Monday, 17 October 2011

When it's Going; When it's Gone

A website for non-believing clergy - still active, and who want an exit-strategy - has become public, although to be a member you would have to be screened.

It is a fact that any clergy person who has lost their beliefs and had left was, at one stage in the process, at a point of having lost their beliefs (or enough of them) and had not yet left.

Not quite behind the scenes are the well known 'New Atheists', but there is more to it than this.

There was a short study in 2010 by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola on 'Preachers Who Are Not Believers' in the journal Evolutionary Psychology Volume 8(1). 2010 and it soon gets into those not quite non-believers who are actually happy with their condition and ministry. When discussing recruiting candidates, there were:

two others cited concerns about the term “non-believing.” Though neither of them believed in a supernatural god, both strongly self-identified as believers.

But what do they mean by this? Are they perhaps deceiving themselves? There is no way of answering, and this is no accident. The ambiguity about who is a believer and who a nonbeliever follows inexorably from the pluralism that has been assiduously fostered by many religious leaders for a century and more: God is many different things to different people, and since we can’t know if one of these conceptions is the right one, we should honor them all. This counsel of tolerance creates a gentle fog that shrouds the question of belief in God in so much indeterminacy that if asked whether they believed in God, many people could sincerely say that they don’t know what they are being asked.

This is not just agnosticism, the belief that one does not (or cannot) know whether God exists, but something prior: the belief that one cannot even know which question – if any – is being asked. Many people are utterly comfortable with this curious ignorance; it just doesn’t matter to them what the formulas mean that their churches encourage them to recite. Some churches are equally tolerant of the indeterminacy: as long as you “have faith” or are “one with Jesus” (whatever you think that means) your metaphysical convictions are your own business. But pastors can’t afford that luxury. Their role in life often requires them to articulate, from the pulpit and elsewhere, assertions about these very issues.

Pastors do afford this luxury, however; and that's the point. They can become very sophisticated at doing so, and I can think of these strategies for so doing.

  • Biblical matters become history, only located in the past.
  • Church tradition is revered but not projected into the present: liturgy is a museum of forms with an emphasis on art, music, theatre and ancient language.
  • Detail of the biblical narrative examined as narrative.
  • Focus on "questions" over any answers.
  • Use of "stories" as a framework to matters others treat as revelation.
  • Reinterpretation words like 'ultimate goodness' (but not if they give the game away).
  • Avoidance of straightforward terms where simple explanation would give the game away.
  • Formal terminology used but then little in support.
  • Phraseology used asserting what one is supposed to do.

As for types of preacher and pastor who lose their beliefs: no one is immune. I suggest that the people who lose their beliefs fastest are the charismatics and evangelicals. The charismatics are full of praise, and then one day wonder what it is all about. It's like the gas has gone off bang. The evangelicals have the demand for strong beliefs that one day they cannot meet. Jonathan Edwards (no not him; the runner) lost his beliefs virtually overnight. It is the people who are or have managed themselves into forms of liberalism that go more slowly. They have, after all, managed this transition so far and have acquired strategies of presentation. Some do it in theology college. They create a space for their own losses. Eventually, though, a crunch point comes.

Again this is an institutional matter. In a community like the Unitarians, you can formally believe as you wish. If you are uncomfortable with the expressions of religion around you, then you might well leave - but then as a pastor you create the expressions and the question then is whether you meet the needs of some in the congregation that want more. Your creativity with words is thus pastoral and you should be able to be clear about your own interpretation. If that can't satisfy the congregants, then there is a problem. You should say to them, then, please use the words as you feel they mean, and they should not be demanding your agreement with their interpretation. It is not a community of one intended belief. Of course if that congregation as a whole is pretty much inclined towards a stronger interpretation, then the pastor ought to find a different pulpit. To be lying then is just dishonesty.

Which of course is the point. There is always the issue of honesty and dishonesty when a preacher in office uses strategies to avoid. Again, there can be pastoral reasons to stretch a point, but this cannot be permanent.

A religious humanist who puts out a 'sounds like' Christian message and who only presents this message is being dishonest. The preacher really would have to believe that this radical shift is Christianity today so as not to live in too much tension, but then when will they be clear about this to others who see it as the loss of the essentials?

The website referred to, however, is mainly concerned with people in a job as ministers, who face consequences from community, family and income should they declare their actual loss of belief and purpose. They know they have to go, it's just that it needs arranging.

There are, of course, those pastors who travel so lightly that they never really know when the zero point has come, or that it arrived and they are so dyed in the wool that they just keep going and keep going. They probably get to employing no strategies any more and just plod along as it is what they should do and do do and no one is any the wiser, including, eventually, the people who do it.


Anonymous said...

It's curious how the New Atheists seem to have as their chief dislike anyting concerned with 'the supernatural'. Ergo, perhaps they'd not mind at all a religion that is naturalistic. However, doesn't naturalism presuppose materialism ? It's a stragegy to capture 'religion', because once something is assumed to be naturalisic only, then of course one can apply natural science.

The whole point is though, that this is a philosophical question, and the New Atheists seem to pre-suppose that materialism is 'the perennial philosophy' rather than it being open; or - as in Roman Catholicism - calling a form of Platonism the perennial philosophy.

Why concentrate on supernaturalism though at all ? I find it odd.

Surely, a more utilitarianism approach is what the New Atheists seem to want - which is to look at the outcome. Watch the uncut video interview between Richard Dawkins and Richard Harries, erstwhile Bishop of Oxford, done for 'The Root of All Evil' documentary - Dawkins acknowledges that he wouldn't really have a problem is all religious people were Church of England in the Harries mould, even though Harries acknowledged that he wasn't striking out supernaturalism.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Anonymous, what a remarkable interview! It shows Dawkins at his best and not in his flame-thrower mode. Bishop Harries is wonderful, and, as you say, Dawkins actually agrees with Harries on a few points.

Harries is surely correct to tell Dawkins that he hangs around too much with fundamentalist Christians.

The link to the interview is below:

Alas, my word verification is 'sunni'.

Anonymous said...

I imagine that a sort of unthinking or narrow-minded evangelicalism can be lost quite easily when circumstances change, or when individuals start mixing with different kinds of people or reading different books.

But liberal Christians shouldn't hope for any great decline in evangelicalism. It seems that liberal Christianity partly owes its continued existence on the fall-out from more evangelical churches or domestic environments.

Compared with evengelical churches liberalism doesn't generate so many conversions, and it tends to be less effective at socialising its own young people into an active faith and into church life. Certain kinds of Anglicanism, for example, must be easy to shrug off, because they demand so little in the first place. (I do realise that liberalism comes in many forms, though, and that some kinds are very demanding.)

Of course, it's obvious that on the national level, both evangelical and liberal faith commitment are minority positions.