Q: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?
The last thing one would want to do is encourage “bad faith,” which would appear or occur if someone simply “pretended” faith in order to hold a clergy job–not the most alluring way to find financial security, high prestige, or deal with one’s insecurities in any case. Anything done to help bad-faith clerics move along and out would be good for congregations and causes of truth and integrity. I suppose there’s some of that going around, but it’s a moral issue that afflicts clergy and laity alike, but should not be the form of un-faith that monopolizes the discourse.
There are more interesting kinds of doubt. Some of them have to do with details of the defining faith of their denomination. How does one define what is defining? For example, when I was ordained as a Lutheran I promised to be faithful to the Lutheran “confessions,” seeing them being faithful to the Scriptures. Seminary professors delighted in showing us that somewhere in one of them it taught that garlic applied to magnets led them to lose their magnetism (or gain more; I don’t remember). I think that if laity who were told that and then learned that their preacher didn’t agree would see good faith in her stance.
The confessions also teach that the Pope is the Antichrist, and some Lutheran bodies still have that on the books. And then along comes Pope John XXIII, and Lutheran churches mourned when he died. The conservative head of a conservative Lutheran body referred to Pope John Paul II as “dear brother in Christ” for his anti-abortion stance. How could the Antichrist be so addressed What was and is defining in these cases
Now, there are certainly beliefs that do define. Jose Ortega y Gasset spoke of “creencias,” not as “ideas that you hold” but “ideas that you are.” In my tribe the fact that God loves the unlovable, accepts the unacceptable, and that we don’t earn or merit grace is a defining belief.. Anyone who studies Lutheran sermons will often find the fallible, mortal, limited, but in-good-faith preacher lapsing into “you gotta” language, yet he or she would not consider such lapses to be defining. But if one decides that God’s love is not shown in Christ and that we have to be busy-busy impressing God would likely want to step away.
There are many kinds of doubt. The question is often posed cognitively: does the preacher assent to this or that proposition? That is nowhere near what most experience believers experience as doubt. If that were the vital issues, the company of those I call “virtuosos of doubt” would multiply. I know you can make a splash by showing how daring you are by remaining in a faith-tradition and each week parading how deliciously you balance on the tight rope between faith as agreement and doubt as disagreement. A virtuoso! All the others seem dull by contrast.
Most congregations have matured beyond the point where they need their doubts to be nurtured each week. They are more serious than that. They care about the bone-deep doubt that can come in five-second flashes, five-decade undertones of living faith, or any other way which challenges their very existence and all that they hold dear. Good preachers live with such doubt enough that their people welcome the way they find affirmation. Paul Tillich wrote that doubt is not the enemy of faith; it is part of faith. Martin Luther saw doubt as the fuel off which faith feeds. He believed that bone-deep doubt (an untranslatable word “Anfechtung”) was a temptation to doubt that did not come from the devil but from God. So something good had to come of it.
Some congregations may want as preachers some unthinking automatons, some wind-up robots who are never assailed or enriched by doubt, people who can spout the “defining doctrines” and go hunting for and purging others who they think deviate a bit. Millions of others like to be ministered to by real men and women who share their doubts and faith and see God working through both in a world where the lines are never totally and unwaveringly clear. That, they believe and show that they believe, is the world where divine grace is sought, preached, believed in, and lived.
Photo courtesy of Flickr, James Emery