REVIEW: CAUGHT IN THE PULPIT

Caught in the Pulpit, a recent book by philosopher (and “new atheist”) Daniel Dennett and clinical social worker Linda LaScola is an excellent and essential text for those interested in the ideas discussed in this blog.

The book is based on “The Clergy Project”, a private website funded by The Richard Dawkins Foundation which allows “non-believing clergy” to anonymously share their life stories, somewhat as though they were recovering alcoholics (“Hi, I’m Bill, and I’m an atheist preacher from Georgia..”)

The official website is here: http://www.clergyproject.org. The book provides a view into the topics discussed in the private discussion area of this website, and is quite helpful in illuminating the problems (both practical and spiritual) faced by clergy who doubt or abandon their religious vocations for reasons of conscience.

Dawkins gives us a dire picture of the predicament faced by such clergy in his introduction:

Imagine being in a … profession to which you have vowed your life with solemn commitments; and where the terms of the job are that you must hold certain rigid beliefs about the world, the universe, morality and the human condition….If you breathe a hint of your doubts you will lose your job, your livelihood, the respect of your community, your friends, perhaps even your family.

How do clergy end up finding themselves in this awkward situation? Interestingly, the seeds of doubt are often planted by seminary training, which can serve (and least at reputable seminaries) to make students aware of the “ambiguities and complexities of religious history and thought”. Bart Ehrmann’s well-known journey from evangelical to agnostic, resulting from his deepening understanding of how the New Testament texts were actually created, is a prime example of how university training can make this happen.

A major virtue of the book is the compassion shown by the authors to the struggling clergy they are studying, and also assisting. There is very little atheist triumphalism, or overt celebration of former “religious idiots” seeing the true light of skepticism. Dan Dennett might see his “new atheist” credentials fading a bit if he keeps this up.

(Parenthetically, the term “new atheist” seems increasingly silly to me. I think it’s supposed to convey a kind of unapologetic “in-your-faceness”, but then “old atheist” Nietzsche would surely put the current crop of high-profile self-promoting atheists to shame).

All of the above having been duly acknowledged, and a “well-worth-reading” designation assigned, the book does contain a portion of the kind of misconstructions that drive me nuts, and which I’m therefore obligated to point out:

For example, take the book’s subtitle: “Leaving Belief Behind”. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, “beliefs” have a dubious ontology, but if anyone has them then everyone has them. And unless they can prove otherwise (with evidence! brain scans would be good!), I will continue to believe that people who self-describe as atheists have brains that are (like the brains of the rest of us mere mortals) chock-full of “beliefs”, some of which may not even be either justified or true!

More egregious though are the implications the book very-subtly suggests about the beliefs of “Christian liberals” such as yours truly. So, a message I can imagine someone taking away from this book is: “Well, at least the atheists and the biblical literalists have the courage of their convictions! They’re not obfuscators, like those wishy-washy liberals!”

As you would suspect, I adamantly deny the charge of being an obfuscator. The Bible is a wonderful library of ancient mythic texts that cannot (obviously) be fully appreciated without a deep understanding of the ancient world in which they were written. In the year 4000 A.D. the ancient writings of Darwin, Einstein, and Dawkins may well be understood in the same way. As they say, life goes on.

In other words: both atheists and religious fundamentalists unite in believing that everyone who self-identifies as a Christian is under some obligation to regard the biblical texts as having been somehow magically created outside of any historical context.

Well, sorry, but progressive Christians deny that we are under any such obligation. On the contrary, we embrace context, history, and the “Big Story” that God progressively reveals to us. Every story has a “back story”, and every “back story” has a “back story”. Every story humans can understand is a human construction cobbled together from what has been revealed to us . We are not God, and never will be.

A major virtue of Caught in the Pulpit is that it allows all of the participants to speak for themselves, and one participant, the Episcopal rector identified as “Jim” speaks for me:

Jim, a cradle Episcopalian and the rector of a thriving suburban Episcopal church, is much more at ease with myth. …he doesn’t rationalize his acceptance of myth or apologize for it. Jim’s appreciation of myth comes naturally to him..

“The information about the Divine is contained in the medium of myth and prayer. And the engagement of that realm is the non-rational realm, where the experience of the Divine occurs, and then it’s left to the brain to figure what the hell that was. That’s why mythology, for me, is so important. There’s a reason why we have mythological imaginations . It’s a path to transformation— personal transformation, emotional healing, spiritual growth— in my opinion. So I don’t mind using mythological language— I think it’s great.

I think there’s a difference between the ecstatic language we use in church and in worship and the descriptive language we might use outside of the worship context. When we enter a church , we enter a mythological world. I think everybody does. The people in my church are very intelligent. They believe in evolution. They also understand that what happens to us as we engage in prayer and worship and mythological imagination is fundamental to what it means to be human…

I picked up The God Delusion… the other day, and it was the most insufferable reading I’ve ever had to endure. It’s incredibly disingenuous, if not equally as bigoted as the right-wingers. The arguments are laughable to me, and yet he’s earnest and sincere and he really believes he’s pursuing this ethical agenda. But I think he’s willfully obtuse, and it bothers me, because both sides in this debate are yelling past each other…

I couldn’t have said it better. Go Jim!