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Doubt

A feature ran by The Washington Post yesterday has generated a bit of discussion around a study called Preachers Who Are Not Believers by prominent atheist Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola from the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University (those familiar with “The Four Horsemen” of the new atheism will know Dennett well).  The study outlines interviews with six “courageous” clergy who maintain their jobs in the pulpit while privately nursing unbelief.  It is a classic modern tale of the triumph of reason and the inconsistencies and dissonances that come with the slow, inevitable drift away from faith in the modern world.

On one level, the study was fairly predictable in my opinion.  I was surprised by the authors’ apparent surprise, to be honest.  It doesn’t seem like much of a revelation to  discover that there are clergy out there who keep their unbelief under wraps to avoid losing a comfortable job.  They are human beings, after all, and human beings change their minds and do all kinds of unethical and apparently contradictory things.  Setting out six pastors who happen to have responded to a request to be interviewed for a study about unbelieving clergy as either unusual or representative of a broad and inexorable trend seems a bit odd to me.

So on the one hand, I wasn’t surprised.  But I was annoyed, at times, to read about how clergy who of course “knew better” than their ignorant parishioners that Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead, that science has proved that miracles are impossible, that the whole thing was just an elaborate package that had to be maintained to promote what was essentially a liberal, democratic social ethic, approached those they once promised to serve.  One pastor, when asked how he deals with people who insist on talking with him about their “experiences” of God (imagine that!), had this to say: “I let them talk about it. I let it be meaningful. I don’t try to dissuade them from their opinion, or evangelize my better, broader understanding of the Lord to them.”  Wow.  How generous of you to “let it be meaningful” for them.  What fantastic arrogance!

Having said all that, I would hasten to add that clergy are obviously not immune from doubt.  And I think the study does somewhat accurately convey the  isolation and loneliness that can creep in when clergy do not feel that they can talk about what they really think about this or that question of faith.  It can certainly be challenging to talk about some issues with pastoral sensitivity and intellectual integrity.  But the fact that it is challenging does not mean that it is not possible or that the project ought to be abandoned.

For me, doubt is a constant companion to faith, but not because I think that no reasonable person downstream of the Enlightenment could possibly believe in ridiculous stories like Moses parting the Red Sea or Jonah and the whale or a dead guy rising from the dead, or because of the “discoveries” of the quest for the Historical Jesus, or any of the myriad religious fantasies that the modern enlightened liberal claims to have moved beyond.  I am prepared to accept that there are many strange and wonderful possibilities in the cosmos that I cannot begin to imagine.

My doubts often arise from much humbler origins.  Like when my daughter is sniffling beside me in bed at 3 am wondering why she had another bad dream when she prayed for God to take them away.  All the modern “discoveries” of the silliness and superstition of religious beliefs are no match for the silence of heaven.

34 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    Such preachers are the norm in the liberal protestant denominations. Belief in God was rare at the Presbyterian seminary I attended, unless one uses the expression “belief in God” as a metaphor for “belief in social justice.” Theism was considered a threat to freedom and equality by many at that seminary and in the denominational leadership and clergy, just as it is among some atheists and was by Marx.

    My own doubts, atheism I call them, are different from yours and apparently more severe.

    I think the most important books ever read in the West are the Bible, especially the Torah, and Darwin’s “The Origin of Species.” Their differences are cosmic in scale and importance. They provide quite different answers to the question who we are and where we are. As much as I love the Bible, I find Darwin’s answers more compelling, even if they do not seem to adequately explain things like joy and beauty.

    I think there remains a place in modernity for religion. The instinct, or the need, or the pull, or whatever it is, remains. It feels like a pull. It is still answered or met in the Bible and the Mass.

    I think of myself as “the falcon who cannot hear the falconer” in Yeats poem, The Second Coming, the one “turning and turning in a widening gyre.” I remember the voice, even if I cannot hear it.

    March 17, 2010
  2. Re; “…clergy who maintain their jobs in the pulpit while privately nursing unbelief”

    I was a lousy waitress… (According to one employer) if someone asked me “How’s the soup today?” (And it sucked) I would respond with “It’s terrible; don’t order it” I can’t ‘sell’ what I don’t believe in 🙂 On the other hand, if I knew the soup was ‘good’ but it wasn’t something suited to my particular taste buds, then I’d describe it to them; ingredients and texture etc… And then they can decide if they want it. The stuff that goes into the religion pot can make for a lousy soup, or it can be sweet and full of nourishment and pleasure. I guess all we can do is practice non-violent communication, be honest about what we know and don’t know, but always offer our perspective with an openness and intelligence; the ‘diner’ can taste what they will and leave when they want. (Or stay and have desert too)
    The question for me is not “Is the preacher believing the ‘right’ things?” It’s, “Is the preacher being honest?”

    March 17, 2010
    • PS: “All the modern “discoveries” of the silliness and superstition of religious beliefs are no match for the silence of heaven.”

      I have three daughters. My middle daughter had Bacterial Meningitis when she was four years old. We had already been given the “there’s nothing we can do for her” speech, and we were told she was going to die- it wasn’t caught in time and it was over. She had been unresponsive for a week already, had lost so much weight she didn’t look like herself anymore and needless to say, I was already grieving.
      I wasn’t a Christian, but in that situation I took a shot at praying ‘just in case there WAS a God’; she sat up in her bed three days later. The doctors said they didn’t know what happened. They weren’t going to cry “Miracle!” but it was clear they were stunned. They said that we should expect some brain damage at least, learning disabilities, hearing loss etc… but none of that happened. I never thanked God. I forgot all about the feeble desperate prayer I offered to a God I wasn’t convinced was even there hear it.
      Years later, my daughter went on a trip with YWAM and met a girl, and became best friends. Her friend was, in my daughter’s eyes, the most devoted and sweet Christian girl she’d ever met. Her friend died of Cancer a couple of years later. Many people prayed. Today, my daughter hates God. Her question is not that “Is God real?” her question is “Is God good?” her answer is no, he is not. Because He healed my daughter, and not her friend, who, in her mind was more ‘deserving’. I tell that story to say this…what we believe about God’s character is everything. We want answers and don’t get them when we need them. But what if we’re asking the wrong question? What would happen if we, in our pain, cried out to a silent heaven, “are You Good?!!!”
      None of this answers the problem of pain, but I felt I should share it anyway. I believe God is good.

      March 17, 2010
      • I’m sorry Ryan, for taking up so much space, but I forgot something:) I believe my daughter’s answer “no, God is not good” had more to do with how she feels about herself…and I suspect her perception of Him will change when she sees herself differently. It was her survival that landed God a spot on her ‘hate you’ list and not that fact that He failed to heal her friend.

        March 17, 2010
      • Thank you for sharing this story, Deborah. I truly appreciate it. I absolutely agree with you that what we believe about God’s character is everything. Your story conveys both the compelling beauty and the tragedy that complicates how we think about God’s goodness. There are moments when heaven breaks into earth; there are moments when goodness and order seem like little more than wishful thinking. This is where we live.

        Nonetheless, like you, I believe that God is good.

        (I loved the restaurant analogy, by the way… And you never have to apologize for taking up space here :).)

        March 17, 2010
  3. Ken #

    I just read the Tufts paper. Most of the people at my seminary were like Wes, the first one in the paper, who grew up conservative and became liberal later. I was rare – to have grown up liberal.

    For me the bar of belief was never as high as that held up in the paper. I felt like my role as a minister was not to profess my own beliefs or disbeliefs, but rather to fulfill the role of a minister following the confessions of the church, just as if I had been a priest my role would have been to conduct the mass, not to use the church or the pulpit as venue for self-expression.

    I never kept my doubts or disbelief private, but they generally had no place in my role as a minister.

    My classmates in seminary and some of the liberal pastors in the Presbytery felt like their job was to convert the boneheads in the pews to their enlightened perspective. I thought that was egotistical and disgusting, and still do.

    There are many reasons that I do not want to be a pastor, but my ample disbelief is not one of them.

    Disbelief is not at all unusual in our time, not in the pews, not in the pulpit. It is something we learn to deal with. Transparency and sensitivity are both required of a minister. You are right in the way you expressed the challenges involved. It takes competence and integrity.

    I think the men in the study are pathetic and do not deserve the position of honor they hold. They are not alone.

    March 17, 2010
    • I felt like my role as a minister was not to profess my own beliefs or disbeliefs, but rather to fulfill the role of a minister following the confessions of the church, just as if I had been a priest my role would have been to conduct the mass, not to use the church or the pulpit as venue for self-expression.

      I’m curious, how did you see your own beliefs fitting into following the confessions of the church? Were they irrelevant to your task?

      March 18, 2010
      • Ken #

        I don’t know. These are deep probing questions. If I could answer them I doubt that my beliefs would be found irrelevant.

        March 18, 2010
  4. Hi Ryan,

    One of your favorite village atheists here — and one who is a preacher’s kid (now missionary kid) at that!

    I was really intrigued by this part of your post: “One pastor, when asked how he deals with people who insist on talking with him about their “experiences” of God (imagine that!), had this to say: “I let them talk about it. I let it be meaningful. I don’t try to dissuade them from their opinion, or evangelize my better, broader understanding of the Lord to them.” Wow. How generous of you to “let it be meaningful” for them. What fantastic arrogance!”

    I guess I’m most interested in the sarcastic tone you take at the end of that quote, where you dismiss the “fantastic arrogance” of the wayward pastor for allowing one of his flock to have their “meaningful” God experience.

    From what I’ve read of your blog over the last few years, you’ve struck me as a thoughtful believer, and while I haven’t always agreed with your conclusions, I’ve at least respected the fact that you didn’t take your faith lightly.

    The point I’m getting at is that I’m surprised that you would single out this quote and label the pastor arrogant to listen to someone who has a simpler faith, while he’s thinking to himself that he has a better and broader understanding of God.

    Haven’t you ever felt this same feeling as a pastor? Haven’t there been times when people in your congregation share with you experiences that are admittedly nutty, theologically-speaking, but then you recognize that it’s not the time or place for you to enlighten them about how shortsighted they’re being in their “God experience?”

    In an earlier post on your blog, you talked about having “respectful” dialog with people who have different ideologies/perspectives — in the case of the above quote, isn’t the pastor Dennett is talking about being respectful, but not “breaking the spell” of his parishioner by sharing his own perspective of God that he thinks is correct?

    Then again, maybe your “fantastic arrogance!” comment is more of a reaction to the backsliding pastor labeling his view of God as being one that is “better” and “broader”? But honestly, coming from someone who grew up in the church and served in ministry, don’t you often feel that you do have this kind of understanding (both learned and experiential) over some in your congregation, because after all, you’re in a position to “minister” to them?

    You know, I’m hesitant to submit this comment, mainly due to my background of growing up in the church. I have an (unfair?) anticipatory dread that your response to my honest question will be to feed me a line of pious humility stating that you equally learn from your congregation, and that the simplest of faiths you encounter enables you to have a “better and broader understanding of the Lord.” Because, honestly, we both know that’s not true — not in all instances. That said, I also want to make it clear that I’m also not out to trap you into making condescending statements about your congregation, either.

    March 17, 2010
    • Hi Rebekah,

      I suppose the reason the quote struck me as “fantastically arrogant” has a lot to do with the context in which it is located. The context makes it quite clear that this person is not simply listening to someone who has a simpler faith than his “better and broader understanding of God”; he does not believe there is a God to understand better or more broadly. He is not being vulnerable about his struggles; he is hiding them. There is a dishonesty at the heart of what he is doing. To put it bluntly, he is lying—to himself and to those who have called him to serve them—and portraying it as an act of magnanimity. It is as though he is saying that while he knows that there is nothing true in the experience of his parishioner, he will bestow upon them the gift of preserving their pleasant illusion for them. He will give them the gift of allowing them meaning in their error. I don’t think that “allowing” meaning is his gift to give.

      Re: this conversation being an example of respectful dialogue, I would argue the exact opposite. I think that being dishonest with people is a sign of disrespect. This doesn’t mean that pastors need to dump the entire load of their learning upon everyone who asks them a question or shares an experience with them. But there are ways to deal with people honestly and sensitively, even if they aren’t always easy to find.

      Haven’t you ever felt this same feeling as a pastor? Haven’t there been times when people in your congregation share with you experiences that are admittedly nutty, theologically-speaking, but then you recognize that it’s not the time or place for you to enlighten them about how shortsighted they’re being in their “God experience?”

      You make think that I am feeding you a “line of pious humility,” but I really do think that it is possible to deepen and expand my understanding of God from all kinds of sources—including conversations with those who have (for lack of a better word) simpler faith than me. I think that God’s truth has always shone brightly through those despised, looked down on, and rejected. The truth of the gospel has often been less accessible to the intelligentsia than to ordinary people open to God. There is an inversion of what counts as wisdom and where it is to be found at the heart of the gospel that challenges me personally, and that I take seriously. I think that goodness and light can be (and are) found in all kinds of unexpected places.

      Having said that, I think you are certainly correct that this isn’t the case in all instances. I have obviously encountered a few “nutty” theological opinions along the way. It’s not as though I am gratefully receiving the obvious wisdom of every view that comes my way. I do think that I understand some things more fully than others and I do think that some people are just plain wrong. When this is the case, I try to challenge them by being honest about what I think. But even when I think someone is fairly obviously wrong about something or misinterpreting their experience, there is usually something, however minuscule, that I can affirm because I believe in a God who can and does meet people at a variety of levels, even if God would like us to progress in our understanding.

      Perhaps all of this sounds like more examples of theological platitudes to you, I don’t know. But I can say that I have experienced these things to be true. It is liberating to not have to be as dismissive and condescending as the pastor in the article.

      March 18, 2010
      • Thanks, Ryan.

        I still need to read Dennett’s entire paper, but last year I heard his 2009 AAI talk where he discussed some of the results of his study [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_9w8JougLQ].

        I guess I was drawn to the reactive sarcasm you used in this one section of your post. While I do understand where you are coming from (and even moreso after your above explanation), I suppose I’m more empathetic to where these disillusioned pastors are in their “faith journey” (or journey out of faith).

        I grew up in the church, went to a couple Bible colleges and several mission trips, and for most of my life, I saw myself as someone who would always be in ministry. I never thought I would become an atheist, especially considering how important Christianity was in my personal life and family. But, here I am. Rejecting the faith wasn’t necessarily my choice — it’s was something that evolved (!) slowly, and because I was honest with myself, I finally was able to admit that I just didn’t believe anymore.

        Luckily for me, I wasn’t invested years and years into a ministry career when my deconversion came to fruition. I suppose I’m empathetic to these stories of nonbelieving ministers because I see them as trapped, and not “dismissive and condescending”. If they were to be honest with their parishioners and admit their nonbelief, there’s the realistic potential that they’d LOSE everything, quite literally. Career security, education, spouse, friends, family, etc. When I outed myself as an atheist, I didn’t lose quite as much, but I did lose several relationships or irreparably damaged others (including family). My point is that I don’t think it’s easy for these pastors to walk away and be honest about who they are.

        One last note about your above response to my comment. At one point you said: “The truth of the gospel has often been less accessible to the intelligentsia than to ordinary people open to God” — I’m a little disappointed by this statement. I’m used to hearing anti-intellectual statements slung at me and my nonbelief by other less-thoughtful believers, but I wouldn’t have expected such a sentiment to be touted by you.

        I’m always stunned when I hear believers state that possessing intelligence can serve as a detriment to embracing faith. (I’m assuming you’re thinking along the lines of 1 Corinthians 3:19?) If this is really the case, that my “worldly wisdom” is keeping me from God — then who’s to be faulted? Me, in my quest to better understand the world around me, or God, for being so divinely hidden that he’s invisible (or seemingly nonexistent)?

        Does this mean I would have to dismiss certain knowledge in order to be more open to faith? Why can’t faith work alongside what I know? I’m not closed off to God or the supernatural, but I don’t think I can sacrifice my intellect in order to privilege warm and fleeting feelings in my heart. It seems like the only option the church gives nonbelievers like me is that I must first assume there’s a God before I can hear (or note evidence) from God. If this is the case, then I guess I won’t be returning to the faith anytime soon.

        March 18, 2010
      • Ken #

        I think the different reactions that you, Ryan and Rebekah, express to the same words is quite interesting. I had the same reaction as Ryan when I read the words myself. But placed in the context Rebekah presents, then I react as she does and feel sympathy for the pastors.

        I think five of the six pastors were serving in liberal denominations. In that context I still find it hard to believe that their disbelief is a big deal. That is the context I know personally.

        Rebekah’s mention of Bible colleges and mission trips implies a more conservative theological setting, one that I don’t know personally.

        I wonder if liberal theology is ever really an option to one whose religion was formed in evangelical theology, and visa versa.

        I think most of us who grew up liberal (like me) just don’t believe in God and it does not matter. My impression is that for those of us who grew up evangelical we may never be able to say it does not matter, even when belief is gone. That seems to fit what several of the pastors describe in the study.

        Another thing I hear in words of the six pastors is mastery of passive aggression. Many pastors, believers or not, conservative and liberal, seem to have mastered this ugly skill. It hurts others and it hurts the practitioners as well.

        March 18, 2010
      • Rebekah, I’m a little disappointed at how you’ve chosen to interpret my words. First, my comments about the gospel and the intelligentsia came in the context of a response to your question about how I think about the views and experiences of those in my church that I may disagree with or whose faith might be described as “simpler” than my own. They were meant simply to convey that God can and does speak to all kinds of people, including those not thought highly of by those in positions of power and influence.

        Second, I very clearly located myself in the category of those for whom this represented a constant challenge (“There is an inversion of what counts as wisdom and where it is to be found at the heart of the gospel that challenges me personally, and that I take seriously.”). I said nothing whatsoever about you. To somehow construe this as me “slinging” or “touting” anti-intellectual statements at you strikes me as a little bizarre.

        I did not have any particular bible verse in mind, nor was I claiming that possessing intelligence serves as a detriment to faith, nor was I recommending that you (or anyone else) “sacrifice your intellect in order to privilege warm and fleeting feelings in your heart” (?!) or that faith cannot work alongside the intellect or that you have to dismiss knowledge to have faith. I have no idea where all that came from, but I’m quite certain that I have never advocated anything remotely similar to that on this blog or anywhere else. There is a huge difference between saying that God can and does speak to people of differing intelligence levels and advocating a sacrificing of one’s intellect.

        March 18, 2010
      • Ryan,
        I think you have aptly described the way pastoral work is problematized. Inherent to the nature of the pastoral mandate is the work of producing conformity amoung those who fall under the scope of pastoral care (parishioners). This mandate flows, even in most democratic ecclesial expressions (i.e. congregational churches), from the fact that the pastor is invested with some vestige of authority – even if it is very thin. Producing this conformity becomes a central motif for the scope and direction of pastoral work.
        The problem arises when the conforming agenda meets the invariably variable spiritual experience of the individuals who associate together in any one particular congregation. The self-aware pastor is keenly cognisant of the potential error his/her own doctrinal/theological perspective. It is impossible to fully discount the experiencial data that parishioners bring to their understanding of faith. (i.e. “The truth of the gospel has often been less accessible to the intelligentsia than to ordinary people open to God.”)
        Admission of doubt/disbelief on the part of a pastor affects the nature of the authority that she/he can provide. Outright rejection of individuals’ lived spiritual experiences affects the nature of the care that he/she can provide – which in directly affects their authority. Path between these two problems is a dark and brambled way -indiscernible to most. The potential error on either side is too easy. (i.e. “It can certainly be challenging to talk about some issues with pastoral sensitivity and intellectual integrity.”)
        I appreciate the implied truth behind your comments and this discussion: pastoral work is problematic.
        I suppose it is no wonder that as a former pastor I identify so strongly with our common friend…

        Señor Ramon: Your only job is to cook. Do you not realize I have had diarrhea since Easters?
        Nacho: Ok… Maybe I am not meant for these duties. Cooking duty. Dead guy duty. Maybe it’s time for me to get a better duty!

        There have been numerous times when that little movie has popped into my mind reading this and other recent posts.

        Felicidades!

        March 20, 2010
      • Thanks Dale. You’ve certainly accurately described some of the things that make pastoral work challenging—even problematic. I guess I would simply say that I do not, and have never seen my job as one of “producing conformity.” I don’t want the church to all think about or experience faith like I do. I don’t think a bunch of people thinking like the pastor is a biblical vision of what the church ought to be/do. I think that would be (and has been, tragically often) terrifying!

        Do I think I can push people to think and do things somewhat differently and more in line with how I have come to understand the life of faith? Absolutely. But I would like to think that I am open to the same thing happening to me as I come into contact with different understandings and expressions of faith. Ideally, it is through this give and take kind of thing that the church becomes healthier. I realize this certainly isn’t always the case, but it’s certainly a worthy goal, in my opinion.

        March 21, 2010
      • I know right? There aren’t many pastors (especially in the congregational tradition) that think of themselves as agents of conformity. But leadership and assumed spiritual authority in an inherent quality of being a pastor. Its rediculous to think that someone would get hired to a position who either claims or accepts no authority or leadership.
        Let’s face it there are topics you will focus on in your preaching and teaching and counselling to the exclusion of others. And even though you accept that other people can and do change your perspective on how to do church, you will endorse some and not others. It’s not just a willy nilly thing you are leading – I mean in the end you are “concerned about (their) salvation and stuff.” And that means something rather specific towards which you are hopefully help people to move towards – even if the nuances of that specific goal are adjusted along the way…
        Why else complain about the pastors who revel in the arrogance of thier own doubt and refuse to engage their parishioners with the truth they seem to claim? And the criticism is valid becuase it hold the standard of honesty to the position which at base is one of authority.
        I know it seems sick to think of yourself as a confroming agent but even for the thoughtful pastor (which I would certainly endorse you as) it is an inevitable facet of the position you hold.

        March 22, 2010
      • I think it is possible to exert influence in a community without having the goal of conformity. This doesn’t mean that I don’t take leadership seriously or that I don’t think of myself as having a unique role to play in shaping conversations, addressing issues, “being concerned with their salvation and stuff” :), etc. But I still think it is dangerous to say that the goal of a pastor is to “produce conformity.” Much potential for abuse lies down that road.

        March 22, 2010
      • mdaele #

        Oh there is a big difference between conformity being a conscious goal or being endemic to the role of pastor. I would argue the latter is inevitably true. I would also argue that at some level the pastor ‘regulates’ his performance of leadership and influence in such a way as to maintain spiritual authority which results in conformity or conflict.
        Isn’t it interesting how repulsive the idea of producing conformity is to a thoughtful expression of spiritual leadership? Yet it seems that the majority of Pauline literature in the New Testament is very wrapped up in precisely this objective. Is it possible to imagine that Paul himself might have been subject to that same “potential for abuse”? It seems hard to read Paul and see where he made room for the intellectual honesty that doubt might have played in his own theological and doctrinal perspectives.
        Since I am a ‘good’ (not read as conformed) Anabaptist, can wiggle Pauline literature out of the limelight on this one ?
        The other factor that cannot be dismissed is how doubt is perceived on the part of those being led by the pastor. Invariably, doubt is seen as the ED of pastoral ministry. Once in a while it is excusable – a normal variance in competent leadership. But persistent doubt (the expression thereof) is invariably met with lack of trust and a dismissal of leadership. This is how, I suggest, most parishioners percieve doubt – no matter how legitimate we feel it is to the process of theological refinement.
        “Those eagle eggs have no powers – they have no nutrients – THEY ARE A LIE -STEVEN!”

        March 23, 2010
      • I’m still not prepared to grant that conformity is “endemic to the role of a pastor.” There are too many cases where it just doesn’t work—and where we are glad that it doesn’t because it shouldn’t! I certainly didn’t conform to all my pastors visions of theology, ecclesiology, etc and I’m reasonably certain that you didn’t/don’t either (thanks be to God!).

        The Pauline case is certainly an interesting one. I think that Paul operated at a unique time and played a unique role in salvation history. There are aspects of his ministry about his I’m not sure I would want every pastor from the first century onward saying “imitate me as I imitate Jesus!” I’m not sure I would be comfortable saying it! Maybe that says more about my own inadequacies than about what may or may not be endemic to my role…

        I think you are correct about how doubt is perceived in the pastoral leadership. It’s obviously a fine line—how do you address and embody the fact (at least as I see it) that doubt is a part of honest faith, while at the same time closing the door on the kind of nonsense discussed in the article above. There has to be (and is, I think) a middle ground between being honest about one’s doubts as a leader and openly “play acting” a role to avoid losing your job.

        March 23, 2010
      • I’m not sure why you are resisting the notion that conformity is an endemic part of the nature of pastoral leadership. I’m not saying that pastors necessarily see themsleves in this light – as conforming agents. I am saying that there is a latent agenda of conformity that necessarily flows out of the fact that a pastor is in a position of leadership which directs discourse toward and away from certain aspects of theology and doctrine. The power to inform the discourse makes the pastor an agent of conformity – even if (as we thank God) that conformity is unsuccessful.
        For example, it’s not like you or the rest of the pastoral staff willy nilly throw darts at a wall covered with faith issues and theolgoical problems and use that as the selection process for your sermons or study groups. You generally speaking rely on an educated intuition that shape the direction of the topics you will choose to cover. In that sense you are informing the discussion shaping the parameters of the dialogue – even if the wisdom you give is not accepted. Sure there are other voices that affect your parishioners but one of the implicit reasons that you are in a pastoral position is that you have been invested with the power to direct the dialogue of the church as community. You are expected to do this and they trust you will do it honestly. It doesn’t mean you are evil for providing that direction.
        Obviously some pastors are far more overt in shaping the discussion and far more interested in producing absolute conformity from those they ‘shepherd’ and we see that as problematic not becuase they are producing conformity but becuase the conformity they are producing is self serving.
        I think a fabulously revealing field in the area of conformity is in the event of baptism…

        Nice move with playing the Paul is a special case card. I’m disapointed but not surprized. The don’t-try-this-at-home approach to Paul’s ministry is a little too convenienent to be satisfying but then I am not interested in lifting Pauline perspective any higher than it ought to be…

        “it says so in the Bible – not to wrestle your neighbor”

        March 23, 2010
      • I’m resisting the notion that conformity is endemic to pastoral ministry because I don’t think it is true or healthy. It’s simply not how I understand my role. Do I direct dialogue? Absolutely. I’ve never denied this. But I do not determine it. I am convinced there is a difference between providing direction and producing conformity.

        Maybe we’re just arguing about semantics here, but when I hear the term “produce conformity” it doesn’t have a very positive connotation. It doesn’t seem to allow room for the give and take that I think is an essential part of healthy leadership and church involvement. I have never entirely conformed to what any of my pastors have said or embodied and I refuse to believe that this is attributable to either a) their failure to understand that producing conformity in me was “endemic” to their role; or b) my own personal recalcitrance at not allowing myself to be conformed properly.

        Maybe our disagreement is all down to little more than different conceptions of what the word conformity means… I hear the word and I think of blind following and slavish obedience. I think of automatons mimicking a charismatic leader. Are these fair conceptions? Probably not entirely, although as I’ve said, there are enough examples where this has been/is the case to justify my hesitance. I just think “direction” is a better word than “conformity.”

        So you think I’m adopting a “convenient” approach to Paul, eh? Well, I stand by that one too, whether you find it disappointing or not. Do you plan on conforming to Paul’s views about women in the church anytime soon?

        March 24, 2010
      • It may just be a semantical recalibration of terms that prevents agreement here.
        You have acknowledged that experts/leaders/pastors do inform and direct the discourse available. This almost seems like a essential fact. But I am far more interested in the covert ways that dialogue and discourse is directed than in the more overt ways that lead to what you have described as “blind following or slavish obedience”.
        I know from personal experience that I avoided teacing or talking about some issues because of my own doubt on the issue or the obviously controversial nature of the issue. I also know that I focused on certain topics more than others precisely becuase I thought they were more important. That is not exactly surprizing or particularily bothersome to most becuase it is what is expected of the pastor. But this is not an uncomplicated phenomenon. I will suggest that this is precisely the dynamic out of which the issue of doubt finds it most problematic context.
        For instance if I can’t come up with a definative position on eschatology can I really be trusted to bring the rest of the gospel with integrity. So do I formulate a position even if I couch it numerous disclaimers so that I will at least have a voice in other domains.

        Yeah me and Paul we don’t do coffee anymore – he told me to put sugar and cream in my java so you know…

        March 24, 2010
      • Yes, I certainly think it takes skill and discernment to wade through these waters. I certainly don’t talk about some things precisely as I would like to. I say some things in certain ways to preserve a voice in other areas. I suppose I would see this less as “covert” ways of producing conformity than treating people with gentleness and respect and trying to remember that they are (and I am) on a journey of discovery and growth.

        March 25, 2010
      • Sure you are allowed to frame it away and your parishioners are allowed to see it that way as well. Since they are informed by more than just your voice – we can easily say that there is really no coersion going on. I’ll accept that as far as it goes. Isn’t it interesting that we try to avoid the notion of coersion? Doesn’t this reinforce the centrality of the individual in spiritual experience? Isn’t our concern about being coersive a tip of the hat toward the notion that the individual is the most important seat of theology and doctrine? Doesn’t this necessarily undermine orthodoxy in a way?

        March 25, 2010
      • I suppose it’s interesting that we avoid the notion of coercion on one level. You seem to be implying that we should not avoid it, but I remain unconvinced. I just don’t feel compelled to embrace the word. As I’ve said, I don’t like the word personally; I think there are other words that more accurately and generously describe how I see the pastoral role.

        I don’t see how avoiding coercion language reinforces individualism in spirituality or undermines orthodoxy. I’m certainly not saying that I think everyone’s experience or theology is equally valid. I’m simply saying that learning and growing in discipleship is a collaborative effort. This does not mean that the pastor contributes exactly the same amount in the same way as the parishioner who warms the pew once a month. Far from it! But I think it is entirely possible to offer sound, well-informed direction while being open to having one’s own views challenged along the way. Actually, it’s not only possible, it’s actual and probably essential.

        March 25, 2010
      • Sorry, if I have exasperated you with some of my insistances. I hope that on rereading my comments here you can see that I have not advocated a particular position on whether or not pastors should coerse, control, or shape the theological discourse of their parishioners. My main claim is that some level of coersion or control or conformity is essential to the leadership nature of the role of the pastor. You could argue that I claim a larger level of coersion is inherent to the pastoral role than you are comfortable admitting to. But whether or not that comparision is accurate would depend in large part on how we see conformity constructed socially.
        I am also suggesting that because some level of control is actually evident in the role of pastor it is therefore a peculiar lense through which to investigate the issue of spiritual doubt (its public and personal expression). Its too bad that I obviously have not been clear enough on these points to direct our discussion in this direction.
        I have thought all along that the fascinating aspect of this post and your last paragraph (in your last response) is how you have aptly described the tension that results from recognizing the underlying dynamics of leadership. I think that this tension is fabulous sociological field of investigation and it does frame the way we percieve certain aspects of religious subjectivity (i.e. strength of individualism). Drawing these arguments are not well suited to this form of dialogue.
        I think it is perplexing how certain issues warrant an open interactive (collaborative) approach where as other issues remain clearly more closed and less available to public expressions of doubt.
        as always i leave you with the poignant scene of Nacho with the children in the courtyard having encountered Sister Encarnacion is desperation to stop their mischeivousness…

        Nacho: Ok. Orphans! Listen to Ignacio. I know it is fun to wrestle. A nice piledrive to the face… or a punch to the face… but you cannot do it. Because, it is in the Bible not to wrestle your neighbour.

        there was no doubt in his pastoral ministry here – or was there?

        March 25, 2010
      • My main claim is that some level of coersion or control or conformity is essential to the leadership nature of the role of the pastor.

        Agreed. I think that perhaps all we are disagreeing about is what the “some” looks like.

        I am also suggesting that because some level of control is actually evident in the role of pastor it is therefore a peculiar lense through which to investigate the issue of spiritual doubt (its public and personal expression).

        Also agreed. It is a peculiar lens. But it is where I am right now, so it is the lens I use. I am happy to discuss this further, if you like.

        I think it is perplexing how certain issues warrant an open interactive (collaborative) approach where as other issues remain clearly more closed and less available to public expressions of doubt.

        Yet again, I agree (this is getting fun!). It is the nature of the beast, I suppose. There is a “fence” within which issues can be discussed safely. For some, the fence is bigger than others. I’m not sure this is necessarily a bad thing. We humans don’t do well with chaos—with everything being up for grabs. A free for all would be impractical (and impossible, actually. Everyone has a fence, even those most determined to prove they don’t).

        (Loving the Nacho quotes, by the way :))

        March 26, 2010
  5. p.s. I guess I’m asking this question because I was struck by the honesty of that quote from the pastor. Even though I’m not a believer, I have great respect for people of faith who are willing to be vulnerable about their struggles. Maybe it’s just because I have an aversion for the “church faces” so many like to paste on over hard realities.

    (For example, your “silence of heaven” line at the end of this post, will stick with me for a while)

    March 17, 2010
  6. “I am prepared to accept that there are many strange and wonderful possibilities in the cosmos that I cannot begin to imagine.” I don’t merely accept, I embrace this! 🙂

    June 2, 2017

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  1. Grace, Finally | Rumblings
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