Advice to a Young Minister

A meeting between two ministers, one the descendant of the other's spiritual ancestor.


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Too many ministers, also, are dependent on the love of their congregation. A real friend is one who risks her friendship for the sake of her friend, rather than using the friend for the sake of her friendship. The clergy don’t speak out because they don’t want to risk the love of their congregation. It’s pathetic! If [a parishioner] says, "If you say anything like that again, you’ll never see me in this church again," you should say to him, "You know, I must have said something very important. It certainly got you all riled up." But most ministers would take the hand in both hands, "Oh, come on Joe. There must be some misunderstanding. I’ll call you. We’ll have a date over a cup of coffee."

If you’re shepherd of the flock, you’re supposed to keep the wolves out so more sheep can come in. And the hills are full of browsing sheep, wondering whether there’s room in the fold for them. But they look in and say, "There’s no Good Shepherd there, lots of wolves. I’ll stay browsing outside."

Do you ever struggle with despair?
If Jesus never allowed his soul to be cornered into despair, who the hell am I to give into despair? Despair is not an option. The worse a situation gets, the more pessimistic you become, because reality reflects pessimism. That is the moment for hope as opposed to optimism. I love what Vaclav Havel said, "Hope is not tied to the successful outcome of an issue, but to the fact that the issue makes good sense." That’s wonderful. In other words, keep the faith, despite the evidence. Only by doing has the evidence any chance of changing.

'We have to recover the Bible, but we also have to recover from it.'

What is the religious challenge at our universities?
The loss of wonder is really critical as technology evolves more and more. I feel so strongly about wonder because, finally, it’s an ethical consideration. Only reverence can restrain violence, whether it’s against nature or against one another. And loss of reverence, loss of wonder, is a terrible, sad loss.

So what is the role of the university chaplain?
Obviously ethics are crucial. They don’t exhaust the gospel, but they’re not ancillary to the gospel. So a focus should be the ethical considerations of our personal life and, particularly these days, of our national life. Justice and peace are pretty primary in our public life, or they ought to be. How is it, [Duke divinity professor and Nelson Mandela’s prison chaplain] Peter Storey once asked, that good people allow their institutions to do their sinning for them? These are concerns that I think the chaplain should always be raising. It’s very important to ask the right questions.

So that’s the job of a chaplain?
Very, very much. And to relate scholarship to faith. Religion in the academic world is not so much challenged as it is ignored, aside from the horrors of fundamentalism. So the important thing is to push the questions very hard.

One of your predecessors at Riverside, Harry Emerson Fosdick, preached a sermon on "Why Fundamentalism Must Fail." It didn't fail, and his sermon seems more relevant than ever.
Intolerance in theology leads to intolerance in behavior, and we’re back again to self-righteousness. I’m very much in favor of doctrine, but doctrines are signposts. Love is a hitching post. If we get that wrong, we’re in real trouble.

So we have to recover the Bible, but we also have to recover from it. The Bible supports polygamy, supports slavery, it says don’t eat barbecued ribs--that’s a Torah abomination, just like sleeping with another man. Most Southern fundamentalists I know believe in barbecue ribs.

These days, campuses are very concerned with religious pluralism. How does a true Christian operate in a pluralistic world?
To say, "I thank you Lord that I am not as the others are" precludes the possibility of humility or the capacity for self-criticism. It destroys the possibility of solidarity. This pertains in international relationships, and the same is true of interfaith relations. If I say, "I thank you, Lord, that my Christian faith is not as other faiths are," I’ve destroyed the possibility of self-criticism and humility. How can I even claim the name of the Christian without the humility?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was quite a great mentor to me and good friend. He said, "The starting point for all interfaith relationship is faith. Otherwise we compromise what’s different between us for the sake of convenience. That will never work." Now, my Christian faith is deeply rooted but the point of having roots is to grow branches. I should branch out to Jews whose branches are deeply rooted in their faith, likewise through Islam and so forth. The impulse to love God and love the neighbor is as much at the heart of Judaism and Islam as it is at the heart of Christianity.


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