Editor’s Note: More of Madison! Not only does he accuse the Apostle Matthew of lying; he feels no guilt about his days as a non-believing parish minister. David wrote this piece for the Rational Doubt blog’s series on clergy guilt. His essay stands out for its professed lack of guilt. Like him, I suspect there are many current clergy with similar feelings who have no intention of quitting. I doubt, though, that it they would be likely to admit to non-belief.
By David Madison, PhD
I was the contrarian seminarian.
My fellow graduate students at Boston University School of Theology flocked to chapel services every day, but I declined. Had I given up on God? No, but belief had began to fade—and worship was one of the suspect practices. Then too, while I understood that the very purpose of a seminary is to manufacture clergy, wouldn’t it have been academically sound—wouldn’t it have been honest—to put the God-question under the closest possible scrutiny? But daily worship at the chapel seemed to signal that the God-question was not on the table at all.
Not too far into my seminary career I wrote an essay titled, “On the Improbability of God”—not for any course, but just to get my thoughts down on paper. It was pretty damn close to atheism, so I guess my seminary pal Charlie—the only person I showed it to—qualifies as the first person to whom I confessed my deep suspicions that the god stuff just didn’t make sense.
He was not amused—and offered the kind of theobabble that has driven me up the wall so many times since. He assured me that he believed in “the God who resides in eternity, outside space and time.”
I did manage to hang on to theism—and yes I ended up in the parish ministry for nine years as I worked on my PhD—clinging to such esoterica as Paul Tillich’s thought that God is “the Ground of all being”—who would be limited by the concept of “existing.”
I held onto the hope that I could find an academic niche somewhere to teach courses on the Bible. After all, you don’t have to be a Bible-believer to do that, and I’d been fascinated by study of the Bible since I was a teenager.
But as belief seeped away—I could hold onto Tillich only for so long—and I pursued my duties as a parish minister, the last thing I felt was guilt. I felt considerable stress/distress that I still had to play the role of devout believer; I was fatigued by the pretense.
“It’s your own fault,” might be one way to look at it—and I’m the first to admit that I’ve made some pretty bad decisions in my life, and—hey—when that happens you can get stuck in bad places. But there I was, trying to deal with it.
And yes, there was also the annoyance. More and more I wondered how people could be under the spell of indefensible theism. Leading Sunday worship was an endurance test. This is how I put it in my book:
I came to see the absurdity of people abandoning their mental faculties to religious sentimentality every Sunday morning. In the plush glow of stained glass windows, coddled by organ music and forced congeniality (yes, there are factions), they imagined that they were channeling a god. They seemed confident that this could be achieved by closing their eyes, earnestly thinking pious thoughts and muttering formulas. I wondered, What do you people think you’re doing? Had they given even one moment of critical thought to such piety and posturing?
And there I was presiding over it all, grinning and bearing it, even as the Ground-of-All-Being nonsense was wearing thin. The weekly worship services were torture–a pathetic blend of banality and silliness. No one from on high is paying attention, ladies and gentlemen, snap out of it.
“Not at all,” was his answer. It’s a business.”
I wasn’t quite that cynical, stuck in my role. But I do wonder how many clergy are really comfortable with the ideas about God that are bouncing around in their parishioners’ heads. I showed up on Sundays with The Ground of Being keeping me anchored, while the folks in the pews were there to keep on the good side of The Man Upstairs—literally, for most of them I’m sure, the Old Man in the Sky.
They had a Cosmic Buddy. Those clergy who have any depth of theological training know that this idea is not sustainable.
They aren’t atheists by any means, yet they still manage to minister to folks whose naïve god-ideas amuse or repel them. Which brings me to another important factor that eliminated the guilt factor: I was earning my paycheck. I did not shirk any of my ministerial duties, e.g., visiting parishioners in nursing homes—and taking them communion—attending countless church functions and committee meetings, doing the weddings, baptisms and funerals, and counseling folks going through bereavement and many other life crises. I wasn’t missing-in-action. I was committed to being a good pastor, despite the absence of belief in the deity.
My departure from the ministry came in 1977. I made my escape with the help of a parishioner who suspected that I might do well in sales. That proved to be a dead end, but it was a transition job; I eventually made my way into a career related to human resources.
I learned that there is a better way to help people, one free of useless dogma, accompanied by so much waste of time. A witticism from Catholic theologian Uta Ranke-Heinemann sums it up very well:
“Unbelievers are luckier, since they can spent their time on more useful things.”
Bio: David Madison, Clergy Project member, was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published last year by Tellectual Press.
>>>>>>>>Photo Credits:By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33757905 ; by Andrea Reese
“Creation of the Sun and Moon face detail” by Michelangelo – Unknown. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Creation_of_the_Sun_and_Moon_face_detail.jpg