How much do we believe?

A short while ago I posted a piece about Daniel Dennett and his rant against religion and faith. This week he cropped up again in a similar vein. He recently wrote an article for the Washington Post entitled Non-believing clergy: Now what will we do? The thrust of the article is that Dennett, along with his co-writer Linda LaScola have found clergymen who say that they don’t believe the doctrines that they preach from the pulpit. He has found five such individuals, and questions almost gleefully, whether this is the tip of an ice-berg.

I am sure Mr Dennett is a charming and intelligent man, but he certainly seems to have an axe to grind against the church in general and the clergy in particular. Although I don’t share his views on faith, I have to admit that his piece reminded me of a lady from an evangelical church in my home town who proclaimed secretively but knowingly “There are some Church of Scotland ministers who aren’t saved!” Now, for those not familiar with Scottish presbyterianism, the national church isn’t known for being evangelical.

Two things strike me about Dennett’s article: The first is that it is hardly news that there are some members of the clergy who have questions about their faith. This can be put even more strongly. If there is any clergyman or woman, in any denomination, who has no doubts whatever about their faith then they are either saints or have missed the point somewhere. As I understand my faith and the theology that underpins it, it is difficult to think that any of us will ever have perfect understanding, and complete confidence, before we see eternity. There are many of course who understand far more than I do, although I suspect I still see further into Mr Dennett’s chosen subject than he does.

The second thought that came to my mind was a sermon I once heard which highlighted exactly what Dennett is trying to poke at. The speaker was telling of how he had been engaged in a conversation with someone on the subject of faith. This other person had said to him “Oh, you must be one of those born-again Christians”, to which our preacher replied “Is there another kind of Christian?”

Now, when I heard this I understood exactly what the preacher was saying but have been surprised over the years at the reaction to the story when I have told it. I am certain that I saw our previous minister’s eyebrows shoot up in horror. This is one of those sensitive areas in church life where it is unseemly to question one another’s faith. And of course, we shouldn’t. We should encourage one another in love. Even if they are our minister, pastor or priest.

But when we come to deal with those, like Daniel Dennett, who would seek to criticise, how should we stand? The best answer is probably to ignore these people, confident in what we know. As one minister said to me once, “When we get to heaven, the most surprising thing won’t be the people we recognise. It will be the people we expected to see that are missing!”


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