Reverend Gretta Vosper is a unique individual in the history of Canadian freethought insofar as I know the prior contexts of freethinking in Canada’s past in general, and in the nation for secular oriented women in particular.
Vosper is a Member of The Clergy Project and a Minister in The United Church of Canada (The UCC) at West Hill United Church, and the Founder of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity (2004-2016), and Best-Selling Author.
I reached out about the start of an educational series in early pages of a new chapter in one of the non-religious texts in the library comprising the country’s narratives. Vosper agreed.
Here we talk about the Resurrection.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Many Christian believers in Canada, and elsewhere, adhere to an inarguable belief or faith claim in the literal death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as an atonement by God, in the form of a sacrifice on the Cross of His son, for the totality of humankind’s sins. What is the standard position of the United Church of Canada on this? Does your position differ from it?
Rev. Gretta Vosper: First of all, despite the fact that I am a minister in The United Church of Canada (UCC), I am not a scholar. I am a practitioner. So, although I read the Bible regularly,[i] I have not been reading much Christian theology since West Hill invited me to stop using biblical texts in the Sunday service and I no longer had an urgent need to do so on a weekly basis. Although clergy must engage with and understand theology in order to be ordained, what they can study while at seminary is a tiny, tiny wedge of the vibrant and contradictory arguments made over the last two thousand years. And when in ministry, the challenges of being a full-time practitioner are such that many don’t get to read much beyond that throughout their ministries. Which is not an excuse, nor it is a defence. As congregations decline in numbers, clergy are very often pressed beyond their pastoral responsibilities and into the nuts and bolts of running a church, tasks for which they may not be specifically trained.
The challenge of inarguable beliefs and faith claims is that they have been argued much over the past many centuries, both in the church and outside of it, and sometimes to the death. So there is not a single, straightforward belief that every denomination holds. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, believes that Jesus is actually being crucified during the eucharist. A conflation of time and place occurs which allows the priest to place the of the people (previously confessed to the priest) upon Jesus while he is on the cross, which sins are thereby absolved alongside all the sins ever confessed since the original crucifixion. But no Protestant church, even those practicing communion, would agree with that position.
Still, the refrain regularly tripping off the lips of contemporary mainline or liberal clergy and their denominations, is often something akin to “no resurrection, no faith”, a test grounded in a passage in I Corinthians. If Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, it would be argued, there is simply no basis for a Christian’s hope. But a study recently done in the UK by the BBC finds that even amongst those who identify as Christian, the ones who believe in Jesus resurrection as the Bible presents it – that is, bodily – represent only a fraction; less than a third believe in that biblical version.[ii] That number is added to by Christians who believe in the resurrection, but not the way it is presented in the Bible. In other words, there may have been a resurrection, but it wasn’t the walking dead.
When I was ordained, I would have identified as a member of that last group: the people who believe in the resurrection but not as the Bible says and not in a way that most people on the street would think you meant. I did not believe in a physical resurrection, not only because I was never taught about such a resurrection, but because another image had been instilled in me: the resurrection of an idea. That interpretation argues thatthe message Jesus had shared throughout his ministry had been so profound, and the power of his movement so significant, that the disciples, themselves, resurrected him as an idea. It was the story of Jesus – the liberal, not the literal interpretation of who he was – that was resurrected. In that interpretation, liberals rally around Jesus as a champion of the downtrodden and exiled, a storyteller and a visionary who called his followers to a radical, justice-seeking and compassionate love. And he was, liberals may say, crucified because that story was a confrontation with the Roman authorities who controlled Jerusalem at that time. The liberal interpretation is a powerful story with people who want and need to hear it in every generation. Indeed, it remains a powerful story for me that compels me to act in ways that would be considered just.
I’ve learned not to speculate on the number of clergy who do or don’t believe something, but I would risk saying that many clergy in the UCC do not have a belief in a literal resurrection of Jesus. Some probably hold to a physical resurrection while others have found the idea so fantastic that it cannot be believed literally. Still, liberal clergy will often say “Something must have happened,” even if they cannot say exactly what. A most interesting book on the topic is by a friend of mine, Thomas de Wesselow, who bases his argument on a close examination of the history of the Shroud of Turin. In the same way that Northrup Frye broke open the study of the Bible by applying his expertise in the study of literature, Thomas, too, in The Sign, brings his expertise as an art historian to the challenges presented by the stories of resurrection sightings.
Just as the church has struggled with the idea of Jesus’ resurrection, so, too, has it struggled with the purpose behind the resurrection. Some argue that the god called God demanded that Jesus be sacrificed to pay for the sins of humanity in the same substitutionary way that animals were then sacrificed by the Jewish people. Some argue the god called God required that humanity acknowledge its sinfulness and had to satisfy a debt created by their transgressions; Jesus was provided and crucified to settle that debt. Arguments have raged over centuries.
Still others, and this is where I would expect to find most United Church clergy, parse the word “atonement” by syllable. Rather than uphold the unconscionably vindictive and gory desires of the god called God, many prefer to think of Jesus crucifixion as a sign of our “at-one-ment” with that god. The word’s origin goes to the work of making something right but doesn’t force people to get all covered with the blood and gore. Rather, it seems to skip over the nasty parts of the story and simply bring humanity back into the loving embrace of the god called God. Don’t we always want to downplay the ugly stuff?
To answer the question, then, I’d
have to say that the United Church doesn’t have a single definition. Throughout
the UCC’s history, it has encouraged diverse theological perspectives by
inviting the various committees across the denomination to test theological
beliefs according to their own understanding. That may have been literal or it
may have been metaphorical. Deciding that I could remain in ministry at West
Hill without restraint, is a bold example of that. But the truth is that even
the denomination’s most recent statement of faith, A Song of Faith, does not include the word “atonement” and has only
two references to resurrection, neither with any reference to a body.
[i] The Revised Common Lectionary is a collection and collation of biblical texts from which many, if not most, Protestant mainline clergy choose their Sunday readings. It presents at least four texts: one from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament); one from the Psalms; an Epistle (the letters section of the New Testament); and the Gospels. I engage these texts each week and often lift a theme out of them around which I create my Sunday service. I do not read the texts in the service, nor do I preach on them, but I do create resources – poetry, words for classic hymn tunes, and “sermon” notes so that anyone who is interested in moving beyond preaching about exclusively biblical themes will have something to start with if their congregation expects to hear the Bible read.
[ii] BBC, “Resurrection dd not happen, say quarter of Christians.” https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-39153121, accessed January 23, 2019.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.