Taking Ministry Seriously, with Humility

I started first grade in 1961, in a one-room elementary school just down the road from our home in rural Indiana, as the child of a housewife and a railroad worker. The teacher, and the preacher in the Lutheran church supporting that school, were the first professionals whose work became familiar to me. When Mr. Gemmer, the teacher, would ask the two dozen (or so) kids in our eight grades how many of us wanted to become teachers, a majority of hands went up. Mine was among them.

In 1967, the school closed and Mr. Gemmer went away. I finished my primary and secondary education in public schools. In the last two years of high school, I became involved in the Jesus Movement of the early 1970s. During my senior year especially, a group of perhaps 15 students, participating in our school’s prayer group, generated an environment of caring and companionship that I have never forgotten.

At times during my junior and/or senior year in high school, I taught Sunday School in the Lutheran church next door, worked as the president of that church’s youth group, and served as an office assistant to the minister, Rev. Hillmer. In my private religious practice at that time, I was studying the Bible intensively, memorizing substantial pieces of it verbatim, fasting (for one or more days at a stretch), speaking in tongues, praying at length, and wrestling with the real or imagined demons of the pentecostal worldview pervading our portion of the Christian life.

These experiences gave me a foundation of religious conviction as well as some minor exposure to leadership, in those roles as Bible teacher, informal prayer group leader, and elected leader of the youth group at the Lutheran church. Through my encounters with Rev. Hillmer, I began to see that it could make sense to pursue a career in the ministry. That was the basis on which I decided to attend college rather than just study my Bible and await the Second Coming of Christ, which I understood was imminent. In fall 1973, I became a pre-ministry student at Concordia Lutheran Junior College in Ann Arbor, MI.

In their work at that time and in years to come, Rev. Hillmer and Mr. Gemmer embodied the faith of the committed Christian. I did not find, in their Lutheran church, the drama and intensity of our prayer group and of other Christian worship and practice in the Jesus Movement. But there was no question of their sincerity and devotion to the Christian faith.

It appeared that such devotion likewise motivated many of the professors at Concordia. By contrast, my pre-ministerial classmates were more of a mixed bag. Some did go on to become ministers, but others visibly lacked the kind of personal religious commitment that would motivate them to be vigilant against the Devil and to strive to expel sinful thoughts and acts from their lives. Frankly, in some cases I saw no real difference between these would-be future ministers and the completely secular young people I had known in high school. For instance, I wasn’t surprised that a first-year college student would want to have a female student climbing in his window at night; I was just surprised that he would want to be enrolled in a conservative religious college, much less a pre-ministerial program.

My own future as a minister did not pan out, but for a different reason. What waylaid me was not the temptations of the rich life, but rather the intellectual problems of faith. As described in another post, I discovered that things I had been taught and/or had assumed about the Bible and about Truth were not necessarily so. Starting during my year at Concordia, and with increasing intensity over the next two years, I struggled, sometimes rather desperately, to find a way to continue in the faith or, if necessary, to be certain that leaving it was the right thing to do.

I was not always alone during those years, but that was an extraordinarily lonely experience. It seemed like nobody else among my acquaintances wrestled with this sort of thing. It was as if I were somehow required to endure my own version of what Martin Luther had endured more than 450 years earlier, when he rejected the religious orthodoxy of his time with the famous words, “Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.” Luther’s drama might seem overblown to some; but in fact that moment, as much as any, heralded more than a hundred years of religious war that would rage across Europe.

As such, that moment may have more current relevance than meets the eye. Because — to move quickly through the subsequent years — what happened next in my own life was that I drifted some distance away from conservative Christian practice and belief. I became a philosophy major and then moved to New York City, married a Jewish woman, and became a lawyer. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, I watched scornfully as Christian conservatives confronted sex scandals in their midst, including adultery by famous ministers (e.g., Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, Jim Bakker) and sexual abuse of minors, as well as fraud within churches. To me, such developments vindicated my hard-won realization that wanting to believe something does not make it so. If it’s not the cold, hard truth, then you have no business dragging God into it. He did not create your problems, and he is not likely to fix them for you.

I say that Martin Luther’s line in the sand has contemporary impact because now, in this U.S. presidential election season of fall 2016, we are seeing a quasi-religious confrontation among true believers reminiscent of Luther’s 16th century.

There was a time, in my years as a lawyer and, later, as a student of social work, when I could join liberal America in smug agreement with St. Paul’s words to the church in Corinth, “Few of you were wise in the world’s eyes . . . when God called you.” In other words, religious rigidity tends not to be very compatible with worldly concepts of intelligence; smart people tend to remain skeptical. My own experience persuaded me that people committed to finding truth will realize that the Bible is not what believers want it to be.

But I failed to take account of what happened next. Luther’s followers became as legalistic and dogmatic in their beliefs as the Catholics ever were — and now, as if to follow their example, liberal America has likewise departed from a commitment to truth, however unpleasant it may sometimes be, and is preferring instead to take a perverse pride in the sometimes destructive poses that it adopts on behalf of its self-appointed crusades. Like the Lutheran armies inflicting death on fellow Christians, supposedly in the name of a God of love, today’s liberal opinionmakers too often use their purportedly truth-oriented occupations — in academia, in journalism, and, yes, in liberal churches — to promote their preferred beliefs, distorting reality to win arguments. Such behavior recalls, all too clearly, the deplorable conservative habit of lying for the Lord.

In this 2016 presidential election season especially, I have been appalled at the supposedly educated liberals who evidently lack the capacity to think critically about their chosen dogma. In conversation after conversation, I have seen the kind of extremely partisan thinking that insists it is right every time, about every issue. That is not the mentality of a thoughtful person. And it comes out in public displays. Consider, for instance, the conflict between the New York Times‘s self-perception as a national “paper of record” and the palpable fact that the Times is grossly partisan, or the contrast between Hillary Clinton’s stated desire to bring Americans together and her claim that “you could put half of [Donald] Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables.” Regardless of my own dislike for Donald Trump, these are not the behaviors of people who care enough about truth to have learned that it quickly departs from those who claim to own it. In the words of The Guardian (Mallaby, 2016), the privileged class “has never been so dangerously isolated from its surroundings . . . . its arrogance enhanced by the conviction that its privilege reflects brains and accomplishment, not luck and inheritance.”

Unfortunately, I have experienced this deadly liberal arrogance about the truth in my own life and career. In other blog posts, I have described, for instance, the corruption of procedures for fairly resolving grievances in the very heart of the liberal enterprise, in master’s and PhD programs at the universities of Michigan, Indiana, Missouri, and Arkansas. As documented in those linked webpages, the professors and administrators responsible for that corruption tend to prioritize other things over the truthseeking that society has traditionally expected from its intellectuals. Today’s university ambiance favors those who will readily sacrifice principle for self-advancement, so for the most part this corruption has become a de facto element of university ethics. In some cases, truth is disregarded, not only where it is inconvenient, but also where it would interfere with the gratification of power — with, that is, the latitude to abuse those who cannot protect themselves. Such sadism is perhaps most notorious in the university’s treatment of graduate students, but it also emerges in abuse of junior faculty and, in many ways, of the public trust.

To recap, earlier paragraphs in this post explain that I was dismayed to encounter instances of false faith among conservative Christian ministers, and these last several paragraphs explain that I have been, if anything, even more dismayed to see that false faith is rife among the alleged truths with which liberal Christians and nonbelievers confront the conservative believer. Yes, there are many problems with claims based on or implied by the words of the Bible. But, these days, those who claim to prioritize reason over faith are not championing a consistently superior worldview. Yes, to cite one example among many, they do far better with their medical machines than the believers do with prayer. But that is merely an argument that certain matters are best left to science. One can just as easily retort that other matters, including some very important ones (e.g., faithfulness; generosity; the richness of present-moment experience) tend to be better left to a worldview that does not glorify selfish individualism above all else — a worldview, that is, that prioritizes, not the corruptible pursuit of personal advancement, but rather an unselfish commitment to the well-being of one’s community or, possibly, the expectations of one’s God.

It is easy to assume that you know the truth and that others do not. But how can you be so sure? Those who have attempted the philosophical and/or psychological study of what we know, and how we can be sure we know it, are likely to affirm that such questions are vastly more difficult than one might expect. In fact, human beings tend not to have simple and clear knowledge of things. Learning this about oneself is essential, if one is to be well educated.

It is regrettable that colleges and universities are so frequently failing to introduce students to those fundamental insights. Their failure leaves us with the spectacle of this year’s election contest, in which Americans seem more partisan and less truthseeking than ever before — where one can observe, as just discussed, that the supposedly smarter and more reasonable liberals remain unable and/or unwilling to grasp and respond effectively to conservative concerns.

But even if the universities are no longer reliably able to teach students what truth is like, at least the schools of religion should do so. The person who claims to have the answers, thanks to his/her own liberal intellect or conservative interpretation of selected Bible passages — the person who simplemindedly rejects the knowledge, intelligence, experience, and sincerity of those who disagree with him/her — may lack a basic sense of perspective on the breadth and complexity of life. Such a person does not seem a likely candidate for a divine calling.

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