For sixty years, Christian faith of the conservative and evangelical variety was a foundational element and a formative influence in my life. More than that, and—practically speaking—more important than that, for nearly forty years, it was an essential factor in the way I made my living. As a pastor, a parachurch executive, and a Bible college instructor, one of my tasks was to defend and propagate a fairly specific set of beliefs and the system of biblical interpretation which produced them.
That is not to say that the character and content of that list of doctrines never varied over the years. It is only to say that I understood, if mainly subconsciously, that any significant variation could have consequences. Not least was the possibility that I could lose my job.
I recently read, and posted on my Facebook page, the following quote by the American novelist, Upton Sinclair.
It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it.
I may not find Sinclair a role model whose lifestyle and value system I want to emulate, but I cannot deny the wisdom in that quote. Moreover, I have developed my own corollary to the Sinclair principle.
There are two times in a man’s life when you want to listen carefully to what he says he believes. One is when he is on his deathbed; the other is when he knows that his confession of belief will cost him either his life or his job. Neither of those scenarios guarantees the truth of the belief, but they guarantee the integrity and sincerity of the believer.
For me, at age sixty-four, that means a lot. In fact, I’ve pretty much come to the place where I regard most highly those teachers and leaders whose beliefs and convictions have cost them something. Conversely, I am influenced least by those whose livelihoods depend on their advocacy of a particular belief system. And the higher their compensation, the greater my innate skepticism.
That’s not to say that every person—whether a preacher or teacher or politician—whose salary is tied to his or her endorsement of a particular ideology is a huckster. Even less do I mean to suggest that financial compensation or material gain automatically renders everything said or written by those people suspect or in error.
What I do mean to suggest is that, when our source of revenue is directly linked to our ideology, we are generally less inclined to consider seriously the weaknesses and inconsistencies in our belief system (and every system has them) or the logical strengths and reasonableness of an opposing viewpoint. I know many sincere and articulate advocates of one ideology or another whose influence on me would be stronger if I could be convinced they had ever given serious consideration to a belief system or a faith tradition other than the one they inherited from their parents and in which they were raised.
I’m quite certain I would never have written a blog post like this while I was still on the payroll of some church, ministerial agency, or institution. The point I am making in this post would likely never have occurred to me then, and I would probably have responded defensively if I encountered the argument in someone else’s writing.
My circumstances changed, however, and I found myself unemployed. For a variety of reasons, my faith was pretty much shattered. Although I didn’t appreciate its true value at the time, I was given an opportunity to subject my faith and its foundational presuppositions to some intense scrutiny, free from the need to reconstruct it according to a pattern prescribed by the parameters of my employment contract.
When I was employed by Christian agencies and institutions, I had neither time nor inclination to look more or less objectively at some truth claims I had uncritically embraced and enthusiastically propagated. In the past couple of years, particularly, I have been doing a lot of that.
As a ministry professional, I steered clear of perspectives that raised uncomfortable questions or challenged my presuppositions, no matter how balanced and thoughtful those questions or challenges may have been. No more. My circumstances have brought me to the place where, every single day, I need to choose what, or even whether, I will believe. My faith is far less complex than it used to be and far more intentional.
Jim Palmer is a Facebook friend of mine. A graduate of a highly-regarded evangelical seminary, he served on the staff of a well-known evangelical mega-church and as founding pastor of a church in the southern US. In 2000, Jim “left professional Christian ministry and began chronicling his journey of ‘shedding religion to find God.’” I have read several of his books, and, although he and I are not at precisely the same place, his pilgrimage is similar enough to mine that I have benefited from his writing in many ways.
Jim Palmer recently posted a summary of his pilgrimage on his Facebook page, and I find that I can relate to almost every point he makes. For that reason, I am using the following image, captured directly from Palmer’s Facebook posting, to bring this post to a close. I agree with Jim when he says…