Faking it

November 8, 2011

It is always interesting to me how the same set of books can evoke different questions for different groups of students. Each fall my colleague Dudley Rose and I read our way through a range of accounts of ministry with our new M.Div. students. Inevitably one issue emerges that is close to the heart of the group. Some years it is the theme of calling. In others, it's the relationship between academic study and the practices of faith. Some years, we focus on spiritual formation; in other years, we explore how to organize communities for change.

This year, the theme that has emerged in Intro to Ministry Studies is, in the words of one of our students, "faking it." We began the term with Simone Weil, who wrote of "experimental certainties" and encouraged us to act as if we believed things before we actually believed them. If we don't act as if the attention cultivated in study increases our ability to be present to God and our suffering neighbor, she argued, we will likely never have the experience of it.

We moved next to Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care, written to his friend, John of Ravenna, who had criticized Gregory for wanting to escape the burden of the office of pope to which he had recently been elected. I am writing this book, Gregory told John, to explain exactly how onerous this burden is to me. As onerous as it was, Gregory accepted it, dedicating himself to be the servant of the servants of God.

Then we read Jonathan Rosen's novel Joy Comes in the Morning. In one scene, Rabbi Deborah Green offers pastoral reassurance to a woman who has nearly died, even though she herself is full of doubt. "Faker!" an inner voice shouts at her as she prays with the woman. But pray she does.

For students struggling to discern their calling, these accounts of the often fragile connections between inner convictions and pastoral practice flash like emergency signals. Can I be a minister, they wonder, if my beliefs are not settled? If I act as if I believe things I'm not sure I believe (Weil) or take on work in ministry that I don't feel capable of doing (Gregory) or rely on the psalms to speak comfort that I cannot myself feel (Green), am I being inauthentic? Do I have to know I'm called before I can do this work?

Next on our list is Gandhi's autobiography, which he subtitled The Story of My Experiments with Truth for good reason: it is full of stories of his attempts to stretch himself into new ways of living and thinking by experimenting with everything from the way he ate to the friendships he cultivated, from his sexual choices to the ways in which he responded to the bigotry he encountered in the streets of South Africa. What will happen, he asks, if I attend a Christian church every Sunday? What will I find out if do my own laundry? Can I learn not to be governed by my sexual appetites? Can I keep the promise I made to my mother never to eat meat while I am living abroad? No decision was too small, no encounter was too insignificant to be excluded from Gandhi's lifelong experiment with truth.

It is through such experimentation that Gandhi discovered the dimensions of his calling, the shape and content of his convictions, and the practices of nonviolence that inspired movements of resistance that changed the world. There never came a time when he had fully arrived at the truth he sought; he experimented with his life until the end. Did he "fake it" sometimes in order to find out what would happen if he behaved in a particular way? No doubt. What made his ministry authentic was not that his beliefs were settled or that he was always sure of the rightness of his actions. What made it authentic was his willingness to seek the truth in every encounter, to experiment with the stuff of his own life in order to develop new ways of living.

In these days when our common life seems broken, we need new ways of living together, new ways of seeking justice together and new ways of resisting violence. There are many things I hope students will take from Intro to Ministry Studies: a desire to cultivate their capacity for attention; a sense of how much is at stake in whether ministry is done well or badly; an ability to draw upon the pastoral power of their religious tradition no matter how they are feeling in any particular moment. But most of all, I hope they will leave the class knowing that there is no shame in faking it if that means they're stretching themselves toward new ways of thinking, living and believing. As Gandhi teaches us, one person's experiments with truth can open new paths toward truthful living for the world.


It seems like what Ms.

It seems like what Ms. Paulsell is talking about is not so much "faking
it" as "trying something on." To experiment in the way Gandhi did, or
the way seminary/divinity students might to explore what direction they
are called in, or even to go with what we know, because it's all we've
got to go on in the moment (like Rabbi Green) - that's authentic. It's
much different than "faking it" which is what happens, for example, to
burned out clergy who know they don't believe it any more but keep on
doing it because they're stuck.

The struggle for authenticity

It's an important issue you raise.  There is way too much certainty in ministry today.  Perhaps there always has been.  I am a former minister, now out of the church, but still a struggling truth seeker.  I think people like Carlyle Marney, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Barbara Taylor Brown, John Spong would be excellent ministers/authors for your students to both read and study.  These are classic thinkers, theologians, preachers, doubters, strugglers, and yet, gifted examples of Christian authenticity.  I suspect they were often in doubt of their calling, as they all speak to in their sermons and books, but continued in the struggle to be real, caring, and giving themselves to whatever call they understood.  There is that great line from Tillich: "Doubt is not the opposite of faith but an element of it."  That's true for all believers, ministers and seminary students included.

Timothy Moody

Dallas, TX

Unfortunately, some churches

Unfortunately, some churches do not look kindly on uncertainty.  They want their pastors and ministry leaders to have definitive answers and often are very critical of those who don't or can't offer them.  One can be seen as either incompetent, not fully sanctified, etc.  Some will go so far as to regularly harangue the pastor as to how they should be preaching and how they must present the right answers, lest someone be led astray.  What would be a great service in the seminary is to prepare students for this disconnect and provide them with helpful ways to counteract it and to offer instruction to their congregation to help them embrace a new way of thinking about the faith.  

Letter from Barry H. Downing

I am wondering if Paulsell’s  students are being prepared for Christian ministry or for ordination into the “Church of Political Correctness,” whose primary creed is that all religious traditions are of equal value, making the declaration “Jesus is Lord” a major PC heresy.

Bravo if Harvard seminary students feel hypocritical in preaching political correctness while collecting their pay checks in the name of ministry for Jesus. Paulsell responds by spraying the consciences of her students with a little PC whitewash and sending them on their way to a phony ministry.

Barry H. Downing
Endwell, N.Y.