Because It’s Not About God Anymore

Rod Dreher over at The American Conservative asks the following:

What is the point of going to seminary if you don’t believe in God? What is the point of having a seminary that trains clergy who don’t know if they believe in God, but do know that they believe in destroying the tradition?

Well, being a graduate of a mainline seminary — The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago — and a candidate for ministry in a liberal Christian confession — The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — I think I can answer this question.

The first has to do with doubt. Sometime in the mid-20th century, you could not be an intellectually serious theologian or cleric without doubting. You weren’t thoughtful if you didn’t doubt. This was true of Protestants as well as Catholics (the Orthodox never got with the program in this). Doubt was essential because certainty had given us Auschwitz and Hiroshima, Stalin and Hitler. Certainty had given us the H-Bomb and the willingness to use it (and the film Atomic Cafe has more than its fair share of clips of confident and certain clergymen encouraging the use of the H-Bomb to annihilate communism — and communists).

But part of this was also the limits of humanist theology that had so dominated Christian thinking since at least the 17th century. It was a theology that had embraced modernity on modernity’s terms, looking more to philosophers than to biblical story to answer broad questions about human nature, good, evil, salvation, and the whole point of human existence. Such theology had begun breaking down during the First World War, but it had no idea whatsoever how to answer the methodical and industrialized mass killing and destruction of the Second World War. Where was God in all this? It seemed that God had abandoned the world, that Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were right about the silence and the abyss.

The God of the Liberal Christians, a God of comfort and order — and this included many confessions and denominations that call themselves socially and politically conservative — simply had nothing to say. Why believe in such a God? Doubt was a logical, natural, and even reasonable response.

(And yet such a God was still taught. The very God we doubt is the only God we know how to deal with…)

There’s a scene in the BBC comedy Rev. — I forget which episode — in which Nigel is going before the bishops board to seek approval for ordination. He’s told, by Rev. Smallbone I think, to doubt. “But not too much.” It goes badly, largely because the character of Nigel is incapable of really doubting anything. But the point is — a thoughtful cleric is also a cleric who doubts. At least a little.

Now, this isn’t anywhere near as true as it once was. However, we live in the long shadow of mid-20th century doubt. I’ve met few doubters myself, but I understand they are out there. But the presence of doubt was so central to the established churches of the mainline that its acceptance is part of the landscape now.

The second has to do with the professionalization of the clergy beginning in the late 19th century. Professionals are people who are have specialized education or training, apply some amount of scientific rigor to the work they do, and are somewhat (at least outwardly) emotionally detached from their work. Professionalism is the ethos by which mass industrialized civilization is administered. The clergy, in this arrangement, became responsible for managing the souls and morals of society, and were somewhere between social workers and teachers as members of a “helping profession.” The whole point of this management was to make society run better, more smoothly.

Well, this arrangement has broken down — who need clergy anymore to manage souls and morals? But we’re still expected to be members of the “helping professions,” only now we’re all somewhere between social workers and community organizers. And who needs God to organize people? Or to agitate for “social justice”?

At the root of this is the loss of the biblical story as our story, as the story of God’s called and redeemed people. The Bible usually gets lost in systematic theology, and that was as true of the Protestant systematizers in the 17th century as it was of the Aquinas and the Catholic systematizers of the 12th and 13th centuries. Faith gets reduced to a series of abstract propositions. But God is not an abstraction. Israel encountered a very real God, a God who yanked them out of Egypt in terror and mass death, a God who appeared in cloud and fire at Sinai, a God who redeemed God’s people time and again in the midst of their suffering. The disciples met a very real God, a God present in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who called fishermen and tax collectors “follow me” and who knew, in that moment, God had reached into their lives and nothing about those lives would be the same again.

I am a biblical theologian. I have little use for systematic theology, for scholastic theology, for the edifice of natural law (I find most of it unbiblical anyway), for the impressive but incredibly lifeless cathedral that is the intellectual heritage of the church. It’s one thing for Christians to talk to each other in terms of philosophy — whether that philosophy is Aristotle or Immanuel Kant — but to think we have anything to say to the world that it doesn’t already know using that language is plain foolishness.

We’re wasting our time and our energy doing anything but telling the story of God’s love for God’s people Israel, especially as made known to us in the person — in the life, death and resurrection — of Jesus Christ.

We stopped telling that story, instead focusing on tiny bits to support that impressive but cathedral of “doctrine,” thinking that somehow right doctrine would save us. (Which is why we built that cathedral in the first place.) We only tell it anymore to either get rules or moral inspiration. (I’m always shocked at just how poorly many conservative Christians know the actual story.) But that story is no longer who we are. It no longer gives us meaning. Instead, our theologians resort to pointless abstraction and philosophizing, too many people wallow in sentimentality, and not enough people know, really know, Jesus rose from the dead. When I say we surrendered to modernity, we did — our story is now taken from the social sciences, from literature, from media, from the civic faith, from high-falutin’ ideas bounced around by philosophers. Everywhere but from the Bible, the only place where the story of God’s love for God’s people, for the redemption of Israel, for the coming into the world of Jesus of Nazareth to live, and die, and rise again among us, who calls us to follow can be found.

So why is it necessary for clergy to believe in God? It’s a nice fringe benefit, really, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David and Jesus stopped being important long, long ago.