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 a shared future of the religious and the non-religious.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: The agnostics, atheists, brights, freethinkers, humanists, rationalists, skeptics, and the like should come together in a unified coalition with the ordinary religious believers where the supernatural beliefs tend to remain rather benign, motivate unobtrusive and even positive affect and behavior in communities, and remain comforting – in your phraseology – to them, especially against the rising forces of authoritarian strongmen and fundamentalist religion. What might be a theological grounding for this union of forces? How might this play out in a Canadian context?
Rev. Gretta Vosper: Religions, because they assert obligatory ways in which individuals are to engage with one another, with god(s), or with the world around them, necessarily divide the human community. Additionally, because they prescribe those obligations for a group, religions strengthen in-group loyalties and commitments, seeing all outsiders as of secondary merit (if not dangerous) to their own adherents.
Members of a religion can find and establish seemingly instant rapport with others of the same religion even if they have never seen one another before. They simply share their religious affiliation and doors that might otherwise be closed to them, are immediately opened; the newcomer is affirmed with recognition and acceptance. In an episode of West Wing, the President confirms an illegal Chinese immigrant is an evangelical Christian seeking asylum because he utters the word “Shibboleth” after answering a series of questions.
In Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes of the critical importance for Somalian children to memorize their genealogy back several generations. Should a child, or even a grown adult, find themselves in difficult or unfamiliar circumstances, reciting their genealogy might uncover a familial bond with someone otherwise unknown who might then provide protection or support. In some situations, knowing one’s family tree could be the only difference between life and death. Religion can provide a similar security.
But that, it seems, is also religion’s greatest weakness. The rigidity of its boundaries can prevent engagement across them by those of other faiths, each asserting its own truth. What might the President have done if the dissident had been fleeing for other religious reasons? The movement toward interfaith dialogue has been a slow-moving process. In recent years, Christian-Jewish dialogue has stretched to become conversations among those of the Abrahamic faiths, though those conversations don’t generally include Bahá’ís who might see themselves of the same tradition. Stretching ourselves to reach out to more geographically and linguistically distant faith traditions continue to remain limited gestures.
Difficult though it may be, interfaith dialogue often seems more feasible than engagement within a religion of its own conservative and liberal factions. The two interpretations of the same documents or practices that diverged long ago now have few shared beliefs between them. At a Rutgers University Interfaith symposium some years ago, the progressive Muslim participant refused to acknowledge Islamists even existed, stating that there could be no such thing if the Koran was read properly. Clearly, for her, Islam had nothing in its texts that could be used to incite extremism or violence. She simply disowned such positions.
Within Christianity, Liberal Christians are happy to remove themselves from what they see to be the glaring ignorance of fundamentalist Christians who, in turn, are happy to lob their own criticisms back at those they consider unworthy of the Christian moniker. Rarely do we get a fundamentalist of any religion sitting down for meaningful conversation with one of that religion’s progressives. Conservatives would rather engage with fundamentalists of another religion, someone whose passions they could at least respect if not understand. Indeed, Jews for Jesus is an organization doing just that: it builds a purposeful relationship between messianic Jews and fundamentalist Christians that each party believes will benefit its own end-of-the-world agenda.
Because progressive religious beliefs often result from a critical investigation of the truth claims of one’s own religion, the landing pad is often a secular one. That doesn’t mean religious progressives quit their religious traditions, or the peculiarity of their festivals, or their ritualized, sacred language. But it can mean that what they consider to be the most important elements of their participation in a faith community are no longer its beliefs – if, indeed, it ever was – but is, rather, one of its “off-label benefits”. It might be that they find peace and wellbeing through the ritual and ceremony or through the rich social connections they experience. Or it might be the critical assessment of the values by which the individual is called to live in the weekly presentation at the place of worship.
Those who fall off the left edge of the pew, the rail, or the mat – and someone in the lineage of most secular people did at one point – often lose the communities that might have sustained their energies, their wellbeing, and their commitment to a set of values by which they choose to fashion their lives. Like those who continue in religious communities, they will have friends and social circles. They will go for drinks after work with colleagues. They’ll chat with other parents as their kids play T-ball. They might go on an eco-vacation with a group of friends or carry boxes of clutter to their local donation centre when “tidying up”. But the chances of them running into values-laden conversations or being regularly called to account for their opinions, their lifestyle choices, or their ignorance of the world around them are significantly lower than those who sit in front of someone being paid to heckle their consciousness every single week.
Which is dangerously close to my suggesting that all religious leaders do that important work; most probably don’t. But those who do challenge people to be citizens, not just people who are here to have a good time, or simply get through the day. And that call to citizenry is one I believe religion should aspire to providing. I think it might have been what Jesus was trying to do with his radical ways and impatience, only remnants of which we have to explore. And even if it wasn’t, it’s what we should be doing: building relationships so embedded in concern for one another, for those we’ll never meet ( like generations yet to be born), for the fragile world upon which we spin, for the exquisite beauty of life on this planet which throbs in all our hearts. If you want to call the quest for that feeling “god”, you wouldn’t be alone in that. But you’ve no need to call it anything but the right thing to do.
So, bring on the secularists. Let them rub shoulders with people with progressive beliefs. Invite them to take part in humanitarian efforts. Teach them a thing or two about tolerance. Show them how to have a good, rich conversation and still get along at the end of it. Invite them to join you at their own reason rallies. Take them with you to the offices of government and have them hand the petition over to whomever is in charge of the latest travesty. Let them get in on the action. Organize them. You’ll be helping them find themselves along the way.
Oh, and invite them to potlucks, of course. But tell them to bring something gluten- and nut-free and vegan, if they can, because, you know, who wants to exclude anyone, right?
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Rev. Vosper.
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.
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