Liberal, Unbelieving Pastor’s Church Does Good Works for Humanity

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

======================

By “Andy”

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.

Devils-from-Rila-monastery

In the spirit of the movie 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.

Earth seen from Apollo 17

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);

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  • Kevin K

    “Andy” could be the former pastor of my mother’s church. I always thought of him as being Clergy Project material. The one Christmas service I attended (it was a mistake on my part, not to be repeated), he spent most of the sermon talking about the fact that it was highly unlikely that Jesus was born on December 25, and discussing all of the pagan traditions that had been co-opted by Christianity.

    And yet … he served his community and his parishioners. The church still runs a food pantry that provides meals to upwards of 200 families a WEEK who would otherwise go hungry.

    And my “Andy” now works at a local homeless shelter, which is a Christian-based but non-denominational and not-evangelizing/proselytizing.

    • Linda_LaScola

      Interesting — I bet there are a lot of “Andy’s” out there — some non-believing, others doubting their religious beliefs, but not doubting the good they and their congregations are doing for people in their community

      • Kevin K

        It’s one of the biggest benefits of religious communities — the aggregation of local volunteer efforts and providing needed services to marginalized people. Something we atheists talk a lot about, but aren’t nearly as effective at pulling off. Of course, the church has 2000 years of practice, so there’s that.

        • mason lane

          Actually, secular services, public and private, do far far more than the religious services;

          e.g. Red Cross, Medicare, TANF Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, Medicaid health care for 64.9 million low-income adults, Child’s Health Insurance Program, Food Stamps is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The “church”, by comparison, does a minuscule amount of secular social service in the US and around the world. What churches do in comparison to secular FEMA is again quite small.

          Why should atheists, agnostics, pantheists, non-believers etc. be tossed into a game of false equivalency when they are already supporting and involved with govt. secular social service programs, private programs etc.?

          The churches pay no income or property taxes and constantly pass the cash flow collection plate. The Catholic Church will never sell its art collection to feed the poor. Yes, the churches are great at blowing their gold plated self aggrandizing horn.

          80 other additional Secular Social Service programs: https://singlemotherguide.com/federal-welfare-programs/

          • alwayspuzzled

            “Actually, secular services, public and private, do far far more than religious services”
            Why so competitive? Is the good that liberal Christians do not as good as the good that atheists do?

          • Jim Jones

            Christians talk endlessly about their charity. And it’s true that the minister often drives a nice car and the church landscaping is fine.

            However most churches donate about 1 – 3% of gross income to actual charity, and in a few cases this comprises giving food parcels to possible converts or similar.

            BTW, the LDS are very close to 0.8%.

          • Andy

            You are correct Jim. Many give to convert. That’s why we don’t. All of our ‘ministries’ are done without condition. Someone comes to the door for food–he or she gets food. No questions asked–as in all of our other community services. Period.

          • Andy

            I think Mason is simply acknowledging that the church isn’t the only, or even the best, example of service to humanity. Sacred or secular–either way, a good work is a good work.

          • mason lane

            As good? Depends what is meant by good.

            When you factor in that churches don’t pay taxes of any kind, and that reduces the public social service treasury, that reduces the secular good service that can be delivered to those in need; My point is not competitive, I’m just pointing out that the good done by religion not nearly on the scale, a very small percentage, of the secular social service programs I’ve cited.

            So if one wants it to be seen as a competition, the secular wins by a lopsided score. That’s a good kind of competition to have.

          • Kevin K

            Of course, with the exception of the Red Cross, all of the programs you mention are not “volunteer” — they’re government run and funded … and are in direct peril at the moment. Would that it were otherwise.

          • mason lane

            Yes Kevin, they are definitely now in peril as the American Plutocracy continues its hording and ruthless 1% dynasty distribution of wealth. 🙁 Even billionaires like Gates, Buffett, and Hanauer are warning of a bloody future like in this Forbes article, “The Pitchforks are Coming!” https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/06/the-pitchforks-are-coming-for-us-plutocrats-108014

  • We need more people like “Andy,” religious and non-religious alike. I applaud you, sir.

  • Andy

    Thanks Astreja and Kevin for recognizing the validity of those in my category. The church already has the apparatus in place to mobilize people for good, and others in my situation are using it to benefit our common humanity. Of course, that same apparatus has, over the years, also been used to intimidate, ostracize, demonize–and kill–others. I continue to wonder about the future of Christianity. I lament the growing ‘theocratization’ of our country, coming from the virulent right wing of Xnty. They are using their influence in government to legislate their version of what America should be. If they win, and they currently are, I will need sanctuary!

    • mason lane

      Andy, I had a horrible nightmare last night!

      In my dream well known US media and political males, who were accused of abusive sexual improprieties, were resigning and being fired left and right, while a male who bragged about being a sexual predator and molesting women, and was accused by an ex-wife of rape and a female minor of being drugged and raped along with other underage females, … was making speeches as President of the United States! I woke up in a sweat with my heart racing but was so relieved that it was only a horrible nightmare.

      http://www.newsweek.com/donald-trump-rape-sexual-assault-minor-wife-business-victims-roy-moore-713531

      https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/d0a0de58aabee16b2a4374560e2fb483ad99250d4fbdd0a262f7cfd678b7a0e5.jpg

      • Andy

        Love it, Mason! Too bad we’re actually living the nightmare daily.

        • mason lane

          Yeah, I really feel like America has become irrevocably damaged in a way that will not be repaired. The Plutocratic Dynasty and their Predator in Chief leader seems to have a death grip on any sense of decency or social fraternalism in the US. The new hoarding via take from what’s left of the middle class and burgeoning poor class, and give it to the 1% is a brutal Reverse Robinhood saga. No campaign finance reform, Pay to Play lobbyist govt. in Wash D.C., and corruption of both GOP & DEM’s, created a perfect storm for the legally and financially sinister America existing today. The stock market has no morality or conscience and cares only about “bottom line.” https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/0bfcb8cb6d340ab0377b39725a9a193ab6ec86d1c8d68ab0a4aa29461dc29759.jpg

  • Cornell Anthony

    Would love to hear an atheist pastor thoughts on Matt Lauer

    An NBC left wing talk show host who made millions while sexually harrassing women with a button in his office that locks the door.

    He admitted to being a sexual predator today.

    • Andy

      Very easy–I don’t see his behavior conforming to common human values. He was wrong; but I don’t need the Bible or God telling me that he is wrong. His behavior decays the civic, psychological and social contracts we share with each other in our particular culture. My ethics are based on observation; they are not based on conformity to an objective norm. This is very much like the Wisdom tradition in Jewish Scripture, which deviated from the legalistic tradition of the Pentateuch and Prophets. Good behavior works; bad behavior doesn’t.

    • carolyntclark

      How is that related to the topic ? Trying to bait an atheist who is good without God.

  • mason lane

    It is far more feasible for a liberal like “Andy” to stay in a career as a member of the liberal clergy. Most liberals, laity and clergy, are darn close to, if not already agnostics. Fundamentalist Evangelicals, still today, do not consider liberals as true believers, and liberals are clearly not inerrant bible believers. Evidently liberals excel at reading comprehension, research, and fact checking. 🙂

    Having personally communicated with many former liberal and fundamentalist clergy via the Clergy Project (and read hundreds of bio) it’s quite clear that the fundamentalist clergy who’s still in the pulpit experiences tremendous daily angst, stress, and a passionate desire to get out of the pulpit and into a new career. The liberal can do what “Andy” is doing with very little, or zero, cognitive dissonance and emotional turmoil, because the liberal gospel is already pretty much a secular gospel.
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/94bc61e264a3ef349e71575acc8db0d8a3ef2f13bb22a5f4278bf19e5957c7f9.jpg

    • Andy

      Well said

      • mason lane

        thanks Andy

  • Mark Rutledge

    Andy thanks for your articulate description, and power to you! I’ve been a career campus minister UCC) and a student of Paul Tillich’s thought, and I never worried about my “beliefs” during my 56 year vocation on 5 different campuses including where I’m now part-time (but mostly) retired at Duke. Most of my work was ecumenical and I was paid by 3 or 4 other mainline denominations. I always thought if Tillich could get away with being a Christian theologian so could I. The very first sermon i preached in a supporting local church in California in1961 was titled “The Death of God and the Mission of the Church.” I was so engaged in social justice and works of compassion that I didn’t feel I had to talk about my theological “beliefs” very much, and nobody every asked beyond my references to Tillich. (Except once when I had to do my magic tricks). They were more worried about things like when I got my FBI file for my anti-war work with students. I’ve been a member of the Jesus Seminar since 1985 when they first formed, and have taught their material in many local churches who appreciated it. Maybe I was just lucky and I think it helped that i didn’t have to “preach” very much. But I’m a nine on the Enneagram (“Peacemaker”) and maybe my natural inclinations helped me avoid theological confrontation. I recently taught a course at Duke’s Institute for Learning in Retirement titled “Beyond Atheism: Re-imagining Religions.” It’s been fun.

    • Linda_LaScola

      what “Magic tricks” did you have to do?

      • Mark Rutledge

        too long a story for here now. Basically I found some language that an authorizing committee for ministry to that specific location would accept. I lobbied enough members of the committee to make it work. It involved one of the non-UCC cooperating judicatory ministry funding partners, and entailed a kind of double ministerial standing. And some other quiet political legerdemain. It was an interesting experience.

        • mason lane

          So, you’re an accomplished ecclesiastical political wizard Mark 🙂 Well done!

    • Andy

      Thank you Mark. I have found the same to be true, although I am a more recent convert to this way of thinking than you are. You would not have liked me 38 years ago, when I entered ministry!!!! I’ve followed your story through the Clergy Project and am pleased to name you as an ally. May our tribe increase.

    • I’d like to hear more about that “Beyond Atheism” course, Mark. We may be on parallels with my Freethought courses across NC.

  • ElizabetB.

    **”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.”**

    Such a neat story. It’s so interesting that you “refer to the findings of the Jesus Seminar on the ‘real Jesus.’ ” I’ve been wondering on what basis to “pick & choose” amongst all the contradictions and interpretations [this afternoon heard a clip of the Britain First founder shouting at a Muslim “Yes, you are my enemy! Jesus Christ said he did not come to bring peace, but a sword!”] Until following the Seminar link here, I was not aware that they’d published a “gospel”:
    “This single composite gospel, created out of the sayings and reports that were deemed probably historical by the Jesus Seminar”
    An unused used : ) copy is on its way here from Amazon, with a cut to MSF and a huge thanks to you!!

    When you retire, writing the story of your congregation’s change process would make intensely interesting reading!! Thanks so much for writing here!

    • Andy

      Thank you Elizabeth. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the findings of the Jesus Seminar.

  • Maura Hart

    i’m ok if he stays, as long as he’s not preaching against gays, promoting political ideologies of any sort. and actually following what fictional zombie jeebus said we should do. that alone would be sufficiently different from most christians. the strongest argument against christians is the behavior of christians

    • Andy

      You can be assured that I will never promote those things!!!

  • I appreciate most of what you say, Andy. I’ve known pastors for years who don’t really believe most of the stuffing in the church, so I know it isn’t easy. But working for good is. . .good. All I would say is that I visit various congregations, sometimes with my clergy spouse. Oftentimes it’s that stuffing (same old same old) with prayers, songs, symbols, scriptures, etc) that keep me from returning, no matter how much good each congregation is doing. It seems so superficial, though I can support the compassionate part. So, I would just ask about nonbelieving guests/visitors and how they may respond, not knowing you are a nonbeliever too? If I was to visit, and ask to speak privately with you, would you “be with me”? I’m just wondering.