Photography by D. Plasman
Twenty years ago this week, eighteen members of the congregation I served informed me that I was not a Christian pastor.
This unsolicited evaluation came from people who were active members, faithful attenders, and regular givers. I baptized some of their children. I had no reason to suspect their motives, any more than I had reason to wonder if they fudged on their taxes.
To substantiate their claim that I was not adequately Christianized, they mailed me a list of questions, the responses to which they hoped to evaluate with me at a later meeting. The questions: (1) Is the Bible the inspired word of God and inerrant (without error) in all things? (2) Are the biblical commands and decrees by God binding in all times and places? (3) Is abortion ever permissible? (4) Is Jesus the only way to eternal life? (5) Can a good Buddhist get to heaven? (6) Is hell a literal and physical place? (7) According to the Bible, is homosexual behavior a sin?
Welcoming a healthy theological discussion and with it the possibility of respecting each other in the midst of disagreements, I wrote one-page responses to each question. Here’s the Cliff Notes version: (1) Yes and No. Though all inspiration comes from God, inerrancy is not a concern of inspired storytellers. (2) No. How worse off we would be if the laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy were the laws of our land! (3) Yes. This decision should be made by a woman in discussion with her doctor. (4) Jesus is my way to eternal life. (5) Yes. I lean into the belief that God’s heart is big enough to include a good Buddhist, even a lapsed Buddhist — all of which leaves open the door to infinite possibilities. (6) I have no idea other than to acknowledge that some people and entire populations experience this life as a living hell. Two hells, then, seem to me unlikely. (7) Not once does the Bible refer to committed and loving homosexual relationships. The biblical writers simply didn’t know what today we know about the godliness of same gender love.
Not intending to pat myself on the back, I was more than pleased with my responses. The group thought otherwise. Within three months, all but one of the members left the congregation in search of more biblically sound pastors. I did not feel vindicated.
I don’t know the man in the photograph I took. On a Dublin street, in front of windows displaying watches and jewelry he cannot afford, wearing colorful garb he offers incense and prayers to his god, to a deity, to the dead, to nature, to the Mystery Beyond, to the Irish sky. Maybe the sadness in his eyes is the memory of a departed loved one. Maybe for the world he is sad. I doubt he could give adequate responses to the seven questions. Yet, he is no stranger to holiness.
Poet and playwright Archibald Macleish said it well: “Religion is at its best when it makes us ask hard questions of ourselves. It is at its worst when it deludes us into thinking we have all the answers for everybody else.”