In this OnFaith Forum, Disbelief in the Pulpit, we asked contributors: What should pastors do if they no longer hold the defining beliefs of their denomination? Do clergy have a moral obligation not to challenge the sincere faith of their parishioners? If this requires them to dissemble from the pulpit, doesn’t this create systematic hypocrisy at the center of religion? What would you want your pastor to do with his or her personal doubts or loss of faith?
Despite common assumptions to the contrary, doubt is not the opposite of faith, it is a part of faith. In fact, the faith journeys of virtually all great spiritual teachers included moments of genuine doubt.
From Abraham and Moses to Jesus and so many more, wrestling with doubt is one of the ways in which good people become great spiritual masters. And far from having an obligation to “protect” congregants from doubts and questions of faith, clergy are obliged to share those issues with those they lead.
Doubts and questions are vehicles for clarifying one’s faith and for maintaining personal integrity. If one’s faith is nothing more than a source of static answers, it quickly becomes a mindless rhetoric with God as its footnote. That is hardly what most of us who subscribe to any faith believe in.
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.
Responsible religious leaders must find a balance between helping their congregants to wrestle with tough questions and offering them secure answers. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said it best when he remarked that, “the purpose of religion is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”
Applied here, that teaching translates into the demand that spiritual questions and doubt should afflict the spiritually certain, while spiritual answers and faith should offer security to the afflicted.
Image courtesy of Joshua Earle.