Unimpressive Clergy

September 9, 2013 — 9 Comments

sheeps clothingI recently read something alarming. Apparently pastors merit little respect nowadays.

I guess that didn’t surprise me, but it did sadden me, that the once respected “profession” of the ministry has fallen so far in the public’s esteem.

Christianity Today, a fine magazine, reported a Pew Research poll that inquired as to whether people believed that “pastors contribute ‘a lot’ to the well-being of society.”

37% of adults agreed

52% of weekly churchgoers agreed

I’m not surprised only a third of the general American population agrees with that notion . . . but I’m amazed that only half of the people who actually attend religious services concur with the statement.

Only half of the people who go to church think pastors do anything worthwhile!

Perhaps they’re like most people who think so little of members of Congress. They like their own representatives and senators (readily reelecting them), but hold the rest of Congress in disdain.

Students of poll-taking recognize the results depend on a wide range of factors. Most significant is precisely how the question is posed. I suppose the phrasing “a lot” to rate magnitude of the clergy’s contribution could account for some of the negative responses.

Still, it’s logical that most of the people who disagreed with the premise, really do possess a low opinion of clergy. In the wake of child abuse scandals and those infrequent but well publicized cases where ministers commit outrageous crimes, it should come as no surprise.

I suppose it wouldn’t bother me quite so much that clergy were held in low regard, if I wasn’t a pastor myself.

But, as I was ruminating over this gloomy fact, it dawned on me that I actually share the less than glowing opinion of many of the poll’s respondents. I too don’t think that highly of many of the so-called ministers out there either. Especially the self-ordained ones or those pseudo-clergy who just buy a diploma off the internet. (The latter group really irritates me, since I belong to a denomination that requires four full years of seminary education prior to ordination.)

Not that education is all that significant in evaluating ministries. Many highly dedicated and productive ministers never attended seminary at all. And, on the reverse side of the coin, many people who have highly advanced theological degrees are self-aggrandizing hypocrites.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite passages from C.S. Lewis’ allegory about the separation between heaven and hell. In The Great Divorce he relates a conversation involving a lost soul who was a highly regarded theologian while he was alive.

Lewis calls him the “episcopal ghost,” but that’s not a reference to his denomination, merely his ostentatious persona and the fact that he attained the lofty office of “bishop.” Unfortunately, I’ve met more than one person during my life who greatly resembles the misguided theologian in the story.

I enjoy this particular literary encounter so much that I wrote an article about it for a C.S. Lewis journal some years ago.*

If you’ve never read The Great Divorce, you’re missing out on a real gem. It is one of the very few books I have ever read in a single sitting. Once I began it, I couldn’t put it down. (I know that’s a cliche, but in this case it’s literally true.)

The passage I find so provocative appears below. (I didn’t have the heart to edit it, since some readers will want to follow the entire conversation.) After rereading it, I’m beginning to wonder why anyone in Pew’s poll considered clergy praiseworthy.

To understand the dialog, allow me to set the stage. In this fictional work, various “ghosts” (insubstantial souls of those who died without a relationship to Christ) are met at the outskirts of heaven by “bright people” (redeemed, truly real human beings) with whom they were acquainted during their mortal lives. The redeemed individuals attempt to persuade the lost to desire in some small way to draw close to God, so that they might continue a journey drawing closer to his grace.

In this scenario, the two men were both liberal theologians, but one of them, before he died, came to believe that what the Scriptures teach was actually true.

_____

* “Confused Clerics,” The Lamp-Post 18.1 (March 1994): 15-22.

One Sad Pastor

‘My dear boy, I’m delighted to see you,’ [the Ghost] was saying to the Spirit, who was naked and almost blindingly white.** ‘I was talking to your poor father the other day and wondering where you were.’

‘You didn’t bring him?’ said the other.

‘Well, no. He lives a long way from the bus, and, to be quite frank, he’s been getting a little eccentric lately. A little difficult. Losing his grip. He never was prepared to make any great efforts, you know. If you remember, he used to go to sleep when you and I got talking seriously! Ah, Dick, I shall never forget some of our talks. I expect you’ve changed your views a bit since then. You became rather narrow-minded towards the end of your life: but no doubt you’ve broadened out again.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘Well, it’s obvious by now, isn’t it, that you weren’t quite right. Why, my dear boy, you were coming to believe in a literal Heaven and Hell!’

‘But wasn’t I right?’

‘Oh, in a spiritual sense, to be sure. I still believe in them in that way. I am still, my dear boy, looking for the Kingdom. But nothing superstitious or mythological…’

‘Excuse me. Where do you imagine you’ve been?’

‘Ah, I see. You mean that the grey town with its continual hope of morning (we must all live by hope, must we not?), with its field for indefinite progress, is, in a sense, Heaven, if only we have eyes to see it? That is a beautiful idea.’

‘I didn’t mean that at all. Is it possible you don’t know where you’ve been?’

‘Now that you mention it, I don’t think we ever do give it a name. What do you call it?’

‘We call it Hell.’

‘There is no need to be profane, my dear boy. I may not be very orthodox, in your sense of that word, but I do feel that these matters ought to be discussed simply, and seriously, and reverently.’

‘Discuss Hell reverently? I meant what I said. You have been in Hell: though if you don’t go back you may call it Purgatory.’

‘Go on, my dear boy, go on. That is so like you. No doubt you’ll tell me why, on your view, I was sent there. I’m not angry.’

‘But don’t you know? You went there because you are an apostate.’

‘Are you serious, Dick?’

‘Perfectly.’

‘This is worse than I expected. Do you really think people are penalised for their honest opinions? Even assuming, for the sake of argument, that those opinions were mistaken.’

‘Do you really think there are no sins of intellect?’

‘There are indeed, Dick. There is hide-bound prejudice, and intellectual dishonesty, and timidity, and stagnation. But honest opinions fearlessly followed—they are not sins.’

‘I know we used to talk that way. I did it too until the end of my life when I became what you call narrow. It all turns on what are honest opinions.’

‘Mine certainly were. They were not only honest but heroic. I asserted them fearlessly. When the doctrine of the Resurrection ceased to commend itself to the critical faculties which God had given me, I openly rejected it. I preached my famous sermon. I defied the whole chapter. I took every risk.’

‘What risk? What was at all likely to come of it except what actually came—popularity, sales for your books, invitations, and finally a bishopric?’

‘Dick, this is unworthy of you. What are you suggesting?’

‘Friend, I am not suggesting at all. You see, I know now. Let us be frank. Our opinions were not honestly come by. We simply found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because it seemed modern and successful. At College, you know, we just started automatically writing the kind of essays that got good marks and saying the kind of things that won applause. When, in our whole lives, did we honestly face, in solitude, the one question on which all turned: whether after all the Supernatural might not in fact occur? When did we put up one moment’s real resistance to the loss of our faith?’

‘If this is meant to be a sketch of the genesis of liberal theology in general, I reply that it is a mere libel. Do you suggest that men like…’

‘I have nothing to do with any generality. Nor with any man but you and me. Oh, as you love your own soul, remember. You know that you and I were playing with loaded dice. We didn’t want the other to be true. We were afraid of crude salvationism, afraid of a breach with the spirit of
the age, afraid of ridicule, afraid (above all) of real spiritual fears and hopes.’

‘I’m far from denying that young men may make mistakes. They may well be influenced by current fashions of thought. But it’s not a question of how the opinions are formed. The point is that they were my honest opinions, sincerely expressed.’

‘Of course. Having allowed oneself to drift, unresisting, unpraying, accepting every half-conscious solicitation from our desires, we reached a point where we no longer believed the Faith. Just in the same way, a jealous man, drifting and unresisting, reaches a point at which he believes lies about his best friend: a drunkard reaches a point at which (for the moment) he actually believes that another glass will do him no harm. The beliefs are sincere in the sense that they do occur as psychological events in the man’s mind. If that’s what you mean by sincerity they are sincere, and so were ours. But errors which are sincere in that sense are not innocent.’

‘You’ll be justifying the Inquisition in a moment!’

‘Why? Because the Middle Ages erred in one direction, does it follow that there is no error in the opposite direction?’

‘Well, this is extremely interesting,’ said the Episcopal Ghost. ‘It’s a point of view. Certainly, it’s a point of view. In the meantime…’

‘There is no meantime,’ replied the other. ‘All that is over. We are not playing now. I have been talking of the past (your past and mine) only in order that you may turn from it forever. One wrench and the tooth will be out. You can begin as if nothing had ever gone wrong. White as snow. It’s all true, you know. He is in me, for you, with that power. And—I have come a long journey to meet you. You have seen Hell: you are in sight of Heaven. Will you, even now, repent and believe?’

‘I’m not sure that I’ve got the exact point you are trying to make,’ said the Ghost.

‘I am not trying to make any point,’ said the Spirit. ‘I am telling you to repent and believe.’

‘But my dear boy, I believe already. We may
not be perfectly agreed, but you have completely misjudged me if you do not realise that my religion is a very real and a very precious thing to me.’

‘Very well,’ said the other, as if changing his plan. ‘Will you believe in me?’

‘In what sense?’

‘Will you come with me to the mountains? It will hurt at first, until your feet are hardened. Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows. But will you come?’

‘Well, that is a plan. I am perfectly ready to consider it. Of course I should require some assurances…I should want a guarantee that you are taking me to a place where I shall find a wider sphere of usefulness—and scope for the talents that God has given me—and an atmosphere of free inquiry—in short, all that one means by civilisation and—er—the spiritual life.’

‘No,’ said the other. ‘I can promise you none of these things. No sphere of usefulness: you are not needed there at all. No scope for your talents: only forgiveness for having perverted them. No atmosphere of inquiry, for I will bring you to the land not of questions but of answers, and you shall see the face of God.’

‘Ah, but we must all interpret those beautiful words in our own way! For me there is no such thing as a final answer. The free wind of inquiry must always continue to blow through the mind, must it not? “Prove all things”…to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.’

‘If that were true, and known to be true, how could anyone travel hopefully? There would be nothing to hope for.’

‘But you must feel yourself that there is something stifling about the idea of finality? Stagnation, my dear boy, what is more soul-destroying than stagnation?’

‘You think that, because hitherto you have experienced truth only with the abstract intellect. I will bring you where you can taste it like honey and be embraced by it as by a bridegroom. Your thirst shall be quenched.’

‘Well, really, you know, I am not aware of a thirst for some ready-made truth which puts an end to intellectual activity in the way you seem to be describing. Will it leave me the free play of Mind, Dick? I must insist on that, you know.’

‘Free, as a man is free to drink while he is drinking. He is not free still to be dry.’

The Ghost seemed to think for a moment. ‘I can make nothing of that idea,’ it said.

‘Listen!’ said the White Spirit. ‘Once you were a child. Once you knew what inquiry was for. There was a time when you asked questions because you wanted answers, and were glad when you had found them. Become that child again: even now.’

‘Ah, but when I became a man I put away childish things.’

‘You have gone far wrong. Thirst was made for water; inquiry for truth. What you now call the free play of inquiry has neither more nor less to do with the ends for which intelligence was given you than masturbation has to do with marriage.’

‘If we cannot be reverent, there is at least no need to be obscene. The suggestion that I should return at my age to the mere factual inquisitiveness of boyhood strikes me as preposterous. In any case, that question-and-answer conception of thought only applies to matters of fact. Religious and speculative questions are surely on a different level.’

‘We know nothing of religion here: we think only of Christ. We know nothing of speculation. Come and see. I will bring you to Eternal Fact, the Father of all other fact-hood.’

‘I should object very strongly to describing God as a “fact”. The Supreme Value would surely be a less inadequate description. It is hardly…’

‘Do you not even believe that He exists?’

‘Exists? What does Existence mean? You will keep on implying some sort of static, ready-made reality which is, so to speak, “there”, and to which our minds have simply to conform. These great mysteries cannot be approached in that way. If there were such a thing (there is no need to interrupt, my dear boy) quite frankly, I should not be interested in it. It would be of no religious significance. God, for me, is something purely spiritual. The spirit of sweetness and light and tolerance—and, er, service, Dick, service. We mustn’t forget that, you know.’

‘If the thirst of the Reason is really dead…,’ said the Spirit, and then stopped as though pondering. Then suddenly he said, ‘Can you, at least, still desire happiness?’

‘Happiness, my dear Dick,’ said the Ghost placidly, ‘happiness, as you will come to see when you are older, lies in the path of duty. Which reminds me…Bless my soul, I’d nearly forgotten. Of course I can’t come with you. I have to be back next Friday to read a paper. We have a little Theological Society down there. Oh yes! there is plenty of intellectual life. Not of a very high quality, perhaps. One notices a certain lack of grip—a certain confusion of mind. That is where I can be of some use to them. There are even regrettable jealousies…I don’t know why, but tempers seem less controlled than they used to be. Still, one mustn’t expect too much of human nature. I feel I can do a great work among them. But you’ve never asked me what my paper is about! I’m taking the text about growing up to the measure of the stature of Christ and working out an idea which I feel sure you’ll be interested in. I’m going to point out how people always forget that Jesus (here the Ghost bowed) was a comparatively young man when he died. He would have outgrown some of his earlier views, you know, if he’d lived. As he might have done, with a little more tact and patience. I am going to ask my audience to consider what his mature views would have been. A profoundly interesting question. What a different Christianity we might have had if only the Founder had reached his full stature! I shall end up by pointing out how this deepens the significance of the Crucifixion. One feels for the first time what a disaster it was: what a tragic waste… so much promise cut short. Oh, must you be going? Well, so must I. Goodbye, my dear boy. It has been a great pleasure. Most stimulating and provocative. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.’

The Ghost nodded its head and beamed on the Spirit with a bright clerical smile—or with the best approach to it which such unsubstantial lips could manage—and then turned away humming softly to itself ‘City of God, how broad and far.’

_____

** Lewis’ use of the nakedness metaphor here is obviously an allusion to the creation of Adam and Eve who, while in a sinless state, required no clothing. It is in no way lewd. Rather, it is an image of purity.

9 responses to Unimpressive Clergy

  1. 

    After one reading, I find I Must read it again. Later.

  2. 

    On the question of the poll, my notion is that it says more about the depth of faith of those answering the poll than it does about the quality of the Pastorate. People who appreciate and value their faith in the great gift God has given us in his Son ought to be able to declare a greater sense of value for the “apostles” of this age than would those who hold the Church in disdain. Those same people could be expected to see and understand the differences between the sins of man and the sins of the Church.

    • 

      Good insight. I was going to say “everyone has their own experiences with pastors,” but it dawned on me that in our ever more secular society, that’s no longer true. I think there are many people who have never had a personal encounter with a pastor… in which case I suppose their (mis)perceptions are shaped by the media.

  3. 

    The Great Divorce is one of my favorite books of all time, and I second your assertion that it’s readable in one sitting. I don’t think I realized all of the ghosts started out in the gray town because they had no relationship with Christ. I thought all who had experienced some sort of relationship were more likely to wait in line, get on the bus, and then head off with the bright person who had come to meet them and escort them to heaven.

    As for the poll, I agree that scandals have rocked our collective idea of what pastors are and should be, but I’m also reminded of a time when I was little and was happily crunching acorns underfoot out in front of my church. My mom was crunching along with me, and we were both laughing, but I stopped as soon as I saw one of our associate pastors coming, because I thought he would think we were misbehaving. My mother assured me that he was human, too, and wouldn’t mind the fun we were having. It was a good lesson to help me understand that pastors *are* human and therefore not to be set on a higher pedestal than the rest of us. I wonder if we’ve just stopped expecting *too* much from our pastors. Or maybe we’ve stopped expecting enough. I don’t know. I look forward to hearing what your other readers have to say on the subject.

    • 

      Regarding the gray town… the people there may or may not have had some awareness of God, but they had no relationship with God. In Lewis’ allegory, the people who moved farther and farther away from the bus stop would be those whose souls had drawn further and further from God.

      Yes, pastors are real people. My belief is that they should never be looked up to as “special,” or more loved by God, but:

      1) they should be treated with respect and affection as shepherds, rather than hirelings, and,
      2) they should also be held to a higher standard of living, in accordance with 1 Timothy 3:1-7.

      • 

        Both great points (and I agree that they are deserving of both respect and the expectation of a higher standard of living). Thanks for more on the gray town. CS Lewis painted such a stark image of it — one that stays with me long after reading and rereading the book.

  4. 

    Yet another work of Lewis I want to read soon.

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