ATHEIST VS. BELIEVER
We invited two very different United Church ministers — Rev. Gretta Vosper, an atheist, and Rev. Connie denBok, a believer — to debate ministry, doubt and disbelief. You’ll be surprised by how much they have in common.
Observer: Can you briefly describe your personal perspectives on God and Jesus?
denBok: First of all, we’re always talking in the context of God’s story. And God’s story is that the universe is not a vast empty vacuum with specks of dust scattered about it, but is filled with love. We were created from love, and Jesus is love in the flesh come to live among us.
Vosper: God is not necessary for living a life of love. I believe God is getting in the way of our ability to live a life of love well, in particular as a church. The stories of Jesus have been used through time to effect both positive and negative change within communities. I believe we need to bring our own moral discernment to those stories, so that they can be augmented by the stories of thousands of other people who, through the course of time, have also sought to bring about justice and compassion in the world.
Observer: Is there a place for doubt in Christianity?
denBok: Well, the question is loaded. Since the Enlightenment, the secularist story has implied that religious faith is essentially a matter of doctrine and belief, to which one intellectually assents. But in fact, the word “faith” in the Greek New Testament is an intransitive verb; you don’t have faith, as in a system of belief. For us, faith is a relationship, primarily with God, which flows into a relationship with other people through engagement in spiritual practices.
I think a faith system that does not permit harsh questioning, moments of self-doubt, is simply too fragile to continue.
Vosper: Doubt is the flip side of faith, and the two of them exist in an intense symbiotic relationship. I don’t think doubt is exclusively connected to doctrinal belief. The exploration of questions — related to the nature of reality, to our relationships, to being in community — includes the concept of doubt: “Am I doing this for the right reasons? Let me explore that a little bit.” But those kinds of reflections, that intense exploration, can take place outside any added understanding of the concept of God.
Observer: Gretta, why do people come to your church? What are they looking for?
Vosper: There are people who show up because they know what we do and expect to be supported in a world view that they have developed, usually on their own. There’s a group of people who want to see what it feels like. And then there are people who stumble in the door when their lives are in chaos and are looking for the support of a community.
The first group, they get into intense, rich conversations. The second group is a little more tentative. The third group, they often don’t even recognize that I’m not using the word “God,” and don’t notice that we’re not reading from the Bible. The community has created what we have called a non-exclusive, spiritual space — although the word “spiritual” is now grating on some people’s nerves.
Observer: Connie, your church is pretty healthy. Why are people coming to your place?
denBok: Mine was a 1950s suburban church that reached the end of its lifespan. Early on, I did 50 funerals in one year. Today it is a reforming church with the younger generation that’s moving into the subdivision. In spite of the story-line that we have outgrown God and religious practice, I’m finding a generation hungry for God and for a spirituality that engages them in an encounter with the Other. The God story is very much focused on somebody who is not me, who is in relationship with me; someone whom I cannot remake according to my particular tastes; someone who has thoughts and opinions that are different than my own.
Observer: Is the United Church big enough and flexible enough to employ all sorts of ministers, even those who no longer accept what the church professes to believe?
denBok: If we had a clear doctrinal statement or a clear mission, or if we had a clear anything that we hold in common — other than the pension plan — it would be easier to answer that question. As it is now, we are, in my opinion, a kind of anarchistic loose alliance of individuals and congregations, held together by a common property owner, by a common love for nobody telling us exactly what we should do. We have that in common.
Vosper: Yes, that’s right. One of the things the United Church failed to do, as many other mainline denominations failed to do as they moved away from a salvationist theology, was to name why we come together. We got close to having those important conversations in the 1960s, but we veered away because we were afraid it was going to tear the fabric apart, and we didn’t want to deal with that.
denBok: Ours is a branch of the church family that seems to have lost its purpose and sense of direction. Our family tree looks like it will become extinct unless we find a way to connect with God and the Christian scriptures.
Observer: You come from very different places theologically. Can each of you justly call yourself a United Church minister?
denBok: I have no problem calling myself a United Church minister. But, Gretta, can I ask you a question?
Vosper: Yes, go ahead.
denBok: Okay, a respectful question. Do you refer to yourself as an atheist?
Vosper: I’ve been called an atheist for a very long time, and I have to accept the label. There are people in the congregation who are disturbed by this, but the understanding of an atheist as someone who does not believe in a theistic God is pretty easy. Yet I extend it to positing a supernatural realm in the universe. If you went with that definition across the board, a lot of people coming out of theological colleges and in pulpits in the United Church and Anglican Church and Catholic Church would also have to accept the label.
I would say that my deeply held beliefs and values have not transitioned me beyond what I believe the United Church is and the United Church I was raised in. I was a product of the New Curriculum. I never had an authoritative, judgmental God who overlooked everything I did. Jesus taught me to skate in my backyard. I had a relationship with him as a friend — that was how it came out in the curriculum.
denBok: I never had an authoritative, judgmental God either. When I read your books, I am struck by the realization that I don’t believe in the same God you don’t believe in.
Vosper: I know, but the reality is, that God is very strong and a very pervasive influence in politics and in a variety of things around the world, so we still need to address that God.
denBok: We do, but we address it by retelling the story. I think God is a major agent in that story, but not in an interventionist kind of way. What we need to do, beginning with our theological training, is teach people transformational spiritual practices and allow them to understand God in a different way than in Sunday school.
Vosper: We are now at the point where there’s no need for any kind of a chasm between the pulpit and the pew. Information is available in the pew in a way it has never been before. But I don’t think that reclaiming the language and explaining it all as metaphor is sufficient, because it just digs a moat around the church.
Living in right relationship with others, with the planet — that is what I have seen and distilled as the essence of the work of The United Church of Canada, and I’m very much engaged in that work.
denBok: Of course. But you don’t need church for any of that. The only thing church has to offer that other organizations don’t do better is the God thing.
Vosper: So let other denominations do it, and let The United Church of Canada — which is the only denomination on the planet that might ever actually say in its documents that the Bible is not the authoritative word of God for all time — move forward into discourse with others.
Observer: But Gretta, do you think that’s even remotely possible?
Vosper: No. We’re two, three generations too late. We should have kept with this work in the 1960s.
denBok: Or honourably split, way back when.
Vosper: Honourably split, way back when. Exactly.
Observer: Do ministers who no longer believe, or no longer believe what they used to believe, have an obligation to come clean to their congregations?
Vosper: No. The United Church of Canada has an obligation to support clergy who no longer believe so that they have safe passage. In my case it was a process, and I was with a congregation that had already done a lot of exploration. But for someone just to do it with no protection, no support . . .
Observer: But isn’t a minister without faith a bit like a hockey player who decides in the middle of the game that he’d rather be playing baseball?
Vosper: No, because the game has morphed into baseball.
denBok: No, I don’t think that it has. I know lots of ministers at the other end of the spectrum, who are very Christ-focused and also focused on social justice, who live in fear of some bully from Presbytery or a search committee declaring them a fundamentalist and excluding them from the main life of the church.
Vosper: Which is exactly what the people I support fear, because they’re ridiculed by their peers at theological college.
denBok: The all-inclusive church is mythology, and we know that we have both suffered under it. For some obscure reason, we’re both where we are. We aren’t bullied easily, I suppose.
Observer: So, back to the question.
denBok: I think that if any denomination has a future, it’s going to need to focus on who it is, what it believes. Any healthy organization, once it draws its boundaries, knows that there are some people who are clearly with the mission and some people who are clearly not.
Vosper: But define the mission, Connie. What is the mission?
denBok: The thing is, in the United Church we can’t do that.
Vosper: But we can. I think we can. We were born in the social gospel movement, we’ve been on the forefront of justice issues and community building for our entire —
denBok: No, that’s revisionist history. In 1925, we were born as a movement to do evangelism, to plant churches across the Prairies so that Presbyterians and Methodists weren’t competing with each other. The centrefold for the first Observer was “Canada for Christ.”
Vosper: [The United Church] also had the social activist element, and when we look back at our history, those are the moments when we have stood proud and strong, not our evangelism moments.
denBok: With all due respect, one could say the opposite too. But what we are each describing is a church that we are both a part of. It’s like some dysfunctional extended family; you can’t divorce family members.
Observer: Connie, if a movement suddenly sprung up to — for lack of a better word — kick Gretta out, would you come to her defence?
denBok: I would certainly not support the movement, because once we start drawing the lines based on personality without clear definitions, it’s like the French Revolution — we just start chopping off heads.
Vosper: But that wouldn’t be based on personality. It would be based on doctrinal belief.
denBok: I would reach out on a personal basis, but on a doctrinal defence basis — I don’t think I could.
Observer: Gretta, say Connie gets into trouble because maybe she’s a little more doctrinal than Presbytery wants her to be. Do you defend her right to believe what she believes and how she believes it?
Vosper: I think I already do that. However, if Connie were to use her doctrinal beliefs to refuse rights to whole segments of society, to deny them access to things, then I’d get in her way. But I don’t think that’s where she’d be.
denBok: No, we could work together on many things.
Observer: Is the question of doubt and doctrine going to be a major conversation generally in The United Church of Canada?
denBok: What’s happening, I think, is that like-minded people are forming informal clusters within the church. And so in a sense, the people with whom I have theological discussions and debates, the people I would hang out with voluntarily on a Saturday morning, are people who are coming to a similar place to where I am. Or at least to a broad enough place, in a theistic kind of way, that we can pray together and discuss things from the same world view.
I’m still having fun in ministry. I know a lot of my colleagues are. I have a huge hope for the future, but my hope is based on the premise that I’m living the story in which love wins in the end. I can have courage to go forward, knowing that I may not succeed today, but eventually the world wins; God wins. It’s a good ending.
Observer: How does it end for you, Gretta?
Vosper: Last Sunday, I spoke in a congregation in Halifax. The songs that we sang were traditional tunes with words that have been rewritten. Many people wept; this often happens. You have men with tears streaming down their faces because they are given back music they haven’t been able to sing. I feel like I am part of a process of re-embracing, that love will out. But love will out, with or without God.
If you’re doing ministry from a place of integrity that includes and embraces a god, however you want to define it, then we’re working together. I’m working with people who cannot do it with the language of God or the privilege given to a set of historical texts, or an individual who is featured in those texts. I think that we both walk with the same hope. We just do it with very different groups of people, and with very different world views.
This dialogue has been condensed and edited.
DON’T CALL ME REV. ANYMORE
Longtime minister and two-time moderator nominee Ken Gallinger explains why he quit the church but kept the faith
Roy Collins was among the finest Christian gentlemen I’ve ever met — intensely devoted, funny, wise. During a study session at First United in Port Credit, Ont., back around the year 2000, we talked freely about the mythological imagery of the Bible, including the whole notion of God as myth. Finally, Roy, in his mid-70s at the time, could no longer constrain himself. “Why have ministers lied to me all my life?” he blurted. “You ministers know this stuff; you’ve studied it in college and read all the books. Why haven’t the ministers of this church had the courage to go into the pulpit and share what you know with us dumb lay people?”
I pondered that for a long time. I looked at my old sermons, prayers and liturgies. Yes, I had used “God language,” assuming people understood that I was speaking the language of poetry. I had delved into scripture, implying (but rarely stating) that we were exploring a human text about a human journey. I had proclaimed the wonder of Jesus the Christ, affirming things I believed to be true, but rarely rejecting, with sufficient vigour, the smothering weight of theological nonsense with which the church had burdened Roy and others.
And I decided that, if what I’d been saying wasn’t clear to Roy, it likely wasn’t clear to anyone. It was time to set the record straight, and for the last decade I’ve been trying to do just that.
As a result of becoming more outspoken, I know some people worry that I’ve lost faith. But I don’t understand my journey in those terms; my faith feels more or less the same as ever. I can’t even say I’ve lost orthodoxy, because I’ve never subscribed to orthodox Christianity and never pretended to.
Let me be clear. There is no “Guy in the Sky.” There is no divine puppet master, shaping us out of clay, writing our script and pulling our strings. In fact, there is no “being” of any sort named God. Copernicus actually lived. Galileo actually lived. Charles Darwin actually lived. Quantum physics is a reality. Evolution is an ongoing exercise in creation. We live in an expanding universe of unimaginable proportions, within which our planet is merely a speck. In such a time as this, the notion of a being named God who knows us by name, numbers the hairs on our heads and steers our destiny is no longer credible.
Understanding what it might still mean to use the word “God” is the central task of faithful people today. But before we can move on to fresh wine, we have to discard old skins. And any notion of a god with a “skin” or substance of any kind — physical, spiritual, metaphysical, whatever — must go.
Once the idea of God as “being” is dispensed with, other things get easier. We can think about living a Christ-like sacrificial lifestyle without falling into the barbaric notion of a vengeful father who “required” the bloody death of his son on our behalf. We can delve into the wonders of scripture without fear that we are messing with the word of God. We can engage in dialogue with people of other faiths without comparing our “God” to theirs. We can actually go into a church without checking our brains at the door.
During my last decade of ministry, I served two congregations, First United and Lawrence Park Community Church in Toronto, where there was hunger for truth. Good, faithful people kept telling me how liberating it was to “say what we know to be true,” without feeling inadequate or ostracized. Together, we struggled to find new language for prayer, new ways to understand justice, new pathways to authentic living, all in a post-theistic context — that is, a world without a being named God. Some of the flock left, heading for safer, more orthodox pastures; we wished them well. But those who stayed never again felt the need for the ecclesiastical “nudge and wink” while reciting creeds we knew to be false and proclaiming beliefs we knew to be nonsense.
The reaction in the larger church has been predictably less enthusiastic. Following one of my expostulations in The Observer, a former member of my congregation wrote the editor to explain that people with faith like mine should leave. Others who explore post-theistic Christianity have heard similar opinions many times.
Last year, I did finally leave the United Church. I withdrew, voluntarily, from the order of ministry; I am no longer “Reverend” and no longer a member of The United Church of Canada. However, it wasn’t angry voices that drove me out — it was thunderous denominational silence on the theological question of our time: What, if anything, does it mean to use the word “God”?
Across the denomination, people of faith are starving to have intelligent theological conversations. But when I attend worship these days, I hear empty platitudes about how “God loves you” and “Christ is alive” — without any serious effort to plumb what those phrases might actually mean. Terrified lest it lose more members, a dying denomination has little energy left for exploring what it means to live in a world where God, as we have known “Him,” is no longer credible. There are too many leaking roofs and busted boilers.
So, like many others, I lost my church. But lost my faith? Not so much.
I live in the country now, surrounded by wonder. I wake each morning to the singing of birds, and no one to tell me I am a sinner in need of redemption. I seek for eternal truth, with no one to insist I recite a Trinitarian formula. I look for ways to understand justice and ethics, without feeling constrained by Ten Commandments. And, in my head, I sing old hymns with great gusto, not worrying one whit about what they literally mean.
Through 40-plus years of ministry, I always preached that faith had nothing to do with preparing for another life — and everything to do with living this life with purpose, dignity and joy. Right now, my life feels purposeful, dignified and joyful. How can I say I’ve lost my faith?
Ken Gallinger is a writer in Nobel, Ont.
The Clergy Project helps atheist and agnostic ministers find a way out, Trisha Elliott reports
Ministers shoulder weighty expectations: Unwavering faith. Doubtless leadership. Rock-solid spirituality. All those great expectations make having a faith crisis hard. Developing an exit strategy from ministry can be even harder.
Enter the Clergy Project. Founded in March 2011, the Clergy Project is a global initiative supporting active and former clergy who no longer hold supernatural beliefs. Helping to ease the transition out of ministry, the project provides an online forum for peer support and offers grants for job coaching, resumé development, retraining and therapy.
Initially, the flock was small: just 52 members. Now the Clergy Project counts over 500 members, 180 of whom are still active in ministry. The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Freedom and Science, which currently holds about $100,000 in trust for the project while its tax status is pending, funds the private forum and public website but keeps at arm’s length from operations and doesn’t access the forum.
“The biggest stress we hear has to do with people’s relationships with their families — ministers who have believing spouses or parents. But there’s also financial pressure. You have poured thousands into education, and it’s hard to transition. You might lose your home if it’s connected to your work. It takes a lot to untangle yourself, and you want to do that the right way, respecting the people you have served,” says Catherine Dunphy, the Clergy Project’s executive director.
Dunphy knows the pressures of leaving ministry, having served as a Catholic chaplain before becoming an atheist. The hardest part was breaking the news to her mother, a former Catholic missionary. “It has taken my mom and me five years to come to a place where we can decide that we’re just going to take this issue off the table because we value each other too much.”
The Clergy Project isn’t for those who are waffling. All members are required to relinquish belief in supernaturalism and to self-identify as atheist or agnostic. Confidentiality is paramount, so there is a screening process for those seeking admission, including interviews and background checks.
Rev. Gretta Vosper, the well-known atheist minister at West Hill United in Toronto, started out as a screener for United Church members and now sits on the project’s board of directors. As hard as it is for United Church leaders to lose their faith, Vosper says that the stakes are often higher for evangelical clergy. “They face losing their families, workplace, social group. . . . It’s a deep crisis. They can’t breathe a word to anyone.”
The demographics? Eighty-six percent of members are evangelicals, followed by Catholics and mainline Protestants. While the group is predominantly Christian and American, a handful of Jewish and Muslim leaders are among the members; six percent are Canadian.
Jerry DeWitt fits the typical profile. He left the church in 2011 after 25 years of Pentecostal ministry in Louisiana. Revealing his atheism cost him his job, marriage, many family members and friends. He filed for bankruptcy to keep his house. “Coming out as atheist flushed 25 years of public service away,” says DeWitt. He found comfort in the Clergy Project’s forum, where he discovered people who shared the same struggles and losses. Now he considers supporting others on the forum a kind of ministry. “If I was to give advice to others, I would say, ‘You don’t want to be broke and broken. Take time. Develop a strategy. Be a bit selfish.’”
This set of stories first appeared in The United Church Observer’s October 2013 issue with the title “Beyond belief.”