terça-feira, abril 22, 2008

With or Without God

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Up, Down.

This is just a placemarker & memória de calculo for now, but I have ordered the book and will report later.

With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important than What We Believe.

I just don’t think we can placate those in the pews long enough to transition into a kind of new community that doesn’t keep people away.

Rev. Gretta Vosper.

Harper Collins Canada, to buy it.
Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity, founded in Canada by the lady.
The Center for Progressive Christianity, American original founded by James Rowe Adams.
West Hill United Church, where she preaches.
Gretta's Website.

“No what without a why”, Written and preached by Rev. James Murray at Montreal West United Church, April 13, 2008.

Text : John 10:1-10, Acts 2 :42-47

There's been a bit of a tempest brewing in the United Church of Canada over the past month. Just before Easter, a United Church minister, the Reverend Gretta Vosper released her first book which is called “With or Without God” The release of this book has been talked about in the Globe & Mail, MacLeans magazine, on CBC radio, and even in the United Church Observer. Reverend Vosper's book follows the old maxim that controversy sells.

In her book, Vosper says “In order to explore the concept of God, we need to open ourselves to all kinds of possibilities, such as God being light, or there being no God at all.” She believes any concept or teaching of the Christian church which has outlived its usefulness should be jettisoned. Vosper also claims that clergy have not been sharing the discoveries of Biblical Scholarship and faith development with their congregations.

Gretta Vosper was a classmate of mine at Queen's Theological College twenty years ago. I have some problems with what she is saying. For starters, as a denomination we've been working with this new scholarship since we introduced “The New Curriculum” in 1966. And I hope that my preaching and teaching over the years has opened your hearts to the possibility that most of our concepts and teachings of the Christian church, including the concept of God, still has great meaning and power for our lives here today.

Vosper's complaints are not new. They were first made in 1963 by the Anglican bishop John Robinson in his landmark book “Honest to God”. The book “Honest to God” did help many to hear more about what was going on than ever before. During the 1990's as American fundamentalism was pushing for a closing of the religious mind, the American bishop John Spong echoed much of Robinson's thoughts in his books. The forward to Vosper's book is written by John Spong. I have ordered her book , and I will be reading it in the coming weeks, just to see if there is anything new and worthwhile in what she says.

Much has changed in the half century since Bishop Robinson's famous book. We have learned to share what is going on in religious studies. Congregations are better informed than in any time in history. We have also learned there is more than one way to relate our Christian faith to our culture.

Vosper is simply the latest liberal to seek to make the gospel message credible to the modern world. She is not the first or last to ask that those things which are no longer believable to the modern mind, are to be jettisoned. This isn't new. Most of us were taught to not take the miracles of Jesus literally. Unfortunately, we spent so much time explaining how it could not have happened the way it is recorded in scripture, we forgot to ask what it means for the Bible to say that such miracles occurred.

What does it mean to say that Jesus walked on water or fed five thousand people? We have let the modern world determine the questions we ask of the scriptures, and we have forgotten to ask what the Bible is asking of us.

The Bible is telling us a story, which it hopes, will make us believe in God. And not just believe in God. It wants us to join a great adventure, a way of living. It wants us to live in the world, based on the truths that have been revealed to us in the life, the teachings, the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

About twenty years ago, two liberal theologians felt we were shooting ourselves in the foot every time we tried to pare back Christianity, making it conform to the scientific modern world. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon felt we were selling the Church short when we tried to accommodate Christianity so it would easily co-exist with the world around us. Hauerwas and Willimon say “Each age must come, fresh and new, to the realization that God, and not nations, rules the world. We cannot know this by accommodating ourselves to the world. We can only know this by conversion. We cannot understand the world as it really is, until we are transformed into persons who can use the language of faith to describe the world as it really is. Everyone does not know what we mean when we speak of prayer. Everyone does not know how to look at their own life critically enough to recognize sin. Everyone does not know what liberation, forgiveness, healing and reconciliation are. We must be transformed, over time, by the experience of a God who is righteous and just, who judges us on the basis of something far more significant than what feels right for us.”

The full title of Vosper's book is With or Without God -Why the Way We Live is More Important than What We Believe”. I believe you can't have a 'why we live the way we do' , without having a 'what do we believe' to justify it. In order to do the right thing, you need to know what is right. You can't have an ethical way of life which isn't based on some concept or experience of what is true, right and good.

Hauerwas and Willimon say “That which makes the church radical and forever new, is not that the church tends to lean towards the left (or right) on social issues, but rather that the church knows Jesus , whereas the world does not.” We should be no more allied with the left than the right. Our calling is to look at this world through Jesus' eyes.

God is not an intellectual concept we are to evaluate. God is an experience we are to have a relationship with. Our task is not to be a social service agency or a country club. We are to be a school which teaches people that God's ways are not our ways. God is not some distant deity who created the world and then left us alone. The Bible is a record which shows that God doesn't want to leave us to our own devices. God seeks to be a part of every moment of our lives.

We are called to be a school of virtue, a training camp for discipleship. We are part of a community which began long before we arrived on the scene, and it will be continuing long after we are gone. Salvation is much more than just what God can do for me. The story of salvation began without us, long ago and far away. God has been at work redeeming this world for a very long time. We are invited to be a part of the story. Our faithfulness is our participating in the story, as we live God's ways. As we practice the gifts of hope, peace , joy and love. We put ourselves into the story every time we offer hospitality to the stranger, or when we are reconciled with the prodigals in our lives.

The early disciples showed what such a life could look like. They broke bread together. They shared what they had with all who were in need. They prayed together. They felt the risen Christ was with them. And we can just sense the electricity they felt as they lived this purpose-filled life together. They were part of God's story, and amazing signs and wonders were happening, which confirmed for them how important all of this was.

When we see ourselves as part of the story of faith, the different parts start to make sense.

Why does Jesus perform miracles? So we will be open to unexpected possibilities for our lives.

Why did Jesus feed five thousand people? So we will trust in God to provide.

Why did Jesus walk on the water? Because with God nothing is impossible.

The gospel story is simple enough that a child can understand it,
and it is challenging enough to amaze you , your whole life long.

Like the character of Alice, you will have to find your way through the looking glass, so you can enter in. In order to feel a part of such a story, you will have to ask questions. You will need to seek, to study, to grow. You will need to be open to new possibilities you hadn't considered before. There is a reason doubting Thomas is part of the story. We are all encouraged to seek and to question. Some parts of the story may not work for you. Some part may not be meaningful. Just because we don' t understand them all right now, does not mean we should throw them out forever.

When I started in ministry, I had a hard time figuring out Saint Paul. He came across as being very anti-women, and very judgmental. Paul had often been used to give the definitive answer as to explain what the gospels meant. I didn't preach on his letters until I could understand his words in a helpful way. Part of my breakthrough came when I realized Paul was written first, and the gospels came second. The gospels are commenting on Paul, and not the other way round. That helped me to place Paul's teaching. It also helped me when I read through his letters in chronological order, so I could see how his thought develops over time. The Bible has them in order from the longest to the shortest, so there is no consistency in their message, which makes him very hard to follow. It takes time and effort to get things like that sorted out so they can make sense.

Next month marks the nineteenth anniversary of my ordination. And I'm still growing in my understanding of what God is doing and what all of this can mean for us. God isn't finished with me yet, and God isn't finished with you either.

Jesus our Good shepherd is calling us.
He is inviting us to join him in this great adventure we call faith.
He is inviting us to be shaped by this story of salvation.
He wants the story of God in the world to become the story of your life.
Our shepherd is calling- he is calling your name.


Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon – Resident Aliens, Abingdon Press 1989
Gretta Vosper, With or without God. HarperCollins 2008.
John Robinson, Honest To God, SCM Press 1963
John Spong, Why Christianity must change or die. HarperSanFranciso 1998

The Jesus problem, MacLeans, Brian Bethune, 19/03/08.

The newest view of Christ-activist, politician, not very Christian-is hard to square with the Bible's. Now some believers even say the faith might be better off without him.

"Whom do men say that I am?" Jesus's own query to his disciples, asked in the oldest Gospel (Mark 8:27), has always been the ultimate question of the faith founded in his name. The answer has determined everything from core doctrine to the authority of the clergy. Even during his lifetime, Jesus's followers had differing answers: he was a rabbi with a new approach to Jewish law; he was the rightful claimant to the throne of David. After his death, it took more than three centuries of often violent contention, suppression, and historical contingency before answers emerged that still deï¬ne mainline Christianity: Jesus was the Messiah, the son of God and the Virgin Mary, both fully divine and fully human; cruciï¬ed for our sins, he rose from the dead and will come again to judge humanity. Orthodoxy's victory has never been ï¬nal, or else there would never have been an Inquisition. Still, reinforced by church and state, and by belief in the New Testament as an exact account of events (the "Gospel truth"), the concept of the divine Christ, our Lord and saviour, became embedded in Western civilization.

That legacy still dominates Western responses to Jesus today, affecting not just what the faithful proclaim, but the attitudes of Jesus's secular admirers. But over the past century, historians, archaeologists, textual and linguistic scholars in a steadily more secular West, unable to accept the miracle-working Christ of tradition, have uncovered the all-too-human way in which early Christians hammered out their dogma and holy scripture, recovered startlingly unfamiliar texts — such as the Gnostic Gospel of Judas, in 2006 — held dear by the losers in the long-ago orthodoxy wars, and arrived at new interpretations of Jesus based on the context of his life, his essential Jewishness and the socio-political unrest of ï¬rst-century Palestine.

For large swaths of the devout, little has changed. Fundamentalist Protestant churches — so-called because of their fundamental principles, one of which is insistence that the whole of the Bible is the literal word of God — looked hard at what was happening in the modern world and refused to yield an inch to modern science or Biblical scholarship. Other churches, like the Orthodox or Roman Catholic, who possess a body of tradition to buttress their scriptures, are open to viewing, and reviewing, parts of the Bible — particularly in the Old Testament — while holding fast to the divine Christ of the New Testament. Their Christ too remains an exalted ï¬gure; as does, ironically, the Jesus envisaged by so many scholars: Biblical experts have tended to feel (as much as think) that Jesus must have been a great moral teacher — and even a pioneering feminist — so incandescently holy that some of his disciples turned him into a god.

In Vancouver writer (and Greenpeace International co-founder) Rex Weyler's new survey of the latest research, The Jesus Sayings: The Quest for His Authentic Message (Anansi), for instance, Christ emerges as a revolutionary sage, a man for the ages whose "words and deeds are sublime." Even in How Jesus Became a Christian (Random House), by Barrie Wilson, a religious studies professor at Toronto's York University — which is primarily concerned with arguing that St. Paul and later "Christiï¬ers" hijacked Jesus the Jewish rabbi through a campaign of anti-Semitism — Jesus still emerges as "a teacher of great insight."

But despite the common celebration of Jesus Christ, a chasm exists between the devout followers of the divine Christ and the seekers of the Jesus of history. Into that chasm falls the liberal church, according to Gretta Vosper, author of With or Without God (HarperCollins), a passionately argued case for a post-Christian church. Vosper is pastor of West Hill United Church in suburban Toronto and a leading Canadian voice in progressive Christianity, on the radical edge of what is already the most liberal denomination in Canada. The liberal Christian church, Vosper writes, is the original wellspring of the recent tradition-destroying Biblical scholarship, and it's liberal churches that have wrestled most painfully and — in a very real sense — least successfully with the implications of its discoveries.

Committed to the ideals of Biblical study and scholarly truth, but devoted to their own religious traditions, the liberal churches were unable to either turn their backs on modernity or to embrace it fully. So liberals tried hard to turn the now shaky parts of the Gospels (the miracles, for instance) into metaphors, Vosper writes, in order to keep time-honoured creeds and ritual superï¬cially intact. A conspiracy of silence about beliefs also played, and still plays, its part, she adds in an interview: "The liberal clergy have an unspoken covenant with congregants — you say nothing and we'll say nothing. If the clergy do speak about their disbelief in basic doctrine, the result is often a lot of pain, up to job loss and even breakdown. There is no place of safety for them."

The result has been a mess of compromised integrity — "if 'Jesus is Lord' really means 'love is supreme,' why not say that?" — and institutional failure. "We have all watched the gaping wound on the right grow as those who want the 'truth' laid out for them more clearly have left for more conservative denominations happy to give it to them," she notes. "But the wound on the left has gone unnoticed and has hemorrhaged into nothingness as religious quests have become spiritual quests unconnected with church." It's beyond time for liberal Christianity, whose heritage and responsibility this all is, to act, writes Vosper. "Those who recognize the Bible's claim to be the word of God as the monster in the tub with the baby," are the ones who must throw that monster out with the bathwater. And that means, besides other painful changes, a real, radical look at the words and deeds of the faith's central figure.

Half a century ago in Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis, speaking from the perspective of traditional Christianity, warned those who were busy stripping Christ of his divinity (while attempting to keep his moral authority) that the task couldn't be done. "A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher [but] a lunatic, on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg," he wrote. "He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to." Traditional Christians would agree; substitute, in the last sentence, the words "the authors of the Gospels" for "he," and so would almost everyone else. For the ruthlessly edited New Testament is forthright about its agenda: detailing the transformation of Jesus of Nazareth into Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

What you take from Scripture depends on how you read it. For Lewis, who accepted the historical accuracy of the Gospels, if not the whole of Biblical inerrancy (such as the six-day creation in Genesis), Christ is not just the prophet of the Sermon on the Mount, and the healer of the sick. He is also the ï¬gure who utters the New Testament's truly terrifying statements about eternal life and death. It was Jesus who promised to separate humanity into sheep and goats, shepherding the former to heaven and casting the latter "into everlasting ï¬re, prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matthew 25: 41). It was Jesus again who said that on Judgment Day, even some who preached in his name would hear the words, "I never knew you, depart from me" (Matthew 7: 23). Such a ï¬gure, in Lewis's opinion, were he only a mortal man, could rightfully be judged mad.

But modern historians sweep all that away, along with the miraculous elements, including the whole of Jesus's childhood. No virgin birth: it's found only in two Gospels, they point out, and it's clear that St. Paul, the earliest writer in the New Testament, had no time for the idea. No wise men, no heavenly choir of angels at the stable manger, no debating the elders at age 12 — all of it retroactively applied by his followers. More crucial losses are words claimed as Christ's own. A decade ago, the Jesus Seminar, the most famous (and notorious) group active in Biblical criticism, using comparative history and textual analysis, ended up being sure Christ said less than a ï¬fth of what was attributed to him.

Members rejected verses where Jesus referred to himself, particularly in an exalted way, such as, "I am the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), and verses reflective less of his teachings and more of struggles to control the nascent church after his death: "Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church" (Matthew 16:17). And since the seminar was convinced Jesus did not preach an imminent, apocalyptic end to the world, but instead a message about how to establish the kingdom of God on earth, the rejected 80 per cent of his sayings also included all the judgmental declarations. Not all scholars are in full agreement with the seminar (some fundamentalist organizations, unsurprisingly, have referred to it as "a tool of Satan"), but the broad outlines are widely accepted in the field.

Weyler's reconstruction of the authentic Jesus essentially follows those lines. His primary sources are what some scholars deï¬ne as the oldest versions of three "collections": the Gospels of Mark and Thomas, and the Q sayings. (The Thomas text, the jewel of the treasure trove of Gnostic Christian writings, found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945, was rejected by the orthodox 1,600 years ago, but the 114 pithy and often cryptic statements in it, attributed to Jesus, have made it a favourite among historians. Q is a hypothetical document, a lost collection of sayings assumed to explain the material common to the Gospels of Luke and Matthew that did not come from Mark's Gospel, their other main source.)

The "radical, Aramaic-speaking, Jewish Jesus" who emerges in Weyler's book makes no divine claims, requires no supernatural beliefs on the part of his hearers, and demands action now. The poor, Christ would tell his audience of peasants and day labourers, were fortunate to be suffering, for that brought them closer to the kingdom of God. The rich, especially the temple elite obsessed with rote purity, are far from God. Seek his kingdom within yourself, don't worry about food or clothing, accept your daily bread and share it, love your enemies, forgive others as you wish to be forgiven: God's kingdom is here, now, for those who have eyes to see.

Although many historians would not ï¬nd Jesus's message as radical a break from the past as Weyler does, in his intense Jewishness, Weyler's Jesus fits comfortably with the historical figure now envisaged by almost all scholars. What kind of Jew is an entirely different matter. More than a decade ago, John Dominic Crossan, one of the most prominent Roman Catholic experts, noted no fewer than seven distinct types of Jewish Jesus, ranging from political revolutionary to charismatic seer. More, including Weyler's Galilean peasant preacher at odds with the Judaism of Jerusalem's Temple elite, have emerged since. Many of them are much more worldly than Weyler's, and just as novel.

Consider the head of the "family firm" who emerges in James Tabor's The Jesus Dynasty (2006). Traditional Christianity has always had trouble with Christ's "brethren" — James, Joses, Simon, Judas and unnamed sisters. Orthodox Christianity accepts the brethren as step-siblings, the children of Joseph's ï¬rst marriage; Protestants take them as half-siblings, the children of Mary and Joseph born after Jesus, the son of Mary and God; Roman Catholics, who proclaim the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity, have to view them as cousins. Every time they appear in scripture identiï¬ed as family, the Gospel writers stress they are not among his followers. That means they have to gloss over the fact that St. Paul writes that the risen Christ appeared to James, and that James — Jesus's oldest male relative in a family-dominated society — took precedence over all other followers and became leader of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem.

In Tabor's family saga, Jesus and his cousin John the Baptist considered themselves to be the two messiahs: John as a descendent of Moses's brother Aaron, was to be the new high priest; Jesus, the descendent of King David, the new king of the Jews. His brother James was more than Jesus's heir, he was the "beloved disciple" of the Gospel of John, commonly reckoned to be John himself by most Christians (although Mary Magdalene is the favourite as the "beloved" of Da Vinci Code fans and many feminist theologians). And Jesus's other brothers, far from rejecting his mission, are actually hiding in plain sight among the lists of apostles.

Jesus's Jerusalem followers were the original "Christians," although Barrie Wilson would argue they would neither recognize nor accept the name. Now commonly called Ebionite Christians, from a Hebrew word meaning "poor ones," they were Torah-observant Jews as well as followers of Jesus, who regarded him as a human messianic prophet but not as divine. Their concern, embodied by James — known as "the Just" to Jews as well as Christians — was to live rigorously ethical lives. And, under the rule of the "royal" family, they were the dominant strand among the Jesus movement, even while Paul tirelessly travelled the Mediterranean converting Gentiles.

Most scholars argue it's impossible to know what path Christianity might have taken if the Jerusalem church had not become caught up in the greatest cataclysm ever visited on the religious traditions of ancient Israel. When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its temple in 70 CE, the Gentile church began its ascendency. By the second century, the forces of orthodoxy began to turn on the Ebionites, and by the fourth century they disappeared from history.

In current scholarly trends, Jesus emerges as ever more Jewish and ever more human — a teacher, a rabbi, a claimant to Israel's ancient throne — who was transformed by Paul, a preacher of genius, in cultures far from his Jewish roots, into the divine saviour of mankind. But crucial as these claims are for orthodox Christians and for the scholars and writers involved, they are increasingly irrelevant for progressive Christians. They long ago lost their stake in the divine Christ, and their interest in which of the evolving paradigms best captures the historical Jesus is fading.

When Gretta Vosper looks at the emerging historical Jesus she sees no rock on which to erect a church. "In trying to capture exactly what he said, we have found, quite by accident, that what he said has little power." But when she weighs up the Jesus legacy in terms of its validity and usefulness for the church today, she considers the entire Gospel tradition — not just the Jesus meek and mild of the scholars and spiritual seekers, but the divine Christ too. It's all part of the Christian heritage in her view. If the liberal church is going to refuse to face the implications of its own beliefs, then what matters is what is in the Bible, what has been proclaimed truth for centuries: "If we say we follow Jesus without clariï¬cation, we allow the assumption that we agree with all of his ideas, including the bad ones."

Looking over the New Testament, Vosper notes numerous bad ideas, some of them deep within Jesus's core message. His teaching about love and forgiveness long predate him, within his own Jewish tradition and without. And those are the helpful parts of his beliefs, which, Vosper argues, mix freely with parts liberal Christians no longer accept: no divorce, hell, eternal punishment. He taught acquiescence in oppression, "a stance not at all helpful in ending slavery, racism, patriarchal hierarchy, and so on." There is disdain and derision for those who don't agree with him, "but I suggest that we now hold dialogue, diversity and community as higher values."

Living without care for the future, keeping all assets in common, giving all we have to the poor, are other key parts of the authentic teaching as identiï¬ed by Weyler and others. That utopian idealism was perfectly natural to the hopes of an oppressed peasant society, Vosper writes, but humans have never managed to put it into practice, and surely never will. To try to act that way only serves "to abdicate the responsibilities we have to one another — conscientious, ethical oversight of our resources is a more prudent and potentially beneï¬cial response." In short, "Jesus's moral teaching is not outstanding," and it's impossible to craft a moral high ground from his life, works and sayings: "His words are dead to many people. The world has changed. The words don't make sense any more."

And they aren't necessary. "Why do we need a 'revolutionary' voice from two millennia ago to guide us? We have fabulous ideas of our own, that are constantly weakened by having to tie them back to Jesus and Scripture. What if he was recorded destroying his environment, would that mean we'd no longer need to be environmentally sensitive, or have to ignore the environment?"

Vosper isn't so much prepared for the obvious questions she faces as inured to them. She's often asked, with various degrees of incredulity and indignation how, in the name of God or Love (if she prefers), she can call herself a Christian. Because, she replies, her Christianity, like that of the Ebionites, is more a way of acting than a way of belief. "Being a Christian is about taking out of my faith tradition those things that are of value in my effort to live right with myself, with my relationships and with my planet," Vosper says. "And removing those things that are toxic."

Nor is the name essential, at least to Vosper personally, except that maintaining the word Christian is encouraging for other non-theistic churchgoers. "People are hurt by being told they're not Christian: our 'beliefs' are so fundamental, even when we don't really, literally believe them, that we don't want to be told that we don't belong." Vosper doesn't "want to tear anyone's faith out of their hearts," and doesn't want to see that happen to progressives either. Three years ago, after her views became known to the wider United Church, a motion was introduced at a meeting of the church's governing body to subject her to what she only half-jokingly calls a "heresy" trial. She escaped a trial only by a vote of 14 to 11.

She wouldn't be surprised to undergo an actual trial this time around, after With or Without God arrives in bookstores this week. In the very broad United Church, clergy are expected to be in "essential" agreement with the articles of faith, "and this book," she says gingerly, "will establish just how elastic that agreement is." Vosper doesn't seem unduly concerned with the prospect of trial or with the possibility of losing, except for what it would convey to others she cares about: "Saying that I don't belong is saying that my supportive congregation doesn't belong, and that would be tragic." Her reaction to the possibility of effective excommunication is bound up with her answer to the other question frequently hurled at her: why bother? If there's no divine Christ, no miracles, no salvation, no life after death, no God — what is the point of church at all?

Part of the answer is practical. "Because we are killing each other and the world," she says matter-of-factly. "Because we have the means to do something about it — churches have so many outlets, no other single organization can disseminate important messages like the church can." Or provide, in Western culture, the sense of community that churches can offer. And because she does not want to abandon the ï¬eld to fundamentalism.

Not many Christians will be able to follow Vosper down her path, even if they are conscious of the problem she's attempting to solve: reconciling a religion of revealed truth and sacred scripture grounded in 2,000-year-old experiences, with all humanity has learned since, not just about the natural world, but about the human roots of that faith. Most will not even accept Vosper as a fellow Christian. But there is no denying the problem she identiï¬es is real for many. Millions of Christians are satisï¬ed with the balance of faith and reason in their religion, or unconcerned with it, but millions of others remain in church only by wilfully severing head and heart. Those who cannot do that, or cannot any longer, will continue to seek a way out.

Taking Christ out of Christianity, Globe, March 22, 2008.

That triumphal barnburner of an Easter hymn, Jesus Christ Has Risen Today – Hallelujah, this morning will rock the walls of Toronto's West Hill United Church as it will in most Christian churches across the country.

But at West Hill on the faith's holiest day, it will be done with a huge difference. The words “Jesus Christ” will be excised from what the congregation sings and replaced with “Glorious hope.”

Thus, it will be hope that is declared to be resurrected – an expression of renewal of optimism and the human spirit – but not Jesus, contrary to Christianity's central tenet about the return to life on Easter morning of the crucified divine son of God.

Generally speaking, no divine anybody makes an appearance in West Hill's Sunday service liturgy.

There is no authoritative Big-Godism, as Rev. Gretta Vosper, West Hill's minister for the past 10 years, puts it. No petitionary prayers (“Dear God, step into the world and do good things about global warming and the poor”). No miracles-performing magic Jesus given birth by a virgin and coming back to life. No references to salvation, Christianity's teaching of the final victory over death through belief in Jesus's death as an atonement for sin and the omnipotent love of God. For that matter, no omnipotent God, or god.

Ms. Vosper has written a book, published this week – With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important than What We Believe – in which she argues that the Christian church, in the form in which it exists today, has outlived its viability and either it sheds its no-longer credible myths, doctrines and dogmas, or it's toast.

She is considered one of the bright, if unconventional, minds within the United Church, Canada's largest Protestant Christian denomination. She holds a master of divinity degree from Queen's University and was ordained in 1992. She founded and chairs the Toronto-based Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity.

Other Christian clergy and theologians have talked about the need to dramatically reform the doctrines of a faith that, with the exception of its vibrancy in the United States, has lost huge numbers of adherents throughout the Western world it once dominated as Christendom. In Canada, where 75 per cent of the population self-identifies as Christian, only about 16 per cent attend weekly services.

Addressing those statistics, what Ms. Vosper proposes is not so much reform as a scorched-earth approach.

A number of leading theologians in Britain – where the decline in adherents is more dramatic than in Canada – are on the same path, people like Richard Holloway, former bishop of Edinburgh and primate of the Scottish Episcopal (Anglican) Church, who has likened the Christian church to a self-service cafeteria stacked with messy trays of leftover food urgently in need of being thrown out.

Like Bishop Holloway, Ms. Vosper does not want to dress up the theological detritus – her words – of the past two millennia with new language in the hope of making it more palatable. She wants to get rid of it, and build on its ashes a new spiritual movement that will have relevance in a tight-knit global world under threat of human destruction.

She says there's been virtually a consensus among scholars for the past 30 years that the Bible is not some divine emanation – or in Ms. Vosper acronym, TAWOGFAT, The Authoritative Word of God For All Time – but a human project filled with contradictions and the conflicting worldviews and political perspectives of its authors.

And yet, she says, the liberal Christian churches, including her own, won't acknowledge that it is a human project, that it's wrong in parts and that, in the 21st century, it's no more useful as a spiritual and religious guide than a number of other books.

She says now that the work of biblical scholars has become publicly accessible, the churches and their clergy are caught living a lie that few people will buy much longer. “I just don't think we can placate those in the pews long enough to transition into a kind of new community that doesn't keep people away.”

She wants salvation redefined to mean new life through removing the causes of suffering in the world. She wants the church to define resurrection as “starting over,” “new chances.” She wants an end to the image of God as an intervening all-powerful authority who must be appeased to avoid divine wrath; rather she would have congregations work together as communities to define God – or god – according to their own worked-out definitions of what is holy and sacred. She wants the eucharist – the symbolic eating and drinking of Jesus's body and blood to make the congregation part of Jesus's body – to be instead a symbolic experience of community love.

Theologians asked to comment on her book said they wouldn't until they've read it.

But one of her colleagues who knows her well, Rev. Rob Oliphant, the progressive pastor of Toronto's Eglinton St. George's United Church, said, “While I'm somewhat sympathetic to the aims of it all – getting rid of the nonsense and keeping the core faith – I think that there is something lacking in it all. Gone is metaphor, poetry, symbol, image, beauty, paradox.”

Ms. Vosper said she and her congregation have tried hard not to lose those elements in their search for the sacred and the transcendent in life.

She met with members of her congregation last Sunday to discuss what the impact might be of her book.

She said it would take only a single vote of a presbytery – a local governing body of the church – to bring her before the church courts if a complaint against her is made, and the courts could be interested in examining what it means to be in “essential agreement” with the church's statement of faith.

“I can find myself in there [the statements of faith] but there's whole parts of it where I go, ‘Oh my goodness, this is terrible.' If someone says to me, ‘Do you believe in God?' I can come up with an answer that would satisfy the courts of the United Church. But would it reflect what's stated in their statement of faith? I don't think so. But it wouldn't be very far from what my colleague down the street, and what his colleague down the street from him, would say. That's the problem.”