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Friday, August 21, 2015

Too Hot to Handle: How We Live and What We Believe

In which two or more of our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Colin Perkel of The National Post has an update here on our old friend Gretta Vosper, the United Church minister who believes in neither God nor the Bible. She is, in Perkel’s words, “prepared to fight an unprecedented attempt to boot her from the pulpit for her beliefs”. Or her unbeliefs, I guess.

Tom: The attempt by the United Church to give Gretta her gold watch and wish her all the best in her future endeavors may be unprecedented, but it’s hardly a surprise, except perhaps in that the United Church is taking some sort of stand here about atheism in their pulpits.

Immanuel Can, does “the idea of an interventionist, supernatural being on which so much church doctrine is based” belong to “an outdated world view”? More importantly, can we separate “how we live” from what we believe? Gretta thinks we can and should.

Accommodation and Popularity

Immanuel Can: Over the last century, one of the major trends in what’s now called the “mainline” Protestant churches has been accommodation to modernism. Whenever a new belief, idea or value judgment became current in society, these major groups quickly brought their doctrine into line with it … from evolutionism to abortion and gay ordination and beyond. Their detractors always insisted they were selling out the word of God to buy temporary popularity, and that their strategy would inevitably result in them standing for nothing at all. But for a bit, the mainline strategy seemed to work for them.

Tom: And then the numbers caught up to them. According to The Post, in the early seventies the United Church averaged around 400,000 weekly attendees across Canada. In 2015 they were projecting a hair over 100,000 weekly Canada-wide. In Vosper’s own “church”, two-thirds of the congregation left when she revealed her views about God.

Looking at either stat, that’s not attrition: that’s a death spiral.

IC: The Vosper controversy will doubtless be characterized as one of the dying gasps of the accommodationalist churches; and that seems about right, to me. It’s just too far to try to absorb atheism within Christianity. It’s beyond any sense of either word.

Prioritizing How We Live

Tom: Gretta Vosper thinks we can separate how we live from what we believe; that how we live is the truly important thing. She actually (and ahistorically) posits a time in church history “before the focus shifted from how one lived to doctrinal belief in God, Jesus and the Bible”, and claims:
“It’s mythology. We build a faith tradition upon it which shifted to find belief more important than how we lived.”
Was there ever a time in church history when Christians lived morally in the absence of faith?

IC: A sort of ancient “Golden Age of Atheistic Christianity” at a time prior to all conviction of truth, you mean? That’s pretty funny. That’s not even plausible mythology, let alone history.

Tom: Well, this is it. She’s pulled the notion out of thin air. She seems to have this ludicrous conviction that Christianity started as a lifestyle movement, and that the “belief” aspect she deplores was some kind of later development; a false step along the way.

But in fact belief and how we live are inextricably tied together. We can debate which is chicken and which is egg, but belief drives actions. And wrong actions invariably compel people to concoct belief-based explanations for them.

Ontology Precedes Ethics

IC: I can’t imagine how her story would even go … “First, there were lifestyle ‘Christians’, and later they started to believe something, but it was something bad …” Bizarre. One of the smartest quotations I’ve ever seen about ethics is from an Indian author who wrote, “Ontology precedes ethics”. That is, what we believe is real determines whether or not we will be moral. But Vosper has to imagine that Christian ethics could exist among people who don’t believe in any Christian truth. And that’s just backwards.

Tom: And that’s the order we find in Romans, isn’t it. First, “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie” and as a result of that, “God gave them up to dishonorable passions”. The belief system they had chosen dictated how they chose to conduct themselves.

IC: Quite. Or we could think of Titus 1:16, which talks about people whose behaviour is really a reflection of what they ultimately believe to be true: they talk about knowing God, but their deeds show they deny his existence and authority. Their morals spring from their deep ontology (beliefs about what does or does not exist), not from their religious pronouncements. What one believes always manifests at the moral level. It’s the true well from which action springs.

Motivating People to Do Bad Things

Tom: Funnily enough, Vosper is unable see the implications of her own words. The incident that triggered this probe into Vosper is an open letter she wrote on the subject of belief, in which she said — referencing the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris — that belief in God can “motivate people to do bad things”.

So even Vosper recognizes that “ontology precedes ethics” everywhere except in her unique mythology of “Christianity’s beginnings”. She told The Post:
“If we are going to continue to use language that suggests we get our moral authority from a supernatural source, any group that says that can trump any humanistic endeavour.”
IC: “Humanistic endeavour?” What can that mean? Literally, it means simply, “whatever humans want to do”. And she’s right: morality is about not just doing whatever we want to do.

Tom: Yes, I thought youd enjoy that one.

IC: But I think she’s actually got something more specific in mind … something like “being nice to people” or “loving your neighbour” or “improving the human lot” or something of that kind. Unfortunately for her, historically speaking, humanism of that kind is nothing but secularized Christian values. And once they’re secularized, they’re also deprived of any ontological warrant. Nothing makes it necessary for anyone to believe in them anymore.

Removing the Foundation Brick by Brick

Tom: Quite so. But at 57, she’s caught in that lovely in-between stage of having grown up during a period in which Christian values were common and you didn’t have to explain to those around you why honesty or generosity or fidelity or loyalty were good things. People generally agreed that they were, even if they didn’t always observe them when it was inconvenient. And like so many people today, Vosper does not really grasp the consequences of her brick-by-brick removal of the foundation of the house she lives in since the house, while teetering with every passing breeze, has not yet collapsed. She thinks the cracks in the plaster and the slightly uneven ceiling in her living room is the worst it will ever get.

IC: I think that’s right. In fact, the whole foundation is not merely rotting … for her, as an atheist, it’s gone. It never existed.

Tom: I think my favourite quote in the whole Post piece is the one from David Allen, the executive secretary of the Toronto Conference:
“What we don’t want is to limit the scope of beliefs within the church, and yet what was being questioned here was: Has she gone too far?

The vision of the United Church of Canada is: There is a God in whom we believe, and our statements of faith are very clear about that.”
Perish the thought that a church would wish to limit the “scope of beliefs” within it. Perish the thought that we must refer to our “statements of faith” to determine if we believe in God or not. If the subject matter were not so achingly sad, these lines would be comedy gold.

IC: It reminds me of a review of the (rather atheistic) existentialist play, Waiting for Godot, as performed at the 2001 BeckettFest. The play is about fools waiting in vain for someone to come and rescue them. Secular theatre critic Robert Everett-Green of the Globe and Mail made this comment about one of the main characters:
“Didi has the bright-faced air of a United Church minister who would be very happy to spread the gospel if he hadn’t forgotten it.”
When even non-Christians are spooling out quips like that, you’ve got to know your church is having credibility problems.

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