Thursday, 11 December 2014

The Prophet and the Priest

Rachel Held Evans wrote an interesting Facebook post the other day which resonates with certain thoughts that I've had of late. Three sentences in particular struck me, and I'll quote them in full.
I'm deeply skeptical of pretty much all religious leaders, whether it's Mark Driscoll or Rob Bell, the pope or the Dalai Lama. Local pastors aren't as much of an issue. Let's just say I'm wary of famous or powerful "gurus."
I'd like to do a little commentary on this, in the way that biblical scholars know best: sentence by sentence response (not exposition, as I don't think that it requires much exposition; Ms. Evans is a quite lucid writer whose thoughts are invariably expressed with notable clarity).

I'm deeply skeptical of pretty much all religious leaders, whether it's Mark Driscoll or Rob Bell, the pope or the Dalai Lama.
If one reads the balance of Ms. Evans's post one discovers that what she means by "skeptical" is what I would call "critical." That is, she's not advocating programmatic distrust (which I would describe as skepticism) but rather a healthy criticism. And to that one can only agree, not just with regards to religious leaders but all persons who make truth claims. Neither God nor the lucid thinker is a respecter of persons; she or he is interested in only one question, whether the truth claim in question is true and good. That's part of why I am a critical realist: it provides me with a set of tools for better answering that question.

Local pastors aren't as much of an issue.
Here I break somewhat with Ms. Evans. Perhaps it's my Plymouth Brethren heritage showing through but I tend to be as skeptical of local clergy as I am of big-name figures. (The connection with my PB upbringing is that the PB favour a congregationalist polity in which there are no pastors but rather elders, as pastors as seen as something foreign to the NT pattern of church governance). Actually, I would argue that without a larger ecclesiastical structure holding the local pastor accountable she or he tends to replicate many of the ills that might otherwise have occurred higher up in the hierarchy. Put otherwise there is always possibility for corruption at the top, and if the top happens to be the local pastor then that's where a goodly amount of ecclesiastical corruption will take place. I've seen more than a few horribly abusive ministers in my time, and it is not for nothing that in the case of the Roman Catholic Church, which has arguably the most fully developed hierarchy and bureaucracy in the Christian world, it was not the pope or the bishops who were abusing children but rather the parish priest. I suppose that my experience has led me to be a bit more wary of local clergy as Ms. Evans.

Let's just say I'm wary of famous or powerful "gurus."
As seems so often the case a return to Weber is warranted here. Let us recall his distinction between prophet and priest. The prophet has charisma purely on an individual basis, the priest by virtue of her or his office. Mark Driscoll or Rob Bell would fit into the former category, the Dalai Lama and the pope into the latter (the Dalai Lama is a special case: his appeal to the west is perhaps better described as prophetic whilst his exile from Tibet obviates much of his priestly functions). This distinction, whilst an ideal type (the messiness around the Dalai Lama reveals that it is ideal and not precisely actual), is not unimportant. Driscoll and Bell need to appeal directly to the populace whilst the pope can work through the hierarchy and bureaucracy of the church. Yes, the pope can at times appeal directly to the populace but that's not really the way that the papacy has typically worked. Such appeal is largely a function of modern mass media. The current Holy Father has been expert at this, as was his predecessor but one, John Paul II. Yet barely anyone cared what Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio had to say the day before he was elected to the papacy. No, it is just his position as pope that made him interesting.

What this means is that for all his formal power Pope Francis, or any pontiff, must ultimately take account of the reactions of the curia and other parts of the hierarchy. The recent synod vote around homosexuality in the church makes that quite clear. He must also be responsive to the faithful, for ultimately they can vote with their feet. That's no doubt why he is making moves to be more inclusive of LGBT persons: precisely those regions where the church is demographically the strongest are also those regions where support for LGBT rights is the highest. Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll: they don't have such limitations. It's not that they won't be held accountable: Driscoll's recent fall from grace makes that clear. But it does mean that the accountability is more ad hoc. This ultimately goes back to my comments about wariness towards the local pastor, because what are Bell and Driscoll but local pastors with really large congregations?

So on balance I'd extend Ms. Evans's wariness around religious figures to include the local pastor whilst also nuancing her critiques of the famous and the powerful to distinguish between the Weberian prophet and priest ideal types. That said I would suggest that these are friendly amendments to Ms. Evans's concerns. The basic point remains: one must be not a respecter of persons but rather a respecter of truth and goodness.

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