Sunday, March 21, 2010

Preachers Who Don't Believe In God

(Linda and I with some of my Faith Bible Seminary students in NYC.)

Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola have published a study called “Preachers Who Are Not Believers.” It's done in the name of The Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. There’s a dialogue re. their study at’s “On Faith.”

I read the document today and have some thoughts.

1. The burning question is: “Are there clergy who don’t believe in God?” Without seeing the study, my answer would be “yes.” Of course. “With the help of a grant from a small foundation, administered through Tufts University, we set out to find some closeted nonbelievers who would agree to be intensively --and, of course, confidentially–interviewed.” (1)

2. Dennett and LaScola (D&S) are both atheists. Will this skew their research? Possibly. But since we all interpret out of a “grand narrative,” there’s no intrinsic reason to protest. Theists can study ex-atheists, so atheists can also study ex-theists.

3. D&S call this a “pilot study.” Which means it functions as a prototype for more studies. “For this pilot study we managed to identify five brave pastors, all still actively engaged with parishes, who were prepared to trust us with their stories. All five are Protestants, with master’s level seminary education. Three represented liberal denominations (the liberals) and two came from more conservative, evangelical traditions (the literals).”

4. The five pastors all think there are more clergy-closet-unbelievers. But, admittedly, they can’t verify this. D&S think there are more. I say, of course there are. How many more? We don’t know. My guess is that it would be a small percentage. One reason is this. For the past 30 years I have functioned as a spiritual coach/director for 800+ clergy. They have been from every part of the world, all over the U.S., male and female, old and young. I have given them assignments re. prayer, meditation, and journal-keeping. They have submitted their journals to me. While I allow them to edit the journals, 99% have chosen not to edit them. The coaching period has been, minimally, six weeks, and in a few occasions a year or more. Most of my coaches have been in my spiritual transformation courses taught at four theological seminaries (one of which is a Chinese seminary). Two of the four seminaries are multi-racial, multi-ethnic evangelical Protestant, one is Chinese, the other African-American. The journals have been a window into the hearts of church leaders. One result of my spiritual mentoring experience has been to boil down the inner struggle into a number of what I call “ontological dichotomies.” While I have at times seen various kinds of doubts in the journals, I have hardly ever (if ever) seen unbelief. Not even between the lines. I’ll add that I think I have a nose for that kind of thing.

5. Throughout the document D&S make several judgments that I find questionable. Because I work closely with seminaries (as, e.g., I am currently Project Director for the Doctor of Ministry Program at Palmer Theological Seminary), I find D&L narrow. For example, they write that the five interviewees and other potential interviewees seemed, generally, confused about the definition of “believer.” D&S write: “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.” I don’t doubt that D&S discovered some who could not tell the difference. And yes, a number of religious leaders have fostered pluralism. And yes, there are a number of religious leaders who do not foster pluralism. Remember that “mainline churches” are, mainly, pluralism-fostering environments. (But we must be cautious here as, e.g., Lutherans are so diverse – they all have their own seminaries, some of which do not foster pluralism.) Non-mainline churches do not turn on the fog machine “that shrouds the question of belief in God.” See hear, e.g., USC sociologist of religion professor Donald E. Miller’s Global Pentecostalism. Also Penn State professor Philip Jenkins' The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. In short, I agree that there is a “fog” out there in some theological institutions. But that fog does not linger over evangelicalism and global Pentecostalism. I see the absence of this fog in the spiritual journals that are sent to me, and the many other theological contexts I teach and minister in. I do, however, think D&L identify the fogginess of what has been called “liberal” Christianity. I think it would be good for mainline seminaries to pay attention to the non-directed nature of what they do and the existential wilderness they leave some of their students in. To me, as I now think of this, I am reminded of a generation of parents who raised their children to “make their own decisions” while all the time these children needed some mentors, in a more directed way.

6. Some of D&L’s conclusions of this small pilot study are:

a. “The loneliness of non-believing pastors is extreme.” I’ll qualify this to say: The loneliness of five non-believing pastors is extreme. It may be that the loneliness of most or all is this way. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that it was so. I suspect the loneliness factor will be a function of the particular theological environment they serve in.

b. There is a “gulf… between what one says from the pulpit and what one has been taught in seminary.” OK. Sometimes the gulf is an intellectual one. While I was in seminary I took some independent studies; e.g. one on a reading of Heidegger’s Being and Time, one on a reading of Gadamer’s truth and method, and one on the “problem of religious language.” To this day I never mention “Heidegger” from the pulpit, yet I continue to read, on occasion, Heidegger. But D&L specifically mention the seminarian’s studies on textual-critical issues. Some seminarians, a few at least, freak out over these things. Others, like myself, continue them to this day. Many of us have not become “Bart Ehrman’s.” That’s our testimony. And of course Bart has his. What’s the difference between a “Bart Ehrman” and a “Craig Keener?” Both are brilliant. Some have made guesses as to the difference. No ad hominems allowed, please.

c. D&L talk about the responses of people when an unbelieving clergy-person comes out of the closet. They liken this to Mother Teresa. D&L write: “And of course Mother Theresa encountered the same response from those to whom she confided her loss of faith. Nobody in any church wants to learn that a person of God has lost their belief in God.” But Mother Teresa did not lose her faith. I’ve read her journals. Having read hundreds of journals over the past 30 years, I suspect that anyone who thinks, on reading Mother Teresa’s journals, that she became an unbeliever, have themselves never read a spiritual journal in their life.

d. D&L describe the five nonbelieving clergy as “brave individuals who are still trying to figure out how to live with the decisions they made many years ago, when they decided, full of devotion and hope, to give their lives to a God they no longer find by their sides.” Probably it does take courage to admit you have committed to a “profession” the heart of which is belief in God, and now you no longer believe in God. Had this happened to me, I would have to resign from my congregation, since it is a group of passionate God-believers. It would be unethical for me to stay as their “pastor” and, when one of them asks me about “heaven” I become “very good at holding my tongue” (as one of the interviewees said). One interviewee, Jack, says things like “Well, that’s very nice of you to say that,” as the young widow says she believes her husband is in heaven. “Wes,” an unbelieving pastor, says: “I don’t feel like a hypocrite. I feel very authentic and very credible when I say things to my people. . .” As I read this I feel the fog settling in, the thick obscuring cloud that blurs the distinction between hypocrisy and authenticity.

D&L’s document is 28 pages long, with moments of helpful insight and some stretches of fog.