Posted by: Andrew G | April 28, 2010

With or Without God – Gretta Vosper Part 2


As per my usual, this got to be more lengthy than I first wished. So, skim for the bold parts or trudge through according to your whim and available time. Below the quotes there are some final thoughts on Gretta Vosper’s book.

If we are to alter our self-destructive course, we must learn the lessons of our past and live by what we learn. Religious declarations and promises based entirely on speculation or individual experience or that claim a supernatural authority must be identified for what they are: we must refuse to grant them an authority they do not deserve. We have the right and the responsibility to draw the necessary line.

What the world needs in order to survive and thrive is the radical simplicity that lies at the core of Christianity and so many other faiths and systems of thought—an abiding trust in the way of love as expressed in just and compassionate living.

… This message carries its own authority. It needs no doctrine to validate it, no external expert or supernatural authority to tell us it is right. Love is quite demanding enough as a foundation, sufficiently complex and challenging without the requirement of additional beliefs, unbelievable to many. The church the future needs is one of people gathering to share and recommit themselves to loving relationships with themselves, their families, the wider community, and the planet.

Broad-vision change is not “new curtains” window-dressing change but real, deep down, “this is going to hurt” change. It can be liberating and refreshing, but it comes with costs. Without it, there is not only no future for the mainline church, there is also no need for one.

What is irrelevant, refutable, or simply wrong we have to consign to the historical record… Since humanity is a decidedly self-centred life-form, the sacrifice of what is no longer able to sustain or comfort us would seem to be a reasonable trade-off.

We don’t toy lightly with our lives.

It is time for humanists, atheists, skeptics and agnostics to see they share a common future with the many who are still comforted to their religious beliefs… We all have much to offer one another: not supernatural beings to who we can offload our problems, but spiritual tools and practices that can help us know and honour our shared and richly human experiences of life. [note – well, yea. But that’s what all the arguing is about, really. We are negotiating between conversations on how to find ways to trust one another…]

When a scientific paradigm’s day is done, it dies…Each of the major Christian paradigms that has existed throughout the history of Christianity continues to be found in one form or another within contemporary expressions of the faith. Not one of them has been entirely replaced. Dogma from each lingers, stalking any effort to bring new understandings, new ideas, and new beliefs to what continues to be referred to as a single monolithic faith—Christianity. Endeavouring to preserve our spiritual values, we hold on to the religious dogma with which they have long been fused.

… I know no proof of God beyond personal experience, and I cannot acknowledge that proof as substantial. Personal experience is the most often claimed reason for belief in God, Allah, Krishna, or Raven, but it is also the most often claimed reason for the lack of belief in those same deities—something those who claim their experience  is proof of God’s existence regularly fail to acknowledge. I prefer to acknowledge my ignorance in regard to matters of which I can have no reproducible evidence. Even when experiments produce results, I am wary of attributing cause or meaning to it. I know there exists a world beyond me—the “other”—but whether that other includes another kind of being, I simply don’t know. [note – heck of a thing for a preacher to admit to…]

Labels are, by their nature, exclusive. We listen to someone’s “beliefs” and slot them under a label, seeking to accept or reject them… Some readers may dismiss my thoughts because the label they will readily attribute to me is one they already object to having a place in the Christian Church. [note – I’ve had some fun with labels, even on myself, but this has reminded me of just how mindfully dulling the label thing is – as someone on Sabio’s Triangulations put it, a good thing to be is an a-‘label’-ist]

Sometimes being difficult is the only way forward. [note – this from a mother… hmm…]

For those whose absolute, unquestioned trust in that big God remains, no work need be done, except the many necessary explanations for why things often work out so very badly. But there are many who need something instead of that God, instead of that being who has proven unable or unwilling to rescue us not only from life’s challenges (disease, illness, senility, family problems, failed dreams) but, ultimately, from ourselves… God, writ large, has been lost; god, writ small, may yet disappear.

We need to be ruthlessly honest, to state who we are, what we believe or don’t, and what we don’t yet understand. We need to work together to discover new ways to find meaning in the world, new strength to engage its too inhuman systems, and new joy in the experience we call life. We have much on which to build. We hold deeply sacred beliefs about the value of life and the value of community. We hold deeply sacred beliefs about our responsibility for one another. None of these will be left behind. [note – I kinda like the last two words, since they have gained some meaning in certain fundamentalist camps]

It is crucial that we peel away the interventionist deity concept from our belief systems and face reality. We are the origin of blessing and curse in our world, not some otherworldly deity—not in Christianity, not in Judaism, not in Hinduism, not in Islam, not anywhere… I would argue that what nature doles out is neither blessing nor curse—it just is. How we deal with it, how we respond to it, how we pull ourselves and others out of it—either working together to survive or using each other to reap personal benefit, either welcoming others into our hearts or behaving bitterly toward them—that is where blessing and curse originate, not in global weather patterns and tectonic shifts.

Nothing is inherently good (not even chocolate). Nothing is inherently bad (not even chocolate). Yet, there are values I believe we must choose and on to which we must fervently hold.

… I learned many stories from the Bible but wasn’t forced to memorize its books. I learned to see Jesus as a wise and loving man who did his best for everyone, but I was left without that soul-galvanizing belief that he had died for my sins. I integrated his teaching about justice and compassion, but not the ones about everlasting punishment. The Jesus I as introduced to was so kind that, on a blistering cold day, out on the rink my mother had poured in our backyard, under the shadow of that awesome spire [of the church], he took time out from his otherworldly duties to teach me to skate.  Being a first-century Middle Easterner, his knowledge of skating was limited, of course, and I never did get very good at it, but his heart was such that he would be there for me when I needed him, and I knew it. [note -a cute taste of her writing]

On preaching: As long as the laity don’t have to think about it, pastors don’t have to talk about it. As long as pastors don’t talk about it, the laity don’t think about it. A tidy, mutually beneficial agreement.

Reflecting on her mother: When all is said and done, I might look back and wish that my mother had passed on to me her silver tea service rather than her penchant for saying what needs to be said. But truth be told, there is a lot more need for that irrepressible honesty these days than there is for silver tea services.

The interesting thing about logic is the strength of its breaking system.

Whether the earth gives birth to itself or a woman gives birth to a child, the world is never the same, no matter what happens or how things end up… Without the generative activity of this wild planet, it may just be that none of us would be here. But once we came into being, once we had pulled ourselves out of the primordial ooze, so to speak, all that activity wasn’t just the indifferent rumblings of a turbulent planet. No. Once we were on site, it got personal.

Because our worldview is plastic, not elastic, it can stretch, but it cannot return to its former shape. So when something has such an effect upon us that it changes our worldview, our consciousness is raised to a level from which it cannot return.

… people are moved to conversion by the power of their fears.

It gets complicated when those responsible for presenting the Bible as the authoritative word of God for all time (TAWOGFAT) in order to convert nations to Christ then try to tell people that only parts of it are true. And, if only parts of it are true, or if some parts contradict others, who gets to pick which parts are really, really true?

Even today, it is often easier to people to articulate what they don’t believe than to say what they do. [note – hence the popularity of criticism, a la Hitchens]

In the early church, the values of love, forgiveness and compassion drove the work and lives of those known as Christians. This is a legacy of the church, and it must once again become the agenda by which it chooses to live. No what we believe. Not our institutional survival. Our focus must be what we can do to challenge, edify, and support individuals as they seek to live virtuous and responsible lives.

The loss of religion as a whole, although it would rid the world of the negative aspects of supernatural faith, would also eliminate one of its most regularly accessed vehicles for presenting, upholding, and reinforcing the challenges that ethical living present in or complicated world… There are far too few readily accessible sources by which individuals are influenced to become caring, altruistic, and respectful humans with interests that extend beyond that of their own bathroom mirrors or backyard pools…. It is possible that religion can provide a values-based alternative to what popular culture provides but with neither the stigma of nerd-dom nor religious fundamentalism. [note – reminded me of Sam Harris and the Moral Landscape]

From Lloyd Geering: Secular society is a positive and logical outcome of Christianity distilled of its religious trappings and tribal preconceptions.

If we say “Jesus is Lord” in the reading or song, we might explain it as … “love is supreme”. Well, then why not say “love is supreme”? All the world can understand that. They can embrace it regardless of their beliefs. If “Jesus is Lord” means “justice for all,” then let’s say that… When what we are trying to say is delivered in ordinary language, not code, it has the best chance of being understood and embraced by those outside of the church and, sometimes surprisingly so, by many on the inside as well. [as a note of contrast – some people mean only “Jesus is Lord” when they say “Jesus is Lord”. It’s their in-group thing, which holds most importance, even over love and justice. But I do agree with Vosper on her point because not only is the language much clearer, but it also allows us to make the everyday words and experiences sacred. Simple, clear, everyday stuff is the most sacred to us, and to experience it as sacred is important… ok, to me at least…]

… while liberal/moderate Christians are generally content to give up the concept of hell, holding on to the concept of heaven still has great appeal.[no comment!]

On the Christian doctrine: [It] is grounded in a worldview that isn’t even about this world. It’s about a world yet to come, which doesn’t begin until after we die, and about which we know absolutely nothing.

You’ve no doubt heard the joke about having to be quiet when tiptoeing past the room in heaven where the evangelicals are because they think they’re the only ones there.

On the Bible and ignorance: Our ignorance is not only unwise, it is dangerous. It’s like signing a note your fifteen-year-old puts in front of you without reading it. When we present a book as holy, it’s texts as sacred, even authoritative, we must know exactly what it says because we are not only reserving it a special time slot on Sunday morning, we are endorsing what it says. And what is says is often frightening… anyone whose sole experience of the Bible is confined to Sunday morning or media presentations of it, anyone who does not know the context in which those words were written or the metaphors in which they have been plaited will only be able to read what the text says. That’s the problem. The text condemns itself. [note – why it is easier to criticize rather than learn the depths, even in terms of literary study over theological study.]

If the Bible is the baby that so many are afraid will go out with the bathwater, they need have no fear. It is not the Bible that must go; rather, it is the Word of God that must go. We do not, any of us—whether Christian, Muslim, Jew, Baha’i, Confucian, Jain, any of us – have a corner on what the word of God is, on what religious beliefs are universally authoritative for humankind. This we must confess. Those who recognize the Bible’s claim to be the word of God as the monster in the tub with the baby are those who must which it out before it does any further damage. [note on my first time through this book months ago, I just waved this part away as obvious. Strangely though, on my second reading this passage struck me as wholly revolutionary and so harsh for those in the religious world.]

There isn’t much one can say to negate some else’s experience of something. Even in the middle of an argument with one’s spouse, it is often prudent to acknowledge that his or her perspective or experience of you is different than what you may have wished to project, thereby conceding that it may, at least for them, be accurate.

… we find that we are now standing at the precipice created by our own arrogance and desire for self-gratification. Pointing to Jesus and telling people that he is our salvation is just not going to work. His words are dead to many people. The world has changed. The words don’t make sense any more, and shouldn’t. In trying to capture exactly what he said so that it could be brought into our time, we have found, quite by accident, that what he said has little power.[note – a minister wrote this?]

We like to think of ourselves as open-minded, but we are often this way only as long as the things we’re invited to think about aren’t things that require we change our worldview, opinions, or prejudices… Having an open mind within Christianity has, for much of its past, put one at a decided disadvantage. [Amen]

Opening our minds is hard work. We live in an anaesthetizing culture. What we should think is flashed at us in a variety of media every minute of the day, and we are virtual sponges for it. [note – That’s a load of rich, creamery butter (sorry, an almost random Homer Simpson reference…)]

Sometimes “burning questions” were those which, is asked, ended with you tied to a stake on top of a burning pyre.

Without creativity, nothing changes.

Almost every marketer in the world twists/bends/stretches the truth to make people believe claims that aren’t really being made at all. Furthermore, what is being sold is often not the product itself, but, rather the feeling associated with it. Exactly what is the core product of a cosmetics company? It isn’t a cream that will reverse the aging process and give you younger skin. It is the belief that you have c ontrol over the aging process. That belief is just sold in a bottle. [note – there are products for men now worried about their pretty faces…]

No, it will not be through naiveté that the church will progress.

All the perspectives that have come before ours have had their purpose, have brought meaning to whole generations of believers and continue to do so. Such knowledge must be honoured even as it is set aside.

The old story of redemption and acceptance is arrestingly simple and enormously powerful. Any new story that would replace it must be clear, simple, evocative, and… seek to replace the security of the old with the security of the new… The most compelling facet of the old story is its security. The most compelling facet of the new story is its seeking after truth.

Liberal Christians just don’t stand out in a crowd, if you know what I mean. [note – so true]

On preaching and challenging people: It is so extremely unsettling for some that, on occasion, they’ve pleaded with me to “just” say from the pulpit what it is they want to hear, even when we both know that neither of us believed it any more.

To be Christian, for me, is to do whatever it takes to bind me to a life lived in a radically ethical way. Considering how difficult that is and will always be, I’ll need all the help I can get. [Amen?]

As my son, Izaak, fasts during Ramadan in solidarity with his Muslim friends, they are each enriched by sharing a spiritual discipline that has the potential to be a profound opportunity for reflection on their place in the world. His efforts cannot be considered insincere by his friends as theirs cannot be considered of more or less value than his. Each must determine for himself if the spiritual tool is helpful in his efforts to live according to what he believes in the essence of their spiritual undertaking. [note – proud, progressive parent?]

Biblical accounts of anything and everything from creation through to John’s Revelation are currently experiencing the same process through which Aphrodite’s birth narrative has passed. Believed as true, for many centuries and by many people, they are now entering into the realm of myth where their application and relevance can become subjective. Loosed of the demand that they be believed literally, biblical stories become therapeutic in our search to understand ourselves and our place in the universe.

It is far too easy to project one’s personal, political, social, and cultural preferences onto Jesus. If you believe he was a feminist, you need to believe so because the examination of the evidence proves that he was, no t because you believe he was s good man and as a good man he would have been feminist. If we allow our personal prejudices to colour history, history is of no use to us. [note – come on Gretta! Delusion is extremely useful! Why are there something like 2 TVs in every North American Home?]

Had we never heard of the Good Samaritan, would we still not have discovered compassion?

Jim Dollar: We don’t need another doctrine of God to add to the pile. We just need to torch the pile.

P.D. James: Consolation from an imaginary source is not imaginary consolation.

… when we love, we experience and express our fullest humanity—our divinity.

Ignorance… is becoming less and less excusable as contemporary (and not so contemporary) scholarship is found to be utterly accessible in every sphere of life. [note – yay, interwebs!]

The concept of justice reaches far beyond just doing what’s right by one’s own people; it extends to everyone.

When it came to tools, my father was a pluralist.

With… a newfound humility, the church can offer a great deal.

On what the church could be: No other organization has [the] networking ability. No other organization has access to adults, many of whom are quite prepared to change their lifestyle if it is going to positively impact the world. [note – the Rotarians are making a run of it…]

If the church has the heart for consciousness-raising work, it certainly has the facilities. A quick internet search identifies 63 churches within a ten-minute drive of my suburban home and 514 within a ten-minute drive of where I used to live in downtown Toronto. In contrast, there are only half those numbers of public and private schools within the same distances… The church has ground level access to millions of people. And millions of aware, reflective, conscious people is exactly what this world needs. We just have to figure out how to get the message out to them.

Studies have shown that adequate parking and attractive washroom facilities are two of the most important things for which church “shoppers” look. Larger congregations may provide valet parking… A Dallas Morning poll recently found that 55 per cent of two hundred local churches accept credit and/or debit cards… The evangelicals, of course, mastered the art of the powerful sound-bite, evocative music, and visually engaging technology long ago. [note – is that sarcasm I smell in your tone?]

On progress: Once we figured [something] out, we kept improving on it. Once we nailed down the gospel, it stayed nailed down. [note – unless you’re Mormon, I guess… ?]

More and more, people don’t just want to be entertained. They want to be engaged. [note – typical woman, always talking about engagement… No seriously though, I think she could have even said people don’t just want to be assured or comforted or entertained. Am I wrong here, or is the role of comforter passing the church by as well?]

Perhaps community is exactly and only what we need to be. [note – Inclusive! The old community-centre idea, but without the “One of us! One of us!” chanting…]

What we have dreamt in the past have been dreams. They have enriched us and challenged us to seek out what we needed to survive. What we need now cannot be found in those dreams. We need to dream again, recognizing that our visions, ideas, choices, and challenges, all come form within us, not from somewhere else. We are our creators, and we have the challenge before us to create a future for this planet in which love, made incarnate through justice and compassion, is the supreme value.


Recommendations and Final Thoughts

This book is a heavy challenge to the Christian Church. Gretta, like a supernanny or something, is getting right in the face of the spoiled child in the middle of an overly-extended tantrum. She doesn’t raise her voice, she doesn’t make threats or promises. She does demand direct eye contact and respectful behaviour, and she knows you are capable of it.

One thing I’m a little dissatisfied with is how she addresses this question: So what makes you still Christian then? Why not just be Unitarian or humanist, etc? She is still tied to the tradition of the Christian Church; that part she does make plain when she brings up this very question herself and examines it. I would suspect that in terms of personal experience and belief, Jesus holds an extremely important place for Gretta Vosper. But at the same time, she is willing to be aware that to push her story on the world in fact undermines the message of radically ethical living. If this is the case, then the slight cognitive dissonance and integrity of personal restraint going on makes her all the more intriguing and interesting for me.

Ok, there is the whole radically ethical living thing that kind of bothers me too. Can we try to hit the mark on ‘ethical lives’ first before jumping so quick to be ‘radical‘?

This is some rescue. When you came

in here, didn’t you have a plan for

getting out?

Somebody has to save our skins.



  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by New Book Reviews. New Book Reviews said: With or Without God – Gretta Vosper Part 2: Quotations As per my usual, this got to be more lengthy… #books #writing […]


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