Shuck and Jive

Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Code

Below are a couple of paragraphs from the paper by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola, Preachers Who Are Not Believers.

They write about the unspoken conspiracy that clergy enter even before they are ordained.
I remember in seminary "the dawning realization" that there were things you couldn't say to your parishioners even though I don't remember hearing it in those words. Nor do I recall what specifically we couldn't say. But I got the message.

I rejected this message. I am sure many of my classmates did as well. We bravely told ourselves that we would never be dishonest.
I like to think that for the most part I have been honest. But you can fool yourself for a long time. I learned the tricks and I know my colleagues have too. I hear them being employed every day. Dennett and LaScola point out a few in their paper.

Even seminary professors played the game. I didn't realize it nor did I have much sympathy for their position which was likely even more precarious than that of clergy and certainly students. I especially feel for professors in evangelical seminaries. I am feeling bad today for
the guy who was ousted from his seminary position because he endorsed evolution. I mean, really.

It isn't just about liberals. I may spout off about stuff on the left end of things but I guarantee that clergy in my very conservative town play this game with their own congregations over all kinds of issues, theological and social.


The secret code was wrong.


No one designed this code or invented it. This code arose as part of the survival of an institution that harbors secrets and is threatened by truth and by honest searchers.

The title of this book by Southern Baptist minister, Oliver "Buzz" Thomas says it all:






Ten Things Your Minister Wants to Tell You: (But Can't Because He Needs the Job)








Why is this both darkly funny and true? What does that say about our institutional church? Is it that the minister is bad for either telling (or not telling)?

The focus is misplaced. Rather than name the sickness within the institution itself we take it out on each other. Often we even eat our own.

I feel like I am outing my colleagues or telling temple secrets. I have deep empathy for my fellow clergy. I also realize that am incredibly fortunate and privileged to be where I am. We are all in different places and have varying resources. I also know what it is like to get your butt kicked. There is no better cure for being afraid of a butt kickin' then to have experienced a butt kickin'. You survive. But we need to stick up for each other and encourage each other.


More than anything, we need to change church culture from one that thinks it needs to defend its creed to one that sees its task as seeking and working for what is good and true.

Church folks, do read this paper by Dennett and LaScola. They show us a glimpse of the humanity behind the icon in the pulpit. The five clergy they interview seem fairly typical to me. These three paragraphs come from near the end of the paper:

What gives them this impression that they are far from alone, and how did this strange and sorrowful state of affairs arise? 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. It is interesting that all our pastors report the same pattern of response among their fellow students: some were fascinated, but others angrily rejected what their professors tried to teach them. Whatever their initial response to these unsettling revelations, the cat was out of the bag and both liberals and literals discerned the need to conceal their knowledge about the history of Christianity from their congregations.


A gulf opened up between what one says from the pulpit and what one has been taught in seminary. This gulf is well-known in religious circles. The eminent biblical scholar Bart D. Ehrman’s widely read book,
Misquoting Jesus (2005), recounts his own odyssey from the seminary into secular scholarship, beginning in the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, a famously conservative seminary which required its professors to sign a statement declaring the Bible to be the inerrant word of God, a declaration that was increasingly hard for Ehrman to underwrite by his own research. The Dishonest Church (2003), by retired United Church of Christ minister, Jack Good, explores this “tragic divide” that poisons the relationship between the laity and the clergy. Every Christian minister, not just those in our little study, has to confront this awkwardness, and no doubt there are many more ways of responding to it than our small sample illustrates. How widespread is this phenomenon? When we asked one of the other pastors we talked with initially if he thought clergy with his views were rare in the church, he responded "Oh, you can’t go through seminary and come out believing in God!” Surely an overstatement, but a telling one. As Wes put it:
“. . . there are a lot of clergy out there who --- if you were to ask them --- if you were to list the five things that you think may be the most central beliefs of Christianity, they would reject every one of them.”
One can be initiated into a conspiracy without a single word exchanged or secret handshake; all it takes is the dawning realization, beginning in seminary, that you and the others are privy to a secret, and that they know that you know, and you know that they know that you know. This is what is known to philosophers and linguists as mutual knowledge, and it plays a potent role in many social circumstances. Without any explicit agreement, mutual knowledge seals the deal: you then have no right to betray this bond by unilaterally divulging it, or even discussing it.

The secret code was wrong.


We need to change.


Good advice that I have heard and in turn have given to couples about to be married:


It is OK to change and grow. Just don't forget to tell your partner.


I wonder if that same advice couldn't be offered to the church as well.

15 comments:

  1. Sometimes I wonder if a lot of clergy underestimate their congregation's capacity. I've been in congregations where a few of us have longed for more depth and more honesty from the pulpit, which is why I love to read your sermons you post here.

    As one who is seeking ordination in the ECUSA, I hope that studies such as these will make my process a bit better.

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  2. In the interviews found in the article, a Presbyterian said: “I reject the virgin birth. I reject substitutionary atonement. I reject the divinity of Jesus. I reject heaven and hell in the traditional sense, and I am not alone.”

    +++

    I agree with all of those assertions with one HUGE exception. I emphatically do NOT reject the divinity of Jesus. I am with him on all the rest and I think I have been honest with parishoners over the years and many share my beliefs pretty readily.

    But I think the key is to afirm the divinity of Jesus and then affirm the divinity of every human being on the planet and even other creatures.

    Or, to put it another way, Evolution is a Divine Process. I know we talk about God sometimes as if God is human and personal. I am open to the possibility that God is personal in some mysterious way. I believe that the sages of the ages have connected with this Person who is beyond our knowing.

    I remember when the concept of Intelligent Design was a Liberal idea. Like so many good ideas, it got co-opted by the Control Freaks. I believe that Evolution IS God's Plan and we have only a limited understanding of the meaning and purpose of the unfolding universe.

    I have often talked about the Seminary Crisis which many seminarians go through as they learn that the Bible is a human effort, far from perfect. For some reason, I figured this out long before I got to seminary and I watched with some amusement I must admit as other seminarians came to realize that just as there is no literal Santa Claus, there is also no Magical Moses or Magical Jesus.

    But Jesus is Divine and so am I and so are you. I don't see that as heresy because I see that written in the Bible. It is even in today's daily Lectionary reading:

    "Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father."
    (John 14:12)

    I do not read that passage literally. It tells us very clearly that we are Divine. We are connected to the All in All as Saint Paul calls it.

    I could point to many other wonderful verses in scripture where these great teachers tell us that we are Divine Beings.

    We do make it a point in Christianity to associate Jesus Christ with Perfect Divinity and Perfect Humanity. This is an archetype, a metaphor, a statement about what we believe to be possible and achievable. Jesus got there! We can too!

    The Incarnation is intended for all of us. We are One with Jesus and all the Wise Teachers of other Wisdom Traditions and with all creatures everywhere.

    All one has to do is say (as Jesus did):

    I AM!

    Please visit The Church of I AM.

    love, john + www.abundancetrek.com + We are intimately, intricately and infinitely connected by a matrix of unconditional, unlimited and uniting love which is miraculous, mysterious and marvelous.

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  3. I read the Jack Good book a few years ago and posted something about it in my blog here and here.

    The Dennett/LaScola text is long and I haven't had a chance to go through it yet. I will say that I object to the idea that someone who doesn't subscribe to a set of Christian creeds is a "nonbeliever". My guess is that most of these preachers are indeed believers in something--just not what that Christian orthodoxy wants them to believe. Thus the Christian orthodoxy gets the right to dictate the terms of discussion and thus itself up as the standard against which "belief" is identified--and perhaps Dennett (who if I am not mistaken is atheist) seems to accept this premise--but I admittedly don't know much about Dennett so maybe I am mistaken.

    In any case, the main point that Dennett (and Jack Good) seem to be making is valid. It's a fundamental problem that a "confessing faith" runs smack up against intellectual honesty, and it chokes the very lifeblood out of religious faith when preachers are expected to both something be thinking creatures and yet also toe a line.

    I think there are a lot more doubters in the pews than a lot of people give them credit for, and you deserve kudos for knowing this. I can remember attending a session of a "Saving Jesus" seminar at a progressive Berkeley church ("Saving Jesus" being produced by the same people who did "Living the Questions") and I sat next to a woman probably in her eighties who said that she didn't consider Jesus to be God. If you asked people in the pews what they really thought, you might be surprised at how heretical many of them really are.

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  4. What I find interesting about all this hoo-ha about what pastors believe (or don't believe) is the underlying assumption that pastors can lead someone to hell (or to loose their salvation, or to ....)

    I suspect these notions are promoted primarily by self-important egotistical pastors (yeah, I'm looking at you, PW) who don't understand anything about basic reformed theology.

    If someone thinks that pastors save sinners' souls (yea, I'm still looking at you, PW) they're the ones who ought to think about leaving the ministry.

    I guess that, unlike the BFTSs, I just have faith that 1) salvation is through Jesus Christ alone and not through pastors, and 2) the people in the pews just aren't nearly as fragile or needy as self-important busybodies would like to believe.

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  5. 18 years ago when I was in my ....this doesn't ring true but I am still a bit afraid NOT to believe what they said....stage of seeking religious meaning that I met Ed Sylvest who along with being my new father-in-law was a "preacher teacher" at Perkins School of Theology. He specialized in church history and later ran the DMin program before he retired last year.

    Knowing him and learning about his way of teaching helped me to seek without fear. He even brought some Wiccans in to talk to one of his classes. The hours I spent talking with him (and my mother-in-law, Compton) were the first discussions that I could openly question and ask and discuss.

    I always meant to sit in on some of his classes but did not get the chance. But I know that his classes were places that theology students could question openly.

    I cannot imagine his teaching practices being welcomed at the evangelical seminaries.

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  6. @David "the code" only works when it reinforced by the mythology of a fragile congregation that needs protection from "shepherd" clergy.

    @John I think you are talking about bringing God down to Earth. I wonder how many options there are? Assuming "God" exists:

    1) Jesus is not God. We are not God.

    2) Jesus is God. We are not God.

    3) Jesus is God. We are too.

    @Mystical He does talk about non-belief/belief. Some clergy didn't want to participate because they didn't identify as non-believers. Next question is "non-believers (or believers) in what?"

    It's a fundamental problem that a "confessing faith" runs smack up against intellectual honesty, and it chokes the very lifeblood out of religious faith when preachers are expected to both something be thinking creatures and yet also toe a line.

    Bingo. Now an acceptable option is one I think the PCUSA is moving toward. The confessions are testimonies not tests of faith. We are guided by our ancestors' accounts of belief not beholden to them. That can give us freedom to respect them and to move beyond them.

    @Alan

    I just have faith that 1) salvation is through Jesus Christ alone and not through pastors, and 2) the people in the pews just aren't nearly as fragile or needy as self-important busybodies would like to believe.

    Thank you!

    @Onedia Sounds like an interesting teacher! How fun to have him for a father-in-law! You bring up such an important point...

    "seek without fear."

    A primary emotion manipulated for the purpose of control is fear. It is not engineered. It is not designed. No one came up with the idea of scaring the hell of out people. It evolved because it serves a purpose. When a viewpoint is neither reasonable or good, it can only survive through force. Fear is the enforcer. Its purpose is abusive. How do we understand it and how do we change it?

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  7. John Shuck wrote: "I think you are talking about bringing God down to Earth."

    +++

    Well, at least bringing Jesus of Nazareth down to earth. I don't see any reason for this magical disconnect between him and the rest of us.

    I do see humanity as divine beings meaning we are empowered to love one another and become one with one another in a mystical way. I have experienced this and so have so many others.

    So I guess I would see our connection to God and each other as a heavenly connection as well as an earthly connection. In other words, I do believe there is something beyond our ordinary, limited perception of reality. Marcus Borg calls it "The More."

    So, God definitely comes "down" to earth in a Human Incarnation (Jesus, Buddha and potentially all the rest of us) BUT ...
    we go "up" to Heaven in a Heavenly Incarnation. I'm not talking about when we die but right now, right here. We can connect to The More in amazing ways. Our bodies are more than our physical bodies.

    Hard to explain. Maybe there are others reading this who know what I mean and can explain it better.

    love, john + www.abundancetrek.com + We are intimately, intricately and infinitely connected by a matrix of unconditional, unlimited and uniting love which is miraculous, mysterious and marvelous.

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  8. Hey John,

    When I said that I was thinking of Lloyd Geering (another Presbyterian) and his book Coming Back To Earth: From gods, to God, to Gaia.

    What you said reminded me of him.

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  9. I'm just thinking out loud!

    Some of our colleagues seem to be against thinking or at least sharing our thoughts about reality openly.

    love,
    john

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  10. John and John -

    Y'all might enjoy this: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=114287606

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  11. John

    1. I have no problem talking about anything on that list. Of course I'm not a pastor who has stopped believing.

    2. John may have been on vacation but clearly my brain went with him and didn't come back. At first I thought the references to PW was to Presbyterian Women and wondered when they started to bully John! Then I finally got it.

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  12. Even Parker knows better than to mess with the Presbyterian Women.

    So what exactly have you not stopped believing in?

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  13. @Bob

    It wasn't so much the list but the title of the book to which I was referring.

    I don't have trouble speaking about anything on that list either. (Remember the author of the book is Southern Baptist, so his list is a bit more edgy for him than us, particularly if he spoke about them from the "wrong" point of view).

    Both of us are outspoken. My guess is that we are both more unusual than usual.

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  14. As posted upthread...

    But Jesus is Divine and so am I and so are you. I don't see that as heresy because I see that written in the Bible. It is even in today's daily Lectionary reading:

    "Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father."
    (John 14:12)


    Now I agree with this POV, but to make it even more powerful, let us consider the meaning of the dreaded "B" word. I recently learned that the word "Believe" had a different meaning in the English Language during King James' time.

    Back then, the word "Believe" meant something more like, "to be true to" or "be faithful to."

    Kind of changes the whole picture, doesn't it?

    Anyone else care to weigh-in and expand?

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