Fireground, Adelaide Hills

The Imperative for Change

With or Without God: Why the way we live is more important than what we believe. Gretta Vosper (Harper Perennial Paperback 2009)

It's Time.  Responding to the first fifteen pages of the book

“The Christian Church, as we have built it and known it, has outlived its viability”, claims Gretta Vosper. p 2 I can only concur. I have lived 54 years in a failing church. In my experience, her statement is undeniable.  She continues

Evangelical, liberal, and sacramental expressions of Christianity scrabble for relevance in a world that they are, for the most part, ill suited to address. And yet, it is precisely because of the challenges present in  today’s world that we most need the strength church might be able to offer should it survive the mess in which it currently finds itself. p 2

Vosper, who has been violently criticised by many, does not start out attacking the gospel carried by the church as irrelevant.  She sees it as offering the strength we most need, although church itself is in a mess.

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. p 4

I’ve decided to share a ‘stream of consciousness’ response to my slow reading of Vosper’s book because she starts where I am.  I am discontented with the church. I think we offer perhaps the greatest hope there is for life to continue (along with some other faiths and philosophies) but that we are compromised by outdated, intransigent thinking.  We are plagued by tradition for the sake of it.  We apply appalling and brutal judgements in the name of a loving God. We are associated with flat-earth foolishness like so called creation-science. We suffer deeply ingrained hypocrisies like hiding and denying child abuse.  As one of my friends says, “I’m appalled by religion-- and I’m a pastor!”

Like Vosper, however, I see the radical simplicity of love, as it is expressed in the Jesus tradition, for example, as life and planet saving.

It will only happen unless there is thorough going change in the way the church, and other groups, approach their lives.  Vosper calls this “Broad-vision change” not “new curtains window dressing.” p 5 I was reminded of the explosion in a church council, years ago, which had spent many thousands of dollars renovating the minister’s residence. It collapsed into an all out fight one evening  over whether to buy new curtains for the bathroom, or recycle the old ones from the kitchen. If we don’t get beyond narrow pettiness and the obsession with recycling what is old and perished, we will not get anywhere!

Vosper is well aware that this kind of change is deeply threatening. Religion provides a “primal, universal need for security” for many of us. People will “work, argue, fight, and die” for that security.  One only has to read the violent responses to so many internet posts, or remember the suicide bombers, or the anti abortion murderers, to see the truth of this.

At this point in her first chapter Vosper has provided me with a new insight. In the section headed “Talking Change” she compares various kinds of paradigm shifts. The need to shift from our traditional theological paradigm to something new is desperate. No matter how sophisticated theology of the traditional Christian paradigm may be, its popular outworking is always in the direction of a God who is embarrassingly close to that white bearded old man in heaven. We can see that in the language we use in worship. We can see it in the fact that so many Christians are deeply offended and scared by  Hitchens and Dawkins et al, rather than laughing at their simplistic understanding of theology.  They are indeed simplistic,  but so are far too many Christians. In fact, Hitchens et al are scarily accurate about the theology of the people.

We need a new paradigm for understanding and communicating the Gospel.

Drawing on the work of Thomas Kuhn and Richard Holloway, Vosper points out that there is a difference between scientific paradigm shifts and religious and cultural paradigm shifts.

If you are being educated as a scientist today... you don’t start with Aristotle’s paradigm and work up to the scientific approach that prevails today; you start with the current paradigm. Unlike scientific paradigms, social, religious, and cultural paradigms seem to hang around forever. Though they may have only a shadowy existence, they never really die... Rather, they get stacked up like trays in a self-service cafeteria. p 8

This is a magnificent image.  Trying to understand theology, and get a picture on the whole enterprise, is like trying to find a place to eat where trays and empty plates of food are lying all over the place. The scene is messy, unhealthy, and confusing. Clergy in training, or working in a parish, feel the tug of loyalties of millennia pulling them away from developing something clean and new.  No matter how carefully they seek to think things through, and dispense with the dirty water of the church, (metaphor shift coming up) there is always someone screaming that they are also throwing out the baby.

This is because, says Vosper, (channelling Holloway and Marx) change in an institution like the church comes from the discontent of the “victims of the ruling power system.” When these victims challenge that system the change is “an affront to what has gone before and calls it aberrant or wrong.” In much science the “replicable evidence of the new paradigm” eventually forces its own acceptance.  “For the theologian, whose trade is debateable ideas, the new paradigm remains an unprovable accusation.” p 9

(In the Australian vernacular, at least, (Vosper is Canadian) that last sentence has a delightful double meaning!)

For the theologian who is paid by the very people she is to challenge, and especially for the parish minister, unprovable accusations are very difficult territory. This does not even consider  the challenge faced by local clergy.

I recently posted some thoughts on a Washington Post On Faith question about disbelieving clergy. I wonder if many of those characterised as disbelieving are on the cusp of the change Vosper talks about, and lost for a way to go forward. People do not want their comfort disturbed.

The radical nature of Vosper’s project is underlined by her characterisation of one of the conservative church’s bogey men.

Emerging Christian movements, popularised by... mainline scholars such as Marcus Borg, are the latest attempts to create a seemingly new church that can still coexist with all the previous incarnations that have gone before. .. Borg holds on to the archaic worship forms and language while re-explaining and retrofitting the gospel message with a view to pluralist sensitivities.  ...Borg’s enchantment with the ecclesial encrustations the church has endured keep[s] the church tied to aspects of the past that we can and must move beyond. p 9

This is an important insight. Borg is not a radical! In many ways, John Shelby Spong is not a radical either, despite the fact that Vosper dedicates her book to him, and despite his painting as such (and worse) by many in the church. Spong says of his first meeting with Vosper

I soon discovered... she was determined to push the insights from these [theological] giants into dimensions of truth and experience beyond anything I had yet embraced. She made me realise just how much real work still needed to be done to bring about a reformation in Christianity that would ensure its vibrancy well into the twenty-first century. pxiii

Borg and Spong are scholars who are liberating in their demonstration of how we can look anew at the biblical texts.  Neither of them have shown me any way to deal with the communication of those texts to those outside the church.

I quoted Vosper saying,

For the theologian, whose trade is debateable ideas, the new paradigm remains an unprovable accusation.

All too often, minor earthquakes rather than the tectonic shifts of paradigm change occur in the church. These prove the accusation of the theologian. But how do they come about?

Vosper quotes “balefully true” words from Sam Harris (The End of Faith) about why religions are evolving.

The door leading out of religious literalism doesn’t open from the inside. These religions have been moderated because of the pressure of modernity. It’s secular politics and a conception of human rights and our growing scientific understanding of the universe... This [evolution] is not to be credited to faith. This is the legacy of faith continually losing the argument to science, and secular politics, and common sense.

Harris and others naturally want to ascribe all change to this sort of influence. It doesn’t suit them to see that they overstate the case.  But there is far too much truth in his statement for the church to survive unless it changes radically. There are cases where religious and cultural paradigms no longer lie around in the kitchen of human experience. They have been moved to the library, or forgotten altogether. They are the failed civilisations and cultures of antiquity. They are the aboriginal cultures which have not survived the West. The question is whether Christianity will be among them, or whether it will change enough for its gospel to continue.

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