Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Doubt Transference

I preached on John 20:19-31 a few weeks back. This is typically known as "doubting Thomas," but he gets such a bad wrap. All the disciples doubted just as much - we know this because they saw the resurrected Jesus, received the Holy Spirit, and were commissioned to lead the Church in the world, but found themselves back in the same locked room the next week in no different condition than they were when Jesus first showed up.

They all doubted, but they didn't doubt God - Jesus had appeared to them - they doubted themselves. They had transferred their doubt to Jesus - while he was with them, things were fine, but once they were on their own, they lost all confidence. Even when they knew Jesus was alive and had received the Holy Spirit, it took some work to get them to really believe.

One of the first things I read from Peter Rollins that really stuck with me was about doubt transference - he argued that many average parishioners don't really believe in most of what Christianity describes, but they have faith because their pastor does - or at least seems to, from the pulpit. If they can show up at a place and here these beliefs reinforced, even if they have serious doubts or outright disbelief in core issues, so long as the pastor believes, they're ok.

As Rollins describes, this causes real problems for the pastor. She's just a person like anyone else and doubt is a real part of life. But in these scenarios, the pastor can't doubt, can't express anything but the party line in public or basically anywhere else without the entire congregation crumbling.

I think we could make some comments about theological education or sophistication or the time a pastor has spent dealing with issues of faith vs the average parishioner; we could also make comments about how we define belief and all that, but in the end, I think this is largely true in many situations.

I agree with Rollins that a good pastor makes people uncomfortable by (forcing sounds wrong, but it might be right) forcing parishioners to live in their doubt. His whole theology and practice is built on this notion, demystifying doubt, and banishing certainty. I tend to read and listen to his stuff, because I think it really rings true.

I was wondering lately, and maybe I should send this to Pete and see if he's willing to comment, but perhaps part of this process might be for a pastor to use that doubt transference (or maybe it should be called 'certainty transference') to his advantage.

If people are relying on a pastor for certainly, she has an ungodly responsibility, but it might also be a very godly opportunity. Would it be possible for that pastor to deepen and stretch the faith and beliefs on their congregation by simply being the one confident in "new" ideas? Rarely is an idea "new," of course, but there are certainly more responsible ways to deal with theology, life, scripture, etc than what colloquial or traditional "belief" might have us think.

Could a pastor help a congregation "evolve," just by leveraging that trust? Even if not, would it be an appropriate way for a pastor to challenge the congregation to deal with difficult issues and provide some growth benefit?

I really don't have an answer, because I'm not intimately involved in pastoral work at the moment. I suspect there are a lot more complications - namely belief connections to other pastors, family tradition, and decisions people made much earlier in life. We're not just attached to our pastors, we've transferred our certainty, likely, to many different people or groups over time - a kindly, faithful grandma, the teacher who helped you deal with puberty, some aphorism poorly remembered from a long-forgotten Sunday School class.

Perhaps the best thing to do is just convince people that no one else has the answers they seek. That certainly sounds a bit risky, especially in an evangelical environment that prioritizes certainty, but it might be just the thing to spur those disciples to stop cowering in the sanctuary and get out in the world.

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