Editor’s note: This “Sightings” entry is written by Martin E. Marty, the dean of American religious scholars, and is published by the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Sightings is supposed to be about “public religion.” So what are pastors, ministers, priests, rabbis doing here this week? David Brooks mentioned them Friday in his New York Times column; that is a pretty public reference to a religious theme. Let’s talk of pastors as column fare, and then see what Brooks does with them.
I just came from a panel in which former colleagues Robin Lovin, David Tracy, and I worked the changes on “public theology” at the Society of Christian Ethics. I contended for seeing many local congregations, where they serve creatively, as “publics,” citing Park Palmer’s reference to “The Company of Strangers.” Some parishes and synagogues are self-repressed in their monolithicity, but the live ones incorporate people of diverse opinions, politics, social goals, and more. They are, from some angles, publics, companies of strangers.
I spent one of my (so far) eight decades in parish ministry, and still live off much of what I learned there. Admittedly, the culture and church have changed vastly since then, but I try to stay in touch with those in the professions now in a time when “the institutional church” is undervalued and dissed. I recall as a pastor having appeared and spoken up at school boards, zoning boards, hospital boards, housing boards, divorce courts, adoption agencies, and more. Also, dealing with the varieties in the parishes thrust me, as it does most pastors, into the public worlds of their congregants. Enough.
Now, to Brooks. He was playing with the phrase that headlined his column “Suffering Fools Gladly.” Being David Brooks, he dealt with it in its ambiguity and complexity. He discussed having or not having patience with those to whom one is tempted to be impolite, and worse. Brooks: “I don’t give myself high marks on suffering fools. I’m not rude to those I consider foolish, but I strenuously and lamentably evade them. But I do see people who handle fools well. Many members of the clergy do, as do many great teachers.” This caught my eye, rang a bell, and inspired this column. Exactly. Brooks went on to stress the word “gladly,” as I think he sees pastors and great teachers accepting the need to suffer fools as part of their vocation, skill-set, and make-up.
Suffering fools does not mean being soft and sentimental. Pastors can be harsh and judgmental articulators of law. But, when in 1963 I moved from parish ministry to the professorship, my Dean and Friend “Jerry” Brauer, said, “Marty, there is a difference in your new role. Good professors have to flunk some people; good pastors never do.” This does not mean that professors have to get their credentials by being non-pastoral and great flunkers. It does mean that the message which imparts credentials to pastors teaches them to see people, foolish people, from a different perspective than they naturally would. I once wanted to provide a character reference to an arrested church member, who was of good character. His lawyer said, “The judge will ignore what you say. Clergy are ‘soft’ when character-referencing. They know evil, but they find the good, and that does not help in court.” David Brooks might have been listening.
Dismiss “the institutional church” and its ministers, if you will, but, if Brooks is right, you will not have fewer fools. You will likely find more people abandoned, often unjustly, in an impersonal world where someone, someone, should not lose patience or become impolite and dismissive. Here endeth my post-Twelve Days of Christmas column. We can now get back to the gross and grim headline items that beckon for attention in the world of “public religion” in the seasons ahead.
(Martin E. Marty is one of the most prominent interpreters of contemporary religion and culture. He is the author of more than 50 books, a sought-after speaker, columnist, pastor and teacher. He has been a professor of religious history at the University of Chicago for 35 years.)