Now that I’ve given my answers to the “On Faith” questions, it’s time to listen and respond to the panelists. First up, the poster boy for Ecclesiastical Atheism, Episcopal Impersonator John Spong:

This question assumes that there is something called revealed truth that constitutes the content of a faith system. That is simply not so. Christianity is an ever evolving faith.

There is a development of doctrine in Christianity, true. But how does Spong know that there is no revealed truth in Christianity, despite the belief to the contrary of those who wrote the New Testament, the countless disciples of Christ who followed in their train, and Jesus Himself? Because Spong says so. Of course, it’s easy when you get to make up your own facts:

Miracles do not enter the Christian story until the 8th decade; the Virgin Birth and understanding the Resurrection as the physical resuscitation of a deceased body enters Christianity in the 9th decade, the story of the Ascension of Jesus is a 10th decade addition.

The creedal development that created the doctrine of the Incarnation and the Trinity are 4th century additions.

Rarely has so ignorant a prelate felt so frequently compelled to demonstrate his ignorance for all the world to see. The purple-shirted windbag closes with another pontifical statement:

In the 4th Gospel the Johanine Jesus is recorded as saying that the “Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth.” That statement assumes, I believe, that none of us now possesses the whole truth. The question posed here assumes that we do or that some version of religion is “The Truth.” It is not.

To Spong, it would seem that this task of the Holy Spirit (in whom he does not believe) is still in the future. He has not lead us into all truth, or really any part of it. In fact, everything we know about God–including His existence and personality–are a human-created delusion. That being the case, the Sponginator apparently has no problem with atheists “re-educating” their congregations. Why would he? That’s what he’s been doing for decades, thanks to the Episcopal Church.

Next up, the Rev. Janet Edwards, who somehow manages to not mention homosexuality in this column, but who does use an expression of H. Richard Niebuhr’s to sidestep the real question:

[O]ne of the common definitions of preaching is “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” This includes our comfortable assumptions, which members often insist are firmly rooted in the defining beliefs of a denomination or branch of Christian tradition. And it often feels like affliction for both pastor and pew to distinguish between what is central and what is not, what is faithful to Christ and what is extraneous.

Since Niebuhr was primarily talking about the application of the gospel to the moral lives of Christians, I’m not sure what it has to do with this issue, except that Edwards has twisted it from a call to preachers to courageously apply the truth of the gospel to seek transformation in the lives of hearers into a call to challenge the theological content of the gospel. The Dennett-LaScola paper isn’t about guys preaching social change, or even various interpretations of denominational teaching; it’s about guys who have rejected God, and in some instances are trying to get parishioners to do the same. Edwards is seemingly down with that, unless of course her answer is simply an excuse to go off on her own tangent. But that doesn’t make the questions any less important.

Biblical scholar Marcus Borg (got to have a representative of the Jesus Seminar in here) thankfully believes that if a pastor has genuinely lost their faith, they are “hypocritical” to continue in the pastorate. But he also doesn’t think that’s the real issue:

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.

This is undoubtedly what Borg believes “common Christianity” has consisted of. To say it is a caricature of historic Christian teaching is being charitable. Life after death, the sinfulness of humanity, the wrath of God against sin, the substitutionary atonement for sin, faith in Christ, eternal life–these are certainly important, even central aspects of Christian belief. But these is the “four spiritual laws” version of Christianity, and as such it is utterly incomplete. What’s missing? Oh, just little things such as the Trinitarian nature of God, the Incarnation of Christ, the Resurrection, creatio ex nihilo, the covenants between God and man, the place of Israel in salvation, the Holy Spirit, the Church–yeah, I’d say there are a few things missing from the “common Christianity” that Borg sets up as a straw man. That there are preachers and teachers who have reduced the Faith to nothing more than Borg’s caricature may well be the case. The answer to that isn’t to throw that out and start over with a program that is little more than warmed over politics and psychology (read the rest of Borg’s piece for that); the answer is to lay out the gospel in its fullness.

Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance is correct when he writes that “if careful communication ultimately reveals that a religious leader no longer represents or advocates the theological and moral views of a particular congregation, the leader has a responsibility to resign.” But for some reason, in a column supposedly about atheists in the pulpit he feels the need to make it all about the fundys:

In today’s world of schisms in all major religions, though a religious tradition does not change, the leaders of the institutions in that religious tradition change. Such was my experience as a pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention founded on the “historic Baptist tradition.” In a pre-announced political movement aimed at taking over the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention, fundamentalist Baptists successfully ousted cooperative leaders in the convention committed to the priesthood of every believer, the autonomy of each local congregation, church-state separation and a congregational polity. New leaders were elected and unprecedented emphasis was placed on creedal orthodoxy, biblical literalism, pastoral authority and a form of religious freedom that permitted entanglement between institutions of religion and government. My personal conviction was shared by many long-time members of that Convention: “I have not moved away from the convention, the convention has moved away from me.” Indeed, my Baptist identity would have been compromised by remaining a part of that movement.

For some people, it’s always about those one considers fundamentalists.

The Rev. Susan Smith, a United Church of Christ pastor, tells the story of Mohandas Gandhi being turned away from a white church in South Africa a hundred years ago in order to make this point:

I say all of that to say that I believe in God, but I believe less and less in organized religion. Christianity is a disappointment, not because of God and not because of Jesus, but because of people.

As an African American, I believe with every fiber of my being in God. It has been God, surely, who sustained black people through the horrors of what we have been through in this country. It has been God to whom we have turned for supernatural strength to hold on and push on, despite great barriers put before us.

But Christianity, or more specifically, Christians, have been a disappointment. Following Jesus should mean people know what Jesus taught and seek to do it. That has not been the case. Christians, too many of them, are Christian in name only.

You know, like the atheists in the pulpit, who barely make a cameo appearance in this response. No, the folks who are driving people away from Christ aren’t atheists, or liberals who have drained the faith of any and all content, or who are just political activists in fancy robes. It’s the ones who insist on all that yucky stuff:

So, too often, God has been taught as an arm of people who oppress others and use God as justification. This God has been at the helm of oppression, sanctifying racism, sexism, heterosexism, militarism, and exclusion of others.

But Smith isn’t surprised that there are atheists in the clergy. After all, you’re either an atheist or a fundamentalist in the church, no middle ground:

I am not surprised that there may be a lot of preachers/pastors who are non-believers, and the reason I am not surprised is because the state of the world bespeaks the phenomenon. We either have non-believers or fundamentalists. Non-believers leave God out of the picture; fundamentalists push a mean-spirited, racist, controlling God down our throats.

If this really is her experience of the church, all I can say is 1) I pity the people of the congregation she serves; and 2) she needs to get out more.

Not all of the responses are bad–in fact, some are pretty good. Southern Baptist Seminary president Albert Mohler‘s is as direct and fiery as you’d expect, as is journalist Cal Thomas‘ evangelical layman’s perspective (“Resign. Sell cars. At least with cars, you know you’re getting a ‘sales job.’”). Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, who has become one of my favorite “On Faith” writers, offers this:

The challenge for clergy, not to mention any person of faith, lies in admitting the doubts and questions without turning them into new articles of faith which demand the denigration of the previously held beliefs. When that happens, the clergy should relinquish their pulpit.

Religious leaders should not use the pulpit to simply hammer away at the very ideas which people come to have affirmed, but neither should they shy away from leading people in the evolution of their own faith. That, too, is a failure of leadership which should lead to their relinquishing the pulpit.

I would substitute the word “growth” for evolution, in the sense of a directed process of increased understanding and faithfulness. And I’m all for challenging stagnant or complacent faith, but the challenge must come, not from mindless or destructive questioning for questioning’s sake (a la the clergyman in C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce), but from the standpoint of the truth revealed by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Finally, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite (you knew she’d be in here somewhere), a former seminary professor and president, actually has some sound advice for seminarians and clergy: if you encounter what she terms “grave doubts” (as opposed to garden variety doubts, I guess), one shouldn’t share those with your congregation, but instead seek out spiritual counsel elsewhere. I like this: “[D]on’t abuse the congregation by making them into a support group for you.” She also says this:

[W]hen you as a pastor and teacher of a Christian denomination no longer subscribe to most of the fundamental teachings of your faith tradition, you need to work through those struggles individually with a spiritual adviser. It may be that you need to find a different spiritual home where you can affirm the majority of the church teachings.

More than a majority, I’d say, and certainly what we in the EPC would term the “essentials,” but I basically think she’s got it. Credit where credit is due.

I doubt that Dennett and LaScola intended for this paper to be in any way helpful to the church. But the fact is that it can be, if the church is willing to hear it and recognize that there are wolves–wounded wolves, scared wolves, perhaps dreadfully misled and miseducated wolves, but wolves nonetheless–among the sheep. This ought to be a wake-up call especially for the mainline churches, who are headed for oblivion the more the preachers and teachers of those denominations preach and teach as if truth is a matter of little consequence. It ought to be, but I don’t hold out much hope.