It is true. I, Steve Gibson, have joined the ranks of the ordained. I am now Reverend Stephen L. Gibson. Am I taking this even remotely seriously? Yes, mostly. Why? Well, it’s simple: the world needs more ministers.

Shocked yet? Yes, you heard me right, and I’m serious—but no, I don’t believe in any human definitions of “god.” Yes, the bad news is that I’ve officially become a wing-nut wacko. But the good news is I’m not a wing-nut wacko in the traditional sense; I don’t subscribe to any new-age woo-woo, pseudoscience, voodoo, “The Secret,” definitions of the supernatural, personal deities that intervene in healthcare or our lives, and I most certainly don’t pretend to understand quantum physics. Heck, I don’t even subscribe to the power of positive thinking; even that simple idea has been shown ineffective by recent studies.

The truth is I always thought being a pastor would be a great fit for me on several levels. Besides, as Robert Putnam articulated in his book, Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community, we live in a world where social interaction is not what it once was. We are very busy. We are sometimes lonely. We are not always fed, nor are our needs always met.

The Benefit

There is so much that can be gained from people who choose to minister to the needs of others, to set the bar high for their expectations of self, and others. From simple kindness, to lending an ear, to reminding us that we are valued and that adding meaning to life requires reflection, and effort.

“Pastors” and “Ministers” help us do research into thought and life philosophy, and find those stories and anecdotes that help re-center us. They provide emcee services for the rituals that can add structure and meaning to life. They strive to provide that extra voice of encouragement when we are down, and help us celebrate when we are up. They are with us in times of sorrow, and with us in times of joy. They are, in a way, a professional friend and sounding board. Could the world not use more who are committed to ministering? Of course!

For me, the only problem with my little plan is that after years of soul-searching, study, grappling, and reading, studying some more, and examining in great detail the arguments for and against human attempts to define the supernatural in any way—let alone as a personal deity who intervenes in daily life—I could no longer participate in good conscience in organizations that support such beliefs. That’s a problem for someone drawn to ministry, and a problem for many of the great pastors and scholars who have come to similar conclusions. Or is it?

The Question

Must we be religious to minister to the needs of our fellow humans? I argue emphatically, “No!”

It should be noted that I am not anti-religious. In fact, the epiphany ending in my novel about friends who make shocking discoveries about Christian history, makes the point that when we get hung up in the detailed debates about dogma, theology, and even historical truth—we miss the profound metaphorical points intended by the mythology. In short, as Joseph Campbell taught the world, myth is simply metaphor, and if we try to treat it as literal history we often miss the eternal truths about our human experience.

Concepts like redemption, sin, transgressions, forgiveness, love, grace, and salvation are so meaningful, and so central to our interactions. To suggest that these metaphorical stories—that give us a framework for understanding our humanness, should be somehow stricken from our lives and our culture—is ludicrous. They help us stretch and aspire to be all that we are capable of being—to love, and nurture, and interact positively with others. Dan Arielle’s excellent book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, shows the proven psychological value of mental reminders—like honor codes at schools—in improving behavior when we are reminded of the ideals contained therein. Myths can remind us as well!

Without the common language of words like “evil,” or “heaven,” we would be poor indeed. One might as well also remove all metaphors, literature, movies and art from the human experience and lexicon. The damage comes when we think myths are literally, historically true, but that is a discussion for another day.

Yes, I think the world needs non-theistic, legitimized, secular ministers, and needs them badly—for funerals, traditional recognitions, rights of passage, and other events.

Now a minority few of my fellow skeptics may be thinking that there should be no celebrations, no emotion-driven parties, no hyperbole, and no large marriage parties; but I respectfully disagree. We all need affirmation; we all need to stop and recognize our achievements, and we all need to mourn death. A professional to assist with these things is not a bad thing, it is a great thing!

In a way I already view my work as a ministry of sorts. My blog, and even my podcast, can somehow be viewed as sermons, can’t they? I enjoy and am willing to invest the time to question and inquire in such ways as to provide food for thought, much as a weekly sermon might. Of course I’m not preaching. I’m there with you, inquiring about the world, and therefore would never offer inquiry-killing solutions of a supernatural nature, nor pretend I have any lock on truth or answers—an important distinction from religious ministry where top-down truth claims are dispatched with regularity.

The Legitimacy

Lastly, on the topic of my on-line ordination through the Universal Life Church Monastery, an important thought: How is my ordination any less real, authoritative, or valid than the ordination of someone who took a traditional route through seminary? (It’s worth noting that seminary is not the only path to becoming a pastor in some Christian denominations.)  Think about that. Since I’m not claiming any knowledge of supernatural truth, or what happens in an unknowable realm outside the entirety of human knowledge, what’s the difference between me, you, and any traditionally ordained pastor? Traditional, religious ordination is about supernatural dogma, is it not?

Richard Dawkins made an excellent point in his bestselling book, The God Delusion. While I differ with him on a couple fronts, his statement that “I have yet to see any good reason to suppose that theology is a subject at all,” resonates with me.

In recounting a conversation with an astronomer and fellow Oxford professor, Dawkins recalls the astronomer replying to a very deep question, “Ah, now we move beyond the realm of science. This is where I have to hand over to our good friend the chaplain.”

But Dawkins quips that he wishes he’d said what he later wrote: “But why the chaplain? Why not the gardener or the chef?” (Dawkins, 2006).

To his point, theologians study the unknowable supernatural realm and then attempt to describe it, anthropomorphically—be it as a man, woman, Allah, Yahweh, Zoroaster, Jesus, Brahman, nirvana, or in some other speculative, unfalsifiable fashion that is so abstract as to be usefully only to illustrate mythological truth. They might as well be masters of the Star Wars mythology, masters of Dungeons and Dragons, Greek or Roman mythology, or some other mythical archetype and framework. But does that grant exclusive rights to minister to fellow humans? No.

Again, there is real knowledge conveyed in myths and in the minds of theologians, about our human condition, and there is benefit to their interpersonal and social functions as a theological pastor; but technically speaking, a degree in theology is essentially a degree in magical thinking about a mythical realm—in metaphor. That makes for great storytelling, but it guarantees no real, inherent, empirical knowledge attached to it. It offers no explanatory benefit to the world beyond what a non-religious mythology could impart.

So in short, Dawkins argues any one of us is every bit as equally able to comment and speculate about the supernatural, unknowable worlds. (And for the record, once we know something about the unknowable, by definition it becomes natural, so the supernatural truly is that which is unknown and unknowable, by definition.) In some cases, I’d actually argue that we non-believers know more, because we see the value and power of the myth, unclouded by the compulsive need to unreasonably demythologize and literalize it. But even knowledge of myths is not essential to be a good minister, in this new, secular sense, is it? We don’t have to be good story tellers or masters of metaphor to be useful.

That is admittedly some direct language for someone whose mission and mantra are to honor all faith systems, worldviews, and narratives, and to promote inter-belief tolerance. But understand, I had to use clear language to legitimize my own right to pursue my genuine passion to help my fellow humans along their journey, by provoking thought and facilitating the sanctification of the real-world human experience.

So do I think I have any UNIQUE knowledge that makes me specially suited to be a pastor? Not really, but I don’t think the job requires it. This is where the Mormons, and even Martin Luther, may have set a valuable precedent. In the Mormon Church everyone can be ordained and serve, and many become ordained at a relatively young age. There is wisdom in that. (The hugely significant and notable exception to the wise insight is that when they say everyone, they mean “only men.”) There is nothing proprietary about caring, loving, and sharing. And the more the merrier! Of course Luther helped usher in the idea of direct access of the individual to God, versus the needing the Church as the gatekeeper. I guess I’m suggesting we go a step further, and more of us minister to … well … more of us.

Conclusion

There is nothing unique about my qualifications to help others, or perhaps yours, but there doesn’t need to be. I have a passion for what I see as the valuable and valid roles that a professional “thinker” and social functionary can play in honoring humans, serving them, encouraging them, raising consciousness, loving them, and freeing them to live more fully and love more wastefully. I don’t know that I’ll ever really perform these functions professionally, but they can certainly be an avocation for all of us.

If you agree, I suggest you join me by being ordained today. Visit the Universal Life Church Monastery today, at http://www.themonastery.org/. You don’t have to claim any knowledge about supernatural realm in order raise the bar for your expectations of self, and to serve others. In fact, I’d personally prefer you didn’t.

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(Stephen L. Gibson is the author of Truth-Driven Thinking, and A Secret of the Universe, a critically acclaimed, citation-rich novel about the intersections of science, reason, and faith. Still an emotion-driven thinker in recovery, Steve shares his journey in search of ever-elusive truth with thousands via his Truth-Driven Thinking podcast, and his Perspectives blog; © 2009, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC.)

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