Editor’s Note: This Clergy Project member has been through a lot since she first called herself an atheist during a sermon at her church. Now, suddenly, her denomination has dropped its heresy charges against her, she’s back in good standing and the New York Times is writing about her. What does it all mean? She adds some backstory below, in this slightly condensed essay, reprinted with permission from Medium.com. /Linda LaScola, Editor
By Gretta Vosper
You’re probably thinking that it has got to be a total rush to have the weekend edition of the New York Times include a story about you. You’re right. It is. Sort of.
When we read articles in newspapers and magazines, it’s easy to forget that there is an entire backstory the journalist couldn’t fit into the limited number of words or column inches set down for the piece. Reading an article that is more about you than about the work you do can feel like a bit of a let down. So, I’m trusting that you’re interested not only in the eye-catching, “What the …?” headline but also in what I and the congregation I serve really do. That’s what this brief glimpse of the backstory that didn’t fit into the Weekend Edition should help you understand.
Okay, so I’m an atheist and I’m a minister.
Yep. That part is entirely true. But, as someone trained for ministry in the world’s most progressive Christian denomination, I almost have to be.
Having gone through Sunday School in the 1960s and studied theology in the 1980s, it would have been difficult to graduate if I had still believed in a supernatural, divine being who would intervene in human matters if he felt like it; wouldn’t if he didn’t. (Yeah, I know. I shouldn’t choose a gender for the god called God. But the truth is, almost everyone out there does. And he’s a he.) My Sunday school curriculum introduced Jesus as a nice man who could teach us things. And I learned that God was Love.
At the same time I was rocking it in Sunday school with the cool dude Jesus, the people in the pews were getting caught up with some of the critical scholarship that had been whirling around in ivory towers for a century. Sure, some people didn’t want to hear that the idea of the god called God was just that: an idea. But for many, it was a heady time. Death of God and all that … We thought ourselves too clever to still think of the god called God as a divine being meting out punishments or answers to prayer. Deconstructing Christianity was the norm at progressive theological colleges and seminaries, and newly ordained clergy began teaching as well as preaching, sometimes to congregations eager to hear them and sometimes to congregations that refused to listen.
By the 1980s, most who entered seminary had to first wipe their hard drives in order to clear them of any classic Christian beliefs. Only then could they grapple with a godless universe in which we still wanted people to be good to one another. The concepts of god we studied were thick with tangled arguments and new definitions of classic Christian terms. We were encouraged to think outside the cut-stone boxes of traditional Christianity to embrace a living, moving, and often confusing, something that we represented with the classic word “god”. For me, once I figured it out, it was all about justice and compassion. For others, it was all about spirituality. Still others saw it as a relationship. Eventually, I learned to weave all three together.
When I use the word ‘god’, I mean …
Most of my colleagues would probably shudder if I asked them to complete that sentence. Some who are considered conservative leaders in my denomination, The United Church of Canada, have refused to say anything when I’ve asked them that question. I think that’s because they still want people to be able to project whatever belief each individual has onto them. If someone believes in a traditional god like the one described above, they’ll assume that’s what the minister means. If someone else thinks the minister means a divine force we can align ourselves with, they’ll think that’swhat the minister means. And if someone else thinks that god is the love we have the opportunity to create between us, they’ll think that’s what the minister means. So keeping your mouth shut when someone asks you what you mean when you use the word is really important. Because, hey, you don’t want to lose half your congregation, do you?
Becoming the atheist minister
I took the label atheist years after my first bestselling book on the subject, With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important than What We Believe, was published. It was a political act of solidarity of the kind my denomination is usually committed to doing. Secular authors in Bangladesh were being arrested or murdered; they were being called “atheists” to incite violence against them. I didn’t believe in any of the gods that tell people to kill other people. I had no sense of a divine, interventionist being. In essence, I was an atheist and the issues of the day called for a radical act. So I called myself an atheist. Big deal. I thought my denomination, which had promoted critical scholarship throughout my entire life, wouldn’t blink. And they didn’t.
But when the Charlie Hebdo massacre happened and my denomination posted a prayer on its website that suggested we needed the supernatural interventionist god called God to help us and those affected by the slaughter, I blew a gasket. In the face of such religious hatred and violence, how could we continue to use language that assumed we couldn’t cope without some supernatural intervention? Or that we, too, had a god but ours was so much less hateful and spiteful than the god of those who murdered innocent civilians?From my open letter to the Moderator:
If we maintain that our moral framework is dependent upon that supernatural being, we allow others to make the same claim and must defend their right to do so even if their choices and acts are radically different from our own; we do not hold the right to parcel out divine authority only to those with whom we agree.
I urged our Moderator, Gary Paterson, to lead the denomination away from such “idolatrous belief.”
Heresy. It’s still a thing.
It wasn’t long after my open letter that the denomination came knocking.
There had never been a process in my denomination to test clergy for their beliefs. We’d never actually had a set of beliefs clergy absolutely MUST believe before. The denomination was a union of three denominations built on the concept of diversity when it came to doctrine. It was up to the ordaining region to decide if someone’s beliefs were adequate or not. Mine had been judged adequate.
But something had definitely changed. My denomination created a process to try clergy for heresy — not believing in the denomination’s defining statements of doctrine — was created In early 2015, a few months after the Charlie Hebdo attack, my trial began.
It’s ironic that the reason I’d taken the label “atheist” — the “heresy” accusations made against Bangladeshi bloggers — led to the creation of a process that tests clergy for heresy in my own denomination.
But listen — No, really, listen. This is what we’re about
Throughout the ordeal, my denomination, at every level, refused to enter into dialogue with anyone who sought to engage it. When four members of the “Congregational Health Team” — we’d asked to invite the entire Presbytery and were turned down — joined some fifty members of my congregation for conversation, the Team refused to record or report to the Presbytery that they had done so. There is no record of the meeting in the Committee’s minutes.
And because the process was litigious and forced me to defend my beliefs — beliefs, remember, that my denomination taught me; I simply didn’t use archaic language to express them anymore — we never did have a conversation on what is important to my congregation, or what it is that we do and why we do it. The backstory didn’t get told and it is the most important part of what we do.
West Hill creates space for those who are not interested in traditional Christianity but who are looking, longing, for community that supports their work in living out right relationship with themselves, others, and the planet. Our mission statement puts that task before us:
Moved by a reverence for life to pursue justice for all, we inspire one another to seek truth, live fully, care deeply, and make a difference.
It’s a pretty challenging calling but we wrestle with its implications each and every week. It is a costly challenge as we leave hold of our preconceived notions about the world and each other and live in the rawness of the truths that convict us. But we do it because, together, we have the courage to face those truths, and together, we have the strength to address them.
I’m an atheist. Big deal.
It means I don’t believe in the god most of my colleagues don’t believe in. One of them once opined on Facebook that he would have no problem if I were an a-theist but I wasn’t; “she’s an atheist,” he wrote. See? It’s okay to not be a theist, to be an a-theist and not believe in a traditional understanding of god. That’s what he meant by “a-theist”. And he’d be good with that. But he wouldn’t be good with me being an “atheist” which he must believe means I am evil, or angry, or a hater, or that I put religious people down, or something equally horrid. To me, the difference between those two words is a simple unexamined bigotry. And bigotry is something we can no longer afford at this time and place in the history of humanity.
So, let’s start working together and get over the histrionics. Heaven knows it’s time.
(Oh – I don’t believe in heaven, either.)
**Editor’s Question: How do you think Gretta’s clergy colleagues will react to her implying that they hold the same non-beliefs that she does?**
Gretta Vosper is author of the Canadian bestseller, With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important than What We Believe, which was recently released in the US. She is also author of Amen: What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief and numerous other publications. She leads West Hill United Church in Scarborough, Ontario (featured in the documentary Godless), despite attempts to try her for heresy. Gretta has served on the Board of Directors of The Clergy Project. You can visit her website at www.grettavosper.ca
>>> Photo Credits: By Jansroos – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29122761