Preachers Who Are Not Believers

Spring                                   Waxing Awakening Moon

Gave Liberal II this morning.  Lot of conversation, a little consternation.  Best piece was a conversation with Ian Boswell, the music director.  We discussed the limits of rationality and the integration of reason and soulfulness that great music represents.  He pointed to the late sonatas of Beethoven.  This has given me food for thought for Liberal III:  The Future.

The work I do for Groveland and the transition from Christian to Unitarian got a piece of context I hadn’t had from this very interesting paper:  Preachers Who Are Not Believers.  This is qualitative research done by a social worker with five subjects.  She has done extensive interviewing with each one and her co-researcher, Daniel Dennet, the theophobe philosopher from Tufts University carefully explain that the sample is too small to allow any general conclusions to be drawn.  Each of the clergy self-describe as non-believers though what they mean by that phrase has enormous plasticity.

If the topic interests you, I encourage you to look at the paper, the link above will take you there.  What intrigued me was their guess about why there is such a phenomenon in the first place; that is, how to people end up in the ministry then come to lose their faith.  I think they’re right.

Let me quote:  “The answer seems to lie in the seminary experience shared by all our pastors, liberals and literals alike. Even some conservative seminaries staff their courses on the Bible with professors who are trained in textual criticism, the historical methods of biblical scholarship, and what is taught in those courses is not what the young seminarians learned in Sunday school, even in the more liberal churches. In seminary they were introduced to many of the details that have been gleaned by centuries of painstaking research about how various ancient texts came to be written, copied, translated, and, after considerable jockeying and logrolling, eventually assembled into the Bible we read today. It is hard if not impossible to square these new facts with the idea that the Bible is in all its particulars a true account of actual events, let alone the inerrant word of God.”

They don’t mention the equally corrosive discipline of church history.  In church history the actual stories of doctrinal development give a historically relativistic inflection to them that does serious damage to their confident assertion.  My favorite example is the trinity, a concept which passed by one vote at the Council of Nicaea embedded in the Nicene Creed.   There are many other unsavory moments in church history.  Among them is Martin Luther’s response to a peasant’s rebellion –Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants. Another is the annihilation of the Cathars in France and, in general, the often violent response to those not in agreement with one particular doctrinal nuance or another.

If you put the historical reality of church history in tandem with textual or higher criticism of the Bible, it is impossible not at least consider whether the church and its foundations are things of this world, not another.   It is the frisson of doubt, strengthened by a hundred small instances that leads to faith changes, often of considerable magnitude.

“Biblical criticism is a form of Historical Criticism that seeks to analyze the Bible through asking certain questions of the text, such as: Who wrote it? When was it written? To whom was it written? Why was it written? What was the historical, geographical, and cultural setting of the text? How well preserved is the original text? How unified is the text? What sources were used by the author? How was the text transmitted over time? What is the text’s genre and from what sociologial setting is it derived? When and how did it come to become part of the Bible?”

The biggest problem though, and the Preachers research spells this out, too, is the gulf this creates between clergy and congregation.  The gulf between clergy and congregation only grows over time and it does so for some very straight forward reasons.  First, to teach others a new and especially an unpleasant truth you have to have a clear and profound grasp of it yourself.  Though the training in biblical scholarship in seminary is extensive, the actual field of information is vast.  Old Testament Ph. D.s are among the most difficult in scholarship.  At least five languages have to be mastered:  Ancient Biblical Hebrew, ancient Greek, Latin, Aramaic and Ugaritic or Akkadian.  Then are the techniques of higher criticism themselves:  literary, form-critical, historical, redactive, rhetorical, source, narrative and textual.  Not only do they have to be  learned and applied to a vast body of literature, much more than the Old Testament contains, one also has to learn the history of these disciplines themselves.

Textual criticism alone is a large field.  The Dead Sea Scrolls come into play, for example, in attempting to discern the oldest texts available for certain biblical passages, as do many other documents.  This is all in search of the oldest and therefore closest to the original text, one presumed to be more authentic for that reason.  It also involves comparing available texts against each other.

My point here is that this is a difficult body of scholarship to assimilate, let alone deploy creatively in the development of sermons once a week.  Without substantial command of the disciplines involved it, it is difficult at best to explain this material to laypeople.  This is a task fraught with tension for a clergy because each instance of information that runs contrary to biblical views received in childhood runs the risk of creating real problems in the life of the congregation.

This means that such fundamental clergy tasks as preaching and adult education often proceed from very, very different starting assumptions from that of the laity.  This makes honesty and authenticity in the ministry almost impossible.  The issue here is real and deeper than even this brief explication can suggest.  Just ask your minister.

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