Editor’s Note: As promised, here is a “liberal” response to Albert Mohler’s anti- Clergy Project essay. It follows Drew Bekius’s response. The writer, a United Church of Christ pastor and participant in the Dennett-LaScola study, started his career as a Southern Baptist minister. /Linda LaScola
It will come as no surprise to the reader that I, as a Clergy Project member, agree with Drew Bekius. I think that his numbered points fairly represent the arguments of Albert Mohler, and Drew’s answers to those objections are in accord with my viewpoints.
I am an unbelieving pastor who has elected to remain in the church until retirement, at an age yet undetermined. I grant that there is some level of expectation among critics that an atheist pastor should resign. On the surface it seems to make sense. But as Drew points out, once the supernatural drops out of one’s thoughts, it really is just another career. Unbelieving pastors deserve the same courtesy of understanding and support as those who labor in other occupations, even if they don’t drink the company’s “Kool-Aid.” So yes, one of my reasons for staying is the financial component. I want to support my family, especially when I have no other marketable skill that would merit my current adequate, but hardly lavish, compensation package.
HOWEVER, money is not my only reason, and it certainly isn’t my primary reason for staying. I’m not in a defensive posture, waiting to elude notice until retirement, when I can come clean. Upon retirement, I don’t plan to make any explosive revelations or lead a crusade to embarrass the church and weaken theism. For me, The Clergy Project is simply a safe haven for discussion and support. It’s helpful to know there are many others sharing my path. We are freethinkers stuck in an increasingly theocratic society.
SO THEN, if finance is not my main reason for staying in the pulpit, what is? Here I would go a bit farther than Drew. It’s actually something similar to what believing pastors understand as a calling, although for me, the call does not come from a supernatural world:
- I believe in humanity and in life on earth.
- I want to improve our common lot, and somehow justify my carbon footprint.
- The collective energy that I will have drained from the earth upon my death must be accounted for in the life I live before death.
- As a pastor, I am able to use my position to move people in the direction of causes that any humanist would applaud.
In the church I serve, we feed the hungry weekly, clothe those in need, participate in environmental projects in the area, provide needed maintenance and repair on homes for people without financial resources, donate office space to three non-religious organizations in need of an address, and partner with other secular groups working on humanitarian causes. These causes include voter registration, affordable housing, senior care, addiction prevention and justice for our LGBTQ friends and neighbors. Our church is known as a place where we help people escape the hell they are living now, not the world that Fundamentalists hope will be the destination of their enemies.It’s a Wonderful Life, I ask, if I didn’t exist as an unbelieving pastor:
- Where would the family of a suicide victim go to hear a message other than the one that sends their loved one to hell?
- Where would a beggar at my door get food or clothing, without question or condition?
- Where would gay or transgendered couples go if they wanted to make their wedding vows inside the acknowledged beauty of a church?
In these and many other cases, my church was the last resort for these people. Before I came, my congregation would not have done any of these things. It has been my pleasure to help this congregation become more secular, that is, concerned with the visible universe and its many needs.
In sum, I stay in the pulpit precisely because I’m not a believer. I don’t define Christianity as a belief system. I define it as a behavioral system that recommends action in the spirit of the earthly man, Jesus, whose uncommon wisdom still remains a real inspiration for me, just like Gandhi, MLK, Confucius, Lao Tzu, etc. Even if Jesus believed in God—and I expect he did—his teaching focused on behavior:
- Being humble
- Using love to cross cultural boundaries;
- Employing one’s life in the service of others
- Loving others as one would oneself.
I refer to the findings of the Jesus Seminar on the “real” Jesus, not the mythological and supernatural constructs of the Christian Gospels.
In the end, I care only about our humanity and our shared life with all living things on this planet. I work with others to prevent–or at least forestall–a sixth global extinction.
“Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto.” (“I am human; I consider nothing human alien to me.”) Terence
That itself is enough to fill my life with purpose.
Bio: “Andy” is a former Southern Baptist Minister who is currently a pastor in the United Church of Christ. He plans to retire in the church, despite his rejection of metaphysical speculation (God, salvation, heaven, etc.). His life has been an evolution from traditional theism, to non-theism (via Tillich and Spong), to agnosticism (via linguistic philosophy) to ‘incipient atheism’ (via secular humanism). He holds a PhD in Biblical Studies from a major American university.
>>>photo credits: “<a href=”https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Devils-from-Rila-monastery.jpg#/media/ ; By NASA/Apollo 17 crew; taken by either Harrison Schmitt or Ron Evans – http://web.archive.org/web/20160112123725/http://grin.hq.nasa.gov/ABSTRACTS/GPN-2000-001138.html (image link);