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?
The problem of clergy who lack belief in their churches’ teachings is nothing new. In his 1996 historical novel In the Beauty of the Lilies, John Updike portrayed an early twentieth-century cleric who read the published speeches of agnostic orator Robert Green Ingersoll and became convinced that Christianity was false. His love of truth was so strong that he abandoned the church. His clerical training having prepared him for no other line of work, leaving the pulpit sentenced his family to poverty. The account is fictional, but it resonates precisely because the character’s ethically upright but personally destructive choice was so unusual.
Indeed, since the early twentieth century the unspoken secret festering at the heart of most American mainline Protestant churches has been the yawning gulf between what ministers learn in their seminaries and what church members believe in the pews. For better or worse, the norm has been that aspiring ministers are introduced to the latest scholarship on Christian origins, the literary development of the Bible, and similar topics — meaning that they enter their ministries with a view of the life of Jesus and the development of the early church that most secular humanists would applaud.
Yet they find themselves ministering to congregations that, since 1970 or so, have gotten comfortable with the fact that Adam and Eve are allegories, but otherwise still take most of what’s in the Good Book at face value. The overwhelming majority of ministers cave in to congregational expectations. For proof we need only recognize how exceptional figures like the retired Bishop John Shelby Spong or bestselling author Bart Ehrman are in their willingness — or should we say insistence? — to challenge lay believers to accept a more modern understanding of Christianity.
Granting for the sake of argument that there was a historical Jesus, he almost certainly never thought of himself as the incarnate son of God. Much of what is central to early Christianity came not from Jesus but Paul, and much of the rest grafted itself onto the tradition between the dawn of the faith and the time of Constantine as the young church struggled to come to terms with its turbulent times and its own shifting identity. And this is only the beginning of what highly educated mainstream clergy come out of their seminaries knowing, and seldom, seldom share from the pulpit.
Does it create “systematic hypocrisy at the center of religion” when dedicated laypeople are three or four generations behind their pastors in their views of their faith? I think it does — and I suspect that the institutional weakness this creates at the heart of the more sophisticated denominations (among many other factors) helps to explain the greater vitality of evangelical and fundamentalist denominations relative to the mainline churches which has made American Christianity, on balance, more primitive than it was, say, circa 1950.
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