There have been a number of reports in the news about people and corporations which have reevaluated their previously held commitments about work and productivity. These reevaluations have been prompted by major changes in the workplace due to the pandemic. One recent article stood out from the rest; it was about a group of former pastors of evangelical congregations. This group of people gathered recently for the second consecutive year to help one another deal with major changes in their lives: they are not only former pastors, they are also former evangelicals. (Evangelicalism is characterized by belief in the literal inerrancy of the Scriptures, the substitutional atonement of Jesus’ death on the Cross, and the need to be “born again.”)
Apparently, a number of pastors of evangelical congregations have lost their employment as a result of their words and actions during the pandemic. It’s easy enough to guess what evangelical congregations would find unpalatable about some pastors’ views on the pandemic.
I was somewhat surprised by the fact that some congregations fired their pastors for promoting practices like vaccination, mask wearing, and social distancing. I was very surprised by the reactions of some of those pastors: many became disillusioned with evangelicalism and some completely abandoned their faith in God.
What would cause a pastor or ordained minister to stop believing in God? Again, it’s easy enough to guess. There are many things that people choose to put their faith in, but God alone is capable of never betraying one’s trust.
The many created things in which people can put their trust are capable only of betraying trust. The very best of creation remains limited, and the limited nature of creation always leads to disappointment – if that is where one has placed one’s ultimate trust.
One can guess that these former pastors, many of whom are now former believers, had placed their trust in the expectation that all the “born again” were automatically reformed into gentle, humane, and moral people. Sadly, religion is no guarantee of righteousness.
The act of placing ultimate trust in something not worthy of it is certainly not restricted to evangelicals alone. Many Catholics put their faith in finite things. How, then, can one know whether one trusts in God or in a false god? As it is so easy to trust in the wrong thing, is there a guarantee of not being disappointed and losing faith?
In today’s Gospel reading, the scribe who speaks with Jesus refers to a theme common in the ancient prophets. Summarizing the commandments, he said, “to love (God) with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself’ is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (Mk. 12:33) The man was saying that Temple worship (burnt offerings and sacrifices) was no guarantee of righteousness; rather, a just and righteous life was the result of placing one’s ultimate trust in God and being trustworthy toward one’s neighbor. Jesus approved of the summary and told the man, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mk. 12:34)
The rituals of a religion are easy enough to perform. For example, regular church attendance requires less than an hour of one’s time a week; it can even be done without experiencing any repentance and reform. Jesus said that the certain indication of having placed one’s faith in the One, True God is that one acts responsibly toward others.
If you find your experience of religion to be disappointing, you might have placed your trust in something that is destined to disappoint. There is a guarantee of never having your faith betrayed, but it does not come from any created thing.
It is fully possible to know whether one has put one’s trust in God or in something else. Those who put their trust in God always act responsibly and charitably toward their neighbor.