A Dilemma Worthy of Literature

Part 16 of the OnFaith Forum “Disbelief in the Pulpit.”

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 dilemma in this study has the emotional and ethical complexity of literature, as I well know since I’ve explored it in a novel, with a character who faces an even more extreme form of the crisis. And it’s this quality that makes a definitive answer to the question so difficult. Is there some way that every clergyman who finds himself in this miserable circumstance ought to act, or is the right decision situation-sensitive? All five of the anguished pastors speak of the effect of their own personal decision on the well-being of others — their families, of course, but also their congregants.

On the one hand, there is a strong ethical intuition that a clergyman, of all people, must be committed to the truth. If his intellectual struggles have led him to the conclusion that the majority of his flock believe falsehoods, then it is his obligation to help them to see the truth. But this is perhaps to think of a clergyman on the model of a philosophy professor. Yes, the clergy are like philosophy professors in that they are supposed to understand matters of metaphysics and ethics, but still they have functions that go beyond those of professors. They are also doctors of the soul, charged with easing the existential anguish of their flock. How then can they justify increasing that anguish by challenging the very truths that draw the flock together? This is the rationalization that runs through all five stories, allowing the pastors, although tormented, to keep both their positions and their silence.

All of the ministers interviewed here sincerely believe — I trust their sincerity — that speaking the truth as they have come to know it would cause distress, not only for their families but their parishioners. I do think they may be exaggerating the distress of their congregants (their family is another matter). Those whose faith will be tried by the spectacle of a man of faith renouncing his faith will be, even on these pastors’ accounting, taking a step toward the truth, surely a good thing. And those parishioners — the great majority, I should think — whose faith will be left untouched will write off the wayward former clergyman as a kook, congratulating themselves on having ferreted him out as they listen to his replacement sincerely sermonizing. We all tend to think we are more irreplaceable than we really are.

And when you think more about it, the two pastoral functions — truth-seeking and soul-doctoring — are surely related. Why would one entrust one’s soul to the care of a person unless one felt he had a greater knowledge of ethical truths? And as Socrates long ago taught us, to know ethical truths is to do them. As much as one sympathizes with the men caught in this dilemma, is there not a contradiction implicit in justifying one’s dishonesty by claiming the functions of comfort that one can perform for others precisely because they perceive you to stand at a raised ethical height?

More than anything, the dramatic quandaries presented in this paper show the systemic problems with an institution, religion, which forces people to choose between intellectual freedom and loyalty to community.

Photo courtesy of Flickr — Eusebius.

Rebecca Goldstein
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