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.
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