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The Faith Trap

Former Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford; author of “The God Delusion” and “The Greatest Show on Earth. Q:What should pastors do if they no longer hold the defining beliefs of their denomination? Do clergy have a moral obligation not to challenge the sincere faith of their parishioners? If this requires them to dissemble from the pulpit, doesn’t this create systematic hypocrisy at the center of religion? What would you want your pastor to do with his or her personal doubts or loss of faith?
At a lunch party I was placed next to a well-known female rabbi, now ennobled. She asked me, somewhat belligerently, whether I said grace when it was my turn to do so at High Table dinner in my Oxford college. “Yes,” I replied, “Out of simple good manners and respect for the medieval traditions of my college.” She attacked me for hypocrisy, and was not amused when I quoted the great philosopher A J (Freddy) Ayer, who also was quite happy to recite the grace at the same college when he chanced to be Senior Fellow: “I will not utter falsehoods”, said Freddy genially, “But I have no objection to making meaningless statements.”
Humor was lost on this rabbi, so I tried to see if a serious explanation would go over any better. “To you, Rabbi, imprecations to God are meaningful, and therefore cannot sincerely come from an atheist. To me, ‘Benedictus benedicat’ is as empty and meaningless as ‘Lord love a duck’ or ‘Stone the crows.’ Just as I don’t seriously expect anybody to respond to my words by hurling rocks at innocent corvids, so it is a matter of blissful indifference to me whether I invoke the mealtime blessings of a non-existent deity or not. Non-existent is the operative phrase. In the convivial atmosphere of a college dinner, I cheerfully take the road of good manners and refrain from calling ostentatious attention to my unbelief – an unbelief, by the way, which is shared by most of my colleagues, and they too are quite happy to fall in with tradition.” Once again, the rabbi didn’t get it.
On the face of it, the disillusioned clergymen who form the subject of Dan Dennett’s and Linda La Scola’s study are less immune to the charge of hypocrisy. They are professionals, who accept a salary for preaching Christianity to a trusting flock. And what is true of atheist clergymen is scarcely less true of those who shelter behind Karen Armstrong-type apophatuousness, or ‘ground of all being’ obscurantism. That won’t wash, for the simple reason that it wouldn’t wash with the parishioners. To the trusting congregation, Karen Armstrong would be nothing more than a dishonest atheist, and who could disagree? You can just imagine the shocked bewilderment that would greet a ‘ground of all being’ theologian, if he tried that on with churchgoers who actually believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, walked on water, and died for their sins.
These dissembling pastors might therefore be accused of betraying a trust when they continue, Sunday after Sunday, to get up in the pulpit and bemuse churchgoers who take seriously the words that the clergyman himself does not – and yet continues to speak. Are they not grievously culpable for deceiving their congregation and accepting a salary for doing so?
No, their personal predicament warrants more sympathy than that. They know no other way of making a living. They stand to lose friends, family, and their respected place in the community, as well as salary and pension. All the more praise to Dan Barker, who had the courage to throw over the whole nonsensical enterprise and jointly found the admirable Freedom from Religion Foundation. But even Dan preached on for a year before taking the plunge.
As Dennett and La Scola mention, one of the things I would consider doing, if my charitable foundation managed to raise enough money, would be to endow retraining scholarships for clergymen who have lost their faith. Perhaps they could retrain as counselors, teachers, policemen – or even join the hallowed profession of carpenter?
The singular predicament of these men (and women) opens yet another window on the uniquely ridiculous nature of religious belief. What other career, apart from that of clergyman, can be so catastrophically ruined by a change of opinion, brought about by reading, say, or conversation? Does a doctor lose faith in medicine and have to resign his practice? Does a farmer lose faith in agriculture and have to give up, not just his farm but his wife and the goodwill of his entire community? In all areas except religion, we believe what we believe as a result of evidence. If new evidence comes in, we may change our beliefs. When decisive evidence for the Big Bang theory of the universe came to hand, astronomers who had previously espoused the Steady State Theory changed their minds: reluctantly in some cases, graciously in others. But the change didn’t tear their lives or their marriages apart, did not estrange them from their parents or their children. Only religion has the malign power to do that. Only religion is capable of making a mere change of mind a livelihood-threatening catastrophe, whose very contemplation demands grave courage. Yet another respect in which religion poisons everything.

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What Kind of Christian? – Part II

Part II

What is the relationship between the Jesus of history and the title accorded him as the “Christ?”  No matter what kind of Christian you may be, if Jesus is regarded to be fullest manifestation of God in the faith tradition we all call Christianity, just which Jesus are we talking about? And, how might we get from possibly being a disciple of this Jewish rabbi and spirit-sage, to “taking up a cross” of some kind for this “Christ?”  In a word, who’s got which Jesus?  This is Part II of a two-part commentary.

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So You Think You’re Not Religious – A Thinking Person’s Guide to the Church 2nd edition

Many educated people shy away from the church because they cannot believe in these and other aspects of Christian tradition. And yet many of these same people search for what the church can offer: a caring community, supportive during people of grief and times of joy. James Adams reminds us that religious faith is not a matter of the mind, but of the heart.

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The Cross: Payment or Gift? Rethinking the Death of Jesus

In “The Cross, Payment or Gift?”, Professor Grace Brame – theologian, pastor, international speaker, singer, and retreat leader – brings her years of study and experience to bear on what is perhaps the central Christian question: Why did Jesus die?

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Giving Voice to the Silent Pulpit – A layman explores the differences between Popular and Academic Christianity

In Giving Voice to the Silent Pulpit, author Barry Blood explores the many differences that exist between Popular Christianity and Academic Christianity.

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Philosophy and Practice in Writing a History of Ancient Israel

[The book] elucidates and examines assumptions about history writing that current historians of ancient Israel and Judah employ. It is undertaken in the context of the conflict between so-called “minimalists” and “maximalists” within the discipline today

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Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching

This engaging reconstruction of Jesus’ life provides an up-to-date critical overview of the historical Jesus debate, covering the Jewishness of Jesus’ teaching, the foundation of the earliest groups of his followers, and the location of Jesus within his wider context.

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The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind–A New Perspective on Christ and His Message

If you put aside what you think you know about Jesus and approach the Gospels as though for the first time, something remarkable happens: Jesus emerges as a teacher of the transformation of consciousness. Cynthia Bourgeault is a masterful guide to Jesus’s vision and to the traditional contemplative practices you can use to experience the heart of his teachings for yourself.

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It’s the Least We Can Do: End of Year A Commentary

What is seldom noticed by traditional Christians is that consignment to hell is not the payback for “sin”; it is the consequence of not believing that Jesus was the one Anointed by God to return the world to God’s covenantal rule.  If you don’t believe Jesus was the one – according to Matthew – you won’t follow Jesus’ teachings, and when the transformation comes, you will be found in the company of the goats.

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End Times – Apocalypse 101: Proper 18-19, Year A

The process the early followers of Jesus went through that resulted in the Church of Jesus Christ is fairly long, fairly obscure, and full of pitfalls for those who seek to recreate it.

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What Kind of Christian? – Part I

Part I

Shortly before his deadly rampage in Norway in July, Anders Behring Breivik posted a rambling Christian jihadist manifesto on his Facebook page.  Within days, a self-professed Christian fundamentalist who blogs online claimed the mass murderer was no Christian because he  “supports Darwinism and human logic, demonstrating a rationalist worldview rather than a Christian one.” Uh-oh. While I would also identify myself as some kind of “Christian,” I couldn’t resemble either of these two characters less. So what kinds of beliefs and behaviors do I accept and refute to describe my own “Christian” identity?  What kind of a “Christian” am I? … 

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Religious Diversity in Ancient Israel and Judah

The diversity inherent to ancient Israelite religion is often overlooked—particularly within university lecture halls and classrooms. This textbook draws together specialists in the field to explain, illustrate and analyze this religious diversity.

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Fred’s Summer Reading

I had the opportunity to do some extra reading this summer and I want to recommend three books that I found uniquely helpful and interesting.  Two of these are big picture kinds of books and the other is a more scholarly but still a relatively easy read and simply fascinating.  

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The Trouble with Resurrection – From Paul to the Fourth Gospel

The term “resurrection” has come to stand for what Christianity is all about. But a close look reveals that it should not be understood monolithically, but rather as a pluralistic and diverse phenomenon.

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