I’ve been pointed to a fantastic discussion on Newsweek’s website about disbelieving clergy, and a corresponding study from Tufts University about clergy who have “lost faith in their tradition.” Friend and fellow blogger Jeremy has a great exploration of this article in his blog post on the subject, playing on the questions of how clergy should respond to the doubt they experience, and how we might be honest and authentic in leading congregations from various places of lost faith. I was going to post a reply, but it became an entry in itself…
I find that I “lose faith” in my tradition in three ways:
1. The Dark Night of the Soul. This is temporary, but that temporariness has varied in length, the longest stretch for me being about ten months following 9/11. I didn’t know if I could believe in humanity, much less a loving God or a purpose for life. Fortunately, I was not leading a congregation at that point. I don’t know what I would have done if I had been. As Jeremy says, there needs to be a balance. A couple sermons about the angst and questioning might have been fine, but after a while, I’d have needed to find a way to preach faith in the midst of doubt or something. Still, having been through these periods I believe makes a pastor stronger and better able to minister with those who inevitably face their own dark night, without giving fast and hard answers that sound more like condemnation than help (“What do you mean you doubt you feel God’s presence? God is real and that’s it! You just have to believe a little harder!”). And I think of Mother Teresa, who it seems conducted most of her ministry from within a place of doubt. It doesn’t seem to have diminished the power and faithfulness of her witness, bless her.
2. Loss of faith in the denomination and its policies. I love Wesleyanism and I love the United Methodist Church. I was a denomination shopper, coming out of the Catholic church and seeking a place where I could be in ministry, and I explored a lot of traditions. I think the UMC, of all the specific traditions I tried, is the closest and best expression of the Christian faith for me. But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Sometimes our polity, our way of forcing there to be a majority vote when there is a strongly divided body, and the way some of those decisions shake out (mostly I’m talking about positions on human sexuality, yes), frustrate the hell out of me. I begin to wonder if we as a body really are seeking God’s vision, and begin to question my ability to be an authentic *United Methodist* Christian leader. I think it’s okay to be honest about this too, while leaving room for other United Methodists who are equally frustrated and disheartened with our denomination for exactly opposite reasons, and lift instead the challenge and struggle to be faithful as a human organization, seeking to live into a divine vision.
Those are the kind of easy ones.
3. Lack of adherence to supposedly orthodox theological positions. Most of these, I haven’t lost, but never had to begin with. You see, I believe, but I have been asked (sometimes by myself) whether what I believe is enough in line with my tradition. In the early 1900s, a movement arose to name the ‘fundamentals‘ of the Christian faith, and while the fundamentalist movement has sprung in large part from that, many if not most mainline perceptions of Christianity have also been influenced by it. And so many people think it’s impossible to preach “the Gospel” and *not* believe in a seven-day creation story or a talking snake. Even for the people who get past that, many raise their brows when I say things like “I don’t believe in original sin… at least, not at all in the way it is usually described” (I believe it has more to do with the fact that we are trapped in a destructive narrative [see B. McClaren, Everything Must Change], or that we are in the impossible position of trying to live into our commitments and what is asked of us, which we know we can never achieve [see R. Neville, Symbols of Jesus, I think]). I don’t think God is a being with hands and feet (and gender) and locality in time and place. I don’t place much stock in whether or not the Red (or reed) Sea parted, and I completely doubt that there was ever a prophet swallowed by an enormous fish. I don’t cling to the idea that Mary was (or had to be) a virgin. Doesn’t so much matter to me where Jesus’ DNA came from; I still believe he’s the son of God. I don’t need the the Bible to be infallible; it’s okay for me if it’s a human story of divine encounter. I don’t believe God demands a blood atonement for sin, and inflicts divine child abuse to exact it. I don’t believe suffering and violence and death are redemptive. I’m unsure about whether Jesus’ resurrection was physical and bodily; again, for me I care about what it means– that his life, his love, his oneness with the Divine transcended the grave, was more powerful than death, and we too when we live for him and as he did will find life and love and grace that are stronger than death– but I don’t really bother with the mechanics of it. If we suddenly dug up a body in Judea and proved it was his, that would not make the resurrection one ounce less true for me. I don’t believe that Jesus will come again in a cloud, or that anything described in the book of Revelation is intended to be revelatory of anything beyond the people of God living in faith in the face of the Roman Empire.
These are not temporary doubts for me, nor are they political debates. These are things I actually believe are theological and spiritual positions held by some that need not be held by all in order to live and believe an authentic Christian spirituality. And I will preach them. Again, leaving room for those who do believe that Mary was, by necessity, a virgin, and that Jesus’ blood did indeed avert the deathly wages of sin being extracted from humanity. But I have often said that if one need believe that God demands blood sacrifice in order to be a Christian, count me out. If one’s faith hangs on whether Jesus was a resuscitated corpse versus a spiritual being come Easter morning, I’m out of the club. I hear sighs of relief; I hear people give thanks, that they can now consider themselves Christian, when before they thought they were excluded. I also hear murmurs. Okay, then, what *do* you believe?
I believe God is; transcendent and immanent, Ground and Source of all Being, and that we are in God as a sponge is in the sea. I believe the Bible is the story of humanity’s relationship with God, filled with truth and beauty and adventure and sacrifice and chaos and anger and doubt and triumph, and that this story is true, regardless of whether it is factual. I believe that Jesus was, more than any other wise prophet or old soul, one and the same with that Divine, that to see him was to see God, to live the Way he taught is to live God’s Way. I believe that the consequence of confronting power and corruption and violence and domination, the cost of articulating God’s vision in the face of humanity’s greed is deadly. I believe that the life and love of God, and God in Christ, and now God in us as we are in Christ, is yet more powerful than the deadly force of Empire and fear and greed and corruption. I believe such life and love is eternal, and so Christ was and is alive beyond death. I believe that this Divine One, this God, is present with us even now, that we feel movement through Spirit and in community, that we are still called to be and build and participate in a new way of being and living, God’s realm, come to earth. I believe we are invited to make this new Way, together with God, and live as a people connected to God, to one another, to all of life, part of what Brian McClaren calls “God’s Sacred Ecosystem.” When that happens, we will see face to face, we will live as the Body of Christ, fully restored. We will see the fulfillment of all that needs to be.
These are my fundamentals.
But they are not sufficient for everyone. I have been told many times that I should renounce my wicked ways and confess before my congregation that I am not fit to be their pastor because I do not believe in the true tenants of Christianity. I have been told that I must have lost my faith, and that I must repent and seek the assurance of the infallible Bible, the inflexible answers, because to question is to doubt and to doubt is to deny God. I think to question is to invite deeper faith, to seek to know God more, to admit that I don’t have or need answers, only ideas and a direction to begin and begin again on the journey of faith that leads, as it must, to the Holy.
And so here, I reject the premise that this could be considered a loss of belief. I believe very strongly. I would challenge that simply because what I believe is not the orthodoxy from an older age or the post-intellectualism ideas of fundamentals, that doesn’t mean I question the deep truth of the Gospel. I would not count myself among disbelieving clergy, although many have pointed their fingers at me with just such an accusation. To my congregations, I say simply that I am on a journey with them. I have deep truths, and deep faith in God on which I stand. And if we differ from there, or you wish I articulated more solid answers, then perhaps your faith is in a stronger or wiser– or maybe just different!– place than mine. But if you question too, then be not afraid. I’ll hold your hand through the dark night of the soul; I’ll rage with you when our human institutions fall short of the Divine justice and truth we strive to live into; I’ll listen and hear and hold your questions about God and truth and Christ and existence, and share my own and maybe together where us two are gathered in Jesus’ name, we will find his presence with us. I’ll preach that: what I believe, what you might believe, what others might believe, because more than anything I know we all see God only in part, and only together can we begin to piece together how massive, how mighty, how all-encompassing, how grace-full, the Divine truly is.