Daniel Dennett has published this wee report on American Christian preachers who don’t believe in Christianity. What a sad and tragic state of affairs. I know it is the territory of John Updike novels, but it still is hard to imagine the utter despair that must be met daily by these men.
In his report, which is sadly predictably ideological, Dennett concludes that these people are victims. Perhaps this is not the place for me to clumsily unpack my amateur epistemology but I don’t think belief is an accident and I don’t think it is pre-ordained. We are responsible for the things to which we assent. Our story may be shaped by others but it is ours. He makes an excellent point that the relatively low wages of clergy and the apparent brilliant perk of a parsonage is actually a kind of gentle trap. It is the most compelling argument I have ever heard for pay rises for clergy.
Here’s my off the top of my head remuneration proposal: Track the national average for families, peg the salary below that by a point or two, add a few percentage points for each child and adjust housing allowances for different regions. Sell all manses.
More astounding than the fact that a nu-atheist interprets data to read that religion has poisoned these mens’ lives is the way these men quite openly admit, each and every single one of them, that money is the reason why they stay in the clergy. Or rather, the lack of certain comparable lifestyle outside the church. They don’t have the guts to be honest that they must engage in mental gymnastics every time they recite the Creeds and they can’t imagine a life without a certain monthly salary.
I wonder which came first.
This detail has hit me especially hard because for months and years wife-unit and I have wrestled with the way in which our relative financial ineptitude limits our options. We are slowly exhausting ourselves fighting that idol. But we can choose to fight and I hope we never to choose to stop.
The real tragedy of course is the poor blighted people who are going to turn to these men when they are diagnosed with cancer or when they read a passage in the Scriptures and it just swallows them whole and makes them want to turn around and transform everything that has come before for them. The kids who grow up being taught that education inculcates scepticism, a very dangerous and unsceptical idea, are the tragic ones. The people who don’t know the Gospel and don’t have a preacher to tell them: they are the tragedy. Their story ends badly.
But the reason this badly written report grabbed my attention on Monday was my Monday. I have been struggling since forever with the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. I have self selected into this movement. I am not naive about its flaws and it historical idiosyncrasies. That’s a polite way to say its sin. Yet its sin and my sin have really met and created an unholy storm over the last few months. Filled with discontent and restlessness and pride disguised as idealism I’ve been throwing an internal and not-so-internal temper tantrum. For weeks my wife has thrashed it out with me. Last Monday I thrashed it out with a wise young friend and then this Monday I thrashed it out with a wise older friend and now its all thrashed out.
Well, obviously its not since I’m being all lame and confessional here. But its almost beaten down into submission. I think.
To be a member of a church, nevermind a leader, nevermind a minister, is to be caught in a tradition that will at times be deeply uncomfortable. Institutional religion is bad, just like they say it is. It crushes and it exhausts. It is a despair machine that is able to feed itself endless self reinforcing bullshit and call it wisdom. I don’t need to point fingers at any one particular in institution Ireland. We’re all at it to some extent.
But this is not the end of the story. The church is the most powerful and beautiful and flexible and life transforming entity in the world as well. Your local church is your only hope. The local church is the hope of the world.
And each and every one of those men were aware of this triangled tension: their will (they speak in the report in terms of fulfillment), their institutions’ will and the grace that overflows when people gather to worship Jesus and be shaped by his Spirit. Somehow that glorious pinnacle arises from the foundation of their individual sin and incompetency and the sin and incompetency of their tradition. But Christ is the kind of God who likes to raise rotting things.
Unbelief didn’t just happen to these men. The difficulties of working within a denomination did not come as a surprise to these men. Maybe these men have no one in their church to talk to (although I don’t believe that) but surely its their responsibility as the pastors to shape the community so that it encourages questioning in the most awesomely liberating way; honest and humble and broken and expectant? Their “tragedy” is no accident.
Our holy fathers have renounced all other spiritual work and concentrated wholly on this one doing, that is, on guarding the heart
– St. Symeon the New Theologian
Your Correspondent, Whoring his sermons to the highest bidder.