience to get from them what he wishes.

What is the alternative?

Honesty and a continued journey of wonder is demanded of all men, but especially those in ministry. Any person who writes or speaks about their beliefs and what they think is true should acknowledge the ever-present gap between faith and certainty.

We know partly, but long to see fully. This kind of doubt is part of the journey of faith and is compatible with ministry, but when a man is certain that a religious view is wrong, then he must leave that tradition and stop being paid to work for it. He may not be a criminal if he continues, but he is surely a cad.

The problem is not wondering, but when the wondering ceases and the pastor thinks he knows his religion is wrong. At that point, he either ceases to wonder, becoming a humbug, or he must leave in a quest of better answers. He must seek out the community of like-minded people to test out his newfound beliefs. If he cannot commit himself, he will never see.

If he cannot stand leaving the community he is in or living with those of like beliefs, then perhaps that should caution him about the value of his new found faith. And do not be deceived, for modern secularism has many “churches” and varieties of “unbelief.” There is much to wonder about once one accepts the assumptions that all is matter and energy in mindless motion, but the man who thinks that not being religious settles all philosophic questions about meaning will stagnate intellectually.

He will not be an admirable secularist still seeking for hope, but a lazy not-theist.

Christians hope for a faithful ministry. We know that our pastors will have doubts and will fall short of ought. We long for mercy and so we try to be merciful in our judgments, but we must not tolerate those who have lost the capacity for wonder in the certainty of their unbelief.

We hope for better things and our experience and best reason suggests that they are possible.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

John Mark Reynolds
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  • paarsurrey

    Hi friendsThe above article mentions:“Recently a study showed that many ministers don’t believe what they preach. One may think: Can a blind man show path to a blind man? If the pastors don’t know; how could they teach others to know?It is so simple to understand.God Almighty has indicated three types of knowledge:This may be illustrated thus:Then on a nearer approach he sees the flames of the fire and that is knowledge by the certainty of sight. If one enters into the fire that would be knowledge by the certainty of experience.Jesus had himself entered into the fire of knowledge of God that is he received Word of Revelation from the creator- God Allah YHWH Parmatma AhuraMazda.Paul spoiled all the truthful teachings of Jesus based on Jesus’ experience mentioned above. Paul never spent any time learning from Jesus; so he had no knowledge of certainty. Paul was not even on the first stage of knowledge. What Paul made up himself; it is enough that “Christians” have been following it blindly till now; but in the present era Paul and the Church have miserably failed. The secular knowledge has uprooted the myth of Paul’s Theology invented by him at Rome. People don’t speak up and remain silent; but inwardly they have become Atheists and Agnostics.Christian believers could only maintain their belief if they follow Jesus and Mary and don’t follow Paul and the mythical Church. Only Jesus and Mary could salvage their belief. The Atheists Agnostics are cognizant of the situation prevailing; and hence flexing their muscles to create wedge between the believers and Jesus- one of the perfect men that have been born on this planet Earth.I love Jesus and Mary as mentioned in Quran.ThanksI am an Ahmadi peaceful Muslim

  • kert1

    Thank you Mr. Reynolds for this insightful post on what having faith really means. You really do have to wonder about people who preach and encourage others to believe something they can’t or won’t believe themselves. There is no acceptable reason to do this, since what you preach can’t be very helpful if you don’t believe it. Parishioners deserve much better than this. It makes you wonder why these people got into ministry in the first place.I am glad to say that I have had the privilege of being ministered to by people who truly believe what they preach. Honestly, I don’t think this is hard to see when you pay attention. The preacher will show belief in and how he preaches and in how they live. One can preach something they don’t believe but the cracks will show in how they live. I would advise people to find a belief system that has people who follow it diligently, and a pastor who shows they believe what they preach with all their heart.I do think that conservative evangelicals have a little bit stubborn to admit we have doubts and it has not served us well. This is likely true of all belief and unbelief systems, but I speak of what I know. I think we often misunderstand what belief, faith, and having God’s Word actually means. I think we can certainly know thing about God (as much as we can know anything on Earth), but there is much that is still a mystery. Sometimes I get frustrated with pastors who claim they know how God created the Earth, or definite answers on Eternal Security and other contentious Biblical issues. I often just wish they would admit that they don’t know for sure and have some doubts over these issues. Since all of us have times we doubt God, why can’t we admit it about less important things. It doesn’t mean we can’t have solid opinions and live accordingly, but we need to admit that we don’t have ALL the answers. Perhaps, and I think likely, we aren’t supposed to have them all. This goes back to what you were saying about faith. Isn’t it better sometimes to just say by faith, “God, I don’t know how you created the Earth, but it is truly amazing”, than to argue how many days, or years, or eons it took him do it. I sure think so. Somehow, this approach seems to bolster my faith more than knowing everything.

  • cornbread_r2

    It is the great mistake of the age to think that the believers are the ones invested with certainty. — JMR So then, some not-so-small number of religious people in this country are moved to corrupt public school curricula, deprive other citizens of basic human rights and push our foreign policy onto the plains of Armageddon because they have Also, isn’t faith supposed to defeat doubt?

  • FarnazMansouri

    I find this study disturbing. I cannot see how if one’s profession is based on belief, one can continue it without faith.Reconstructionist Judaism has a different view of “deity.” It is possible to be a Reconstructionist rabbi without believing in God.Similarly, one might be a Buddhist. Pagans have a different view.As for Christians, though I respect Dan Dennett, I just don’t see it.

  • gimpi

    This whole idea fascinates me. I came to this site originally to attempt to understand the whole concept of faith, one that is foreign to me. Recently someone made the statement, In further comments, it becomes apparent that, in regards to religious faith, people appear to That stands in direct opposition to the way you would, for example, choose what car to buy. If you were leaning towards a Ford Focus, you would carefully read reports critical of the brand and model. You would want to see any potential pitfalls in your decision. That might explain why the most educated members of the group, often the minister, is the first to doubt. The education required by the minister’s position brings about the disbelief. To paraphrase someone in the original article, I think this finally explains why I don’t understand what people mean by “faith.” They don’t mean they were convinced by the preponderance of the evidence. They decided to “believe” in a specific religious doctrine or group (for any number of reasons besides evidence) and then shut out any conflicting evidence. I must admit, it looks like when some believers use the word “faith” they mean “willful blindness.” Oh well, I learned something

  • garoth

    I admit that I haven’t seen the study but, as a pastor, I can say that I have never known a pastor who doesn’t proclaim what they believe. Most of us do that we some fear and trembling, because we believe that we are responsible to tell the truth, and so we try to study it, reflect upon it, often converse about it with others, then reflect upon it with members of our congregation. Most of us do not believe that our Scriptures are a holy answer book, but as Barth said, “the question to our answers.”I find Mr. Reynolds, in some respects, more troubling than even the athiests in these posts. He labels those who are having a faith crisis, “odious” and “hypocrites.” Actually, I know few pastors who do not have, at least at one point or another, a crisis of faith. It’s part of the job. To say that they are without a sense of wonder is, to my mind, both false and demeaning of those who, like so many biblical characters, struggle with their faith. Some of the ancestors of our faith labeled such expereinces as “winters of the spirit;” acknowledging that often deeper faith might come from these times of God’s apparent absence. Even such great saints as Mother Theresa acknowleged their struggle with faith (she said, at the end of her life, that she wasn’t even sure that she could be called a person of faith!). The Gospel is not about our faith, our holding on to God, our having correct doctrine, but about a God who holds on to us.