What's Tony Thinking

I’m Just a Seeker Like You

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I was once on a panel sponsored by a Unitarian fellowship. There were several more or less mainline Protestant panelists, including one Unitarian, charged with describing what is particular to our church and tradition. Those that went before me made opening statements in which each said some variation on the themes of, “At our church we are all seekers and searchers. None of us have the answer or answers. Together we search — that’s our unity. As a minister I am but a fellow seeker.” This was offered as it were something really unique and quite special.

As those of you who know me know, I have a cheeky side. Listening to this seemingly humble consensus extolling the search, I said, “So what happens if someone finds something . . . do they have to leave your church?”

The “it’s all about the search” and “as a minister I am just a fellow seeker” gambit can sound, as I say, humble and inviting. But it strikes me as a false humility and a not very inviting or even an interesting invitation. These are some of the themes of a recent Crackers and Grape Juice podcast that I recommend. Jason’s guest is an Episcopal priest and spiritual director, Fred Schmidt, who questions the “I’m just a seeker like you,” posture of ordained ministry. “The church,” said Schmidt, “is not a book club.”

Certainly, as Schmidt points out, clergy must be prepared to walk alongside congregants in the midst of doubts and struggles of faith. We have our own. All believers do. But that doesn’t mean that an adequate posture as an ordained minister of the church is to say, “we have no answers, only questions.” The gospel has a content, a message and a truth. Imagine the biblical prophets who announced “Thus saith the Lord . . .” saying “Gee, I sure don’t have any word from the Lord . . . ¬†why ever would you think that I would?” Clergy and the church as the body of Christ are called to bear witness to the truth of the gospel.

That said, the gospel is not “I found it,” so much as “It found me.” “I found it” focuses too much on ourselves, too much on our wisdom, our super spirituality, our virtue or insight. The gospel is less about our search for God than it is about God’s search for us. Jesus is the name of God’s search. “The Word made flesh, who dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” (John 1) Jesus is not on a “search and destroy mission.” He is sent on God’s “search and save” mission.

God’s gracious search for us, for all who are or have been lost — which is every one of us — is relentless and reckless. There is no human condition beyond God’s knowledge and grace. There is no depth to which we can fall into which Christ has not entered and hallowed by his presence, including death itself. As Francis Spufford wrote in the book of our recent webinar, “More can be mended than you know.”

Why have so many clergy adopted the mantra of “I’m just a searcher like you,” or in a variation of the theme popular with some younger clergy, “We’re just here to do life together”? Well, it does suggest humility. It does appear non-threatening in a world where “you have your truth, I have mine” or “we all our own truth within us” is a kind of orthodoxy among the affluent and educated. It’s safe. It admits you to polite company.

And it differentiates the mainline or liberal from the terrible evangelicals or, worse, fundamentalists, those who are certain about too much and who often turn a gracious faith into a threatening or manipulative one. It may also be the best you’ve got after some seminary educations that never actually get around to answering or even asking the question, “what is the gospel?”

But it’s really a false humility and a repudiation of one’s ordination vows to teach and preach the gospel. I can’t imagine why any serious person would bother with church if “I’m just a seeker like you” is the message.

Moreover, this humility is belied by a surprising degree of certainty when it comes to other things. Things like political positions, social justice issues, appropriate language or human sexuality. These, oddly, are matters about which we have a quite high degree of certainty. Only about God, Jesus and the gospel are we wide open, seemingly clueless and without certainty or conviction.

Let our orthodoxy be, in the words of my friend Fleming Rutledge, “generous.” A generous orthodoxy. Yes. But “I’m just a seeker like you,” “We have no answers, no truth to witness,” no.

 

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