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1997, said the idea of an interventionist, supernatural being on which so much church doctrine is based belongs to an outdated world view.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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For Heaven’s Sake

stairs-to-heavenI have to write a piece for the Christian Century on a lectionary passage.  I decided on writing something on Revelation 7:-9-17.  It’s kind of a fitting text, because it deals with the afterlife (or could be interpreted that way).  Right now I’m a little frustrated on the subject of heaven.  My views of heaven have changed over the years, but I’ve mostly believed that there was something beyond this life, this plane of existence.

The problem I have with heaven is not as much the concept, but the people around me who don’t put much stock in it.

One of the things I’ve noticed happening in liberal/progressive Christianity is a de-emphasis on the afterlife.  Very few folk actually say that thinking about heaven is a waste of time, but I think deep down there are a number of people who really do think that there is nothing beyond the grave.

The reasons for this de-emphasizing of heaven are quite understandble.  Sometimes heaven has been used as a way to minimize what ever injustice is taking place in the present, here on earth.  Heaven sometimes can become escapist, focused on some unknown future instead of the known present.

While I understand this, I wonder if a heavenless Christianity is what we really want.  For a lot of progressives, a faith without an afterlife is logical.  Instead of placing trust in something that is nothing more than superstition, we are focusing on taking care of the poor and oppressed and creating “heaven on earth” now.  In the wake of demythologizing Christianity; doing away with things like the virgin birth or the ressurection, it makes sense to jettison the afterlife as well.

I think heaven does still matter, but I think it means something very different than what I used to think when I was a kid.  I still think there is someplace beyond this reality.  But how that happens and what is it for has changed for me over the years.  In someways the same Progressive Christianity that has played down heaven, also gave me a way to see heaven differently without having to give it up.

As usual, it’s been the Lutherans that have helped me immensely.

I remember my senior worship class at Luther Seminary.  Mons Teig, the professor of worship, lead through the funeral liturgy.  What I remember from that experience is that a funeral has to preach hope in the future ressurrection.  The service is NOT about preaching someone into heaven or hell, but to keep people focused on the future hope, when we will arise whole and healed.

This is something I’ve held on to.  It helped me when I had to conduct my first funeral service which was a suicide.

This take on the afterlife was less about harps and streets of gold than it was about being ressurected like Jesus.  The afterlife was less a place, than it was a state of being.

A few years ago, theologian N.T. Wright shared a view of the afterlife that was different than most people tend to think.  In some ways, this is approximate version of “heaven” that I have.  Wright has this to say about the traditional view of heaven:

The traditional picture of people going to either heaven or hell as a one-stage, postmortem journey represents a serious distortion and diminution of the Christian hope. Bodily resurrection is not just one odd bit of that hope. It is the element that gives shape and meaning to the rest of the story of God’s ultimate purposes. If we squeeze it to the margins, as many have done by implication, or indeed, if we leave it out altogether, as some have done quite explicitly, we don’t just lose an extra feature, like buying a car that happens not to have electrically operated mirrors. We lose the central engine, which drives it and gives every other component its reason for working.

When Paul speaks in Philippians 3 of being “citizens of heaven,” he doesn’t mean that we shall retire there when we have finished our work here. He says in the next line that Jesus will come from heaven in order to transform the present humble body into a glorious body like his own. Jesus will do this by the power through which he makes all things subject to himself. This little statement contains in a nutshell more or less all Paul’s thought on the subject. The risen Jesus is both the model for the Christian’s future body and the means by which it comes.

Similarly, in Colossians 3:1–4, Paul says that when the Messiah (the one “who is your life”) appears, then you too will appear with him in glory. Paul does not say “one day you will go to be with him.” No, you already possess life in him. This new life, which the Christian possesses secretly, invisible to the world, will burst forth into full bodily reality and visibility.

The clearest and strongest passage is Romans 8:9–11. If the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus the Messiah, dwells in you, says Paul, then the one who raised the Messiah from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies as well, through his Spirit who dwells in you. God will give life, not to a disembodied spirit, not to what many people have thought of as a spiritual body in the sense of a nonphysical one, but “to your mortal bodies also.”

Other New Testament writers support this view. The first letter of John declares that when Jesus appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. The resurrection body of Jesus, which at the moment is almost unimaginable to us in its glory and power, will be the model for our own. And of course within John’s gospel, despite the puzzlement of those who want to read the book in a very different way, we have some of the clearest statements of future bodily resurrection. Jesus reaffirms the widespread Jewish expectation of resurrection in the last day, and announces that the hour for this has already arrived. It is quite explicit: “The hour is coming,” he says, “indeed, it is already here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of Man, and those who hear will live; when all in the graves will come out, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.”

 

The result of this view of the next stage has implications for mission:

The mission of the church is nothing more or less than the outworking, in the power of the Spirit, of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. It is the anticipation of the time when God will fill the earth with his glory, transform the old heavens and earth into the new, and raise his children from the dead to populate and rule over the redeemed world he has made.

If that is so, mission must urgently recover from its long-term schizophrenia. The split between saving souls and doing good in the world is not a product of the Bible or the gospel, but of the cultural captivity of both. The world of space, time, and matter is where real people live, where real communities happen, where difficult decisions are made, where schools and hospitals bear witness to the “now, already” of the gospel while police and prisons bear witness to the “not yet.” The world of space, time, and matter is where parliaments, city councils, neighborhood watch groups, and everything in between are set up and run for the benefit of the wider community, the community where anarchy means that bullies (economic and social as well as physical) will always win, where the weak and vulnerable will always need protecting, and where the social and political structures of society are part of the Creator’s design.

And the church that is renewed by the message of Jesus’ resurrection must be the church that goes to work precisely in that space, time, and matter. The church claims this world in advance as the place of God’s kingdom, of Jesus’ lordship, and of the Spirit’s power. Councils and parliaments can and often do act wisely, though they will always need scrutiny and accountability, because they in turn may become agents of bullying and corruption.

Now, I don’t know if Wright has this all down to a science.  What I do know is that something will happen to us and to all of creation in the future.  As Christians we do mission and work for justice to point to that future hope.

And I think that at the end of the day, that’s why we need some concept of heaven.  Not as a reward for good people, but as a place where God rules.  We work because we know one day heaven and earth will come together.  Our work points to that future hope.  In this way, heaven isn’t an escape, but a reminder to be at work for God’s kingdom is on the way.

I think not focusing on this view of heaven or the afterlife weakens the Christian faith.  That future hope is the reason we work for justice and learn to love those around us.  We do all of this because we are heralds of the new kingdom.  We work to bring a taste of the future now. We preach hope because we know that evil will never have the last word.

Heaven is a hard concept for anyone to grasp.  I don’t know what is immediately beyond death.  What I do know is that God will be there with us and that in the end God will win.  If heaven is anything, it’s this: God wins.

Now that’s something to hope for.

Repost: Love, Justice, Vengence and Grace

The following is a blog post from 2007.

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,* what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
-Matthew 5:43-48

I decided to call my parents back home in Michigan tonight to find out how they were doing. Mom answered first, like she always does and we started chatting. At some point, she talked about a horrific crime just outside of Detroit. My mother expressed rage at the sheer savagery of the crime and saw this man as the perfect candidate for the death penalty.

dirty harryNow, you have to know something about Mom: she is dead set against the death penalty. She doesn’t approve of it on biblical grounds. So, for her to suggest this is somewhat shocking. Of course, she calmed down, but she explained the crime was terrible, that it was impossible to not simply react in this way towards one who would commit such an evil.

Later this evening, I ran into another blog where a pastor hoped the wrongdoer would get an ass-pounding in prison. He later regretted those remarks, somewhat.

The two incidents have me thinking about Jesus’ message to love everyone, including our enemies and how that smacks up against real life and real evil. Pastors and lay people hang on to the fact that Jesus seemed to love those that weren’t considered the proper people in society. On paper that seems wonderful. But how to does it hold up to child molesters? What about war criminals? Rapists? Not so easy to love them, huh?

My tamed cynical self tends to look at those who preach this easy love as fools somewhat-blind to the real evil that takes place in the world. The sad fact is that no matter how loving we are to our enemies, the enemies still rape and kill.

I think we are called to love everybody in the world. But I also know we live in the real world. We are also called to work for justice and part of my mother’s anger was the injustice of it all. We live in a world where there is evil and part of us wants to respond not in love, with vengence: to make them pay for their crimes. No forgiveness, no second chance, just blow the motherfucker away.

Psalm 137 is called the Cursing Psalm. It was written in a time of stress, probably as the Israelites were ripped from all they knew to a foreign land.

Read along:

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
2On the willows* there
we hung up our harps.
3For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

4How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
6Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

7Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!’
😯 daughter Babylon, you devastator!*
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
9Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

Hmmm, somehow I don’t think you hear this Psalm much in Sunday worship services.

The fact is, the psalmist was sad at all the destruction. His town was destroyed by vandals. He wasn’t interested in seeking understanding- he wanted his pound of flesh. He wanted to hurt them as much he was hurt. This passage reminds me of how many felt after September 11. In the devastation of the World Trade Center towers, there was a rage to strike back and kick some ass. Some chastised this feeling, but the fact is, it is natural-it is human.

We are called to love, but as Christians we have to also be aware of our own feelings . Yes, we can love evil people, but we are also called to do justice, so seeing the injustice of innocents dying in buildings, or a young child not being able to live out a full life gets us angry.

And yet we have to move beyond our anger and love these people anyway. We are called to love them and pray for them.

The thing is, when we think these thoughts of vengance, we also know that God understands and gives us grace. We are loved even when we find it hard to love.

Advent reminds us that the world is not okay, but that God has a plan. Please, Lord God, come to our aid.