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?
People become members of religious denominations for a variety of reasons. Often, they are simply following their parents or family members, a spouse, or the dominant religious form in their community. None of these reasons necessitate a deep thinking about the beliefs of the particular denomination, but only a passive acceptance of them. This is the way in which most American and European Christians are connected with their respective religious denominations.
For the most part, they know little about many of the doctrinal beliefs or pay little attention to them as they impact their lives. A relatively common term for such individuals is “C and E” Christians. The letters refer to Christmas and Easter, the only time many of them think much about their religious affiliation or attend a religious service.
For those who become members of the clergy, on the other hand, one would hope that they have thought deeply about and hold dearly to the defining beliefs of their denomination or their religion, at least initially. However, because clergy are expected to devote their lives to studying these beliefs, the scenario may well arise that some clergy will grow in their understanding of the Divine and of life, and their beliefs may change as a consequence of their study and experience. They may then find that their views and values no longer parallel the rhetoric of their denomination. This can be a natural result of a deep and open-minded study, and such growth should be encouraged.
After all, what is the role of the clergy? Is it not to devote their lives to knowing God and truth more intimately each day than those to whom they preach and minister? If the clergy are only hired to memorize and spout doctrine without any allowance for growth and change in their understanding of the Divine, then they are expected to be little more than talking mannequins. Moreover, if they are not allowed to grow in the realization, they will either stagnate or die spiritually. For those who do grow and find a separation between their evolving beliefs and the doctrine of their denomination, what are they to do?
The answer depends a great deal on the denomination or religion to which they belong. According to the 2001 edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia, there are more than 33,000 denominations of Christianity worldwide. Because many of these denominations claim to have the ONLY truth or true form of Christianity, clergy from these groups are more likely to face a conflict if any of their views change than clergy from denominations or religions that accept and allow for a broader spectrum of beliefs. As a consequence, when clergy from denominations that narrowly define truth no longer believe the doctrines, they should drop out and not “dissemble from the pulpit.”
Hopefully, they would have enough self respect as well as respect for their parishioners to leave that position than to remain and be hypocrites. I have known several Christian clergy members who found themselves in this situation. A few quit, while at least one chose to remain for financial reasons. Unfortunately but predictably, he is not a person at peace with himself.
Many of the various religious traditions in the world, small and large, are open to their clergy growing, expanding, and realizing a broad approach to God and to Truth. Some are Christian denominations, many have other labels. Unlike fundamentalists, I don’t believe the label is all that important. My own religious teachers encouraged me to trust my inner voice and my inner experience and to question any external teaching that does not “sit well” in a composed and quiet heart.
Many traditions, and many Christians, say that God lives within. If that is the case, then learning to purify oneself to be able to listen to the Divine within is a better path to finding truth than memorizing answers in some text, no matter how great its promoters claim it to be. A religious teacher, or any other kind of teacher, should not simply be a parrot. Those for whom I have the greatest respect are individuals who teach what they have experienced and realized, not what they have read and memorized.
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