Friday, December 28, 2007

Clerics - Maybe a Bad Idea

As I look at the world today and review the history that I've learned, I've begun to doubt the value of religious professionals. Overall, they seem to cause more problems than they solve, and their antics often seem to divert our attention from God. On balance, I think I prefer philosophers to those who wear garments that signify a special, "godly" status.

The underlying problem is that God is a mystery, an incredible being of some sort who is behind everything and has a purpose that we mortals will never truly understand while we live. Yet, at the same time I give much credence to the general conclusion of most religions that God wants to be recognized (honored) and wants creation to move in a positive direction, the latter idea being that God wants the creative potential in the universe to be achieved as far as possible without God's intervention. So, for example, it's bad for us to waste energy killing each other when we could be using that same energy to further everyone's well-being and creative potential. The Golden Rule is one of many positive concepts that seem to fit with this general idea.

Clerics, and their many "scriptures", most times seem to over-complexify and over-specify the "will of God" to the detriment of creation. Most of the hate in the world today seems to emanate from clerics pushing their own view of God's will and creating sub-groups that conflict with each other. Moreover, clerics seem to spend much of their time protecting their own special status vis a vis the rest of us. I'm tired of it, and it makes me profoundly sad. Jesus said "Love God, and your neighbor as yourself", and this thought pops up in religions, generally. Clerics seem to be the reason this does not happen in far too many instances, so perhaps they are more of a problem than a solution. Garry Will, in his recent book "What Jesus Meant" says much the same in more eloquent terms.

I think it's time for the status of clerics in general to be reduced. I'm not advocating the abolition of formal religion, but merely its simplification and the elimination of the priestly class's sub-deity status. Who can deny that these people are exactly like the rest of us, with all our strengths and weaknesses? They must be given the same level of scrutiny as the rest of us and be held accountable when they over-reach in speaking for God or expect respect based solely on their position in the ecclesiastical world. Some religions have made far more progress than others in achieving these goals, but Islam and Christianity seem to have a long way to go.

Does all this mean that I have a blanket antipathy for those who have chosen a professional religious occupation? Far from it. Many clerics in all religions have spoken the simple message of loving God and your neighbor, and they live in accordance with it. They don't claim any special status, and they tend to focus on positive directives that unite humanity rather than negative ones that divide it. However, I would fault even many of these people for allowing the structures of which they are a part to accomodate the incendiary and authoritarian clerics who so damage our world.

Formal religions, with their wonderful stories, seasons, festivals,times of reflection and penitence, and, most important, with their simple requirements, can do much to help us humans keep an eye on the ball. It's the leaders who we've got to be wary of and keep in check - otherwise, there is often hell to pay.


Ron Davison said...

The thought occurred to me the other day that any religous person's conception of God ought to necessarily be a subset of God. I guess if priests by any name keep that in mind, they can potentially be helpful.

Eusebius said...

LifeHiker, there is much truth in what you say. But there is a flip side. For any seeking of status and authority, there is just as much that is forced on clerics. Even we Protestant clerics are expected to perform a priestly role of representing the people before God. When I go to a hospital bed and offer a prayer it is not any more effective than a lay persons doing it, but it is important to church members that "The Pastor" come.

We also live in culture of specialization where many lay people feel either inadquate to become versed in the Scriptures and ways of discipleship or can't be bothered. It is easier for them to simply hire the religious specialist/professional.

Lifehiker said...

Eusebius, I agree that many people desire a "priest", either to provide direction or to hear their concerns. Trained people are clearly best in these roles, and I hope seminaries do a good job in preparing their students in these areas.

However, priestly status also opens the door for abuse, whether it be "twisting" the message of the scriptures to appeal to people's lower instincts (right wing hate theology of all creeds), or for personal moral indiscretions,such as when my mother was propositioned by a high-ranking Protestant minister during a home visit.

I also am concerned by the clubby atmosphere and potent politics inside ecclesiastical groups and churches, and by the elaborate processes that clergy groups set up to protect their interests.

The great majority of ministers are probably no more flawed than most other "good" people, but the "incendiary and authoritarian" among them do a hell of a lot of damage. Those people need a lot more oversight and criticism from their own ranks.

blanddave said...

When I was a professional Christian, I felt trapped and very isolated. The people I went to church, for the most part, were not able to be themselves with me. The people I spent time with while drinking beers in the garage with a ball game on were suddenly uncomfortable with me (previously I was doing construction work). Many of the other 'professionals' were entangled in denominational politics and job security. I had taken a job as a pastor out of the conviction that it was the most likely position for me to maximize the good I might do in the community. That was true in a lot of ways, but it was frustrating and lonely, and for some of the reasons you mentioned.

There is another trap for clergy, too. They are often chosen for the job because of special enthusiasm (or something like it) for the religion. The religion then trains them up to do and believe some system. But that's not how normal people usually experience religion. On that subject, Pascal Boyer has helped me a lot. Here's just an idea of his from a book review -

"These official doctrines will be represented more or less faithfully in believers' explicit reasonings about their religion. Yet it can be shown that spontaneous inferences are drawn from the natural model and not from the official doctrine, while believers are not even aware of the differences between the explicit and the intuitive version. The fact that religious concepts undergo constant transformations in the minds of the believers inevitably causes tensions with the official doctrine propagated by religious institutions. Boyer calls it the tragedy of the theologian that the very effort to prevent such adulterations renders the message tedious, which increases the risk of charismatic dissent. If an official doctrine deviates too far from what is required by our inference systems, it is no longer attractive." at:

In my experience interacting with other pastors, these variables went a long way in aggravating the problems you described.

Anyway, enough of the longest comment ever. A thought-provoking post... :)

Eusebius said...

Blanddave, thank you so much for that excellent post. I am fascinated by what you describe and follwed the link with interest--I may even tackle the book.

I find myself wondering how this idea of the believer's intuitive/inferential ideas relate to what Alan Roxburgh is talking about when he constantly reinforces the need for church transformation must arise out of ordinary people in a very local way. I've quoted a few paragraphs below from

How does culture change take place?
How do you innovate mission-shaped change in an existing local church (the ‘transformation’ question) and
What does this mean for leaders?
... These four questions are actually deeply connected. The answer to the ‘How’ of culture change is tied up with the question of the ‘How’ of local church transformation. I realize that the ways in which Christian life and leadership have been formed in North America often means that church transformation has been radically disconnected from the issues of culture change. In fact, today, it is increasingly the case that church folk want to develop churches that will insulate them from the huge amounts of culture change going on all around them in the rest of their life. Here we encounter the fact/value and public/private split Lesslie Newbigin so ably describes in his writing.

We have been led to believe that culture change is too big and that only the ‘experts’ can speak on such important matters. No one would think to consult ordinary people around the really important cultural and social questions. Because we are meant to rely on the ‘experts’, church transformation gets reduced, once again, to making the church successful as the vendor of private religious goods and services.

Blanddave, On a personal note, I am quite curious about where your spiritual journey has taken you at this point. If you are willing, please drop me an e-mail.

All the best,