Hopefully you’ve had a chance to read the Daniel Dennett-Linda LaScola paper examined in the last post. It doesn’t purport to offer any guess on how widespread the phenomenon of non-believing Christian clergy is, though each of their five subjects indicates that he thinks there are lots of others like them. The report, and the “On Faith” questions prompted by it, have gotten a lot of response from their panelists. Here are the questions:
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?
This offers the panelists a lot of leeway, and they take it, and then some. But before getting to them, I want to offer my own answers. I’ll then take a look at some of the panelists in the next post.
1) If pastors no longer “hold the defining beliefs of their denomination,” they should leave that denomination. Not try to change those beliefs, not ignore them, but go where there are others of like mind. To do otherwise is selfish and essentially contemptuous of the community of faith.
2) The second question strikes me as irrelevant, in the sense that a pastor’s crisis of faith is his own, not his parishioners. The pastor’s job is not to get his congregation to think like him, but rather to get them to understand and believe what God has revealed.
3) “Dissembling” (lying about what you believe, or, as one of the paper’s subjects put it, “playing a role”) in the pulpit is wrong. Period. End of discussion. I sympathize with the problems involved in clergy finding other work. I have no patience with clergy who lie to their people, or who tell them what they want to hear even though they don’t believe it themselves (that goes for every place on the theological spectrum, by the way). If you can’t do the job with integrity, get out, before you damage your parishioners and bring the pulpit you’ve occupied into contempt.
4) The last question is way too ambiguous, and mixes two very different phenomena. “Personal doubts” strike every Christian at some time or another. We wonder whether we’ve made the right choices, whether we believe the right things. I’ve found myself looking up in the sky and wondering if Yuri Gagarin wasn’t right (when I do that, I always come back to the Resurrection of Christ as the definitive ground of my faith in God’s reality). “Loss of faith” is another story, one that involves a fundamental and permanent repudiation of what one had previously believed and the One in whom one had previously trusted. Pastors, like their parishioners, are going to struggle from time to time with the former. The latter is a life-changer that in the case of clergy must also be a career-changer.