Vosper is clear about her basic assumption: all human beings have a spiritual dimension to their lives. She immediately qualifies this. This is to be no dualist theology.
Within that dimension we know and celebrate relationships, explore meaning, develop our value systems, and experience love. That spiritual dimension is not some sacred, special place inside us that pulls us apart from the world, though. Too much that is labelled spirituality tends to split us into two natures-an earthly, cravings-based one and a spiritual, dispassionate one. The spiritual "realm" of which I speak is no less connected to who I am than is my emotional or psychological dimension. It is-integral to my structure, my experience of life. pp17
This spiritual dimension causes us to “explore what is utterly beyond description; we try to pin it down with words such as spirit, the Ground of all Being, Ultimate Concern, the Divine, and God.”
Vosper sits in a new space for some of us, I suspect. Her phraseology sounds remarkably orthodox, and then she swings to radically agnostic statements, which some would see as rank heresy.
The question of whether or not those ideas or names point to actual entities, either outside or within us, is beyond the scope of this book. The peace and passion that alternately soothe and animate me may be described as gifts or challenges from a being or force remote from myself, but they are complex responses to my awareness of my inner needs and those of the community, whose needs transcend my own. Is that the working of the Spirit? Of spirit? I feel it takes place within my spirit, but whether it comes from somewhere else, I cannot say. I just don't know. And although I seek to know what can be known, I am content not to know what I cannot.
One of the things already apparent in the book, for all its challenges, is its irenic approach. This partly comes, I suspect, from her comfort with uncertainty. “I am content not to know what I cannot.”
This is also apparent in her stated purpose not to convert people who find the traditional formulations of the Faith still work for them. Instead she writes to
provide a model for a way of life, a way of faith, a way of gathering together for those who either do not believe in the supernatural elements of religion or do believe but do not feel we can make absolute, universal claims about it; for those who cannot accept church doctrines but who deeply and passionately believe in the goodness and rightness of love; for those who have to ignore, reword, or quietly object to much of what is said in a typical liberal church service, and long to listen, learn, sing, pray, and speak in terms that make sense in the pew, the home, the workplace, and in the quest for a more humane world; for those who see religion as a way of living oriented to ultimate life-enhancing values or for those who live this way but don't like the word religion; for those who have no need of "God" -it is for these people I write. pp18
She writes for a lot of people, both in and out of church. Her attempts to go back to basics will not make the journey with her easy. She is, for those who are ready to listen,
calling for conscientious clearing of the house of faith, a sweeping away of language that suggests salvation from hell in return for a belief in the sacrifice of Jesus for our sins. I'm talking about being willing to give up the public singing of hymns-no matter how dear to our hearts-that reiterate that bargain and celebrate Christianity's march across the globe, triumphantly bringing its patronizing "light of the world" to all the nations. I'm urging us to stop referring to God, casually or reverently, as someone who sends or doesn't send favourable weather; grants or does not grant our prayers... pp26
She is very clear this is a much deeper process than renaming arcane items of furniture, or updating the language of hymns. What she is calling for seems to me to be the logical extension of those projects. We have begun to realise the limited nature of our language when we remove the gender bias against women and repudiate the narrowing of God’s essence into human maleness. But this is only the beginning. My colleagues who saw inclusive god-language as “the thin edge of the wedge” were correct!
Perhaps the nature of her methodology is revealed in her treatment of relativism.
Is it any wonder so many have run, screaming in protest, to the relativist's perspective? .... So we have created what we refer to as a politically correct world in which we attempt to honour what it is that others follow as their route to spiritual growth and happiness. Put in such simple terms, of course we would agree that each person should be allowed the space, tools, and opportunity to find their own spiritual path and follow it. It is a liberal's dream.
But, faced with the possibilities of living in such a relativist world, we have reason to be scared. If we embed in our societies the individual's right to pursue any spiritual path, we must be prepared for whatever direction that path takes, and I'm not sure we are ready for that. Upholding freedom of choice alone, we'd have to embrace suicide-bombing, wife-burning, ritualized sex, and self-mutilation. pp30
She faces the fear and challenge of new ideas. She is realistic about the problems; unbridled relativism is quite terrifying. Then she looks for a way through.
In a workshop on critical thinking ... a group ...[was]... asked to compile a list, using non-religious language, of what they considered to be of utmost importance in life, what they would not want to risk losing, what they hoped their great-great-grandchildren would still be living by. The list is by no means exhaustive, but as I read it again, I am deeply aware that, should we lose even one of these things, the world would be a very different place: hope, peace, joy, innocence, delight, forgiveness, caring, love, respect, wisdom, honour, creativity, tranquility, beauty, imagination, humour, awe, truth, purity, justice, courage, fun, compassion, challenge, knowledge, daring, artistry, wonder, strength, and trustworthiness.
Not one of these values could be called dogma, doctrine, or a theological term. All are common not only to most religions but also to all who embrace humanitarian ideals. When we look closely, we see that while a belief in a supernatural deity would not diminish the list, neither is such a belief necessary in order to embrace any or all of them. Some people may call them religious words, some spiritual, others human. They are, I believe, simply words that unite rather than divide. pp32
I can only agree with her. In my former life I would have rejected her words out of hand. I would have said, you cannot have values without God’s revelation to base them upon. We the readers will alternately agree with her, and then be brought up short as she points us to one more implication that is inherent in our desire for progressing beyond the old traditions.
Much of what remains of the first chapter is spent in an excellent summary of the development of scholarship within the church and the universities. She speaks of the “silent pact” that often exists between congregation and pastor to ignore the advances of critical theology. This theology is the quiet voice of God which has persisted over the centuries. Breaking the pact often results in charges of heresy. Keeping the pact requires “clergy to live a life of dissonance at the level of their soul or leave the church.” pp56 The summary certainly resonates with my experience of church. Church in many places would rather be left undisturbed. The joy is that there is also a mood for change in many places.
Gretta Vosper spoke, during this summary, of her mother’s insistent naming of the elephants in the various rooms of the church's traditons. I recognize my own mum, and many other mentors. All blessing to them for their courage.
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