If you haven’t heard of Gretta Vosper, she’s currently center point of the biggest war in Christianity.
Rev. Vosper, an ordained minister within the United Church of Canada, is currently embattled with her own denomination over her scandalous (to some) admission of atheism. That’s right: the good reverend is also a good skeptic.
What may surprise some is Rev. Vosper, despite recently being defrocked (an appeal process is expected), has the support of not only many congregants, but also other voices both inside and outside the church. In other words, at least in the case of this minister, many don’t seem to mind too much about the particulars of Rev. Vosper’s belief. To them, her service to others speaks volumes. To them, she’s as Christian as can be.
But is she? Can a minister in the Christian church truly serve others without holding fast to certain essential, fundamental Christian beliefs? What’s more, what beliefs are “essential, fundamental” in the first place?
The difficulty of Christianity is that beliefs have traditionally been a sort of litmus test—not only for ministers, but also for laypeople as well. The notion of Christian creeds as a way of codifying and expressing those beliefs has been essential to the church since its early days. Within the scriptures, Christ, and later his followers, attempts to correct the wrong beliefs of others. Christ’s method of teaching, “You have heard it said…but I say…”—is grounded in this process of replacing false ideas with true ones. And after his crucifixion, the Gospel writers have Christ appear to Thomas to persuade the disciple of the veracity of Christ’s rise from the dead.
All this to say, in the Christian faith, beliefs matter. But on the other hand…
Nobody has to be a historian to know Christian beliefs have changed dramatically since the days of our first creeds. Let’s not kid ourselves: churches are already filled by people with doubts, with skepticism, and even with outright unbelief, whether we openly admit it or not. And yes, many of these skeptics are our leaders, our teachers and our preachers. Yet those leaders “of little or no faith” often remain (to use a common expression) “closeted.” They parrot the creeds, they recite the words, but they quietly interpret them differently than those with more traditional ideas of God and faith.
So, what’s the deal? Is Christian atheism the new frontier? Or are we lost without a clue?
The answer isn’t an easy one, but it is one with precedent. Look for instance at Christianity’s mother faith, Judaism, which often makes space for participants (and leaders) with various beliefs, and even non-belief.
Sure, there are lines that can’t be crossed. For instance, Jews who believe in Jesus carry an entirely different name: Christians. But by and large, the “crisis” over the beliefs of modern practitioners…well, isn’t one. Most weeks, I attend a synagogue with my Jewish wife. Each service, I might find an atheist sitting to the right of me, and a “traditionalist” on the other. Next week, they might switch places. The prayers, the traditions, and the pathways stay the same. Individual belief is left to personal conscience. All are welcome.
Can the Church reflect a similar diversity? Personally, I think so. It seems strange to me that Christianity evolved from Judaism only to somehow become less welcoming. If the Jewish faith of Christ was (and is) inclusive of a wide range of beliefs, then surely our modern churches can be similarly inclusive.
So long as we each find value in our common touchpoints—the Bible, symbols of Christ and his redemption, our shared calendar, and a more or less similar structure of worship—can we not all be free to understand these touchpoints as best we can?
The scriptures aren’t histories, and none of us is privy to a time machine. Why draw battle lines over what we don’t know?
Our scriptures teach us that our beliefs matter, but they also teach us that “right beliefs” aren’t the key to building the kingdom of Heaven. They teach us that the very voice of Heaven itself—the “speech of angels”—is meaningless without selfless love.
What more ringing endorsement for radical inclusion can we expect?
Jon Beren Propper is an educator and author serving a United Church of Christ congregation in West Michigan.