When Pastors Doubt

When Pastors Doubt July 20, 2012

Pastors often find themselves ministering to people who assume the pastor believes just what they believe about something. Often enough the parishioner doesn’t ask “You agree with me, don’t you?” or even ask the pastor to sign on the line for some belief, but sometimes that does happen. This kind of incongruence is not uncommon, but I want to probe the issue of the pastor and doubt from a different angle today.

Pastors are required to be “on” all the time; they are expected to go from strong faith to stronger faith; they are expected to have the problems resolved sufficiently so that they can be counted on for the sure word.

But it’s not like that. At least not for all pastors.

In a recent book by John Suk, Not Sure: A Pastor’s Journey from Faith to Doubt, we are treated to a memoir-ish sketch of one pastor’s formerly firm foundation in the faith into suppressed doubts into doubts in the open, and now from his blog I have learned that he has chosen to resign his ministerial credentials in the Christian Reformed Church. This book tells the story of the pastor whose faith has been wounded by postmodernity. That wound is worn not just by pastors but by many people in churches today.

His book strategy is to sketch Western history through the lens of its general epistemology as illustrative for his own journey: the enchanted orality world of a world alive with God, into modernity’s focus on texts and the enlightenment’s scientific, propositional approach, into postmodernity’s critique of modernity and certainty and grand narratives and local knowledge frameworks, into the digital faith where secondary orality returns as people read texts less and interact with one another via other media. His historical descriptions tend to be grand and simplistic, esp the chp on “Literate Faith,” but there’s something essential to the eras that he exploits well for illumination of faith and doubt.

Some themes, and I wonder if you are who are doubting find his themes resonate with your own journey:

1. Nostalgia: “I would love to revel in the old, old story that I was taught as a child; I want to dream the dreams I had for the kingdom when I was a young pastor just out of seminary; I want to worship with songs that I sing from the roots of my being” (2).

2. Setting for much less: “… all I can honestly do most days is put one foot in front of the other. I have lived for long periods when my faith has been mostly effort and not much consolation, and my doubts often weighty and depressing” (3).

3. Judged: Suk says their two sons have doubts — but “Christian Reformed people have been socialized to think that passing on the faith to their children is just about the most important thing going. And when people take the measure of each other in our communion, they do so, in part, by checking out where the kids are and how the parents have done by them” (5).

4. Virus: “No, doubt is a virus; you catch it without knowing where you caught it. There are very few, if any, effective treatments, and it can be painful and debilitating” (6). Therefore, Suk admits “I am a Christian agnostic” (6).

5. Education as ending enchantment: Suk’s story is that while seminary was profoundly valuable and exciting, it was a time that laid the groundwork — through exposure, through questions, etc — for what is sometimes called “cosmopolitan relativism” and doubt: knowing more and more about the world and other ideas and religions and theologies tends to erode the confidence one has in one’s traditional faith.

6. Irony: many pastors know the condition of serving people when the pastor can seemingly jump out of the scene, examine it all, and wonder if it make sense. Suk’s problems, discussed piercingly in his chp on “Postmodern Faith,” was not only the cosmopolitan relativism but learning creation stories in the Ancient Near East, and the sense of imminency in the New Testament, the politics of the Nicene Creed — and pastoring people who were tied into micro-ethics when he was seeking to find firm ground at the macro-ethical level. He reexamined some theological views in his CRC tradition and found them wanting. He encountered Chris Smith’s “pervasive interpretive pluralism” as cutting into a high view of Scripture. He began to see theology as the apparatus holding up a group.

7. Rationality no longer matters: most pastors came of age when theology mattered deeply; theological differences, after all, created the variety of denominations we now have. But these pastors are encountering more and more often in their parishes people for whom theology doesn’t matter, which church they attend is not shaped by its theology, and rational thinking — classic modernity to be sure — simply does not matter and so their own faith is a bricolage of various theologians and religious ideas. So some are asking “What difference does theology make?” while they are dispensing theology weekly from the pulpit.

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