Losing My Religion?Posted: April 12, 2010
What happens when a pastor loses the faith? That was the subject of an article in the Sunday Boston Globe this weekend titled “The Unbelievers: What happens when a minister decides there is no God?” Based on anecdotal results by avowed atheist and Tufts (my Alma Mater!) Professor Daniel Dennett, the article explores the notion of non-believing clergy and includes an interview with Dr. Dennett. Needless to say, atheist bloggers have jumped all over this story.
Intriguingly enough, the publication coincided with yesterday’s lectionary gospel about “Doubting” Thomas. No one asked me about it at church but I did read it before heading up the hill for the 8 o’clock eucharist since Ben woke up way too early and I had plenty of time to kill. But I also preached about doubt yesterday saying, among other things:
“But here’s the truth about our faith: it’s not kept in a hermetically sealed box or an underground vault; unable or unwilling to see the light of day. To truly be a living faith it must engage our emotions, our questions, and, yes, even our doubts. I find that God is often most present in doubt because it often leads to an even greater faith. But to stifle or suppress or ignore doubt leads to a faith plateau, one that never moves deeper. It’s safer that way, of course – to keep our faith locked up in a place where doubts can’t creep in and hard questions are not asked. But Jesus didn’t die upon the cross in order that we might maintain our spiritual comfort level. He died and rose again in glory to break open our hearts and minds and souls; to engage us in a new relationship of love; and to draw us ever more deeply into that relationship. And that’s not the stuff of spiritual stagnation; it’s the stuff of spiritual splendor.”
There’s long been a term for people who go to church yet don’t actually believe in God: functional atheists. It refers to people who go through the motions of faith, often benefitting from the community itself, but if pressed would have difficulty articulating faith in the Trinitarian God. It is, of course, impossible to measure what percentage of church goers fall into this category. It doesn’t help that some evangelical groups would paint entire denominations as functional atheists — those who have not been “saved” according to their own criteria.
But I don’t think this is fair because it places the entire life of faith into black and white categories. Many believers go through periods where they struggle with their faith. What better place to wrestle with this than in the midst of a faith community?
Still, is this the church’s dirty little secret as some would have us believe? Or is it overstated by folks who can’t imagine believing? And what about non-believing clergy — is this some sort of epidemic?
I will say that clergy are human (sorry to disillusion anyone) and are therefore not immune to crises of faith. You can only hope that there is enough support available from those in the denomination to assist clergy in such situations — if they’re willing to seek help. Former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church Frank Griswold used to warn priests about the dangers of becoming “technicians of the holy.” In other words, when the priesthood becomes focused more on doing things “correctly” around the altar rather than on a deep and abiding faith, the potential exists for a priesthood based upon empty ritual.
I think that, over time, it would be apparent if a congregation was being led by someone without faith. Not immediately perhaps but eventually. There would be an emptiness around the altar, a lack of genuine joy, a drop in membership, a general malaise on Sunday mornings, and signs of clergy burnout. And I would hope that faithful lay leaders would be abe to gently and pastorally approach the pastor to ask about his faith life and whether he had a spiritual director or counselor. I’m not sure if this would work without bringing in someone from the denomination but it can’t be left to fester.
I sometimes think I was called to the priesthood to insure that I went to church every Sunday. The life of faith is not easy and clergy see things everyday that would weaken anyone’s faith. Without God’s help and faith in Jesus Christ I doubt I’d see much reason to get out of bed each day. Some days are harder than others but I plan to ride the faith train as far as it will take me.