the dread of grace

The main purpose of this blog is affirm, not merely to refute, but because we live in an era where vegans can be cannibals, where luddites have facebook pages, and where atheists can be ministers – I must begin with some refutation of the times [In truth, I know no cannibalistic vegans but I know the other two are out there].

For those of you who missed the cue, I’ll be ranting about Gretta Vosper, a United Church clergy who dubs herself an atheist minister. Presently she is “under review” by her denomination and says if she loses her job because she refutes the existence of a transcendental, supernatural deity, then she’ll feel betrayed by her Church, [If I were to fly a kite in a lightening storm, I wouldn’t begrudge God for getting struck down].

Obviously there’s a lot of explaining to do, to that end, Vosper has joined the Atheist Industry and cranked out a few books justifying the number of back flips that one has to do to maintain her position. The fundamental point that she falls upon is that God is an out-dated idea. Not a lot of fanfare there, I think we can all agree that that ball has been kicked around a bunch. The really contiguous way she kicks it, however, is that religion itself should not be “at play” in the public discourse. In an open letter to Moderator of the United Church of Canada she responded to her Church’s prayer of support to the Charlie Hebdo attacks thusly:

Where it may once have seemed justifiable, ours is not a time in which personal religious beliefs can be welcomed into the public sphere; we can no longer claim that the impact of religion on political and social structures is purely beneficial. This truth is obvious in the shadow of Paris, Ottawa, and countless other tragedies. We must boldly stand with those who would clear the public sphere from the prejudices of religious belief even as we defend the rights of individuals to hold whatever beliefs allow them to sleep at night. [if I wrote something like this to my boss publicly, I’d have a few resumes out before clicking send]

In the above Vosper draws her battle ground on two fronts: Truth and Time. The Time for religion has passed, says Vosper, and now we must embrace the Truth of these Times. Ergo Truth is relative to Time, when Time passes, so does Truth. Ergo every Truth that is uttered has a best before date as Time marches passed it. Again, not a new line in the sand, universal versus particular, the favourite tennis match of Western culture, but as the game crosses over to religion, the court changes as we are arguing about things eternal, and it is argument that Christianity has been mired in for millennia or two.

Christianity has often struggled with what it’s worshiping. Is it Jesus? Is He God? If that’s the case whereas Jesus as a start, that means there was a time before, a time without him, and how can God, who begins all things, begin? And then is Jesus something extra to God, but that doesn’t really make a whole bunch of the sense as God is all things, and cannot be divided…it gets rather complicated when you think about it all, but then that’s the point: people have been thinking about it for the past 2000 years, and there’s a lot of robust answers to these questions that have filled libraries, and to which I will give a scant reply in this trifling blog post just to make that point.

And the point is that Vosper is addressing her own construction of God. She has whittled down the infinitude of the Holy one till it fits neatly within the acceptable margins of error for the present day, want’s more, she is refuting the God of the philosophers, an abstract Zeus that is closer to Spinoza’s circle without a centre that the picture of triune God of Christianity – the God that said let there be light, the God that appears as three strangers to Abraham, as the burning bush to Moses, as a child in a manger to shepherds, as a tortured prisoner to his disciples, and as a resurrected body with holes in his hands to Thomas – this is the God that is in the religion of Christianity, he is not an idea, but a Being who has personhood, who has suffered the sins of the world with us. It is a God who has redeemed reality by coming into reality; by putting on the temporal cloak of flesh both time and flesh are made anew, and it is possible that mankind may have eternal hope.

But in the [not-so-] Reverend John Shellby Spong’s open letter to the Moderator of the United Church [my she does seem to get a lot of those, doesn’t she?] defending Vosper as a minster, this theme of eternity is absent, in its place we have updating. He speaks of the United Church he dreams of being “open to the future,” that Vosper is a “future-oriented pastor,” that he admires her moving “Christianity into the future,” and that Vosper is ministering to real people “who are trying to make sense out of their Christian faith without twisting their 21st century minds into 1st century pretzels.” Here we see a fundamental mistake of these ministers, in that they are taking the God of eternity and placing him in our present day pretzels. The ideal of the Christian faith, of any true religion, is that it seeks to pass on eternal wisdom.

Reason and justice grip the remotest and the loneliest star. Look at those Stars. Don’t they look as it they were single diamonds and sapphires? Well, you can imagine any mad botany or geology you please. Think of forests of adamant with leaves of brilliants. Think the moon is a blue moon, a single elephantine sapphire. But don’t fancy that all that frantic astronomy would make the smallest difference to the reason and justice of conduct. On plains of opal, under cliffs of pearl you would still find a notice-board, ‘Thou shall not steal.’

So says GK Chesterton through his ever-eloquent mouthpiece of Fr. Brown to the thief Flambeau, bringing home the point that in the universe there is universal law. Of course Vosper/Spongs will ask the question, is it wrong to a man to steal a loaf of bread to feed his family? And, good gen Xer that I am, I will answer from the one of the oracles: the Simpsons. In this exchange Bart has been adopted into the mafia and he and Fat Tony are having a heart to heart:

“Uh, say, are you guys crooks?”

“Bart, um, is it wrong to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving family?”

“No.”

“Well, suppose you got a large starving family. Is it wrong to steal a truckload of bread to feed them?”

Uh uh.”

And, what if your family don’t like bread? They like… cigarettes?”

I guess that’s okay.”

Now, what if instead of giving them away, you sold them at a price that was practically giving them away. Would that be a crime, Bart?”

Hell, no!”

Between Fat Tony and Vosper, I feel that Fat Tony is lying to himself less. To be fair, I do not doubt the good intentions of Vosper, she sees religion, or at least deism, as a fuel or oppression, and that what it should then remove itself from the public domain. She’s trying to make people safer. I could spend a little more time poking holes in that argument [Stalin? Pol Pot? Hello?] but for now let’s assume that I don’t have any kind of historical context with atheistic experiments [because I live in a cave at the bottom of the ocean, and the wifi is terrible]. Fundamentally it’s a noble intention, but the road to hell/oppression is often paved with good intentions, and, in this case, many miscarriages of logic.

Not that I would seek to endorse logic as The Solution, for Vospers arguments do stem from a logical chain of thinking, but it’s a chain that binds rather than liberates. In Vospers case she is adapting to the rational madness of our times by trying to make religion make sense, by enforcing a constancy that humanity does not practice. To err is human, forgive divine, and without the shadow of the divine for man to stand in judgement of, he has only his mortal self to serve as judge – and he judges harshly. God will take me as I am, my neighbour will take me at his convenience. God commands me to love, my neighbour has no commands, and neither I to him, and so we go about our business in mutual toleration. We endure each other as no one as asked us to go beyond that. The Christian God is one that commands us to go beyond, as He has transgressed so many boundaries for us.

In a very odd way we, people of Faith, should be grateful for the work of Gretta Vosper. She has pushed the limits of unbelief in the most broad-minded liberal denomination to the point where the United Church of Canada must answer the question of what it believes and who it serves. I’ll close with a this line from Thomas Merton, and leave you ponder what gifts you wish to accept: “There are atheists who fight God and atheists who claim to believe in him: what they both have in common is the hatred of life, the fear of the unpredictable, the dread of grace, and the refusal of every spiritual gift.”

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3 thoughts on “the dread of grace

  1. The plague of the “both and” has to stop. It is not always possible to be both ends of a spectrum. Or, as Revelation put it, “be hot or cold”. The fact that the term Athiest Minister has been coined is utterly ridiculous. Athiest Counselor, Athiest Doctor, Athiest Lawyer, sure. But the Church of Athiesm is a misappropriation of terms on a gross level.

  2. You ably and creatively voice a traditional view of God as, for example, a “Being who has personhood,” who was incarnated in Jesus, is triune, indivisible, etc. However you seem unfamiliar with, or at least haven’t indicated appreciation for, the long-running conversation within Christian philosophy about other conceptions of God, particularly within the last 200 years, in which Rev. Vosper’s disbelief in an interventionist, supernatural deity is very well represented. Her embrace of the term ‘atheist’, while unusual, is not unique, many others distinguishing their view as panentheist, non-theist, post-theist, non-realist, or even a-theist. A cleric in Vosper’s denomination estimates that 99% of their colleagues share her disbelief (though not her label). Your challenge, while similarly common, appears uninformed of this debate within modern theological scholarship. [You might also check your Spinoza reference — I believe it’s a circle with its center everywhere, not nowhere — and use punctuation for quoted material, FWIW.]

    • As a cleric in Vosper’s denomination I would suggest her estimate of agreement is highly suspect. She is quite good at the sound bite, but like Trump . . .

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