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 open the series with talking about being in the news, TAWOGFAT theology and its counter in progressive apologetics, and more.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Many Canadians who read the news, even badly, have a sense of an atheist minister in a Canadian Christian church. In particular, and if some more knowledge, The United Church of Canada (UCC) is the denomination – a liberal, mainline tradition of Canadian Christianity. How did you come into the public spotlight, the good and the bad?
Rev. Gretta Vosper: It has been interesting to experience the trajectory of this “story” because, for the most part, Christianity and interest in it is on the wane everywhere in the Western world. The interest is intriguing and challenges us to figure out why it is interesting, particularly to generations that do not attend church at all or do so only rarely.
The first time I ended up in the “spotlight” was with the 2004 launch of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity, an organization seeking to provide progressive Christians – those who do not believe the Bible is the authoritative word of God for all time (TAWOGFAT) – connection. Many progressives were isolated because of their progressive beliefs. We wanted to bring them together. The launch was even on the front page of the Toronto Star, a placement that stymied me. Here we were, decades, if not centuries, into the exploration of the Bible as the work of human minds and their foibles, we were considered novel enough to capture a front page placement!
Since that time, the work at West Hill United, The UCC congregation I serve in Toronto, became a beacon for those seeking community beyond the beliefs that divide the human family. We worked to find ways to speak about the most crucial elements of our “faith”, if you will, in everyday terms, language that refused to exclude. That work has been the most interesting and the most provocative work by us to date. At the same time, and understandably, it has been misapprehended a great deal in the church and beyond. In 2008, I wrote my first book, With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important than What We Believe, to address some misunderstanding and to provide a foundation upon which necessary change might take place within the church.
In 2013, following the 2012 publication of my second book, Amen, in which I identified as a theological non-realist (meaning I did not believe there was a “real” god called “God”), I began to publicly identify as an atheist. My decision was triggered by the arrest and threatened execution of “atheist” bloggers in Bangladesh. In fact, I learned only later that these men did not identify as atheists, but were labelled as such in order to incite hatred against them. The sentencing of Fazil Say, a Turkish pianist, to a ten-month prison sentence for identifying as an atheist on social media was impactful on me, too. My denomination had roots deep in the work of social justice and this act, to me, was an act of solidarity. One available for me to offer to the international community of freethinkers. Labels, as I well knew, are often caricaturized, I was, however, identifying as an atheist within a theological milieu. It is in a world where debates over what we mean by “god” take place regularly. I expected colleagues to understand what I meant, even if they disagreed; The UCC is filled with clergy who disagree with one another about the nature of god. Since I had already identified as someone who did not believe there was a real thing called “god”, as far as I was concerned, I simply described myself and my beliefs in a different way.
Again, my decision to identify as an atheist was misunderstood a great deal in the church and beyond! Shortly after identifying as an atheist, a major project my congregation wished to create was denied funding from the wider church. The reason given was that “it was for the creation of a secular organization.” In fact, it wasn’t even the creation of a separate organization but, rather, a program designed to share the church’s work through a medium that did not look so “Sunday morning, stand up, sit down, pass the plate.” Now, I believe funding was denied because I identified as an atheist. Three years later, another congregation received twice as much as our application had requested. Its application was for the development of a secular community and staffing for secular services. No clergy at that church identify as atheists though their theologies are very likely non-traditional.
In early 2015, the world was reeling from the religiously motivated attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France. My denomination posted a prayer on its website, a typical response to tragedy. The prayer was standard for The UCC. There was little that would offend most of the church’s members. However, it posited a divine being who could, and with our proper petition to it, “lead us to seek comfort, compassion, and peace…” and transform “our pain, our bafflement, and our cries for peace.” It represented classical belief in a god that had powers to intervene in human affairs and from whom we could seek both direction and solace.
My brain exploded. Throughout my theological training, I had been exposed to the theological ruminations and arguments of centuries of theologians and church leaders who sought to define what god was. Their efforts conflicted in almost every sentence, each arguing a clarity unique to their own understanding. Conformity had been achieved at great price, but never maintained as the costs of doing so led to the spilling of too much blood and the loss of too many lives. What I came away with was an appreciation for the variety of concepts that had been lifted, some taking flight for a few centuries, while all being as fragile as human thought. They were concepts: while many claimed experience, none could claim knowledge of a reality they called “God”. The god I studied and to which these theologians had attested, was created, supported, and experienced only within the human mind. I gave one of my professors a t-shirt with a picture of cows with thought bubbles above their heads that had a cow in each of them. The caption read, “What cows think of when they think of god.” It was too true; god is only ever in our own image because it is our brain that conjures it. Without a human mind, there is no humanly concerned god.
It seemed to me that, in the face of religiously motivated murder and hatred; we needed to humbly set aside those characteristics of god that played into the hands of those who would use religion as a weapon of mass destruction. The most powerful tool wielded by religious believers is the idea that their god is the most powerful; and that it, alone, is the arbiter of moral authority. If the ground of our moral authority is a supernatural being from whom we see guidance, then we needed to step aside when others also posited such belief, even should it come to such tragic ends. Only when we set aside such a belief might we be able to question and undermine the use of religion for violent purposes.
That is when the “story” broke wide open. My denomination’s charge: heresy. Not in so many words, but it created a new process by which any minister in The UCC must be in ongoing affirmation of their ordination questions. (Literally.) Something we had never before been required to do. In other words, any clergy person in the most progressive Christian denomination in the world could be tried for heresy.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Gretta.
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.