Gretta Vosper featured in CBC radio documentary “A Matter of Faith”

Gretta Vosper made a huge splash in 2008 when she came out as atheist, despite being an ordained minister of the United Church of Canada. Clergy coming out atheist is hardly news, but what made Vosper stand out was that she insisted on continuing as a minister of the UCC while preaching her atheist beliefs, and that the UCC should affirm her choice.

Gretta Vosper

Gretta Vosper

Today CBC Radio’s The Current aired a documentary by producer Gord Westmacott titled “A Matter of Faith.” With Vosper’s career under review by the UCC, the documentary focuses on the theological arguments for and against Vosper’s position.

Normally CBC is terrible at giving a full and unbiased presentation of atheist viewpoints, and Westmacott is as about bad as you’d expect. He introduces Vosper’s sermon by saying, it’s a bit like watching a movie you’ve seen before, but dubbed in a language you don’t speak. And when Vosper asserts I identify as atheist, he has to have it repeated, with the comment yes, you heard that correctly; all that was missing was the record scratch sound effect.

Surprisingly, though, and against enormous odds, Vosper’s position manages to come off sounding remarkably cogent.

I knew Vosper’s story, but I’d never heard her really articulate her side of it. I assumed there really wasn’t much of an argument to be made. No church is under any obligation to keep paying a minister who is teaching something other than the church’s own doctrines. I think most atheists would agree with the position that if you don’t believe a church’s doctrines, it’s not the church that has to adapt, it’s you – you should adapt your ass right out of that church.

But if that’s your position, you will find yourself on the same side as the minister who acted as counterpoint to Vosper. Connie den Bok does something you won’t often see liberal Christian leadership do when talking about the supernatural elements of their doctrine, stating forthright that they actually believe all of that stuff, that Jesus is here wherever two or three are gathered; we see God as the other person in the room.

United Church of Canada crest

United Church of Canada crest

Den Bok’s case should have been a no-brainer. But it turns out that actually trying to explicitly outline it backfired. Den Bok ended up saying some pretty foul things, like comparing Vosper’s atheism to being deaf and smugly pitying her for not being able to hear the unspeakably beautiful music, calling the decreasing religiosity of the congregation degrading and dismissing them as a tribe that will die of natural attrition, and implying that Vosper was deceitful (her word was dishonourable), and playing the media.

Ultimately den Bok’s position comes off as incoherent and self-absorbed. One minute she’s saying that Vosper and those who agree with her are just a doomed fad, and that true believers in Jesus will prevail; the next she’s admitting that Vosper’s irreligiousness is just the tip of the iceberg for a movement that’s been happening within the United Church for quite some time. Her last word is basically writing off the UCC, and saying she’ll take her ball and go elsewhere. Makes you wonder which side is really dying of attrition.

If you think – as I did – that Vosper’s position is silly and untenable, I strongly encourage you to listen right through to the end, when Vosper gets the last word. Westmacott thinks he’s just giving her a chance to make an emotional plea for not losing the only place she feels she can call home. Instead, she makes a compelling case for why she’s doing what she’s doing, and why the UCC should take her position seriously.

And you know what? She’s changed my mind. I think she’s right. I think her church – all churches, really – have to make a choice. Either accept that the old ideas of a supernatural being divinely commanding morality are dated and evolve a new, more rational doctrine. Or draw the line, refuse to evolve, and accept the fate of all things that cannot adapt to a changing world.

If you are like I was, and you think the idea of an atheist minister asking a Christian church to drop the Jesus stuff and embrace a more humanist doctrine is preposterous, I encourage you to give a listen to the documentary, and give Vosper a chance to change your mind, too. Agree or disagree, let me know what you think of her position in the comments.

9 thoughts on “Gretta Vosper featured in CBC radio documentary “A Matter of Faith”

  1. I too heard most of the interview. I once heard Vosper speak at a dismal CBC forum on “Is there a place for religion in the public square” or some such thing. I could not get my head wrapped around what an “atheist – Christian – minister” was supposed to be then, and listening to her today, I still couldn’t quite get the slipperiness of the idea to hold still.

    I totally agree with you that she presents an interesting challenge to the doctrinaire apologist and one that we might find intriguing, if for no other reason than the challenge she poses. But even with her erudite exposition, how could she reconcile these two seemingly incongruous ideas? So I went on line and found this nugget, which is really interesting reading:
    “An open letter to the Moderator of the United Church from Bishop John Shelby Spong”
    This is a defense of her ministry posted on her site Oct 15 2015. John Shelby “Jack” Spong is a retired American bishop of the Episcopal Church. From 1979 to 2000 he was Bishop of Newark. He is a liberal Christian theologian, religion commentator and author.
    Here’s a couple quick quotes that I found noteworthy, though the whole letter gives me insights into progressive, liberal Christian thought I didn’t know existed.

    “Gretta has called herself “an atheist minister.” While that language is startling to some, the Christian academy knows exactly what she is saying. To refer to oneself as an “atheist” does not mean that one is asserting that there is no God; it means that the “theistic” definition of God is no longer operative or believable. It has not been operative in intellectual circles since the 17th century.”

    “We Christians are living today on the other side of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo. We understand such things as the vastness of space and the generally accepted 13.8 billion year age of this universe. In such a worldview, there is clearly no theistic God hovering above the sky of a three-tiered universe, ready to intervene in supernatural ways. Does that mean there is no God? Of course not! It does mean, however, that God can no longer be conceived of as a being, supernatural in power, dwelling externally to our world, who is standing by ready to invade human history to answer our prayers or to impose the divine will. It means that our traditional pre-Copernican God language is simply no longer a language we can use. Rethinking God in non-theistic terms is one of the great concerns of contemporary Christian theology.”

    (link to full text here) http://www.grettavosper.ca/call-your-church-back-from-this-precipice/

    • That is a fascinating letter.

      What I find most remarkable about this whole Vosper affair is how it’s shining a light on the stark divide between the “intellectual” side of Christianity, and the way it is publicly marketed. I think all intelligent atheists have always known that the *smart* Christians don’t really believe the crap they sell – I think that’s one of the reasons we’re most annoyed with them. Seeing this actually stated openly by people on the inside is cathartic.

      I have always been somewhat disdainful and dismissive of efforts to “reform” Christianity. Thinks like Jesus, the Fall, and so on are pretty fundamental to the definition of what Christianity is. If you say “there was no Christ”, what sense is there then in saying “I’m a Christian”. My position has always been that reform is a fool’s errand; rather than trying to reform such a broken philosophy, better to simply ditch it for a better one, like humanism.

      What I’ve come to understand, though, is that too many people are not comfortable burning that bridge and leaping into a whole new world. It doesn’t matter how shitty it is where they are or how wonderful it is where they could go, far too many people just don’t want to give up their ties to tradition and history.

      So rather than be an asshole about it and insist they evolve *my* way, I’ve come to accept that there are many different paths to enlightenment. Reformation of Christianity may be a path that is weird and alien to me – I was born atheist and never ruined, so I often have a hard time truly grasping religious ways of thinking – but that doesn’t mean it’s not a perfectly legitimate path.

      I don’t hate Christianity as a concept; I just dislike its more pernicious doctrines, claims, and philosophies, particularly those antithetical to reason and in violation of evidence. If those problematic bits were removed… I suppose I would no longer be at odds with Christianity. That would be a very strange world… but not one that I would be opposed to living in.

  2. Very good Article. And very important work. We can’t just ignore religion. We have to take it apart and explain it. It doesn’t matter so much what it says as it matters that we realize how it was intended to affect us.

    Gretta is a very brave person and she has much more to untangled. Church people may have a very intriguing future once the faith thing has been mercifully euthanized.

  3. There are more than a few of us institutional church leaders/pastors in the States who applaud what Gretta has done and who are disappointed in the UCC as we are disappointed in our own denominations. We are trying to save Christianity from itself. What needs to be saved is an institution that provides a community of belonging which promotes love and justice. It’s the supernatural that should not survive, although such belief seems inbred in us animals, as evolved as we appear to be. I think the teachings of the historical Jesus are worth keeping, althought the institutional church too often ignores them. I think the cross is a wondrous symbol of our victimhood and our penchant to hurt each other, therefore it stands for an end to violence. I think the communion table is a wondrous symbol for our life together from family to world community. In today’s world we need also to utilize world wisdom in addition to our own tradition and not be so parochial.

  4. I have to admit I remain baffled. Even while I am encouraged that their is a vein of “intellectual” Christianity, I am left thinking, so what? We know that the broad base of Christian thinking (99.9%?)would find these ideas neither appealing nor acceptable. And even if Christian progressive thought allows for such “heresy”, would it even be thinkable in other religion’s like Islam? So we are still a long way from any kind of breeching of the hull of religious lunacy. And even if we get a broad based consensus on this line of thinking, it still sits squarely in the service of apologetics, twisting and turning ideas to fit the ideology to the philosophy, a fruitless tautology. Oh well, at least we can talk about Copernicus.

    • Well, take this with a grain of salt, because like you I’m an outsider to this whole affair, and while I *think* I have a grasp on what Vosper is saying and doing, I haven’t confirmed this with her, nor have I read enough of her writings to be completely confident that I’m properly representing her.

      I don’t think this reform is about *us*. Or anyone outside the church itself, for that matter. I think you’re making a category error in asking what reforming the United Church will do for *you*. I don’t think Vosper is doing what she’s doing to make Christianity or the UCC more appealing to *us*. I don’t think the reform she’s talking about has anything to do with outsiders in the least.

      What I think this is all about is the people on the inside who are suffering. That includes both those who want to engage in intelligent philosophical pursuits within the context of their faith but who have to keep their speculations to themselves, and the general congregation who are perpetually asked to (to borrow a quote from Spong) twist their 21st century minds into 1st century pretzels. (By the way, I think 99.9% is an absurd estimate of true believers in Christianity. I’d put the number closer to 30%, and even that is probably high. There have been dozens of posts in the atheist blogosphere highlighting that most Christians don’t even *know* their own theology, let alone seriously subscribe to it in day-to-day life.) Vosper takes pains in the documentary to make it clear that this is about the congregation and what they want; it’s not just an ideological bugbear, and it’s not a public relations move.

      With regards to the UCC specifically: These people like the club, they like being members, they like the stuff they do with with other members, it’s all a good time… but hanging over it all like the sword of Damocles is this friggin’ *doctrine*, which is based on nonsense like talking snakes and wizard battles that is supposed to be taken literally, and that advocates very philosophically silly and ethically pernicious ideologies. Those stories, the philosophical perspectives, and the resulting ethical claims, are already entirely obsolete in practice – no one in the congregation is actually going about their day waiting for God to step in and give them a sign that it’s safe to cross the road or order the fish. Yet every week they sit in the pews and nod off while pretending they believe nonsense that sounds like it came straight out of Balaam’s ass, and even worse they’re expected to *defend* that nonsense publicly because it’s the doctrine they’re supposed to believe.

      In my mind, I’ve been analogizing Vosper’s position to the general Canadian position about God in the anthem. Realistically, the vast majority of Canadians don’t really think that begging God to keep our land free is really going to have any impact at all. We all sing the words, but they’re just mouth noises; we don’t really believe what we’re singing, we just do it to show solidarity as part of the Canadian club. Even worse, it represents a particularly pernicious and troubling philosophy: the idea that it’s up to God keep Canada free, and not us. So here we stand, forced to repeat a troubling idea that we don’t really believe, just to be part of the Canadian family. The logical – nay, obvious – solution to that mess: drop God from the anthem. Doing this is not about helping other theocratic states improve – it has absolutely no impact on non-Canadians, and it doesn’t even stop religious Canadians who do really believe that God is responsible for keeping Canada free from continuing to believe that – and it’s not about advancing a secular agenda. It’s just about making Canada better reflect actual Canadians and their beliefs.

      (The anthem analogy also answers the other objection – that most Christians don’t agree with the changes Vosper’s proposing. Frankly, people *ALWAYS* fight change, no matter how trivial, and no matter how beneficial. That’s just human nature. 93% of people oppose changing the anthem… do you really seriously believe 93% of Canadians *care* about the words in the anthem? Do you even seriously believe that 93% of Canadians *KNOW* the words to the anthem? Of course not, they just hate change – any change. But if the government just went ahead and changed the anthem… five years later I’d bet at *least* 70% of Canadians would be opposed to changing it *back*. (We actually saw the same kind of thing happen with gay marriage – when the law was passed, less than half of Canadians supported it… but just five years later….) I’m not surprised there is a lot of opposition to Vosper’s proposed reforms – I would be surprised if there *wasn’t*. But I also don’t doubt for a second that if they were passed, just a decade or so later, those same Christians opposing them would be trumpeting them as evidence of how progressive they are.)

      So I don’t think you’re asking the right questions when you ask what impact this reform will have on you, on fundamentalist Christians, or on Muslims – or on *any* outsiders. Which is not to say it won’t have any impact, because it will – but asking those questions won’t lead you to any meaningful answers. (Which is why you can’t find any meaningful answers to them, natch.)

      Instead, the right questions to ask are about the impact this reform will have on the congregation, the clergy, and the UCC itself. And in all three, the impact seems like it would be extremely positive. The congregation will now have an organization that better reflects their own position, and from there it’s not hard to be see that once they feel the church is actually *their* church, they will feel more empowered to speak up about any shit that happens to be going on within it – they will be more comfortable *owning* the church and all it teaches and does. I can’t even begin to guess what might follow from that – it might not only mean that it will no longer be possible for clergy getting away with rape and other abuses by hiding behind their frock, it might even mean increased pressure for the church to spend more of its income on charity and less on itself. The clergy will have greater freedom to explore and encourage exploration of the theology – ie, more freedom of thought *within* the church and congregation itself. And the UCC itself will have a harder time justifying lobbying regressive or discriminatory policies if they can’t hide behind the Bible, or the supernatural.

      Even if there were no impact on outsiders, I would still welcome anything that makes life better for the people on the inside. That’s just basic human empathy. But when things get better for the insiders, that indirectly impacts us outsiders too. From a purely outsider view, what Vosper is ultimately advocating is that the church embrace more reasonable thinking, abandon mindless obedience to dogma, and place more emphasis on human responsibility… basically, she’s trying to make the UCC more humanist. Even if I get no benefit out of that at all, and even if it only affects the UCC itself and its congregation, I’d still call that a good thing.

      So I think you’re making a category error when you say this kind of thing isn’t “breeching of the hull of religious lunacy”. It may not look like it from outside the hull, but I’d say this *is* chipping away at the inside of the hull. In this case the primary benefactors will be the congregation – the insiders – rather than the outsider victims we normally concern ourselves with, but every little bit helps.

  5. I have battled hard in my heart whether or not to continue to belong to the UCC, and to participate in the church despite substantial misgivings about the theology encompassed. I actually quit my local church five years ago, moved to a new community, and realized that I really didn’t want to live my life without being a member of this community.

    I think I am like a lot of “intellectuals” who question the core elements of Christianity while still maintaining a sense of faith in God, without necessarily knowing exactly what I mean by God. I’m not arrogant enough to believe that I have answers to my questions or doubts, and I continue on my religious quest – to understand my purpose in life in the context of the great unknowable. I am content to accept that I feel the presence of God in my life, without any superstitious expectations. I feel enriched by mediation and prayer, even if the words sometimes seem overreaching and silly.

    Sometimes I feel most fulfilled when I silence the noise in my mind, and simply allow myself to be fully present to the here and now.

    Mine is a journey I am choosing to make within the UCC and my fellow congregants. I honour all of those who do so, either within church or otherwise. The search is deeply humbling, but also inspiring.

    • Donald, I believe your position is probably similar to most that I know in UCC pews. I’m an ordained UCC minister, and NOT an atheist. Most of what you say appeals to me. I believe we CAN hold on to the concept of a God who is both present and yet who is also mystery. And I do agree that, in the end, Christianity is not about doctrine – it is about love. As the New Testament affirms “God is love.” I believe that where there is love there is God being active and present in the midst of what is happening. This is not a selfish, me-focussed love, but a love expressed in care and service and advocacy directed toward others. So, I believe in God, and I believe in Jesus, whose life was the ultimate revelation of God. I don’t hold to a position that says that God is waiting on high to punish those who choose not to believe. I do believe, however, that faith in the presence and love of God (as opposed to simple adherence to a set of doctrines) is a core component of Christianity. That’s why I find Gretta’s position untenable. I believe that – to borrow a phrase – she’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and ultimately rendering Christianity meaningless.

      • I’m not only an atheist, I’m completely outside the auspices of the UCC, so I don’t have any horses in this race. Nevertheless, I’d like to offer a counter-argument.

        Though I’m not one of the flock, I do perfectly understand some people’s discomfort with the concept of an extant divine being – an actual personal god. The moment you posit the existence of a divine superbeing, you end up with countless troubling logical and ethical conundrums. I’m not going to bother repeating them – I think they’re plenty widely known – but even aside from the fundamental philosophical problems, the Bible is just chock full of problematic and sometimes horrifying stories and guidelines. The story of Abraham and Isaac has to be one of the most morally repugnant stories every written. Even if you want to keep to the New Testament, there’s still no shortage of horror and lunacy.

        I don’t bring this up to be a jerk or to argue against your interpretation. I bring it up to point out that there are valid reasons why a *GOOD* person might choose to reject it; that is, someone who rejects your interpretation isn’t necessarily bad or any less moral than you.

        And that, I think, is the key point in what Vosper is doing. In the past it was just standard “logic” that anyone who didn’t believe in God must be a horrible person, or at least misguided and amoral. Naturally you wouldn’t want to welcome such people into the flock. But this is the 21st century, and one would *HOPE* such intolerance and bigotry is behind the Church.

        Somehow despite rejecting the supernatural stuff, Vosper and her congregation still find meaning in the teachings of Christianity. While I can’t personally understand this, I don’t really need to; the fact is, they do.

        So what it really boils down to is the question of where the line must be drawn. A line *MUST* be drawn; you can’t simply allow *any* ideology – you don’t want a church that tolerates racism for example. But do you think the right place to draw the line is supernatural belief? Do you want to be part of a church that says: “Look, I know you’re good, moral people, and I appreciate you find value in the teachings of Christianity even though you don’t believe they’re literally true, and I agree that it is better to come together and build unified communities and that you definitely have a lot of good things to contribute… but what *really* matters is that you don’t believe the supernatural claims, so sorry, buh-bye, have a nice life.”

        Is *that* the church you want? Bearing in mind that accepting Vosper’s atheist interpretation of Christianity in no way prevents you from continuing to hold your own theistic view. Tolerating different opinions does not make your own belief any less true, or any less important to you or your life. It’s simply saying that supernatural belief is not the line that divides the people your church welcomes from people it excludes.

        Do you really want belief in the supernatural to be the threshold for entry? It might have made “sense” in the past, because of the assumption that atheism equates to immorality (or at least amorality), but those days are (hopefully) behind us, so it is time to reassess whether that is where the line should be. Would you really be proud of a church that turns people away *not* because they’re not good, decent, moral people who find meaning and inspiration from Christianity and who contribute positively to the community, but solely because they don’t think the Biblical stories and claims are meant to be taken literally?

        It’s none of my concern, obviously, but it seems to me that the line between what the church tolerates and what they won’t stand for could be better drawn somewhere else. Doing that won’t make Christianity meaningless, it will simply be recognizing that not everyone can – or has to – find meaning in the supernatural bits of it.

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