How Not to Cross a Boundary
Gretta Vosper has been making headlines for a while now. She’s the pastor of West Hill United Church in Toronto. She also claims to be an atheist. According to a recent article at Vice News, Vosper realized back in 2001 that the idea of a supernatural being who intervened in the affairs of the world was a very silly thing to believe. She has, nevertheless, been soldiering on in her church for the last decade and a half in the service of the more worthy and “progressive” concerns that she feels the church ought to be about.
Initially, her Toronto congregation was ok with this. But more recently, the complaints have been mounting. Her church has launched an investigation to determine whether she’s fit to keep her job. Vosper is, of course, appealing, seeing her desire to hang on to her position as the minister of a Christian church as an act of solidarity with all the other unbelieving ministers out there who are too afraid to admit it (I’ve written a bit about this before here). She hopes that the United Church will be the “first denomination to have the courage to step beyond doctrinal boundaries and say we are a church that is about love, compassion, and justice.” Whether or not such a step should be deemed “courageous” or “incoherent” will be decided by an ecclesiastical court in September.
What Gretta Vosper does or does not believe about a “supernatural interventionist” deity is of very little concern to me. She’s not the first and she certainly won’t be the last to prefer a God of her own choosing or to reject the God revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in Scripture. I don’t even much care if she retains her position in the United Church of Canada. Yes, the idea of a self-declared atheist serving as pastor of a Christian church is, well, bizarre, but while the United Church of Canada contains many committed, compassionate Christians (I work with a number of them on a refugee project in our city), there are pockets of the denomination that have not felt particularly shackled by the constraints of orthodoxy for some time now.
There are a number of things that I do find remarkable and/or noteworthy about this whole situation, though. First, I am struck, again, by the phenomenon of apparently intelligent people abandoning the idea of God when they encounter suffering in their lives. According to the article, in Vosper’s case this seems to have occurred when the teacher of her young daughter died of a brain tumour. Her daughter had prayed and her teacher wasn’t healed. Evidently, God was a lie.
Now, suffering must never be minimized, and I don’t in any way want to imply that this was anything less than a heart wrenching experience for Vosper and her daughter. But people have been suffering and dying for a very long time in our world. And Christian orthodoxy has almost without exception been articulated and practiced in contexts where human life was, far shorter, far harsher, and far more unforgiving than it tends to be in twenty-first century suburban Canada. God has, evidently, been failing to consistently intervene according to the preferences of human beings for quite some time. The fact that prayer isn’t a formula or that people who believe in a “supernatural, interventionist God” still suffer and die are not exactly revelations. It would seem to require no small amount of hubris to proclaim as some kind of discovery the idea that there must not be a God because very bad things happen in the world and very bad things shouldn’t happen if a loving God is in charge.
The other thing that strikes me about Gretta Vosper’s story is how utterly, predictably, yawn-inducingly symptomatic it is of our cultural moment. A “Christianity” that has little use for a higher power that might presume to make demands upon us, or a view of reality that constrains human behaviour and reorients human preferences, or an understanding of faith that makes it mostly about us and about the values that we are most pleased to think define us… All of this is, well, pretty much exactly the sort of religion that you would expect to see in a postmodern, post-Christian, reasonably wealthy, and individualistic nation like Canada, where there are really no higher values to aspire to than our own versions of personal fulfillment, authenticity, inclusion, social justice, tolerance, etc.
And then, of course, there is the obvious question of why Gretta Vosper is so determined to cling to words like “Christian” and “church.” Why not just walk away and enjoy the society of other suitably progressive folks who have no use for God? This is what another former United Church minister Bob Ripley did when he found he could no longer believe, and what he wishes Vosper would do:
People who no longer believe in a supernatural divinity, have every right to do so. They can and should form their own communities. But to do it under the umbrella of a Christian denomination, I just can’t go there.”
He added that Vosper’s fight is not an issue of justice or inclusiveness. “I think the church has to give some definition to what it is, which is people who believe in a supernatural divinity. That’s what gives it its substance,” he said.
In other words, while the church obviously changes over time, and while Christian theology morphs and develops and evolves in this or that cultural context, there is obviously a point where one’s beliefs are no longer within the parameters of anything recognizably Christian. And the church is not being oppressive by saying so. It is simply reaffirming what gives it substance. All organizations have boundaries of some kind. You probably can’t be a card-carrying member of Greenpeace and a major shareholder of Syncrude. And, no matter what Gretta Vosper might think, you can’t be a Christian pastor charged with teaching and modeling the way of Jesus (who seemed to have a few convictions about an interventionist God and prayer and a life beyond this one, among other things) and an atheist.
You can try to refashion Christianity and construe it as an “understanding of God that is more about relationships with oneself, the others, and the planet.” But even though these values can find their place in the Christian narrative (and, can be chastened and grounded coherently, it should be said), that’s not what Christianity has ever been, and it’s not what it is now. It just isn’t.
I hate the fact that the term ‘supernatural’ seems to be used as a sort of core or fundamental term for categorization here. I find it smacks too much of Greek/philosophical or modern sensibilities then biblical orientations.
It’s not a term I would choose either, largely for the reasons you allude to here. I was borrowing the language used by Vesper in the article.
Having said that, it seems to me a fairly basic assumption to Christian orthodoxy that there is something/Someone beyond observable reality—something like the ground of being that David Bentley Hart writes of in his book The Experience of God. The Christian narrative (and the story of Jesus) make little sense without this.
I suppose my point, in part, is that the biblical language of the ‘beyond’ was set in a grammar and vocabulary that was intelligible and integrated in its context (and in many ways worked more at making this ‘beyond’ more ‘immanent’). I think that is or should still be true. This is not about ‘accommodating’ the message to our time but in that in fact we *are* still dealing with the same issues and that our culture/time does have language that tries to address these things.
So the Christian narrative can be unique and particular but not because it conceives of the world in a qualitatively different way but because it engages the world in a particular way.
I have not read Hart in a while but my understanding of that larger ‘school’ of thought is that transcendence becomes a sort of power play to separate the sheep from the goats and I don’t have any interest in that. That is why I would reject the use of ‘supernatural’ as defining the categories because I don’t think it best accounts for reality. ‘Supernatural’ is a political term that allows a particular group to lay claim to a sort of privileged access to truth in way that I don’t think aligns with gospel.
And at the end of the day I find most atheists (certainly not all) are talking about a god that science fabricated as dead on arrival.
Sure, but engaging the world in a certain way cannot be separated from conceiving the world in a certain way. Christianity’s unique way of engaging the world is, I think, intrinsically connected to how the world has been conceptualized, including the centrality of a transcendent God.
Transcendence can certainly be part of a power play to separate sheep from goats. So can almost any other way of conceiving and engaging the world. Human beings are very adept at using all kinds of things in the pursuit and maintenance of power. The answer isn’t to jettison the idea of transcendence, in my view, but to speak of it with more humility, and with a recognition that we as human beings are always prone to pressing these things into the service of securing privilege and bolstering power.
(I think you’re bang on with the god that many atheists are talking about!)
This is fantastic, Ryan… and it goes right along with calling yourself an “Anabaptist” and not believing in a supernatural being… Mennonite, yes, because Mennonite has become, in some ways, an ethnicity… but let’s not confuse the matters and say that you can be a Christian or an Anabaptist and not believe in the most central aspect of faith, that there is a being outside of ourselves that gives us worth, value, and love… thanks, Ryan.
Thank you, Robert, for these kind words.
I think you’re right—the “Mennonite” label is often reduced to an ethical system vaguely (and selectively) connected to the person of Jesus, or an antiquated ethnic descriptor. Perhaps these are deemed more palatable than embracing the metaphysics. Perhaps we’re desperate to seem “relevant” (what a gross word) in the broader culture. I don’t know.
The likelihood that I will actually read Vosper’s books is pretty low so I can’t really say this with respect to her position but it should be noted that ‘prophetic’ activity and articulation (including the early church and I could probably dig up quotes about the Anabaptists) are often considered ‘godless’ i.e. atheist. Things get a little tenuous here but that is the tricky thing about idolatry . . . no one believes they are worshipping what we would consider an idol.
Again, this may or may not have any relevance to Vosper but it should temper a quick dismal of someone who rejects the dominant god (or dominant frame for talking about god) but has not found or been able to find any language to replace it.
Very true, David. Questions about atheism ought always to include a careful analysis of which god (or frame for talking about god) is being rejected, and how “god” language functions within dominant systems.
I remain convinced, however, that the rejection of the very idea of a transcendent God is incoherent within a Christian framework. As I read Scripture, I see the prophetic challenge more often than not sounding something like, “You’ve been living and thinking as if God were like x, as if he expected/permitted x. You’re wrong. God is actually like y and expects z.” Or something like that. The prophetic challenge is to reconsider the nature and expectations of God, and almost always ends with an entreaty to return to God and the truth about God. The reality of God never leaves the stage as seems to be the case with Vosper.
Without the real existence of a transcendent God, the critics are right—we’re mostly just playing language games, using “God” talk as an exalted way of talking about ourselves. A pitiable and useless activity, if ever there was one.
Thoughtful essay. Much along the lines I have approached it. Thank you.
Thank you, Randy.