Non-believing clergy

A friend sent me this interesting article on non-believing clergy. It’s quite long, but well worth a read, touching on some profound subjects.

It expresses, better than I have done, how we have manipulated the concept of God over the years so we can still nominally stand under a theistic umbrella:

A spectrum of available conceptions of God can be put in rough order, with frank anthropomorphism at one extreme—a God existing in time and space with eyes and hands and love and anger—through deism, a somehow still personal God who cares but is nevertheless outside time and space and does not intervene, and the still more abstract Ground of all Being, from which (almost?) all anthropomorphic features have been removed, all the way to frank atheism: nothing at all is aptly called God. …

There is no agreement at all, then, about where to draw a line across this spectrum, with belief in God on one side and non-belief on the other…

One of the pastors is quoted as saying,

“The difference between me and an atheist is basically this: It’s not about the existence of God. It’s: do we believe that there is room for the use of the word ‘God’ in some context? And a thoroughly consistent atheist would say, ‘No. We just need to get over that word just like we need to get over concepts of race. We quit using that word, we’d be better off.’ Whereas I would say I agree with that in a great many cases, but I still think the word has some value in some contexts. So I think the word God can be used very expressively in some of my more meditative modes. I’ve thought of God as a kind of poetry that’s written by human beings. As a way of dealing with the fact that we’re finite; we’re vulnerable.”

He sounds like a Unitarian to me! Once again, despite myself, I find the word “hypocrisy” forming in my mind. At the same time, I admire and enjoy the inventiveness and subtlety of the various non-literal approaches to faith shown in these interviews. Religion is not a rigid, static thing, but an essentially evolving, fluid thing like any human creation, which I guess is why it holds much fascination for me.

The pastors interviewed here have (to me) incredibly well-balanced and compassionate meta-religious ideas, recognising both the harm religious beliefs can do and the benefits religion has to offer. Affirmation, comfort, wonder, meaning, support, and love are some of the plus points they cite. One of them is quoted as saying, “I never try to take away from somebody something they believe unless I can put something better in its place, as opposed to just attacking.”

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7 Responses to Non-believing clergy

  1. sanil says:

    I really like that pastor’s explanation of his version of theism compared to atheism. Sounds like me. I consider myself a pantheist for now, and don’t generally use the term God except in religious contexts where other people bring it up. My understanding of pantheism is basically that I’m an atheist who wants to believe there’s something more and prefers to look at the world as something spiritual and connected.

    It is interesting that there is such variance in how people would define the word “God”, and that that’s pretty rarely talked about. When I go to church with my mom and sister, I can talk about God alongside the people there. We are clearly not talking about the same “God”, but we don’t define the terms and when you think about it that way it’s almost like we’re having (at least) two very different conversations there. I wonder how often that happens, even in groups where all the members are the same religion and assume they have the same beliefs?

    I haven’t read the article yet but will later. It looks interesting!

    • Sarah says:

      I actually thought of you while reading this, Sanil. I think you’d find the article interesting.

      According to it, it’s probably quite common to be having those different conversations!

      • Julian Adkins says:

        Sarah, Sanil,
        I like what you have both written here. Like you Sanil I have only read a bit of the article but hope to read more. I have read Dennett’s ‘Breaking The Spell’ and like his take on things and love hearing him speak too.
        I tend to shy away from the ‘G’ word altogether these days, although I am as happy with the label ‘Pantheist’ as I am with ‘Atheist’. ‘Pantheist’ has a positive rather than negative definition and evokes a sense of wonder for me.
        Here is an excerpt from something I wrote recently when playing around with ideas for a talk for the Humanist Society of Scotland…
        “Of course many people nowadays, and Humanists in particular, understand spiritual phenomena to be entirely material. That is to say that their genesis as well at their manifestation is entirely in the material realm, and the material realm is the only one we can know anything about. For most Humanists the spiritual realm no longer exists as anything other than a metaphor. However, I still think that both the category and the metaphor are important.
        I’ll use an analogy to make my point.
        It wouldn’t be surprising to hear a Humanist say that she was broken hearted if she suffered a great loss in her life, even though we know that the heart has nothing in particular to do with emotional attachment or love. We know that the cognitive processes that lead to attachment occur in the brain, not the heart, but it just wouldn’t sound right if one were to say ‘I’m broken brained about losing my partner’. I think there is a good reason that we still talk of the heart as the seat of emotions like love. Subjectively, that is the way it feels. When I fall in love the emotions are almost palpable in my chest. That is where I feel it.
        If we outlaw the use of spiritual or even religious language in our discourse, I think we impoverish that discourse, in the same way we would if we discarded the language associating love with the heart for example.
        I think spiritual phenomena have been put in a class of their own, not because a particular world view demanded it, but because they are of particular human interest. They were assumed to be immaterial, because they are special, they are not special because they were once thought to be immaterial. Therefore a case can be made for retaining much of the spiritual language and phenomenological classifications that we have used historically, despite the fact that we now reject their supernatural, immaterial origins.
        I am suggesting that spiritual language may still be both useful and relevant to human life if stripped of its supernatural connotations.”
        I am not sure if the analogy I have used is original to me, so apologies if it turns out to be plagiarised!
        I am also not sure how this proposal would work in practice in a way that didn’t just end up being really confusing 🙂

        • Sarah says:

          Thanks for sharing that, Julian. I can definitely relate to that approach, I guess language develops primarily for expressing things related to the human experience. The use of the word “heart” in that way persists because it means something in terms of how we experience life, even if it doesn’t mean what medical textbooks mean by the heart. The situation with religion is a bit like if some people still believed the emotional “heart” was an actual physical thing, while others no longer believed this but were still able to use the word in that way. I think that’s why it gets confusing. Maybe we are at a transition point of history, and in the future religion will all be non-literal, just as songs and poems about the heart are non-literal now. As well, some people feel a need for this language and others don’t. Just like some people never feel the need to talk about their heart. 🙂 It’s a good analogue I think!

        • Lorri Scilini says:

          I really like this analogy, Julian, and, if plagiarized, I’ll happily traffic in stolen goods, since I know I’ll be repeating it 🙂

          Barriers against the use of spiritual language have always confused me, since I can see huge areas of human experience that require such a lexicon.

  2. susanne430 says:

    Enjoyed the post and wonderful comments! Loved Julian’s ‘I’m broken brained about losing my partner’. 😀

  3. Pingback: Miracles for sale | Meaning and Truth

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