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Looking For a Priest in All the Wrong Places

Alain de Botton has been in the news a lot recently. His Religion for Atheists has garnered considerable attention, whether from atheists who think he is entirely too appreciative of religion or from religious folks who think he is rather selectively and inconsistently describing and accessing their traditions. In the last week alone, I’ve come across no fewer than ten reviews, articles, and interviews trying to make sense of his strange (to some) project of trying to take the best parts of religion and use them to construct a more meaningful secularism.

This morning’s selection of de Botton fare included a review from The Globe and Mail in my church mailbox and a piece from The Huffington Post in my news aggregator.  It is the latter that has me thinking today.  In it, de Botton asks the question, “Who will look after an atheist’s soul?”  Historically, this was the job of priests and pastors, but in the post-Christian landscape this is an increasingly unlikely and undesirable option for many.  Many associate “religious professionals” with scandalous and immoral behaviour.  Many are uncomfortable around this strange category of humanity—these relics from a bygone age.  And, of course, many simply think that priests and pastors inhabit an imaginary world populated by supernatural forces and realities that is flat-out false and ridiculous, if not dangerous.  The office of a priest or a pastor would be the last place they would consider going to talk about any problems they might be facing, whether of the mundane or the existential variety.

But whether we are secular or religious people, says de Botton, we still have “soul-related needs” and these needs require attention:

[A] key question to ask might be: where have our soul-related needs gone? What are we doing with all the stuff we used to go to the priest for? Who is looking after it? The inner self has naturally not given up its complexities and vulnerabilities simply because some scientific inaccuracies have been found in the tales of the seven loaves and fishes.

de Botton’s solution?  Therapists ought to be our new priests:

My suggestion is that society would benefit if therapists were more explicitly reorganised along the model set by the priesthood; that therapists should be secular society’s new priests.

It’s an interesting proposal, to be sure.  As with de Botton’s project in general, I think he sees some things very clearly and misses others entirely.  He is surely correct in noticing that therapists, not priests and pastors, are where people increasingly tend to go to talk about their problems and questions.  He is also undoubtedly right to argue that psychotherapy ought not only to be something that people turn to when they find themselves in a crisis of some kind, nor should people who access the assistance of therapists be looked at askance, as if they have now entered the pitiable category of people who “need help”—a category which, presumably, “normal” people do not belong to.

Yet I think that, as is the case with de Botton’s understanding of “religion,” he simply misunderstands the role that a priest/pastor plays (or ought to play) for people and in the world.  It seems like de Botton has taken a wholly inadequate understanding of priests/pastors as “people who help you with problems,” looked around to see where people who aren’t religious go to talk about their problems, and performed a simple swap.  Priests helped people with their problems based on religious views; therapists help people with their problems based on scientific views (sociology, psychology, anthropology, etc).  We’ll just trade one for the other and things should be good, right?

Well, maybe not.  Whatever else might be said about the role of the priest/pastor, they are not pre-therapists or “the people you would go to if you were in trouble before we knew more or knew better.”  At least they shouldn’t be.  Of course, this may be how the role is/was conceived by others at times.  It may even be how some priests/pastors currently think of themselves.  But I don’t think this is the nature of the role.  It certainly isn’t how I understand it or how I view myself.  While I may have something to contribute when it comes to questions of God, the Bible, human meaning, ethics, etc, I am painfully aware that I have no unique insight into the human psyche or behaviour, nor do I possess any special ability to diagnose and/or fix people’s problems.  I am not a therapist.

So what is the role of the priest/pastor?  Well, obviously a lot could be (and has been) said about this.  I will not presume to speak for others, but when I think of my role as a pastor I often think of myself as a storyteller.  Week and week out, I hold up a story to a group of people— a story about what God has done in and for the world and about what this story might have to say about our stories and where they are going.  I hold up this story, in all of its maddening complexity, and try to locate our stories—as individuals, families, communities of faith—within a larger story of meaning and hope.  And in the telling of this story alongside our stories, I hope to make clear that our stories are judged in light of God’s story and not vice versa.  It may sound simplistic, it may even sound kind of vague or useless or impractical in comparison with the work of the therapist.  But it is a different task.

So, if atheists are looking for help with their problems—emotional, psychological, and relational, etc—, they should, like the rest of us, find a good therapist.  If they are looking for mediators of a story of meaning and hope by which to interpret and re-narrate and judge their lives, they will probably have to look elsewhere.

——

I hope that the preceding is not in any way taken as a denigration of the occupation of the therapist or counselor, because happen to think quite highly of people who work in these fields.  I think so highly of them, in fact, that I do not attempt to do their job, and am happy to refer people into their capable hands.

32 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Johnston #

    Hey Ryan, perhaps it would be better to distinguish priest from pastor in your account.

    A priest offers the saving grace and therapy of the Holy Spirit, dispensed through the sacraments of Reconcilliation and the Eucharist. While I think most priests would agree with you that of themselves they are ill equipped to minister to serious emotional, psychological and relational problems, only a faithless priest would think the sacraments he mediates were innappropriate or worse still, ineffective. God is the physician here, not the priest.

    As for the neccesity of ongoing therapy, I would hope that every priest would refer his or her parishioner to Catholic Family Services. Canon 2294 of the Catechism says in part…”Science and technology by their very nature require and unconditional respect for fundamental moral criteria. They must be at the service of the human person, of his inalienable rights, of his true and integral good, in conformity with the plan and the will of God”…. an obvious truth and right understanding of context for a Catholic therapist but not neccessarily true of a secular one.

    In my opinion, apart from a dependence on the moral disclosures of God, mediated through His church, scientific knowledge can, and often does, great harm.

    March 13, 2012
    • Well, a Mennonite and a Roman Catholic will obviously have different views on the roles of priests and pastors, but I doubt there is much to be gained by going over them here. I don’t think the main point of my post changes, regardless of what one thinks priests offer and pastors don’t or vice versa.

      Re: therapy, I would prefer to refer to a Christian counselor (and do so, when possible); but I think that while harm is always a possibility, this is true for Christians as well as non-Christian therapists. That a counselor or therapist happens to be a Christian does not necessarily make them a good or appropriate recommendation, just as the fact that someone is not a Christian does not automatically mean they will do harm.

      March 13, 2012
  2. Ken #

    I agree. Pastors are not therapists. Being a storyteller is good. It is in our deepest Hebraic roots, and in our Greek roots too.

    Interestingly, one of the therapies my wife studied as part of her education in counseling was “narrative therapy.” Actually, as I think about it, several techniques involved narrative.

    I wonder too if de Botton picked up the idea of pastoring as therapy from the church itself. This unfortunate mistake has been made by so many pastors and churches themselves after the enlightenment.

    At the modern university, a great secular institution where I have spent many years of my life, the professors are the priests or pastors or chaplains. There, I have spent many hours telling stories, presenting a vision of a new life. The power over souls is huge.

    March 13, 2012
    • Good point, Ken. I think the church must take at least some of the credit (?) for the widely held conception that pastors are or ought to be therapists. If this is the ideal we project, we probably shouldn’t be surprised when it is employed by others.

      The professor is the first thing that popped to mind when I read the title of de Botton’s article as well. Or, perhaps, the scientist in the white lab coat. It seems to me that these are the primary caretakers and mediators of the narratives of meaning and hope many of us are drawn to these days/

      March 13, 2012
  3. Paul Johnston #

    Ryan, irrespective of our denominational understandings Priests are not pastors and pastors are not priests. You are wrong to suggest so in this post. The specific office of Priest, particularly with regard to the sacrament of Reconcilliation/Confession makes him a crucial component of God’s “theraputic” grace. For serious Catholics who understand and make effort to abide by church canon, no spiritual reconcilliation with God and Church is possible without the mediation, by way of Apostolic succession, of those whom Christ entrusted to forgive sins. For some things Catholic no therapist, good or bad will do, only a priest will suffice. In short a priest is precisely the first person a Catholic in “trouble” should go to.

    You are free to disagree with our claims. What you are not free to do is suggest that a priest has no such function.

    March 14, 2012
    • I have not claimed that priests are pastors or vice versa, nor have I said anything whatsoever that criticizes how Roman Catholics understand the nature and role of the priesthood.

      As I have already alluded to, I think that both the point de Botton was trying to make in his article and the point that I am arguing in response does not depend on parsing the differences that different Christians have on the nature of the two roles. He is asking the question of who will fill the role for atheists that has traditionally been filled by priests and pastors as he understands them, and that is this question that the post addresses.

      March 14, 2012
    • Ken #

      I think Paul is referring to the healing grace that comes through the Eucharist in the Roman Catholic Church. A similar healing grace comes through preaching and sacraments in protestant churches.

      In making a contrast between the role of pastors and psychologists, I think Ryan (and I, in my comment) are contrasting psychological therapy or counseling with the theological or divine therapy that pastors and priests play a part in mediating or celebrating, through narrative, for example.

      March 14, 2012
      • Yes, I think this is a good summary. Thanks, Ken.

        March 14, 2012
  4. Ken #

    Re: de Botton’s question: Who will fill the role for atheists that has traditionally been filled by priests and pastors as he understands them?

    This is an interesting question. Psychologists play a role in reconciling us with the world as it is, or as is it is thought to be in an atheistic era. But they are not the only ones. So do professors or teachers, and doctors. They are all healers in one secular sense or another. A professor has a similar presence as that of a pastor or priest (or psychologist or doctor) in times of student distress at the university. A professor is a key figure in a therapeutic culture. We hold the keys to wisdom, in that context. Ironically, we now profess that wisdom, or truth, is a phantom.

    In the kind of atheism expressed indirectly through a pantheistic/green religion perspective, I think that we have no mediators or therapists. One goes to nature, to wilderness, or one takes herbs, instead of turning to a professional of any kind. I think it is a faith without priests or pastors, unless nature writers are the priests or pastors.

    March 14, 2012
    • Maybe one of the aspects of the vocation of pastor/priest that de Botton has neglected is something that might be called “the prophetic.” As you say, professors, psychologists, doctors, teachers, etc are mostly concerned with helping to reconcile us with the world as it is (or thought to be). They do not generally or explicitly hold up anything like a “meta-narrative” by which to interpret “the world as it is” or a vision of the future through which to understand where “as it is” ought to be heading.

      Or, perhaps they do… Scientism offers a meta-narrative of sorts, as does pantheism. Come to think of it, most of my professors at university had a meta-narrative of some kind as well, whether it was salvation or enlightenment via knowledge or whatever. Maybe de Botton is on to something after all—maybe he is seeking a more formal acknowledgement of what is already taking place. We all live according to some narrative of how the world is, where it is going, and why. Maybe he is just asking those who are not drawn to formal religious traditions to honestly acknowledge this and unapologetically seek to fill or create their own positions of “clergy” to address the human needs that cross the boundaries of religion and irreligion.

      March 14, 2012
    • Ken #

      I think your analysis here is right. Metanarratives abound, even where skepticism towards their universality is professed. It is interesting to think about the question he has raised. And it is interesting to think about what it takes to “unapologetically seek to fill or create their own positions of “clergy” to address the human needs that cross the boundaries of religion and irreligion.”

      I just started reading a book by Koestler written in 1959. It is a history of science. He reveals in it the mysticism that has shaped our views of reality even into the scientific era, mysticism embedded in our science. He, like Kuhn, knew Polanyi. One thing about his work already puzzles me. He stopped with Newton. No discussion of Darwin. Darwin’s Origin of the Species is the grandest narrative made in modernity. I think it is this narrative that the priests and pastors of atheism must eventually deal.

      March 14, 2012
  5. Paul Johnston #

    Ok, I sure don’t want to return to the sometimes difficult dialogues we have had in the past.

    With regard to the Catholic priesthood, as I understand it, I find the deBotton understanding as presented here, primitive but at least more accurate than yours. Priests DO help people, it is essential to their vocation and their help is crucial to salvation. No therapist can, or will ever likely claim, that his vocation, insofar as human participation is required, is essential to the eternal salvation of his “patient”. A priest on the other hand, fully understanding his responsibility to God and mankind, can make no other claim. Without the priest, in the person of Christ, bread and wine do not become “Body and Blood”. Without the priest, in the person of Christ, the remission of sins and the accompanying forgiveness and sanctifying grace is not possible. Without the priest, I am in a condition far worse than any I might imagine myself to be in sans counselling or therapy.

    Respectfully, Ryan your comment…”Whatever else might be said about the role of the priest/pastor, they are not pre-therapists or “the people you would go to if you were in trouble before we knew more or knew better.” At least they shouldn’t be.”…. as this statement applies to the Catholic priesthhood, you couldn’t be more wrong.

    March 14, 2012
    • Paul, I confess I’m not quite sure how to respond to you here. With some trepidation, I will try again…

      To be clear:

      • I do not claim and have not claimed that priests (or pastors) do not (or ought not) help people.
      • I do not claim and have not claimed that priests (or pastors) are not responsible for dealing with matters of eternal salvation.

      Of course, we will have different views about transubstantiation and about the priest’s role with respect to the remission of sins, etc. But yet again, these issues were not in any way part of what I was addressing in the post, and are not pertinent to the point I was trying to make. They are a part of a different conversation entirely.

      Respectfully, Ryan your comment…”Whatever else might be said about the role of the priest/pastor, they are not pre-therapists or “the people you would go to if you were in trouble before we knew more or knew better.” At least they shouldn’t be.”…. as this statement applies to the Catholic priesthhood, you couldn’t be more wrong.

      You are misunderstanding my statement and turning into an evaluation of the priesthood. It is not. It is a critique of de Botton’s understanding of the role of clergy. I am pushing back against his apparent assumption (at least in my view) that priests used to the job that we now know therapists are better equipped to address. I am actually, in a way, agreeing with you—I think de Botton is trivializing the role of the priest, or at least not treating it as seriously as he ought to. He is failing to adequately address the eternal concerns that have always been a part of this role.

      March 14, 2012
      • Paul Johnston #

        Sorry, Ryan for me this post, in both it’s presentation of the deBotton position and your response to it, trivializes the Catholic priesthood. I am even uncomfortable with the title and associated imagery….an altar with a priest raising a sanctified and transubstantiated Host with the caption, ” Looking for a therapist in all the right places”, works much better for me. 🙂

        Though I do thoroughly endorse the last sentence in this response.

        As for deBottons claim, in it’s particular, his misappropriation of occupations is mostly irrelevent, to me. He is an advocate of idolatry; of human ingenuity apart from the salvic grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and his message is to be immediately rejected. Further nuance is unimportant.

        March 14, 2012
      • Well, I don’t know what else I can say. I continue to think you are interpreting the post in a very different manner than either its tone or content was intended. Ironically enough, I would not change either the image or the title because I think both contribute to the central point of the post, which is that de Botton unhelpfully misunderstands and trivializes the role of clergy. It’s very strange to me that you think that I am doing the exact opposite of what I intended to do.

        As an aside, your language of “idolatry” and “human ingenuity apart from the salvific grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,” etc seems quite stark and binary to me. Do you think there is no use whatsoever for “secular” therapy? Could not a skillful therapist who is not a follower of Jesus play some role, however small, in moving a person down the road to healing and health? A road that might even—who knows?—lead to the Roman Catholic church? Does not common grace operate outside the boundaries of the church?

        March 14, 2012
    • Ken #

      Paul and Ryan,

      Please let me referee here.

      Ryan meant only to critique de Botton’s trivialization of clergy, without himself criticizing clergy, whether priest or pastor. Any trivialization of the role of priests and pastors implied by his words or photo were unintended and accidental for sure.

      Paul meant only to say that by taking seriously what de Botton is saying, even if in critique, that we are giving undue credit to the absurd. There is, indeed, an element of absurdity to de Botton’s suggestion and it does trivialize the role of priests and pastors just as their role has been trivialized throughout modernity. Ryan and Paul are resisting that, rejecting that, even while expressing it differently.

      We just have to give each other a little more room here.

      I think we should let our mutual agreement that priests and pastors provide healing, which Paul addressed in the next thread below, be the last word on this.

      March 14, 2012
      • Thank you Ken.

        March 15, 2012
  6. Paul Johnston #

    In a related vein, I wonder what you or Ken or anyone else for that matter thinks of the Catholic/Christian custom of deliverance?

    Is the practice based on a primitive misunderstanding and misdiagnosis of emotional and psychological ailments? Is the continued application of the process an insult to modern science? An always impotent and potentially dangerous response that at best does nothing and at worst causes further harm. Or is it a biblicly authenticated, spiritual healing encounter that only God and believers can mediate? A healing beyond the capacity and capabilities of modern science; modern therapy?

    March 14, 2012
    • Ken #

      I think it is as you describe it, a spiritual healing encounter that only God and believers can mediate. It is a healing beyond what science can duplicate or explain. It is real. It is eternal.

      March 14, 2012
    • I would echo Ken’s sentiments here.

      March 14, 2012
  7. Paul Johnston #

    “Many associate “religious professionals” with scandalous and immoral behaviour. Many are uncomfortable around this strange category of humanity—these relics from a bygone age. And, of course, many simply think that priests and pastors inhabit an imaginary world populated by supernatural forces and realities that is flat-out false and ridiculous, if not dangerous. The office of a priest or a pastor would be the last place they would consider going to talk about any problems they might be facing, whether of the mundane or the existential variety.”…. it is discouraging to me that someone I would expect to promote and defend the word of God and his people makes such “damning” observations, as seen by others and offers no defense;no rebuttal.

    Honestly, my brother, with all the insufficient ( to you) affection and respect my virtual relationship can offer I get angry at times with what I perceive to be your passive acceptance of false and hateful Catholic/Christian stereotypes.

    After rereading your post and the Globe and Huffington accounts, I still find deBotton more aware of the realities and potentials of priestly office, than I read you. With great sadness, I also agree with deBotton, when he states that the priesthood has become”a shadow of it’s former self”. His solution is apostacy and the implimentation of a secular substitution (idolotry). Your response, worse to my ear, is to diminish the understanding of the priestly office in the first place. (Though I do hear you, in response to my criticism, reflecting a greater sense of piety regarding the office, that I don’t find in the origional post)

    A Catholic priest is more than just a “storyteller”. He is meant to dedicate His life, as a bride of Christ to the people of God. He mediates the very real presence of God through the sacraments. He is meant to be the the “face” of the institutional church to our people. He is our first and best shepherd :)…and he is too often lost in a culture that reduces him to just another guy with a story. Just another guy selling something; buy it or don’t.

    He is so much greater than that and I (we) must work with him to help restore his and our glory. For our glory is God’s glory….

    I’m not trying to be “right” to your “wrong” here….well maybe a little…..mostly I’m just telling you how it is for me.

    March 15, 2012
    • Ken #

      Paul,

      I know that you are addressing Ryan here, but let me say this anyway.

      Re: mostly I’m just telling you how it is for me.

      Your testimony here is powerful and I am grateful for your transparency.

      A writer often has a particular audience in mind and chooses words for that audience, or at least, for himself or herself. But on a blog, as in a book, anyone can read those words, not just that particular audience, and many will find associations, valid associations for sure, that the writer never imagined and certainly not endorse. I think that has happened here.

      When I read Ryan’s words and posted my own comments, it never occurred to me that using the storyteller metaphor would carry with it any negative connotations. Now we all understand how it can.

      I have often been in the position here of reacting to negative connotations that I read in the expressions of Ryan and others, ones that Ryan and others never intended. Such differences are inevitable.

      The best we can do in these situations is to give each other room.

      March 15, 2012
  8. Paul Johnston #

    You are right, Ken.

    Ryan, forgive me when I project my anger and fear regarding the future of the Catholic church and the future of Catholic culture onto you. I know this may sound incredibly alarmist and arrogant but I am convinced that if the Catholic Church is first reduced to the private sphere it will ultimately be persecuted by a public sphere formed by the likes of Mr. deBotton. I think if the Catholic church goes down, Christianity, as a transcultural, universal/worldwide phenomena goes down with it.

    I truly think we are at war, culturally speaking, and that we must fight to survive. Not like generals fight; like Jesus fights. Defending truth not property. Sacrificing not killing.

    It’s a hard thing to do, being like Jesus. Some days I would just rather kick some ass. (Mostly figuratively, sometimes literally)

    So I resolve to be firmer with myself, resisting sin and temptation inwardly, making the concerns of others more of my daily priority, outwardly. The first battle is with me.

    Strangely, this little community of yours/ours and the conversations it sparks seems like a neccessary part of my interior process or at least, for better or worse (I’m not always sure) I’ve made it so.

    I had to look up binary…you often send me scurrying to google :)….even after some reading I’m not enitirely sure I understand what it means with regard to conversation and the exchange of ideas…even less with regard to it’s mathematical implications lol….

    If it means someting akin to one or the other but not both then all I can say is this. You are dealing with a 54 year old man who still possesses something of the spirit of the 16 year old dropout he once was. I am still sometimes suspicious of really smart guys who I think seem to affirm everything so as to affirm nothing…in the language of my day, “I get baffled by the bullsh…”.

    At a certain point, usually when I’m completely and thoroughly confused! 🙂 I’m either yes or no, in or out.

    I have to leave for work now. Forgive me ( or sigh with relief and offer prayers of thanks) if I don’t respond further.

    Your belligerent brother in Christ,

    Paul.

    March 15, 2012
    • Ken #

      Paul, I am glad to be on your team. I always knew the real target of your anger and fear. It was, and is, never in doubt. Anger and fear are not bad things in themselves. They warn us when we are in danger, whether they are our own, or that of our brothers and sisters.

      March 15, 2012
      • Paul Johnston #

        BTW, Ken I like being on your team also….”geez coach if i didn’t have you around here to help figure me out, my game would be in more of a mess than it is!!” :)….and Mr. Dueck, sir, if you aren’t no therapist why do I spend so much time on your “couch”! 🙂

        March 16, 2012
  9. Paul Johnston #

    Thank you, Ken. Your support here is always a blessing to me.

    March 16, 2012
  10. Paul Johnston #

    Ryan, if you would, could you help me better understand what you mean when you describe my perspective as “binary” and the risks associated with such a perspective?

    Ken, you are always invited to answer anything I ask. 🙂

    March 16, 2012
    • I just meant that the options often seem rather stark for you (e.g., either it’s good and worthy of affirmation or it’s “idolatrous”). I guess I was thinking in the context of your apparent rejection of any “secular” therapy—and wondering if there wasn’t room for at least some good to be done by those who don’t share Christian assumptions.

      Re: risks, I guess I would just say that the risk would be that we don’t remain open to good being done whenever, wherever and by whomever it is done. In my view, we ought not to close the door to any of the ways—however small—in which God might work in the lives of his children. Just because someone isn’t offering a comprehensive cure doesn’t mean that they can’t patch a wound.

      March 16, 2012
    • Ken #

      Paul,

      I did not think what you wrote was binary or risky.

      I take what you wrote as coming from an awareness of an important difference between what a priest does and what a psychologist does, or even, I would add, a protestant pastor. I did not think of this at first, reading Ryan’s blog or your comments. But the difference is truly significant, and when I think about this whole topic from that perspective, I understand completely your reaction to it.

      March 16, 2012
  11. Paul, I have been thinking for the last day or so about how or if I should respond to your comments on this thread. I confess that I find it frustrating to be misunderstood in such significant ways. I try very hard to be clear about what I mean and what I don’t mean here. And, of course, nobody likes to feel attacked. Having said that, I do think that a few further comments are warranted, particularly in relation to one of your previous entries.

    First, a pragmatic comment about why I write the way I do and about the topics I do. It will come as no surprise to you that I very often write with the skeptic in mind. I don’t know why I am wired to write in this way, but I am and I do. Perhaps it is because I am skeptical by nature myself, and have very little use for religious cliches and jargon. For whatever reason, I find it very easy to imagine how some of the things Christians say might sound to skeptical ears, and so I do my best to bridge this gap. I think that if we want to present a coherent and compelling case for Christian faith in these post-Christian times, we must first do the work of understanding the context in which we are located. For me, this means trying to understand what people think about Christianity, the church, etc, and why. This is why I write paragraphs such as the one that you did not appreciate about what people think about priests and pastors. Even if I don’t agree with views like this, I at least want to make sure that I acknowledge that they are out there and make some attempt to understand why this might be so. I see this as a pretty important part of my role, both as a pastor and as a writer.

    Second, a theological comment. I want to be very careful how I say this, but there simply is no way around the fact that you and I have significant theological differences about ecclesiology and the role of priests and pastors. You ask why I don’t defend priests or pastors from negative assessments out there? Well, on one level I don’t think it is my job to defend. I certainly don’t feel any obligation to defend the priesthood (however limited my understanding of this may be), and I don’t even feel obligated to defend pastors. Simply put, priests and pastors don’t always behave very well and, at least some of the time (although by no means all of the time), they have no one but themselves to blame for how the broader culture might view them. I think that respect and honour and spiritual authority are earned—they are not owed to anyone simply by virtue of occupying this or that position. Here, Mennonites and Roman Catholics will likely always differ. As a firm believer in the priesthood of all believers, I do not see myself as having any different access to God or to grace or forgiveness than anyone else. Jesus is the one and only true high priest, the one true mediator for humanity. This is how Mennonites have always understood authority in the church. This is why I do not resonate with the exalted language that you use for the priesthood. I am very aware that you do not share this view, but I at least want to further clarify why I say what I say here.

    Third, while I appreciate that you are fighting for a Christian reality that you don’t want to see fade away, this is another area where our respective traditions are important to acknowledge. Mennonites have always operated from the margins. From the very beginning of our existence, we saw Christianity as a voluntary choice to pursue a life of discipleship. The first Mennonites rejected Christianity as a top-down structure, an imposing cultural reality—and were persecuted severely for this. Mennonites have frequently been misunderstood, rejected, harassed and ridiculed, both by Christians and non-Christians. We’ve never really been anywhere but on the outside, so to articulate and embody the message of Christ from the margins of a post-Christian society isn’t really all that new for us. We’ve never had a position of privilege to lose, so we don’t fight to hang on to it. Again, I know that you don’t see things this way, but I at least want to be as clear as I can about it.

    Finally, a point of clarification. When I said that I see my role as that of a storyteller I did not say that this represented the sum total of my understanding of the role. Having said that, I think you ought to be careful not to denigrate the importance of telling a story. I manifestly do not see myself as “just another guy with a story.” It is THE story of who we are, who God is, and where our world is going. It is a story that has been and continues to be told around the world, from majestic cathedrals to the humble country churches, in sacrament, in Scripture, in song, in service, and in countless other ways. it is a fearful and holy story, complex and mysterious, inviting and full of hope. To tell this story, in my view, is a high and holy privilege.

    I hope this clarifies at least some of the confusion on this thread—or at least helps us to understand each other better and disagree for the right reasons.

    March 16, 2012
  12. Ken #

    This is illuminating.

    By writing for skeptics, you are writing for me. Although I don’t usually use that term to describe myself, it does fit the tradition or lineage of thought that have produced my mind.

    The more skepticism in your writing, the easier time I have connecting with it.

    You are, in one sense, between Paul and me – not as conservative in your theology as he is, but not as liberal as me. Interestingly, perhaps, I connect with his spirituality even while I connect with your skepticism. Among the Christian writers, I think I connect most with Chardin. Among non-Christian writers I connect most with Loren Eiseley. They are alike in their spirituality, even while they differ in theology. Also interestingly, perhaps, while I connect with Tillich or Heidegger theologically, I do not connect with them spiritually very well. I think that a Darwinian view is what unites these writers and me.

    March 16, 2012
    • Ken #

      Oops, I meant to add that to your last thread above, not to start a new one.

      March 16, 2012

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