Review of Gretta Vosper, With or Without God

Review of Gretta Vosper, With or Without God: Why The Way We Live is More Important than What We Believe (Toronto: Harper Collins, 2008). ISBN 978-1-55468-228-7. 384 + xvi pp.

“What is a Christian? Am I a Christian?” These are questions that have come up time and again on this blog, and they frequently do in any interaction with progressive Christianity. Gretta Vosper’s book, in essence, raises the question of whether it is possible to be a Christian “without God”, and if so what that would mean. Rather than saying, as John A. T. Robinson or John Shelby Spong have, that our image of God must go, or as Dietrich Bonhoeffer did that we must live before God “as though God were not there”, Vosper is persuaded that the very language and terminology of God has itself outlived its usefulness.

Gretta Vosper is an advocate for change in the church, and indeed change of the church. Some of the points she makes are ones that I imagine any progressive Christian will respond to with an “amen” (although of course many of us may do so somewhat tongue-in-cheek). Her first chapter is entitled “It’s time”, and within the space of a few pages Vosper brings the spotlight of her critical analysis to bear on central issues of not only religious belief but also authority. “Religious declarations and promises based entirely on speculation or individual experience or that claim a supernatural authority must be identified for what they are; we must refuse to grant them an authority they do not deserve” (p.4). This could be said to be the entire focus of her book in a nutshell: not the abolition of any particular texts, customs, terms or practices, but the recognition that none of them should be regarded as having an intrinsic God-given authority. Instead, the focus must be placed on a core that can be distilled out of Christianity and other faith systems, namely love: “This core message carries its own authority. It needs no doctrine to validate it, no external expert or supernatural authority to tell us it is right. Love is quite demanding enough as a foundation, sufficiently complex and challenging without the requirement of additional beliefs, unbelievable to many” (p.4).

Vosper’s message thus far is of course nothing new. To some postliberal Christians, it sounds at times like old-fashioned modernism and Liberalism. It is appropriate to raise such concerns. The notion that one can distill the essence from Christianity and leave the mythical shell behind has been explored and found unviable, and when reading her book I found myself wanting to recommend to Vosper that she go back and read Rudolf Bultmann. Nonetheless, I do believe there is a need for Vosper’s critical modernism even in our postmodern era. Without it, I suspect that a new generation that grows up with the language of postmodernism but without the experience of the Enlightenment experiment that led to it will end up with a viewpoint that is more pre-modern than postmodern.

On pp.261-276, Vosper discusses Fowler’s Stages of Faith, and advocates the most spiritually and emotionally mature stage as where the church ought to be as an institution, I found myself thinking about Fowler’s “stages of faith”, and the work of other psychologists and scholars on faith development and maturity, even before Vosper explicitly raised the subject in her book. The question I still find myself asking is whether the church is an institution for the spiritually mature, or is more like a school, where one may find (and indeed should expect to find) individuals at various stages of maturity and levels of education in the same building. If the church is to be a place where one can experience one’s faith development across multiple stages, then we must begin to wrestle with the question of how we can be an institution that has reached a certain level of maturity, while also welcoming those who might be deemed spiritually immature, but are not necessarily resistant to maturing (see pp.270, 337). How does one meet the needs of a wide range of Christians at a wide range of points on their spiritual (and emotional) development? How does one provide nurture for growth at every stage along the way? What does it even mean to talk about the level of spiritual maturity of an institution in abstraction from the inevitably differing levels of maturity among its members? Or should there be a test of prospective members’ spiritual maturity before they are accepted into membership? Would this be in keeping with Jesus’ radical challenges to his followers, or a departure from his inclusive fellowship? Vosper suggests that a church presenting stage five material to stage three Christians (to use Fowler’s categories) is “abdicating its responsibilities to the people” (p.270). Her book would have benefited greatly from a discussion of precisely what should be presented to people who are at various stages, and may or may not be ready to move on from there, and how (and whether) the needs to individuals at various stages of maturity should be met in a single church.

On pp.16-17 Vosper presents her basic assumptions. Most basic is that there is an experience that corresponds to spirituality, but no certainty as to whether such elements of human experience involve contact with something outside ourselves. Yet at times Vosper sounds like she is indeed certain that this experience is entirely from within us, and does not involve contact with something greater than or beyond our human selves. Vosper explains who her intended audience is, and this is worth quoting at length: “I am not, in any way, attempting to wrest from anyone his or her sense of a relationship with God or Jesus. If that sense moves people to live lives of justice and compassion, I heartily celebrate it. They live with God and honor life through their belief. My intention, rather, is to provide a model for a way of life, a way of faith, a way of gathering together for those who either do not believe in the supernatural elements of religion or do believe but do not feel we can make absolute, universal claims about it; for those who cannot accept church doctrines but who deeply and passionately believe in the goodness and rightness of love; for those who have to ignore, reword, or quietly object to much of what is said in a typical liberal church service, and long to listen, learn, sing, pray, and speak in terms that make sense in the pew, the home, the workplace, and in the quest for a more humane world; for those who see religion as a way of living oriented to ultimate life-enhancing values or for those who live this way but don’t like the word religion; for those who have no need of “God” – it is for these people I write” (p.18). What Vosper seeks to offer is a vision of the church that is progressive enough to let go of “beliefs and traditions…which can no longer prevail in our contemporary world” (p.12). But here we are met with the paradox so common in these modern perspectives on religion. Supposedly, smart, educated and sophisticated human beings can no longer believe these various outmoded doctrines. And yet we see all around us that they continue to be central to the belief system of many people who, even though they may well be wrong, are certainly not simply stupid. And this is a key issue that progressive Christianity (and not merely Vosper) needs to address. Are we presenting changes that have already occurred and will inevitably spread and become normative in time? Or are we advocating change? And if the latter, then on what basis? Vosper’s book seems to claim both: she is advocating willing adoption of views and an approach that seem to her to be the only ones that make sense.

God, Vosper goes on to claim, “isn’t as big as it was before” (p.20). God has been removed as explanation for various mysteries and unexplained phenomena. “God” is for Vosper above all else a concept that is created by human beings to give us security in an unstable and unsettling world. This point is at once an extremely valuable one and a key place at which Vosper is open to critique. She often gives the impression that ideas of God are nothing more than human creations for that specific purpose. It seems to me that even in terms of an analysis of the functions religious language plays in human societies, far more could be said about religion’s multifaceted character and roles. Moreover, while psychological and sociological analyses can shed much light on human religious language, they neither exhaust its meanings and the motives for speaking in these ways, nor tell us anything about the truthfulness or otherwise of such language.

When it comes to the problems created by an interventionist concept of God, few progressive Christians would disagree with Vosper. There is something fundamentally sinister about thanking God for one’s food when there are others who are starving, about thanking God for surviving a car crash when others did not. In saying “God has been good to me”, it is implicit that God has been bad to others. And unless we are willing to accept that corollary, then such language should be eliminated as inappropriate, indeed offensive. We can simply be thankful without suggesting that the good or ill that befalls us was specifically sent by a person being who controls all that happens (pp.21, 26-29).

Rather than expecting newcomers to learn our secret code, our insider technical terms, we should adopt language that is understood by all (p.26). And we should also focus not on those doctrines, dogmas and terms that divide us from others, but on those that we share with others as common values we can unite to uphold: such as love, compassion, respect, caring, forgiveness, and many more (p.32). Alas, Vosper at this point confronts the same problem that all Christians and indeed all human beings face when discussing values, beliefs, and community. We should be united in essentials and not let non-essentials separate us. Few would disagree with that statement. But equally few would agree with one another about precisely what is essential and what is not!

Vosper is certainly correct that we are the co-creators of Christianity, and always have been (p.54). We should take on this role willingly and consciously, rather than merely having it happen even while we deny it does. Yet Vosper seems to share the largely outmoded modernist optimism that human beings have at last arrived, that now in our scientific and morally superior age, we can at last define God, religion and morality in a way that will never again need to be changed and revised (pp.74-78). A greater humility may be needed, and the willingness to realize that what seems progressive to us may seem not to have been progressive enough with the benefit of hindsight. But of course, when one realizes this, one will be more open to an appreciative reading of ancient texts that may in their time have been progressive in similar ways, and today seem hopelessly outmoded and patriarchal. And if, on the other hand, there will inevitably be a “next ‘what’s next’” after this, then it becomes less clear what makes the change Vosper calls for something that needs to be urgently advocated.

Vosper is nonetheless right to point out that there is a conspiracy of silence between pastors and congregations. In many denominations, the minister is essentially employed by the congregation. And this makes taking a prophetic or simply a progressive stance that seeks to provoke people to change may not be welcomed. Even sharing basic scholarship that is common knowledge to anyone who has consulted a Bible commentary may be resisted by members of a congregation comfortable with their ignorance. And so unless congregations understand themselves as involved in a movement whose aim is their growth and maturity, which involves being challenged and made uncomfortable, then it is hard to see how such an arrangement can be viable. More hierarchical churches may have something of an advantage here, since ministers are appointed from above, and while someone may be moved from a parish because of complaints, they cannot simply be fired because they said things that were unpopular. Of course, the irony is that in many conservative denominations, laypeople would take it upon themselves to oppose someone who has more education and relevant expertise than them with respect to the meaning of the Bible, theology, and the history of Christianity. That seems a recipe for the dominance of ignorant loudmouths, not for “Biblical Christianity”. Be that as it may, statements of faith in more liberal denominations have of late become what they have often been down the ages, even in the early church – attempts to unite the majority while excluding some small troublesome minority or other. And to accomplish this, the same sorts of vague obfuscations and terms that mean different things to different people continue to be used (p.95). If the point of such language is, for instance, to allow liberals and conservatives to co-exist in a single body or organization, then the question we must then ask is whether that end is worth achieving, and if so why.

As Vosper seeks to redefine Christianity, some will ask (as is always asked of progressive Christians) “Why call this Christianity?” In the case of other progressive Christians, such as Marcus Borg, the answer is easier to give: Christianity has not, historically, been what Christian fundamentalism today claims Christianity has always been. To suggest that the meaning of stories is spiritual rather than literal, that God rather than the Bible is alone inerrant, that the Christian mystic’s ineffable experience of the divine is not unlike the experience of mystics in other traditions – all this has historically been part of Christianity, if not always central or a majority viewpoint. In Vosper’s case, however, the question of whether what she advocates is a form of Christianity arises more naturally and seems more appropriate. Indeed, I found myself asking at one point whether the difference between Vosper and someone like Marcus Borg or even Don Cupitt might not be that both of the latter seem to actually like Christianity, whereas in Vosper’s case I had serious doubts about this at times. And whereas Borg seeks to find meaning in the Christian tradition by reinterpreting it, Vosper seems to want to take that reinterpreted meaning and then discard anything distinctively Christian about the packaging. And so in the case of Vosper’s viewpoint, which suggests discarding even central terms like “God”, it seems absolutely apt to ask: Why not also discard the banner “Christianity” as well? What is the purpose of clinging to it if everything else that is distinctively Christian is being discarded? A key difference is that Borg writes for those already connected with Christianity, while Vosper writes for a different audience (p.116). But it still seems appropriate to ask whether, and why, Vosper wants to bring those who are unconnected with the church into connection with it at all, particularly a version of the church that has nothing that cannot be found elsewhere.

Vosper has much criticism to offer of Christianity, and she even goes so far as to say that what Jesus said “has little power” in relation to our time (p.155). Yet when she interacts with recent atheist authors, she says nothing critical (p.100). Of course, many of the criticisms of authors like Sam Harris are fair, and are the very reasons why educated Christians like myself find fundamentalism untenable. But if there is no point of disagreement, then why not call her viewpoint something appropriately radical, like “Christian atheism” or “Christian agnosticism”? Is there not the danger that Vosper’s clinging to the label “Christian” will result in her views being misunderstood, the very thing for which she has criticized others? Vosper foresees the question (pp.191-2), but it is unclear what the answer is, since the Christian values she defines as core values are precisely those that Christianity shares with other traditions, and thus are not distinctively Christian (p.101). Vosper writes that “To be Christian, for me, is to do whatever it takes to bind me to a life lived in a radically ethical way” (p.197). I find myself asking how Vosper really views those for whom “whatever it takes” includes some of the historic components of Christianity that she wants to discard. I know she isn’t writing for them, but my question is whether she wants to be part of something larger than both herself and them, which continues to call itself “Christianity”. Is her vision for something that can be part of a broader spectrum of Christianity, or is her vision of what she thinks Christianity in its totality will one day become? At any rate, the section on pp.197-198 is called “Why Heretics Can Still Call Themselves Christians (If They Want To)”, and it is disappointing because it misses the opportunity to address and answer this question. No answer is actually given to this “why” question. Vosper could have drawn on the work of Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman, for instance, to show that Christianity has always been diverse, and to deconstruct the notion of orthodoxy. But she doesn’t do it.

It is perhaps ironic that many things Vosper seeks to accomplish by changing Christianity could also be accomplished by exploring further within the Christian tradition, rather than discarding those forms of it with which Vosper is familiar. For instance, one could easily make the case for discarding the term “church” by noting that there is no such term in the New Testament. The term that is translated that way in English in actual fact means “congregation” or “assembly.” The term did not originally denote a specifically Christian assembly, much less the building in which such a group met, nor did it have connotations of specific orders of service or liturgical characteristics. This raises the question whether we should see ourselves as discarding tradition in instances when it could equally be said that we are recovering it (p.308). A similar point may be made regarding Vosper’s reinterpretation of communion (pp.345-349). Instead of reinterpreting the modern practice, it might have been more consistent to discard it altogether, and Vosper’s failure to do so suggests she may not be willing to be quite as thoroughly radical as she claims (as we also see in her desire to cling to the term “Christian” itself; note her words about preserving liturgical forms on p.322). But another option with respect to communion is ignored: replacing the tiny pieces of bread with an actual meal, which was what the earliest Christians did. Does being “progressive” mean that we always make changes based on what we have, rather than at times rediscovering and returning to a neglected aspect of our tradition that might be better suited for our own contemporary context?

Vosper claims that the strongest part of Liberal Christianity’s heritage is scholarship (pp.306-7). Although she is critical of academics (p.14), Vosper would benefit from a greater familiarity with Christianity’s history and intellectual heritage. It is at this point that Vosper could have shown where Sam Harris’ criticism of religion is misguided. He claims that “The door leading out of religious literalism doesn’t open from the inside. These religions have been moderated because of the pressure of modernity” (quoted p.10). In fact, modernity itself and modern Biblical scholarship are to a large extent an outgrowth of the Reformation’s challenge to ecclesiastical authority. Protestants spearheaded the development of scholarship that turned the spotlight of the same critique of authority onto their new foundation, the Bible. Certainly many within the church were resistant, but resistance to change is not limited to the confines of the church. The rise of Biblical scholarship and of Liberal Protestantism could have been a wonderful opportunity to say something positive about Christianity. I wonder what to make of the fact that Vosper doesn’t take it. I suspect that the reason is simply that Vosper is hearing the voices of contemporary critics of religion, and doesn’t have the depth of familiarity with her own tradition to see where those criticisms are on target and where they are not. Her words comparing the cosmetic industry and Christianity are powerful, challenging enough to be worth the price of the book alone (pp.171-174). If all of her criticisms were similarly on-target and well-informed, the most challenging portions of the book would come through and make their point all the more clearly.

I must admit that I was rather disappointed when Vosper mistook which Gospel’s infancy narrative mentions shepherds and which mentions the magi (p.240). She offers some important and helpful questions to ask the texts we read (pp.214-215). But it is by becoming deeply familiar with ancient texts that we come to realize that their limited historical and cultural horizon seemed to them to be ultimate, and the biggest danger for progressive Christianity is if we ever forget that, to future generations looking back, our own perspectives will seem every bit as quaintly antiquated. It is also through greater familiarity with the historical setting of these ancient texts that we realize that some of them were genuinely progressive for their time, and provide not authoritative answers to today’s questions, but models of human worldview construction and maintenance that we can learn from.

Vosper seeks to define the characteristics that make progressive Christianity progressive (pp. 158-188), and sums it up in terms of four essentials (an open mind, passion, creativity, and intellectual rigor) and four more essentials (honesty, courage, respect, and balance). One of the most marvelously challenging points she makes is that we should not think ourselves smarter than others simply because we have happened to learn something before they did, to have read the relevant book first (p.181). Her call to respect and humility is powerful and on target. If there is something that is clearly timely and much-needed in Vosper’s book and in her vision, it is her desire that we be honest, that we say what we really mean, that we not use “metaphor” as an all-too-ready excuse for a lack of clarity in our thought and in our communication with others.

I have a very strong sense that Vosper was working through her own experience, and working out her own viewpoint, as she was writing the book. One senses that this progressive Christian has been describing and perhaps undergoing her own spiritual progress over the course of the book’s pages. And thus, at times, Vosper seems willing to allow for antiquated stories and practices to have a place in the Christian’s spiritual “tool kit” (pp.196-7). The irony is that the same things that she acknowledges can be tools for spiritual growth, she also at times categorizes as religious “detritus”. Even myths can have their place: “Myths are useful to us to make sense of our own experiences…Loosed of the demand that they be believed literally, biblical stories become therapeutic in our search to understand ourselves and our place in the universe” (p.201). Vosper’s key argument seems to be against any treatment of Christianity’s Scriptures, rituals, or language as inherently authoritative and inviolate. As long as there is no conspiracy of silence that allows some to mistake our meaning, as long as certain texts and traditions are not granted intrinsic authority in comparison with others, as long as we do not abdicate our responsibility to make our own judgments about spiritual matters, then Vosper seems willing to allow the use of any texts or practices that foster spiritual growth and cooperation in ethical living (p.198).

None of this is in fact new, and so if Vosper’s criticism is in fact that Liberal Christianity has not been as up front as it ought to have been, then she might have done better to focus the whole book on her own place in the flow of information, since it is above all else the clergy who have consistently learned scholarly information about historical problems, myth, and uncertainty, and then failed to pass that on to their congregations. It is certainly the case that many clergy whose own view of God may be non-theistic nevertheless continue to lead their congregations in beseeching God for mercy (p.22). Vosper presents congregants as open to new ideas, and scholarship as providing them. Perhaps her next book should focus on taking clergy to task for having insufficient honesty to share what they really think, whatever the cost, and for having insufficient trust in the intelligence of ordinary Christians to believe that they can handle the new information if it is presented in a pedagogically sensible manner.

While earlier Vosper had spoken of Jesus’ words’ lack of power in our time, at times she sees in his teaching and activity (and, at times perhaps projects onto him) her own progressive values (pp.193-195, cp. p.213). Ultimately, she recommends taking Jesus’ humanity seriously, and going through the Gospels and asking whether Jesus consistently speaks and behaves in ways that we would be proud of if it were a relative or friend doing that, rather than Jesus (pp.237-244). Here too, Vosper is not suggesting that there is nothing positive that can be gained from reading and studying these stories. The point is to acknowledge the negative features, rather than assume that they must be wholly good and their message entirely positive. Vosper’s sense of humor comes through in many places, not least when she says that “contemporary scholarship strips Jesus of his uniquely divine status and leaves him as only a Middle Eastern peasant with a few charismatic gifts and a great posthumous marketing team” (p.255). But if she had a greater depth of understanding of the Biblical literature’s diversity and of the contemporary Biblical scholarship she says leads to her viewpoint, then she would perhaps not have made inaccurate statements such as that the New Testament presents Jesus as “divine” or “God” (p.200). Anyone would be hard pressed to find such a viewpoint in the Gospels other than John. Nevertheless, she is right that even Liberal and progressive Christians often fail to take Jesus’ humanity completely seriously and acknowledge that he was wrong about things. The Jesus Seminar’s claims, which eliminate any connection between Jesus and the apocalyptic expectation of the end of the world within the first Christian generation, have contributed to this to at least some extent.

I cannot be very critical of Vosper, even when at times her views on Christianity seem paradoxical to the point of incoherence. All progressive Christians feel the same tension to at least some extent. We have found things we value in Christianity – otherwise we would have left it behind, rather than fighting over its character and seeking to define and when necessary redefine it. We also desire the honesty to state without cringing that some parts of the Bible are not merely untrue, they are spiritually and morally unpalatable. Often, we’ve been helped more by outsiders than voices from within the Christian tradition in recognizing such features.

Vosper accuses Evangelicals of pretending to be postmodern (pp.299-300). Certainly there have been some who have used the popularity of postmodernism’s reclaiming of the pre-modern as an excuse to try to bypass modernity’s critiques. But at times, Vosper herself seems far more modern than postmodern. Even when she uses the term “deconstructionist” (pp.202-203) she departs from its normal meaning. Her views of religion are consistently reductionist: religion is at its roots about tribal identity (e.g. p.309). Certainly religion has served that function. But religion has also been and continues to be about many other things (such as ethics, as Vosper herself emphasizes in places).

I applaud Vosper’s creativity. But it is only too rarely (see p.315) that she acknowledges that the Biblical authors were engaging in the same sort of creative dialogue between tradition and innovation in their own time, and that her own creations will be as open to critique as theirs. Vosper is most explicit about certain of her views towards the end of her book, when she says “there are no supernatural beings, forces, or energies necessary for or even mindful of our survival” (p.316). Depending on what she means by “supernatural”, many progressive Christians may either applaud her forthrightness or find that her view differs from their own. Certainly some (e.g. process theologians) may agree that there is nothing “supernatural”, but would not therefore agree that this excludes all meaningful use of the term “God”. And Vosper even at this late stage in her book seems to remain caught in a naïve modernism. She expresses the conviction that “all religious, philosophical and ideological understandings must be challenged by their adherents so that we might all move into a place where foundational beliefs are shared and held in common, reviewed and revised as necessary, challenged and changed when appropriate”, and “When we arrive at this place of shared values and beliefs…[r]ather than mocking or even tolerating the faiths and ideological positions of others, we will be delighted by the kaleidoscopic beauty of the ways in which different lives, experiences, understandings, and traditions have sought to express what for them is of the utmost worth, holy, and sacred” (p.316). I must confess that I find this vision incoherent. In coming to appreciate other traditions, I have been forced to realize that I do not share with everyone else a common foundation. Indeed, what is striking is that one can build the same concerns for social justice, kindness, and other basic human values on so many different foundations. Foundationalism is the term often used as a synonym for Descartian modernism, seeking to bring everything back to a sure foundation. My own existence is found to be certain, and from there I seek to reason step by step to equally secure conclusions. Postmodernism is in essence about the futility of that exercise. I am not an enthusiastic postmodern, and I share Vosper’s concern that some use “postmodernism” not as a next step beyond the critique of reason, but as a means to avoid it. Yet I share with postmodernism a certain skepticism that we can all agree on a foundation. I also wonder whether Vosper’s attempt to reach agreement does not undermine the diversity she claims will be more greatly appreciated when that unity (or is it uniformity?) is achieved (see e.g. p.148).

But perhaps what Vosper really means at this point is agreement on the subtitle of her book: that the way we live is more important than what we believe. Of course, this too is an oversimplification. How we live is an expression of what we believe, whether it is that an anthropomorphic God is going to send people to hell if they don’t believe as we do, or that human beings are of intrinsic value regardless of their religious, political or ideological views. Even believing that beliefs are less important than practices is a belief. Whether Vosper’s ultra-progressive Christian vision can escape this paradox remains to be seen. Having written a book that gave her the opportunity to work through a number of issues and look both backwards and forwards, at times even critiquing her earlier views and statements as not progressive enough, I hope she will write a second one, and tackle one or a few of the key issues she has raised in a more thorough, systematic and cohesive way.

In the appendix to her book, Vosper offers a toolbox for those “who have progressed to the place that the supernatural no longer fits with your understanding of spirituality” (p.318). Here too, in what I recognize as a very useful section of the book, we still have a simplistic understanding of religious language. She suggests that in order to be inclusive we need to “get beneath the naming of whatever it is we are talking about to exactly what it is we are talking about” (p.319). It is important to ask not only whether that is a coherent notion in relation to the ultimate mystery often referred to as “God”, but whether it is feasible even in relation to more basic terminology like “love” or “kindness” or “hope”. Anyone who has lived in more than one culture will know that kindness is not something self evident to human beings, and more importantly, that kindness depends on shared values that are simply a given for that culture and not something rationally defined. Her opposition of progressive spirituality which needs no symbols and “extrinsic spirituality” that does is likewise deeply problematic (p.325). An exploration of Taoism at this point might have led to some interesting avenues of inquiry that could fit well with Vosper’s non-theistic approach to spirituality, while also addressing some of these issues about naming and language.

The section on revising language used in prayer from that presupposing a theistic, interventionist deity to language that does not is very helpful (pp.329-332). So is the section on revising the language of hymns (pp.333-335). Yet immediately before these sections, she recommends a Wiccan practice (p.328), without explaining why she considers Wiccan spirituality and metaphor not to share the problematic baggage that Christianity’s does. Once again, the reader may suspect that they are dealing with someone who is rebelling against her own tradition, and is grasping for substitutes that are new and different, but which may prove no more immune from criticism if examined in the same critical way. And if Wiccan practices can be helpful provided they are not simply taken over uncritically, then perhaps so can Christianity’s.

Ultimately, I do feel that Vosper has much to say that the church of our time needs to hear. Yet I don’t think that she has a vision to offer that can provide what she aims to and claims to, a shared foundation that gets behind all symbolism to what we “really mean”. When she suggests as part of the baptismal service using the words “We gather at this font to celebrate the Spirit of Life that connects us all…”, what “Spirit” is she referring to? If it isn’t a supernatural person, not even a supernatural “force”, then her language is the same misleading symbolic double-speak that she criticized others of using. Why not make it “the joy of being alive” or something else? Could it be, as other progressive Christians she deems to be not quite progressive enough have found, that such symbolic language of mystery and ultimate transcendence is the only way to express certain aspects of our experience?

Vosper’s challenge to us is to hear fully the critiques that are being offered by reason, science and pluralism, and to not regard them as threats to Christianity, but as providing an opportunity to rethink and revise what we believe and how we speak about it in light of the progress of our human understanding in various fields of inquiry. Her challenge to us is to be first and foremost humanists committed to the values that we share with other traditions, in caring for the uncared for and giving love primacy of place. On pp.227-228, Vosper gives you a permission card that you can sign (and cut out and place in your wallet, if you feel the need), giving you the permission to “explore the concepts of God, Jesus, the Bible, and life in general” beyond and even far beyond “former rigidly guarded boundaries” (p.228). The Biblical authors did this, and one reason I cling to the Bible as valuable is not because it gives timeless truths, but because it illustrates diversity and disagreement, and reminds me that as antiquated and problematic as the various Biblical authors’ views are, my own will seem the same (probably more so) when viewed with the benefit of a comparable degree of hindsight. As a consequence, all we can do is seek to cling to what is valuable in our heritage, while not shirking the responsibility to discard and demolish that which stands in the way of our spiritual, intellectual, emotional and moral progress. All progressive Christians will agree with these core aims, even if they do not agree with Vosper at every point of her attempt to implement them. Indeed, this seems to be an inherent corollary in the progressive Christian outlook: just as was the case in earliest Christianity and throughout history, there may always be different visions, conservative, moderate and progressive, with many disagreements about just what course of action serves the aims that we agree on. They key questions are how to promote our own progressive understanding of Christianity, and whether other forms will always be needed as stepping stones leading to and leading beyond our own as we continue to mature emotionally and spiritually.

I apologize for the length and the somewhat meandering character of this review. Vosper’s book represents a personal working out of issues in conversation with the reader, and her book provided me with an opportunity to do the same in dialogue with her. For this I am grateful. In essence, this review is yet another piece in an ongoing conversation, in which readers of the review are now invited to participate. With all the tensions in the book, and within myself, I did not feel I could offer a more systematic treatment. I encourage anyone else who is a progressive Christian, who feels ambivalent about Christianity and finds they have a love/hate relationship with it, or who simply wants to explore issues of literalism, liberalism and religion, to read Vosper’s book. While my review has presumably made clear that I don’t think readers will find the answers to all the issues raised by the book, they most certainly will find the issues defined and discussed with an honesty and forthrightness that is refreshing. I am sure that Vosper herself does not expect readers to simply adopt her answers, but rather hopes that we will wrestle with the issues she and many others are wrestling with, and do so in an honest way.

I invite you to join in the conversation!

Stay in touch! Like Religion Prof on Facebook:
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10828225180668865911 Mystical Seeker

    I have not read her book, but your sentiments seem to echo my own initial reaction when I first heard about her book. I think that the problem of clergy not being honest with their congregations is a serious one. I read Jack Good’s book on this subject and I think he was dead on. You point out that democratically run congregations may not be amenable to seriously facing information that doesn’t conform to their dogmas. On the other hand, authoritarian denominations have their own problems with forcing dogma from on high down the throats of church members. So what’s the solution?It really isn’t clear to me why she wants to hang on to the Christian identity if she rejects its traditions and practices so thoroughly. It is one thing to participate in a dialogue within a context, and it is another thing altogether to reject almost everything connected to a tradition but want to claim the name anyway. I don’t get it. Isn’t there a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Toronto? It’s funny for me to be saying all of this, since I am such a heretic myself. But the reason I am drawn to radical or progressive Christianity instead of Unitarian Universalism is precisely because I still find value in the Christian traditions, in Jesus, and in the Bible, even if my take on all three of those is quite different from that of orthodox Christianity. I think the comparison with Borg is a valid one. Borg likes Christianity, Vosper doesn’t. Your comment about Wicca is telling. She has issues with Christianity (and who can blame her?), but I’m not sure that she seems to have worked them out very consistently.

  • Anonymous

    I have read her book…I appreciated your lengthy review! I am of the clergy and have some issues with Gretta, though I don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. I think it comes down to “There is no such thing as a dumb question” even if it’s whethere there is a God or not or how the Bible was written. One of my major problems I have with her book is that she never has much to say about scholars who have refuted very well (like Dr. Craig Evans) The Jesus Seminar’s findings. She also does not like the idea of ABSOLUTE truth that the church and Bible offers, but then goes on to make ABSOLUTE statements about there being nothing supernatural without offering any kind of proof.LOL interesting read, but if you start cutting and pasting from various religions (Wiccan and Christianity for example) you take the position of God and you end up walking through the mindfield of life with a homemade map! She also makes a false assumption about Christianity, which is that Christianity is all about security in this life. Not at all.. in fact we are promised perscution, suffering, discipline from God. We are also told that this world is not perfect and not the way God wants it to be and that Sin happens. Sometimes Nature happens too.Jesus Claimed to be God. People wanted to kill Him because of His claims… actually they are still trying to kill Him. It’s not going over very well coz He still answers my prayers.. phew!Anyhow I’m ranting now. I appreciate the book for asking the same old questions and for brinigng up the “silent pact” :)P.S. Non Theism… isn’t that the same thing as Atheism? Kinda like STI = STDsorry bout the analogy :)Rev Andrew Morse

  • Anonymous

    Rev. Andrew. There is a pretty good discussion going on in the "Comments" section of Newsweek/Washington Post's website, "On Faith" — particularly addressing your last comment regarding, "non-theism/atheism." For instance, if there is no god, the word "atheism" would not exist — therefore, it is a word made up by believers in God, not by non-believers in God. That might answer your question.Other than that, what is god and religion but another form of getting the people to order, like any government, ruler — rules and regulations for a more orderly society?Will anyone agree that humans instituted morals some time before they thought of a supreme enforcer of the morals?And the god-the-enforcer idea led to maybe humans don't have to die — a further motivation for believing in god?Answer these two questions, and another book may be worthwhile.I'm merely a normal guy, looking at how humans came to be the way they are.

  • http://pastormarkfarmer.blogspot.com Mark Farmer

    Very helpful. Thank you for this.

  • Dennis Smith

    “We have found things we value in Christianity – otherwise we would have left it behind, rather than fighting over its character and seeking to define and when necessary redefine it. ”

    So, this is the question that I’ve had on my mind for some time. Why Christianity? What have you found to be of such value that you have not left it behind, not as an object of academic study, but of personal spirituality? Why “redefine” it even if that redefinition is really a return to the diversity or some aspect of early Christianity rather than the current view of “traditional” Christianity espoused by Evangelicals?

    I ask this as a former minister of around 16 years, seminary educated and personally engaged in what I thought Christianity was. I am no longer in the Church in any form and do not espouse Christianity either, in any form. I consider myself an atheist or certainly a strong agnostic. Theism for me includes the more “mature, nuance and sophisticated” views of God that I hear espoused. I am a non-theist in that sense as well.

    So, I’ve been trying to understand the very question you pose regarding Ms. Vosper’s book, “Why not simply abandon Christianity”? What do you find of such value and on what basis do you give it any special place as a tradition to be redefined? Why not Islam? Why not Hinduism or Buddhism?

    “The notion that one can distill the essence from Christianity and leave the mythical shell behind has been explored and found unviable, and when reading her book I found myself wanting to recommend to Vosper that she go back and read Rudolf Bultmann.”

    How is your approach to Christianity different? What “things of value” have you found in Christianity and on what basis have you identified them? On what basis do you consider them to be “true” and “of value”?