As Duke's campus minister for the United Church of Christ, the Rev. Mark Rutledge helped lead weekly worship services - reading Scripture and reciting the creed. He counseled students about their faith and took part in interfaith activities on campus.
But Rutledge is the first to admit he does not believe in a supernatural God with supernatural powers.
"The cosmic guy in the sky is not a credible image of God," he said.
Rutledge took part in a recent study by a superstar of the New Atheism movement, Daniel C. Dennett, a Tufts University philosophy professor. The study - "Preachers Who Are Not Believers," published in the journal "Evolutionary Psychology" - included interviews with five Protestant ministers who no longer believe in God in the traditional sense.
All five were given aliases so they could speak freely without endangering their jobs. But Rutledge, identified in the study as "Rick," was comfortable enough to come forward to a reporter with his real name.
Unlike the other men - a Southern Baptist, a Methodist, a Presbyterian and a minister in the independent Church of Christ - Rutledge fears no retribution.
At 76, he says he has never concealed his views from his denomination, the liberal-leaning United Church of Christ, or from Duke, which pays him a $55-a-month stipend for his part-time duties.
Moreover, Rutledge is proud of his views and wants to share them with the world. He is frustrated that Dennett and co-author Linda LaScola, both atheists, hold what he considers such restrictive views of God.
"[Dennett] labels an atheist anybody who doesn't believe in supernatural theism," Rutledge said. "He's a rationalist, and he tends to look at belief in rational terms."
The heart of the debate is what Dennett sees as a growing disconnect between what some clergy believe and what their congregations think they believe. Dennett says that while Christians sitting in the pews take the Bible and the creeds literally, many of their leaders have developed a more nuanced or metaphorical understanding of the faith.
"It would have been better for them if they had walked out some time ago," Dennett said. "They've dissembled to some degree for a long time. They're stuck in a charade."
A dynamic deity
Rutledge says he still believes in God, but not the God who sits on a throne in the sky.
To Rutledge, God is a process of mysterious cosmic creativity that makes for greater love and justice. He thinks of God as a force working within human beings and nature, and he sees his role as trying to imitate that divine character whose greatest exemplar is Jesus.
Ordained in 1962, Rutledge said his unorthodox views were not an issue for his denomination, which allowed him to work as a campus minister in such places as San Jose State University, Iowa State University and the University of New Mexico-Albuquerque. Rutledge and his wife, the Rev. Betsy Alden, a Methodist minister, came to Duke in 1996. The following year, Rutledge began receiving a full pension from the United Church of Christ.
Ministry matters most
In retirement, Rutledge decided to join forces with the Presbyterian campus ministry at Duke, where he has counseled students and led workshops on interfaith cooperation and the intersection of science and religion.
"He's not someone I would put front and center, but in the role he played, he was a caring and kind person," said the Rev. Cheryl Barton Henry, who until last month was the Presbyterian campus minister at Duke.
Overseeing the ministers is a board called the Presbyterian Campus Ministry at Duke. It includes representatives of 10 local Presbyterian (U.S.A) churches and one United Church of Christ congregation.
The Rev. Carla Gregg, who represents the United Church of Christ on the board, said Rutledge has been honest and passionate about his beliefs.
"I think his voice is an important one, and I like it to be in conversation with other voices," Gregg said.
Lee Kane, a Duke Divinity School graduate who met monthly with Rutledge for career counseling, said he saw him as a grandfatherly man who was considerate and helpful.
"He's not the type who thinks other people need to think his way," Kane said.
Rutledge's views are not new. In the 1980s he joined the Jesus Seminar, a colloquium of scholars who tried to peel off layers of church dogma to unearth the historical Jesus. He is a fan of such writers as Karen Armstrong and Marcus Borg, who have articulated a way of being religious rooted in a commitment to an ethical way of life.
Though many clergy share those beliefs, Dennett said, they dare not speak of them publicly for fear of losing their jobs. Instead of quitting the ministry, they live a double life. "Look at what it leads to - they're speaking in literal terms from the pulpit and counting on their more sophisticated members to understand them to be speaking in metaphor," he said. "That's the tension behind this."
Dennett said his pilot study is just a start. He wants to interview more clergy in other faiths to determine how pervasive the departure from orthodox belief really is.
"I would like to dispel some of the fog around this," he said. "Our first informants believe they're not alone, they're not even rare."