Chapter 7. Having an Answer
"For he taught them as one who had authority." Matthew 7:29
The president of the seminary study body addressed the incoming class during orientation week, choosing as his theme a premise (loudly applauded) which expresses the questing spirit of a generation of modern ministers. Said he: "We are here to find out why we are here."1 Priority is given to the quest, which has value in itself whatever the destination. Asking the right question is more important than finding the right answer. The preacher, according to this view, acts as an agent provocateur, stimulating people to think thoughts alien to their comfortable patterns of piety. The familiar list of Christian heroes is reconsidered: Servetus gets his inning against Calvin; Teilhard Chiardin succeeds Thomas Aquinas. And Sunday School classes favor group discussion over the memorization of the books of the Bible.
Certainly the Jesus of the Gospels asks plenty of probing questions, like: "Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?" and the obvious reply, the Samaritan, made the respondent more uncomfortable than a bigot subjected to a sermon on brotherhood. If the Lord sometimes verges on the Socratic, he also knows how to use a question to confound: with a Roman coin in hand, he ensnares his ensnarers, "Whose likeness and inscription is on it?" The moment of supreme insight, when for an instant the disciples glimpse during Jesus' earthly ministry his true identity, is inspired by the simple question, "But who do you say that I am?" a question which remains as pertinent in this generation as at Caesarea Philippi. Jesus belongs in the company of seekers.
But he also knew what he was doing, where he came from, and where he was going. The only occasion for which he did not give an answer was at his trial before Pontius Pilate, when the chief priests and elders made their accusations: a silence which in its way was an eloquent testimony. Even at the tender age of twelve, as Luke tells us, Jesus amazed the learned rabbis of the temple in Jerusalem with "his understanding and his answers." His mature teachings contain few of the qualifications of which contemporary preaching is fond, the "perhaps's," and "maybe's," the punch-pulling phrases in which this book also indulges. What separated Jesus from the other religious leaders of the moment was his authoritativeness. He always had an answer.
A layperson complained about her pastor who had been conducting a six week series of sermons and evening discussions on the racial issue. With as much humor as exasperation she vowed: "Give me a protest sign and I'll gladly march around the church letting the whole world know the pastor believes in racial justice, open housing, and world peace; I'm just not sure he believes in God." Her complaint illustrates the irony (and the double jeopardy) of the preacher who is far more sure about transient causes than faithful convictions. He is to be faulted less for strong opinions than for reversed priorities. Parishioners have a right to expect their pastor to have a thoughtful answer to their questions about God (Who is he/she? How can I know him?) and Jesus (Did he really believe he was God?), his teachings (Does he expect me to turn the other cheek?), his crucifixion (Was it necessary?), his resurrection (Did it actually happen?). Yet a candidate for the pastoral ministry, being interviewed by a screening committee, later let it be known he felt he had been before an inquisition because he was asked to explain how important Jesus Christ was to him!2 The committee may only have provided him with a preview of coming attractions. In the parish people have a disconcerting habit of plunking themselves down in an easy chair in the pastor's study and putting to him personal and profound questions, which they do not bring forth to be admired for their depth and probing, but because they want a considered answer from the mind and heart of their pastor, who they figure ought to know.
The effective pastor will have an answer.
During my pastorates I have been bewildered, pleased, amused, and flattered by a grab bag mixture of questions. Long before the hysteria encouraged by the film, "The Exorcist," I had been buttonholed and pressed on the question of the existence of the devil. I purchased and read Giovanni Papini's3 theological discussion of Old Nick, and became something of an amateur demonologist at summer camps.
Dozens of times I have had reason to refer to a five page paper I prepared for my own use on the issue of the remarriage of divorced persons.4 Behind the simple "yes" spoken to couples seeking remarriage, one or both of whom were parties to a divorce, when they call to see if a wedding is permissible, there lies a long process of self-dialogue. I have thought long and hard about Matthew 5:31-32 and Matthew 5:27-30 (!).
With more grieving families than I can remember, I have worried through God's seeming indifference to the agony of the slow death of one of his saints. Then, when a positive witness is required of the pastor, about why, why this suffering, I have through the years framed an answer, not an easy one, from my own understanding of the cross, my own travail, Job's, and even Ivan's, one of The Brothers Karamazov.
One morning by previous appointment a young woman sought my views on euthanasia in abstract terms, until she broke into tears and revealed she was the victim of a terminal illness and did she have a right to take her own life? Of course she wanted sympathy; but she also wanted direction.
On three separate occasions souls with mystical tendencies I do not share reported for my careful appraisal their unnerving epiphanies. They wanted to know what I made of them. Were they going crazy? Should they tell anyone else? They were seeking from the pastor far more than an appreciation for their spiritual gifts. They wanted explanation and assurance.5
Once I was summoned, like a guest on "Meet the Press," to the living room of a church family to debate with a contingent from Jehovah's Witnesses on the divinity of Jesus Christ, the reality of the kingdom, the dating of the end of the world, and the celebration of Christmas. In such on-the-spot moments the effective pastor does not airily dismiss the ambassadors from Kingdom Halls with comments about literalism. He had better have reasoned answers from the Scriptures, the same Scriptures from which the JW's take their proof-texts.
Standing beside the casket in the funeral parlor, a frequent assignment for the pastor, calls for some prior serious thought about life and death and the life to come. For there, in that parlor, especially there, having an answer deeply felt, simply stated, and convincingly presented is an act not only of faith but of compassion.
Having an answer should be distinguished from having the answer. For speaking with authority is too often confused with being dogmatic. A church school teacher who was rigidly fundamentalist took exception to her pastor's sermon (evidently owing something to Paul Tillich) on the element of doubt contained in every profession of faith. She insisted that a Christian must believe 100% with nary a glance over the shoulder, no second thoughts. When the pastor bid her, "Come, let us reason together," she turned away, flinging in his direction as she fled the scene, "That's the way it is; there's nothing more to talk about." She had more than an answer; she had the answer. That attitude, the closed mind syndrome,6 would be deadly in a pastor, particularly if it were to infiltrate less eternal issues, like whether or not women should wear lipstick, or what is the right color for the sanctuary ceiling.7 No one really listens to a know-it-all.
It is also poor theology. Christians in the Reformed tradition will make Luther's sole gratia their preamble to every statement of faith; that the believer is saved not by the purity of his belief, or its accuracy, but by the gracious love of God through Jesus Christ. We are, however aggravated our level of certainty, still sinners standing in the need of prayer. If the preacher should be informed, he should never be intellectually or confessionally arrogant. He will carefully temper eternal truth in the forge of his own experience, that it may, like supple steel, bend for its task without breaking in rigidity.
The effective pastor will have an answer and never pretend it is the only one.
Second Thoughts after Twenty-five Years
1. Fashions in theology come and go... giving credence to the apostolic warning of the danger of being blown about by every wind of doctrine. In September 1953 when student body president Bill Hollister greeted us with his celebration of the questing spirit, existentialism (think Sartre and Kierkegaard) was the vogue. Half the student body, or so it seemed, had an Augustinian conversion experience to confess. No wonder my entering class applauded Mr Hollister. I would report, with a smidgeon of sarcasm, that some of us never did find out why we were there. I checked through the picture book of my class and was not surprised to find that about half of those who began never finished, or finished and eventually left the ordained ministry. Reunions produce very few celebrating alumni.
Of course, the ecclesiastical beat goes on. In the 60's and 70's Buckminster Fuller and the Death of God were the hot topics for refectory discussion. In the 80's and 90's it was Liberation Theology and gender sensitive in holy language. One wonders what the new millennium will bring, provided, of course, the seminary I attended, Union Theological Seminary, cheek by jowl to Columbia University, can manage not to go bankrupt for lack of students.
2. I remember well the meeting of this examining committee. In retrospect, the actual issue is more damning. I asked the candidate to describe his "Christology." He didn't know what I meant by Christology. Yet he had attended an excellent college and was currently enrolled in a well-known and well-regarded Interdenominational Seminary.
3. Although I sometimes despair of my failure to have read theology beyond my seminary days, I find that many of the books I continue to draw on were never assigned by a professor, but were read after my formal training ended. Giovanni Papini's The Devil provided me with an intelligent (often puckish) insight into evil's personification. From Papini I learned Baudelaire's statement of Satan's neatest trick (ask me sometime). But beyond my years with Niebuhr, Tillich, and Bob Brown, I read most of the writings of Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer. I managed also to read all of Graham Greene's novels. And, for a correction to the slice and dice criticism prevalent in New Testament studies at the seminary, I found a helpful dissenting opinion by a German scholar named Stauffer, whose commentary on the Virgin Birth continues to inform my own view of that phrase in the Apostles' Creed.
4. Boy, doesn't this illustration date the original writing of this book! The clergyperson a divorced person consults nowadays 50% of the time can say from firsthand experience, "I know how you feel." Most of the shame has gone out of marital breakups. The Christian right may point to the rising rate of divorce as proof of the decline of American morality. I hold to a different view: that our society has become more humane, more realistic, and less hypocritical about the man/woman relationship. Besides, we are all living longer. As a consequence my counseling with those going into marriage a second time dwells only briefly on previous failure and focuses mostly on making the forthcoming union a successful and satisfying one.
5. To tell the truth, spiritual people bewilder me. I would make a lousy Pentecostal. Yet in my pastoral travels I have spent plenty of time in the company of those who are far more adept than I am at "feeling the Spirit movin'" in their hearts. After fifty years of professional Christian leadership I have come to the conclusion that God never meant me to be spiritual. Otherwise I would be unable as a pastor to understand 99 and 44/100 % of humanity. What I have tried to do with those who dream dreams and see visions and speak in tongues is to acknowledge readily their gift, admit a twinge or two of envy, and try to understand just how hard must be for them, swinging high and low (as spiritual people almost always do), while I go through life like a steamship on the ocean, steady and straight.
6. Certain denominations can fairly be accused of indulging the same heresy, claming to have a corner on the truth about God and Jesus. You may think I am thinking Roman Catholic. I am not. That kind of rigidity and doctrinal arrogance belongs to Catholicism's pre-Pope John XXII days. But, alas, some Protestant denominations have picked up where post-Tridentine Catholicism left off. And sometimes it's just a bad habit of mind of an individual pastor or priest.
7. Each of the items in this catalogue of trivial issues has a real-time reference for me, during my pastorate in Brooklyn. More pastors have lost their cool and their pulpits over petty issues than over doctrinal disagreements. The effective pastor will take a clue from the Kenny Rogers' hit song in which the poker player observes that to win you have to know when to hold them and when to fold them. Wisdom in pastoral leadership consists in knowing what's worth fighting for and what isn't.