The Curious Case of the Atheist Pastor

A controversy is brewing in the United Church of Canada over a minister who doesn’t believe in a God or in the Bible.  There are those in the denomination that believe she should be defrocked since she is an atheist.  She is demanding to stay ordained, believing that she is preaching a truer form of the faith, one centered on how we live instead of doctrine which she believes later corrupted the original intent of the faith.

“I don’t believe in…the god called God,” Vosper said. “Using the word gets in the way of sharing what I want to share.”

Vosper, 57, who was ordained in 1993 and joined her east-end church in 1997, said the idea of an interventionist, supernatural being on which so much church doctrine is based belongs to an outdated world view.

What’s important, she says, is that her views hearken to Christianity’s beginnings, before the focus shifted from how one lived to doctrinal belief in God, Jesus and the Bible.

“Is the Bible really the word of God? Was Jesus a person?” she said.

“It’s mythology. We build a faith tradition upon it which shifted to find belief more important than how we lived.”

Vosper made her views clear as far back as a Sunday sermon in 2001 but her congregation stood behind her until a decision to do away with the Lord’s Prayer in 2008 prompted about 100 of the 150 members to leave. The rest backed her.

Things came to a head this year after she wrote an open letter to the church’s spiritual leader pointing out that belief in God can motivate bad things — a reference to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris.

“That didn’t go over well,” Vosper said. “(But) if we are going to continue to use language that suggests we get our moral authority from a supernatural source, any group that says that can trump any humanistic endeavour.”

After I shared this on Facebook, some of my more progressive Christian friends wondered what the fuss was all about. After all, she was getting away from doctrine which can be soul-crushing.

Needless to say, I think Rev. Vosper is wrong. She has a big misunderstanding about what doctrine is all about and an even bigger misunderstanding of what Christianity is all about.

Let’s look at her main beef, that Christianity was based on how we live over doctrine. It’s an interesting supposition, but it goes against most of church history. If Christianity was only about living a good life, then huge chunks of the Bible are wrong (which I guess doesn’t matter since she doesn’t believe in it anyway). But if it was about living a good life, then why are there no records indicating this? If the push was supposed to be more of a philosophy like Stoicism, wouldn’t we have some record of it? It’s kind of hard to believe that there was a cover-up this big, ala the Davinci Code.

When it comes to doctrine, it is common among some Progressive Christians to look down on doctrine, seeing it as something that forces people to believe in things instead of living a good life. But I think such a viewpoint is in its own way anti-intellectual. It basically says faith is something that is not worth thinking about, but is something that you do.

Now, there has been a history of Christians that place emphasis on beliefs and living horrible lives. But that is not the whole of Christian doctrine. Doctrine and practice must go together. Doctrine is what fuels what Christians do in helping their neighbor and sharing their lives together in worship. Belief in the context of faith is adopting a certain worldview that drives all that we do, no matter if we are Christian, Jewish or Hindu.

Doctrine is also part of theology or faith seeking understanding. Christians want to understanding things like God, Jesus, the Church, the Cross, the Resurrection and the like. Doctrine is coming to grips with this nebulous thing called faith and putting into practice in our daily lives.

The United Church of Canada’s Statement of Faith is a way for people to understand humanity and its place in God’s world:

We are not alone, we live in God’s world.
We believe in God:
who has created and is creating,
who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh,
to reconcile and make new,
who works in us and others by the Spirit.
We trust in God.
We are called to be the church:
to celebrate God’s presence,
to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil,
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope.
In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.
We are not alone.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

This statement tries to understand all of the concepts I just stated and places fashions them in a document stating not what the church must believe, but what they place their trust in. They believe in a God who is a creator, Jesus who came in flesh to reconcile us to God and believe in a church- a body that celebrates God, proclaims Jesus and serves others. In this statement belief and action go together.

I can understand if Rev. Vosper doesn’t believe in all of this. That is her right. But does that mean that the church has to accept her as a teacher or leader in the church?

The good thing about Rev. Vosper is that she made me think again why I’m a Christian. I wish she would do some deep thinking about the church herself before trying to remake the church in her own image.

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