Home Commentary Op-ed Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Religion But Were Afraid to Ask

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Religion But Were Afraid to Ask


March 29, 2008 — I've had a great week!
The faculty and students of a small college half an hour’s drive from my house are on spring break. Each year during this time the school conducts an academic activity called The Senior Mini College.
It’s five days of quasi-academic courses designed to attract, enlighten, or simply entertain local residents who are, well, not entirely a geriatric crowd, but older than your typical college student. The only requirements for enrollment are to be at least intermittently conscious, more-or-less vertical, and ambulatory for a minimum of 50 feet, with assistance by wheels or canes if required.
A faculty of 50 unpaid volunteer presenters, of which I am one, offers 110 different courses to about 300 students. With faint apologies to Woody Allen, my course was dubbed "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Religion but Were Afraid to Ask."
And ask they do, fearlessly. One grandmotherly student, in an after-class conversation, said that in her church she has never felt comfortable exposing how uninformed she is about even the simplest basics of the faith she professes. That’s pretty sad.
Another asked where I get all the material I’m sharing with them. To my answer that it’s all part of the curriculum of any first-class theological seminary, he mused, "I’ve gone to church all my life; I wonder why I’ve never heard any of it." His unanswered question became self-answering.
A Baptist attorney/clergyman recently wrote a little book entitled, "Ten things your pastor wants to tell you but can't because he needs the job."
In 1961 my friend Ralph Elliot was fired as professor of Old Testament at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His dismissal came as a result of a huge flap within the denomination over publication of his book, The Message of Genesis. Dr. Elliot was sacked, not because anything in his book was untrue, but because some of the more influential clergy in financially powerful congregations found his impeccable scholarly approach to scripture threatening to their uninformed pietistic perspective. Actually, Ralph was fired for insubordination when he refused trustee demands that he not republish the work that had brought scholarly acclaim and internecine conflict to the school. One trustee said, "He just upset too many people."
And he didn’t need the job badly enough to put a lid on what he knew to be true.
There’s an old canard that a pastor has to run for office every seven days. That’s an exaggeration, but not much of one in church bodies that do not provide tenure and autonomy for clergy.
In this regard I have noticed a change in myself, a psychological shift, since I formally retired. Although Episcopal Church congregations cannot dismiss their clergy, there was always that subliminal awareness that I needed to keep a substantial portion of the flock happy, or at least content, with me.
I nearly blew it when I permitted the high school youth group to invite a witch, then an alleged communicator with other worlds, to talk with them. None of the curious and fascinated kids joined a coven or started channeling Elvis, but a few parents had a huge hissy.
One has to think carefully about being fully authentic if it might jeopardize your effectiveness as a leader, to say nothing of putting braces on the kid’s teeth or making car payments.
But it’s vital to the spiritual health of those for whom you have accepted the sacred obligation to be prophet and teacher that they never have reason to believe there is anything about religion that is off limits to their inquiry. Further, a pastor is under obligation to encourage those in their care to think. It’s dangerous to uniform orthodoxy, but to do otherwise is deadly to the soul.

Editor's note: W. Jackson "Jack" Wilson is a psychologist, an Episcopal priest, a sometime academic and a writer living in Colorado.
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