Saturday, July 17, 2010


While I can feel sympathy for clergy who have lost their faith, I do have a few questions for them, more for their professors in seminary, a handful for Daniel Dennett, and a couple of very basic ones for Solange de Santis. It was the journalist, de Santis, who has just now covered the publication of “Preachers Who Are Not Believers” in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, co-authored by Dennett. Five clergy are studied, and a high percentage of them silently carry an awful secret that would destroy their careers or families. Privately they nurse a shocking disbelief that causes them immense agony and loneliness. To one, God is a poetic human invention. For another, seminary “blew apart” his faith, when he realized there were diverse viewpoints about God. One discovered that what he learned about the historical origins of the Bible doesn’t fit what was taught in Sunday School. Another read a little, and stumbled upon the fact that there are variations in the ancient copies of the Bible, and he wonders if they picked the right one.

I know the loneliness and pain of the clergy, and hard questions that riddle the life of the soul. But I am totally puzzled by this report of de Santis, and these five clergy. Who trained these clergy in seminary? and have they done any reading since seminary? The questions they raise are old, and wisely reflected upon, and profoundly handled by our best (and even our middling) theologians. The Church has always known, for 2000 years, that there has always been diversity within Christianity – which is its beauty: God’s work isn’t a straitjacket, but God is flexible, and doesn’t mind being apprehended a bit differently by me and my neighbor, much less a Terra del Fuegian or a Russian Orthodox priest.

Sunday School has never done a brilliant job of probing historical origins; but Christianity has always known its historical origins, and its mixed heritage of beauty and embarrassment. We have always known there are variations in the earliest manuscripts we possess. But this is true of everything in history: we have divergent versions of the Gettysburg address, and Shakespeare’s plays; encounters between Julius Caesar and Cleopatra are notoriously difficult to specify with historical accuracy – but they certainly were tight. I have personally looked over hundreds of textual differences among early manuscripts, and can’t find a single one that raises the slightest question about the heart of what we believe Jesus said or did.

Bart Ehrman, who has sold more books in this zone than anybody else, acts as if historical questions and textual uncertainties have just been discovered, or that the Church has locked these truths away in secret vaults in order to prop up a bogus institution. But every great theologian in every century has known about, grappled with, and understood what these five clergy somehow missed in their education and reading. I feel for their ache, but I could have recommended a couple of books that could have resolved their intellectual dilemmas.

I’m a bit startled by the superficiality of de Santis’s review of Dennett. De Santis works for The Religion News Service, and their web site claims they are “devoted to unbiased coverage” of things religious. Were I reporter on any other subject, I would ask a question like “Who is this Daniel Dennett who has conducted this research?” or “Is five a decent sampling of clergy?” Five is admittedly a small number of people to interview, but you see immediately that the low number implies masses: we asked five, and Whoa! look what we found! What if we’d interviewed hundreds?

Dennett is indeed a social scientist, but if you simply Google him, you will discover he’s a social scientist with a pointed, hostile agenda when it comes to faith. He has written often, blasting faith, and hardly in the “just the facts, ma’am” vein. I never buy conspiracy theories. But Dennett is one of quite a few authors who have jumped on a runaway bandwagon, and now they feed off one another’s popularity. I stumbled upon de Santis’s article in my local paper’s “Faith” page; clearly the “faith” story we gobble up nowadays is the loss of faith. In a country where candidates for office pander to the religious sensitivities of voters, the bestselling books in America are Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, Dennett’s own Breaking the Spell, Christopher Hitchens’s God is not Great, and above all else, Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, in which the eminently learned Leigh Teabing unveils long hidden truths about the manufacture of the Bible, political maneuvering on the divinity of Christ, and a hush campaign about the sexuality of Jesus. The problem is The DaVinci Code is fiction, and much of what Teabing claims in the novel and movie is simply, historically, and verifiably (even to atheist historians) false (read more here!). And what is true in what these authors write is, as we have noted, old, utterly familiar to undergraduate religion students, regurgitated knowledge but cast in a sensationalist spin.

To me, de Santis might have done a bit of interviewing to understand Dennett’s sampling of five – not to find five others who would declare “I really do believe!” or “Profound theology is identical with Sunday School!” or “Doubting is evil,” but to inquire into Dennett’s agenda, and methods. Did the five clergy at some point miss something, and so instead of the implied deduction, that if even our clergy are hiding disbelief, why would those who rely upon them as guides believe? so how could there be a God? De Santis might have noticed the way texts and history and science are regarded as great friends of the vast majority of us in Christianity, not perilous foes to be feared and silenced.

Dennett, Harris, Hitchens and Ehrman are wrestling with a straw man, a simplistic, twisted version of Christianity only fools would believe. David Bentley Hart (whose Atheist Delusions humorously dismantles the absurdities of Dennett, Harris, Hitchens and Ehrman) wishes Christianity’s detractors “had the good manners to despise Christianity for what it actually is” instead of a silly, trivialized, watered down version no one has ever espoused – and so do I. We do not mind hard questions, or sharp critique, or even disbelief – but at least make your assault on whom we really are, and refuse to believe in the Christianity that has withstood the test of centuries, for we want to know more, to have any and all illusions dispelled.

Being disillusioned about God or what we may have been mistaught in Sunday School is always a good thing, for to be dis-illusioned is to shed illusions. Most critics of Christianity point to the problem of suffering, and conclude “If God is good, how can there be suffering?” But we have always known about suffering, and the Church has not only caused our share of it, but we have also shared with those who suffer: we see them up close, in hospitals and in shelters we operate, on the mission field and in orphanages, and we would not have anyone labor under the illusion that God fashions some sort of protective bubble around us, or is a rapidly functioning magical salve when something hurts. Our story is about a God who actually suffered, and suffers, and we miss the true God then if we never figure out how to pair up God and suffering, for they are very close, and that is our comfort and redemption.

Or the critics point to the great harm Christianity has done in history. Indeed, we are ready to confess every sin; but have atheists ushered in peace? Hitler loathed Christianity, and Stalin wasn’t exactly a pious man. Are the mockers of a made up Christianity getting organized around this world to alleviate human suffering?

I just returned from a mission trip to Brazil, where I spent time with someone Dennett didn’t interview, and would never understand. Marion Way grew up in South Carolina, and his childhood heroes were Methodist missionaries. He learned Portuguese and offered to try to help hurting people in Angola. A civil war erupted, and he was thrown in jail and beaten within an inch of his life. When they finally let him go, instead of scurrying to safety back in the United States, he asked “Where else do they speak Portuguese?” So he and his wife Anita went to Rio de Janeiro, to live in the poorest favella in the city – in 1962. They are still there, 48 years later, humble, working, feeding children, providing medical care and job training, and all because they believe in God.
But they would not even say much about their faith. This is the real issue: the five clergy Dennett listened to spoke of “my faith.” Have I lost my faith? Does my faith work? Marion Way would be a bit mystified by this thought. He is a person of deep faith, but for him the real reality is God. It is God who saves, God who is always there, God who motivates and loves, God who survives faith or unfaith or doubt or piety or viciousness or any other turn in the history of the world.

Marion Way would know what to do with these five clergy, and even with Dennett, Harris, Ehrman, Brown, and de Santis: he would do what he does with the Brazillian children. He would smile, and hug them, and offer them a bite to eat, and say a prayer for them.