Frustration and Disillusionment
[A Spiritual Autobiography, Part 2]
Nothing in my theological education or my previous experience prepared me for the reality of ministering to the mid-twentieth century rural parish or for the related problem of what to say on Sunday mornings or at funerals.
Gaines is a rural community situated along New York’s Route 104, the ridge road roughly paralleling the south side of Lake Ontario that stretches out between Rochester and Buffalo, just north of the Village of Albion in Orleans County. Following graduation I became minister at the Gaines Congregational Church, the parish in which I had done the final year of my student field work, sharing the part-time ministerial duties with a member of the theology faculty at Colgate Rochester Divinity School, each of us commuting out from Rochester on weekends. The church building was located adjacent to the Grange Hall and a quaint country store. The rest of the world had largely passed it by, and even today it hasn’t changed much in the 43 years since 1961 when I became the student minister of the Gaines parish.
The congregation consisted of farmers, most of whom grew tomatoes and cabbages part-time and had other off-season jobs to get them through the long winters when farming could not be done and the canneries had shut down; together with some small business owners; a few school teachers; some long distance commuters who worked in Rochester or Buffalo; a few landed gentry whose income source was not apparent; and a few blue collar tradesmen. In other words, a typical rural protestant congregation.
I shared the ministerial duty during the field work phase of my graduate program in the 1960-1961 school year with Dr. James Rodney Branton, Professor of New Testament at Colgate Rochester, until the early spring when on Easter weekend just before the afternoon Good Friday service I received a telephone message from Rochester that Dr. Branton had died that morning from a massive heart attack. I had to carry on with the service alone rather than assisting Dr. Branton, as we had planned.
Fortunately I had less theological trouble with Good Friday than I did with Easter, so I had two days to come up with an Easter Sunday sermon. For the afternoon service immediately at hand I expanded and ad libbed what I had planned to say, which was along the line of acknowledging death from the Christian perspective as a normal part of the cycle of life, death and resurrection in Christian theology, pointing toward the death of Christ, which we acknowledge on Good Friday, but which we celebrate from the perspective of Easter Sunday, when resurrection follows crucifixion as day inevitably follows the night.
That short Good Friday sermon was not particularly inspiring, as I recall, and it was certainly opaque in meaning, the words deliberately concealing as much as they illuminated. No one asked any questions afterward and it was pretty well received since most knew that I had not planned to handle the service alone. That little success gave me some temporary confidence as I shouldered the full burden of ministerial duty, along with the full load of theological studies. Carrying this double burden was not at all unusual for theological students at Colgate Rochester; we were expected to handle that sort of academic and emotional load.
But now I faced the weekly problem of writing the Sunday sermon. Even more troubling to me was what I could say to the children who came up to the front of the church and gathered around me for a brief ‘children’s sermon’ before heading off to Sunday school to learn things they would have to unlearn later. I found that my view of Christianity, of what could and should be said and believed, ran hard into the wall of practical theology, which was the limit to what could be said without giving offense to some. What could I say with integrity that would be helpful and relevant, comforting to those who needed comfort and disquieting to those who were too comfortable in their complacency, but which would not appear irreverent or unfaithful or undermine the cherished beliefs that many lay persons thought were essential Christian doctrine? I saw this as an ethical dilemma every bit as much as a practical dilemma and it troubled me greatly.
I was not alone among my classmates in being troubled by this difficulty, but perhaps I was more troubled than some and more sensitive than I needed to be. I believed fervently that Christianity would become increasingly irrelevant to many in our world unless we found a way to communicate what was essential in it and learned to separate out that essential core truth of Christianity from the mythical trappings in which it was entangled and the historical baggage that it carried from earlier times. Some of my classmates agreed with me that this was the key issue, but many of them found ways to accommodate their beliefs to the practical realities of the parish that I was just not able to manage.
I recall reading in a 1995 issue of Christian Century (paraphrased from memory) that a generation of young students for the ministry went to theological seminary to struggle with and ultimately to lose their faith. The reference was, I believe, to those educated in the 1960-1970 era. That is a bit of over-statement for effect, but it is very clear to me that the seminary experience was both intellectually exhilarating and emotionally disturbing. I had the impression that the Colgate Rochester faculty did not have any serious appreciation of the difficulty of applying theological education to the realities of the rural parish, or if they did, they did not offer any useful advice and must have assumed that each student would have to work through the issues of meaning and communication on his or her own without much guidance.
My fellow students approached this dilemma in quite different ways. As expected a few had left seminary before the completion of the three-year graduate program, having decided early that another profession was more suitable. Some became proficient in the craft of the professional clergy—talks to the Rotary Club, developing large and magnificent church buildings, skill in fund raising and financial management, dabbling in denominational politics and serving on committees and commissions—activities that kept them from having to think or worry very much about troubling theological issues. They accepted ministry as a professional career not substantially different from other professional careers they might have chosen, and the intellectual and ethical implications of this approach to ministry did not appear to trouble them very much.
A few retreated from the abyss of uncertainty, having discovered that the experience left them without the ability to say “I believe….” , instead having elected to fall back on the agreed faith of the Church Universal and depend on its liturgy , so that they could say “the Church believes…” or “we believe” rather than “I believe….,” neatly side-stepping the uncomfortable question of their personal credo. They found comfort in the traditions and self-assurance, for instance, of the Anglo-Catholic ritual, believing that faith would come in time, like wisdom and gray hair. They chose ordination in highly-liturgical churches (such as Episcopal or Lutheran) where the church’s beliefs are set into the creed and “we believe” was the key phrase that allowed public affirmation of the creed of the church while reserving to oneself the right of individual and private interpretation of difficult issues such as the meaning of “incarnation” or “resurrection” or “born of the virgin Mary” or even “God.”
Some found meaning in the psychological interpretation of religious faith, the Church as a healing community, mental health as a form of salvation and sin as something we would grow out of or learn to accept as we matured into self-actualized human beings, accepting who we were and who we could become. The focus was on wholeness and well-being. Those who took the mental health approach typically ended up as institutional chaplains in hospitals, prisons or the military or as pastoral counselors in a large church with specialized ministerial functions.
Others went into social service agencies in the inner city or to Appalachia , or became counselors or spiritual advisors in youth programs or substance-abuse and rehabilitation programs, committing themselves to charitable work and self-sacrifice.
Some chose church leadership roles with denominational headquarters, or councils of churches or with church-related organizations in religious education, church organizational development, fund raising, ecumenical relations or social activism.
A few took the path of “biblical preaching,” which was just beginning to emerge as an approach to the Sunday sermon, a deceptively clever strategy that meant choosing a brief passage from the Bible and (ignoring its context if necessary) using that text or phrase as a jumping off point for whatever they wanted to talk about, the justification for which was that the spirit of God (whatever that means) may choose to use that sermon to “speak to” an individual.
It is not my intent to make light of any of those options, because they are real and valid responses to faith where it exists, as well as to un-faith, but these are routes that I could not travel. My characterization of these various career options may be uncharitable, even condescending, but I had the sense then and now that each of these ways involved some element of avoiding the fundamental issue, which was that going through a theological education should make a difference in what one was able to say on Sunday morning.
The man in the pew should be able to hear a sermon based on the struggle and enmity between Cain and Abel and get the sense that these are not real people but represent a historical struggle between two ways of life coming into conflict in the early settlement of the land that eventually became Israel, and that the story came into being as a way of explaining the cultural and historical experiences and relationships in the oral traditions of those early settlers, and from there perhaps discussing the ongoing conflict between traditions, and then move on to a practical application, perhaps the conflict in Kosovo, or the conflict of traditions in Iraq, or perhaps to the current Arab-Israeli conflict over land and life.
The point and the value of that story is missed if we are led to believe that this is a fight between brothers, one of whom murdered the other, and the lesson then becomes trivial and irrelevant for most of us, who already pretty much reject the concept of fratricide as an appropriate solution to family conflict.
By avoiding the contextual and historical issues, and the function and interplay of history, folklore, myth and legend in the Old Testament, and by failing to patiently explain how we are to take that sort of biblical passage and get to whatever ‘truth’ the story may contain, the message becomes detached from its context and the informed or curious and alert listener is left with the impression that the minister cannot distinguish between folklore and history. Whatever religious or theological “value” the story may have does not depend upon whether or not Cain and Abel were real people, or were legendary but symbolic representations, to tell an important story about cultural conflict and its consequences.
I do not mean to understate the difficulty of communicating the Christian message without offending those who believe that the essential truth of Christianity is directly tied to the view that bible stories are about real people and describe literal historical events, or that the religious truth of the basic Christian doctrine of the Resurrection depends upon or is validated by the announcement of angels at an empty tomb, or that Jesus was born to an actual virgin named Mary and is literally the offspring of God. Try to bring up the concept of Resurrection without getting hung up on “whether it happened” as described in Matthew rather than “what does it mean” -- what is the significance of the concept of Resurrection to the Christian and how does that story apply to us -- and you will quickly find that you may have given offense to some.
It is impossible to talk about the concept of Creation without being forced to talk about whether the creation story in Genesis is ‘true’ or not (in the sense of whether it describes historical events at a particular time and place) or whether the Bible conflicts with modern science. These issues were resolved by academics and theologians a century and a half ago, yet the typical layman in the church is unaware of that fact because clergy have avoided dealing with the issues of biblical interpretation and history.
No one that I knew in theological school, faculty or student, believed that the creation story reflected historical or scientific explanations of the beginnings of the universe, or was anything other than ‘myth’ or whether ‘what happened’ in the creation story was even important. The ‘truth’ expressed in the concept of creation does not depend on the scientific or historic accuracy of the biblical creation story. Myth and poetry and their inter-relationships, and in what sense they convey ‘truth,’ are important concepts that we cannot deal with without first abandoning the notion that the Creation Story describes an actual event that occurred at the beginning of historical time.
Unfortunately this is not the language of the parish. It is not only difficult but it may be close to impossible to bridge the gap between the Christianity of the theologians and clergy and the “Sunday school theology” of the man in the pew. These are two different worlds, or so it seemed to me, with no obvious way to bridge them. Yet it seemed to me at the time that an attempt had to be made to build that bridge.
In my early days as a minister (with great naivete but with real conviction) I tried to convey what I believed to be the essence of Christian faith, appropriately demythologized and re-interpreted for life in our times, to people who came to church largely out of habit or a sense of duty, and for the most part had very superficial beliefs, were uncertain about or unfamiliar with the key concepts of Christianity, and did not take religion very seriously, at least not so that it made any difference in their lives.
The goal of my ministry as I saw it at that time was to make Christian faith relevant to the man in the pew, to educate beyond the Sunday School version of Christianity that was so easy to trivialize and reject, and to communicate the essence of a religious faith that was meaningful, understandable and helpful; in other words, to bridge the gap between the awkward and uncomfortable language of faith and the reality of our modern world.
It was difficult to figure out where to begin or what to say first. It was not so much that I did not know what I believed about what was essential in Christianity; it was rather that the pieces of theological baggage that I had jettisoned along the way, or that seemed so easily misunderstood or that were sufficiently disturbing or offensive that they should not be said, left me struggling with what to say and what to leave out, constantly searching to find the words that would communicate without doing harm.
The struggle was not just about the choice of words, however, it was more a struggle with ethical issues of how to handle Bible readings, prayer, funerals and Easter in an honest way that did not damage my integrity or disturb too greatly what passed for faith and belief in my parishioners. How should I deal with the story of creation, of Adam and Eve, of Jacob wrestling with the angel, or Noah, or Jonah, or Job? These stories could not be taken literally and seriously at the same time; if we took them literally it was virtually impossible to take them seriously and to cull them for the religious truth that they conveyed. I wanted to say directly that of course these stories are not about historical events, they didn’t really happen; they are myth or legend, but they convey a religious truth that is important; that there are different kinds and levels of truth, and sometimes we have to get beyond the story’s literal truth to see its important religious truth for us.
I began with the premise that seemed so obvious to me as a freshly-minted young minister, that in our day we are all unbelievers to some extent even when we profess Christian faith and regularly participate in the life of the church. I took it for granted that my struggle for faith in high school and college was a common experience of others in the church also struggling with questions of faith and belief. What we needed in our churches was religious re-education. I found very shortly to my surprise and discouragement, that I had misunderstood and misjudged the extent to which the average man in the pew was troubled by religious questions or with the difficulty of belief.
The weekly sermon was a challenge but the medium gave me some room to maneuver and I got pretty good at writing sermons that expressed concepts that were in line with my “demythologized restatement” of Christian theology but were couched in terms of traditional religious language that could be understood at different levels of interpretation. My intention was to stimulate thought and reaction by those persons in the congregation who were inclined to ask questions and who were able to see past the traditional language, which would then be followed by study classes that would gently teach a bit about the background of the bible and church history and some basic theology but in a way that got people from where they were to a more sophisticated and legitimate level. The attempt was not entirely successful.
In those days in rural America people invited the minister to join them for Sunday dinner in their home after the service. One of the church leaders was Winton Hatch, a wise, sometimes cynical but genuinely perceptive man at whose house I dined frequently and who sometimes used those meals as occasions to discuss the Sunday sermon. We discussed the various “levels” of understanding of religious concepts and the need to get beyond the literal story to the the truth that it conveyed. We had many good conversations about Christian faith and its implications. But in these conversations I sensed that he was raising a flag of caution.
My take on the substance of Winton’s views on the need for a reinterpretation of religious faith to make it understandable today, distilled to the cold hard truth from many conversations, was that most people were not intellectually curious about religion, did not think about what they believed or did not believe, came to church for comfort and companionship, were quite comfortable with their simple faith, and were not going to take the time or expend the emotional energy to get beyond the story to the truth that it conveys. He believed that such a strategy was ethically flawed and in any event futile; the practical effect of the sermon was to destroy the structure of their simple faith and give them nothing useful that they could understand to replace it with; disturbing even naive faith cannot be a loving, considerate or kind thing to do; and that it did not seem to him either fair or responsible that I challenge the simple views and harmlessly naive faith of simple people just because I had a problem with it.
Of course I had an answer ready, which was that there can be no faith without struggle, Jesus himself did not avoid saying hard things when they needed to be said, you must go through the night to get to the dawn, and that I had to prepare a proper foundation of receptivity before I could build on it. But the truth is that his words struck something deep within me that has continued to disturb me through the years, and even though I did not leave the professional ministry until some years later, those conversations with Winton were a contributing factor in my observation that I was essentially a teacher, not a priest or minister, and that I should leave it to others to figure out how to talk to those in the church.
My brief unhappy experience in the parish ministry confirmed my original determination that the appropriate career path for me was teaching in a college or university, where the free exchange of ideas was sometimes disturbing but was expected and where Christianity was getting a new look in any event. I saw this short stint in a parish as a temporary detour, to explore the possibility of the parish, and to figure out the next step in obtaining a doctorate that would qualify me to teach at the university level. My career took a different turn than I had intended largely because I did not have the funds to pursue a doctoral degree and after my frustrating experience in the parish I determined that I would not – could not -- serve as interim minister in a parish to support myself while pursuing the doctorate, although that was the traditional way that such support was obtained.
I married Sue Hamilton at just about the same time that I made the decision to postpone my doctoral studies. Three months after Sue and I were married, I accepted an offer to become chaplain of a New England college preparatory school and head of its religion department. That was as close to the original objective of teaching religion in an academic institution as I would get.
I came away from the experience as a parish minister with a great deal of frustration and disillusionment. With hindsight I have concluded that I was terribly naive about what it was possible to accomplish in a parish, particularly because of the widespread failure of any serious adult religious education in the church for several generations. I began to recognize that I had more in common with those outside the church than with those within it. It confirmed my increasing sense that it was easier to communicate with the non-churched world than with those believers who were still in the church. It was apparent to me that what passed for Christianity in the church could not do much to meet the religious and spiritual needs of the great majority of people who were more at home in the secular modern world than they were in the mythical world of contemporary Christianity.