Political parties often use the term “Big Tent” to describe the ideal of diversity within unity. Christians sometimes claim those words to describe their denominations as diverse in teaching, worship, and practice. Many of our United Church neighbours speak of their church as a big tent.
How big is the tent? Is there room in it for people who take much of the Bible literally? Can they stand beside people who read the Bible in different ways? Can people who say they agree with every word of their church’s statements of faith and those who don’t, worship and work together? The United Church’s emphasis on inclusion of all, regardless of ethnicity, gender identity, or sexuality is admirable. Right now, our UC sisters and brothers are being challenged to decide how big the tent really is.
Is there room in the tent for the Rev. Gretta Vosper and her congregation at West Hill, in Scarborough? Can a preacher who calls herself an atheist still be a minister in a Christian denomination?
Many church members very quickly say, “No.” Yet many would have to admit that they don’t believe in the God she says she doesn’t believe in.
Many lay people, like many ministers in the United Church and other denominations, don’t imagine God as a person with a distinct identity that is both describable and beyond understanding. God for them isn’t a benevolent father, an irascible tyrant, or even a super friend. For many God is a mystery they experience, but don’t comprehend. God is a life force, but not necessarily a force in their lives. More the ground they stand and walk on than a guiding or directing hand.
However we imagine God, most of us still speak of “God”. Some, however, don’t. That doesn’t mean they don’t believe. They don’t want to name something they can’t fully know. Or use words they fear express what they don’t really believe.
Many Christians are comfortable with the words of the Bible and the creeds. They take them for what they are: attempts to communicate truth we can only come close to through metaphors, analogies, and images. They also claim the freedom to find new words that speak for their time and reflect their experience. Others find those words just get in the way. They can’t repeat them with integrity. They claim the freedom not to speak them along with others in their congregations. But they remain in community.
Some have lost patience with the church’s speech. Some reject the church because of its vocabulary.
Words matter in every religion. Words have power. Words don’t just describe things. They can lead us to think those descriptions are the real deal. And the only deal. The classic Christian example is the description of God as “Father”. In the Bible the idea of Father-God emerges from a particular relationship between Israel and God, and Jesus and God. It’s an image of love and intimacy, one of many names for God we have inherited. Yet calling God “Father” has also led Christians for centuries to imagine God only as a loving but powerful, often punishing, male parent. This has led generations to believe only males can fully express God’s image, and therefore be full persons. It has also caused many faithful people to reject just about anything else that may be said about God in the church.
The quarrel between Gretta Vosper and some who lead the United Church today is mostly about words. She rejects all “religious language”. That includes all inherited Christian ways of speaking of God. That includes describing God as a supernatural, personal being. That certainly includes the Trinity, and any description of Jesus as divine or even unique. Gretta Vosper isn’t the only one who has stopped speaking those Christian words.
Gretta Vosper believes it’s possible for human beings to live ethical lives, aspire to be healthy and whole, live and celebrate life in community With or Without God. Many other Christians would describe following Jesus in similar terms. They might say being a Christian is about ethical living, aspiring to be better people, and living and celebrating life in community. Most Christians would go on to speak of a relationship with God, or an experience of God’s presence in Spirit that enables them to live that life. Gretta Vosper, and many others, would say it’s neither necessary nor meaningful to give credit to a supernatural force or presence in life.
Is any tent big enough to make room for someone who rejects its resident language? Is there room in any Christian church for someone who says she doesn’t believe in its God? Is Gretta Vosper really an atheist?
Atheist. That word is the problem. It’s Gretta Vosper’s problem, too. She rejects “religious language” because of its historical origins, but mainly because of the connotations it carries for many people today. She calls herself an “atheist”, claiming a word that has both deep roots in western thought and some very specific connotations in western culture today. The word “atheist”, as one of my professors of theology might say, “requires some unpacking”. It requires a lot of unpacking of history and philosophy.
The word is most often spoken today along with the names of the most popular proponents of a so-called “new atheism”. Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens are the best-known advocates of an angry, aggressive, anti-religious, and especially anti-Christian “atheism” that leaves no room for belief in anything. Not even for Gretta Vosper’s positive, human-centred, aspirational, but God-talk-free gospel.
When I've listened to Gretta Vosper’s sermons I haven't heard about God; but I haven’t heard atheism as I understand it, atheism old or new. I may need to listen to some more recent sermons. I may be missing something new.
I understand why so many people see her choice of that word to describe herself as waving a red flag. She doesn’t seem to recognize that. Or, is that what she intends? If so, why? I’ll leave that for my learned friends in the United Church to figure out.
Big tents don’t have solid walls. There are many ways to walk into big tents. There are as many ways to walk out. Gretta Vosper insists there should be plenty of room in the tent for her and her congregation. She also seems to believe everyone else in the tent should think and speak as she does. The question, then, isn’t if the tent is big enough for her to be in it. The question is: Has she already left it? I’ll leave that for my learned friends in the United Church to figure out, too.
Meanwhile, back at the Presbyterian ranch… Could there ever be a Gretta Vosper in the Presbyterian Church in Canada? Don’t be quick to say, “No!” We are a tribe with a long history of individuals who have taken firm and vocal stands on matters of belief and conscience. Some have left our tent. Some have been shut out. Many have remained inside and changed the church for good.
There are many Presbyterians who are sympathetic to Gretta Vosper’s message. Some who believe much as she does. Many who feel they have to hide because they have doubts and questions about our doctrines. The vocabulary some of us speak with ease troubles others.
Despite our history, marked as it is by times of stimulating challenge and healthy debate, most of the time we’re not very good at living together with diversity of opinion. We like to assume we’re all in agreement. As we observe what’s going on in and around the tent next door let’s not be smug or cast judgment. Let’s remember, instead, how important words are. Speak carefully of our faith, using only words we understand, that reflect what we really believe. Be ready to explain what we too often take for granted. Listen closely, so we may understand and respect what others believe. Ask questions with real interest, not to feed arguments. Never forget that, important as words are, being a faithful disciple of Jesus is about one-fifth believing and four-fifths doing.
Diversity in belief, unity in mission. These are the hallmarks of a church that has a future. We will always struggle to define “diversity”. That shouldn’t distract us from our mission