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Pulse
5 December 2022

The title of this article must surely appear to many readers as an oxymoron, an insuperable contradiction – and indeed it is!

Yet there are Christians who self-identify as ‘progressive’ that are proposing just this – a Christian faith which must dispense with belief in God altogether because it is nothing more than a human construct which has outlived its usefulness.

One such progressive Christian is Rev. Gretta Vosper, who was raised in the United Church of Canada and who has been the pastor of West Hill United in Scarborough, Ontario, for over two decades. Vosper publicly declared herself an atheist, stating that she does not believe in the existence of God, never mind the God of the Bible.

The fact that Vosper is allowed to continue as an ordained minister at West Hill United has understandably caused considerable controversy in the UCC. In 2018, the UCC and West Hill United issued a joint statement which said that the parties have ‘settled all outstanding issues between them.’

This effectively means that Vosper was allowed to continue serving at West Hill United as its pastor.

Shortly after the joint statement was published, however, UCC issued a second statement which emphatically insisted that the decision ‘doesn’t alter in any way the belief of The United Church of Canada in God, a God most fully revealed to us as Christians in and through Jesus Christ.’

Unfortunately, this attempt at clarification only adds to the confusion. It makes the decision to retain Vosper incomprehensible, and exposes the denomination’s shambolic leadership

In 2014, Vosper published a book entitled With or Without God: Why the Way We Live Is More Important Than What We Believe. This book clearly explains its author’s view of historic Christianity and why she thinks that its dogmas must be abandoned to make way for a creedless Christianity.

Vosper, who is the founder of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity, believes that only when the Church and its beliefs evolve to accommodate the postmodern culture will it be saved from extinction and make a positive impact on society.

This brief article discusses some of the salient issues that Vosper raises in her book.

REJECTING HISTORIC CHRISTIANITY

Vosper plunges almost immediately to offer her gloomy diagnosis of the traditional Church and its system of beliefs. Without pulling back any punches, Vosper asserts that:

The Christian Church, as we have built it and known it, has outlived its viability … Evangelical, liberal, and sacramental expressions of Christianity scramble for relevance in a world that they are, for the most part, ill-suited to address.

In stubbornly continuing to uphold its archaic beliefs and refusing to change its ways, the Church is driving itself into obscurity. It has become a relic of a distant past and totally out of touch with the contemporary culture. She writes:

The church created a vast and intricate system of belief to streamline the understanding of our relationship with God and its influence on our lives. That system is crumbling. Schisms have fragmented it; intellectuals have left it; apologists, those whose role is to make its beliefs appear reasonable, are the only ones who seem able to still flourish within it … The lumbering giant now threatens its own existence. In reiterating its same claims, its same arguments, its same effect and beliefs, it has failed to grow into the present age.

This diagnosis echoes that of the old liberals for whom historic Christianity, with its metaphysics of the Incarnation (God becoming a man) and its belief in the supernatural, can no longer make sense to those who belong to the scientific age.

For example, Schleiermacher’s reframing of religion for its cultured despisers, and Rudolph Bultmann’s project of demythologisation share the same concerns to make Christianity relevant once again to the prevailing culture.

Indeed, Vosper writes approvingly of the work of liberals such as A. T. Robinson, who in his [in]famous book Honest to God (1963) called for the ‘firm reiteration, in fresh and intelligent contemporary language, of “the faith once delivered to the saints”.’

But Vosper is not satisfied with merely a restatement of traditional beliefs. Her iconoclasm is much more radical and unforgiving, for she envisages a process in which ‘the most fundamental categories of our theology – of God, of the supernatural, and of religion itself – must go into the melting.’

Thus, Vosper is calling for the total re-imagining of Christianity, or, in her own words, ‘a conscientious clearing of the house of faith.’ Anything which no longer makes sense in the postmodern culture, that no longer carries meaning and significance must be binned.

I’m calling for a conscientious clearing of the house of faith, a sweeping away of language that suggests salvation from hell in return for a belief in the sacrifice of Jesus for our sins. I’m talking about being willing to give up the public singing of hymns – no matter how dear to our hearts – that reiterate that bargain and celebrate Christianity’s march cross the globe, triumphantly bringing its patronising ‘light of the world’ to all nations … I’m suggesting that we boldly, comfortably, and confidently write our own sacred wisdom again …

The Progressive Christianity that Vosper advocates is therefore much more radical and reductionistic than the revisionist theologies of the old liberals.

Vosper delineates the features of this new faith in her book – one which is equally eager to embrace the present and welcome the future as it is to say good riddance to the past.

That’s what this book is about – living in the current paradigm, being progressive enough to let go of the beliefs and traditions to which we’ve had to tip our hats and curtsy in the past but which can no longer prevail in our contemporary culture. It is about finding a way to be a church that knows its past but respects the present enough to leave the past where it belongs and not use it as a litmus test for any new idea we might want to propose.

What might Vosper’s new and progressive Christianity look like? Thankfully, in her book the UCC minister is as upfront and clear about what she proposes as she is about what she rejects.

MANUFACTURING A NEW RELIGION

In Chapter 5 of her book, Vosper clearly articulates her views on the Bible, God, Jesus, Prayer and the Rituals. A brief summary of what she has to say about these topics would give the reader an idea of just now radical the Progressive Christianity that she is advocating really is.

The Bible

Vosper predictably has no patience for the claim that the Bible is ‘the authoritative word of God for all time (TAWOGFAT),’ insisting that it is merely a human document. When we’ve come to terms with the Bible being nothing more than just a human product, she argues,

we don’t have to (a) find The Meaning in its stories or histories or (b) worry if we’ve got The Meaning right or (c) believe it all happened in the way it’s written. Those kinds of questions just don’t matter.

The Bible, then, becomes just another interesting book rather than ‘a privileged book of divine wisdom.’ We are therefore free to dwell on some bits of it while ignoring other bits.

She elaborates:

The Bible should be looked at like Shakespeare’s collected works. Some of his works, I can reservedly relate to. Some of them I can make neither heads nor tails. And I don’t need to.

Once the Bible has been stripped of its special status as TAWOGFAT, we don’t have to rely exclusively on it for inspiration. ‘[O]nce the Bible is set aside as the spiritual resource,’ Vosper writes, ‘you can be fed by many sources.’

She lists William Blake, Mary Oliver, Thich Nhat Hanh and others as possible sources from which Christians can draw inspiration.

God

Vosper asserts that the Bible presents ‘a whole bunch of different descriptions and understandings of God …’, many of which are contradictory. She cites Psalm 139 as an example, where she finds ‘A loving God, an omnipresent God, a murdering God – all in one lyric poem.’

Vosper describes the church as the ‘keeper of “Who God Is”.’ It has created and protected a pile of doctrines throughout its history, and used its authority to pronounce what is orthodox and what is heresy.

Perhaps Christians have been too timid to challenge this authority or venture beyond the perimeters it sets, Vosper suggests. ‘Perhaps it is time to explore beyond the safety and security of the answers wrapped in ecclesial favour.’

However, this does not mean that they should come up with an alternative doctrine of God. Vosper concurs with the Presbyterian minister Jim Dollar who asserts in his book, The Evolution of God (2006) that ‘We don’t need another doctrine of God to add to the pile. We just need to torch the pile.’

The best approach is to dispense with the idea of God altogether – a decision that will prove to be truly liberating. Vosper writes:

As we seek to move beyond images that have constricted us and allow ourselves to embrace the being-ness of our own divinity, choosing to see and celebrate each creative, life-affirming experience as holy, we will slowly and steadily release the theistic grip in which we have held all that we have called good. We will free it to grow and develop among us. It will be in our laughter, in our loving, in our caring for one another. It will be when we act justly and choose to fill another’s need before our own. It will stir us toward sincerity, to the truth of who we are. It will well up within us and overflow in kindness and delight. We will know it in our relationships, in our efforts, and in the depths of our souls. And we, too, will have been set free.

Vosper has discarded the God of historic Christianity and replaced it with an amorphous sublimity of the human spirit.

Jesus Christ

Consistent with her belief that ‘God’ is merely a human concept, Vosper maintains that Jesus is not the incarnate Son of God. She writes:

When we reconsider the concept of god and work our way toward exploring it differently than we have in the past, the whole idea of Jesus being the Son of God no longer makes much sense.

Taking her cue from the liberal scholars associated with the Jesus Seminar, Vosper concludes that Jesus was merely a human being, and a flawed one at that.

Vosper blames the Church for fashioning a divine Jesus and requiring Christians to worship him. But thanks to the scholars of our day, we are able to see more clearly now than ever before who Jesus really was. She writes:

We will also see the way the church stretched, pulled, and reconfigured the story of Jesus to give us that Son of God it said we had to have. With the help of scholars and authors who make academic research accessible, we will have set before us a very human Jesus, a man of emotions, wisdom, and desires. But we do not have the Son of God.

When we are enlightened enough to pierce through the metaphysical nonsense that the church has layered on the figure of Jesus and realise that he was just a man, we can take a different approach to reading the Gospels.

When Jesus is not understood to be God, the stories of his life, the things that he said, and the way that he acted do not have the power of God attached to them. They become stories, and we are free to read them as such.

We are therefore at liberty to decide for ourselves which bits of his life and teaching we find relevant and meaningful, and which other bits we don’t.

Yet, we remain fascinated with the man, Jesus, and so it is important that we read the stories about him first hand, as though watching a movie, and decide for ourselves what we will call significant and what we find not to be so.

Prayer

If the God to whom Christians pray is just a nice but archaic idea, and if the Jesus in whose name the prayers are made is nothing more than a mortal, what becomes of prayer itself? It is simply a vacuous activity?

As a pastor, Vosper recognises how important prayer is for the spiritual vitality of the community at West Hill United. That is why she is still emphatic about the significance of the practice even though she insists that the ‘God’ to whom prayers are directed is just a human construction that serves as a coping mechanism.

‘When we see how theistic concepts of God developed to help us cope with the random nature of pain, suffering, and blessing,’ she writes, ‘we recognise that such an image is just that – a humanly created one.’

However, while the image of a god is useful, other images can be equally effective in helping us to come to terms with the trials of life.

She tells the story of a man who prayed for his wife who is faced with a life-threatening trauma. Instead of conjuring an image of God, he ‘sees’ the people in his church rallying around him. And this gave him much comfort.

Vosper writes:

… one by one, the faces of members of his church family crystallised before him, and he had an epiphany, realising as he prayed that he was, indeed, seeing the face of God but that God resided within his friends and family, not in an ancient and distant image.

Prayer becomes for Vosper an exercising in visualisation where the one who prays imagines something (in this case, the presence of his friends and family) that will bring him solace.

‘Images are a significant part of our prayer life,’ Vosper explains, ‘and can offer us as much strength as we have experienced with former interventionist understandings.’

‘But’, she stresses, ‘they aren’t real, and we know they aren’t real. We have created them in our minds.’

Rituals

Finally, Vosper turns to the rituals of the Church, especially the sacraments. She recognises the importance of these ‘symbolic rituals’ as she calls them: ‘No matter where we apprehend them, symbols are powerful.’

Yet, our understanding of the sacraments, like our understanding of prayer, must be challenged if we dare to put aside the traditional teachings of the Church. But they are challenged in different ways.

Vosper explains:

While it is prayer that is challenged when old concepts of an interventionist God are disputed and replaced, it is our symbolic acts that are the most unsettled when we let go of our doctrinal understandings of Jesus. The sacraments, those rites that have long been associated with Jesus’ salvific power, can have little magic left when contemporary scholarship strips Jesus of his uniquely divine status and leaves him as only a Middle Eastern peasant with a few charismatics gifts and a great posthumous marketing team.

Furthermore, the power of the sacraments is based on the ‘idea of humanity as being fallen or sinful and in need of redemption of grace,’ Vosper asserts. But if this premise – that we are fallen or sinful – is rejected in toto, then the notion that we are in need of salvation becomes superfluous Vosper calls it nonsense).

… if rational minds, as a result of our study and reflection, have rejected the concept that we are inherently sinful and then its corollary – that we need and can receive redemption from some outside source – the doctrine of original sin and its counterpart salvation, whether by faith or by works, becomes nonsense.

And if this is where we are in terms of our appreciation of reality, then we understandably will find the words of the ritual for the Eucharist of Holy Communion meaningless, and even offensive. ‘Once we open our ears to the traditional liturgical words, we find them utter offensive – as we should,’ Vosper writes.

Perhaps the way forward, Vosper ruminates, is to hollow out the sacraments of any reference to sin, sacrifice, atonement, etc., and emphasise ‘the gift of communion as a celebration of community, of our commitment to live in community.’

But Vosper is not confident that stripping the sacraments of its traditional theological significance is possible, and recommends that perhaps the church should dispense with them altogether – when she is ready to do so.

Can the sacraments ever be anything other than what they were initially intended to be? When we change the words, strip the sacrificial overtones from the rituals and symbols, do we really rinse them clean from the power they have come to wield? Can we make them something beautiful or will the stain of original sin always be present in the reflection of the baptismal basin or smeared like blood across the table? I expect that, no matter what we say, communion will still have a strong emotional power for those for whom it brings solace. And for those for whom the words are only offensive, I hope that, along with the awakening that made them so, came the realisation that there will be no need for the sacraments in the next incarnation of church.

CONCLUSION

What’s puzzling is why Vosper would still cling to the label ‘Christianity’ when she no longer believes that

• the Bible is the Word of God,
• God is more than just an idea, a human construct,
• Jesus is the eternal Son of God incarnate, but merely a flawed human being,
• prayer is addressed to God, but only an exercise of visualisation,
• the sacraments point to any spiritual reality,
• the Christian past has any relevance whatsoever to the Church in the postmodern world?

Why not abandon that label altogether? Why not call the new religion she has invented Atheistic Humanism instead?

Although I profoundly disagree with the views expressed by atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens on religion, especially Christianity, I prefer them to Gretta Vosper. This is because they have a quality which Vosper is evidently lacking: integrity.

To insist that the travesty that she is proposing is a form of Christianity is nothing but disingenuous. And to continue as an ordained minister of the Christian church even though she has rejected its most central beliefs and practices simply lacks integrity.


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.