Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Say Amen, Somebody

“Progressive, female, mainline church minister, non-theist”:  this is the unique combination of credentials Gretta Vosper brings to the pulpit and specifically, to the subject of prayer. The first pre-festival event kicked off at Southminster United Church with Vosper speaking on her newly released book Amen: What Prayer Can Mean In A World Beyond Belief .  Vosper gained prominence with the founding of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity in 2004 and later fanfare (or notoriety, depending on whom you ask) for her 2008 book With or Without God: Why The Way We Live Is More Important Than What We Believe. 


Vosper began by recounting how as a child, when told that she could say her prayers lying in bed rather than having to kneel with hands folded, she sensed that an indelible line had been traversed.  From there, the notion of prescribed constancy in forms of prayer devolved to a state of flux. Stemming from the premise in her first book, Vosper maintains that it is our actions alone that matter.  While she believes that the idea of an “interventionist” Deity is wishful thinking, or worse, the action of prayer with the human community as referent could still be relevant.  So long as we’re clear that a certain Who is not being addressed. 


Poised and graceful, Vosper is a latter day halfway-Meursault, whose courage goes far enough to castigate fellow liberal ministers for not being more forthcoming regarding their doubts about dogma and belief, yet not quite cast off institutionalised religion. In this matter, her candour is refreshing. While her pronouncement may ring heretical to orthodox ears, the clarity of her message – that we, not an external ”divinity,” are the sole source of goodness – leaves no room for second-guessing her position. Where ambiguity does emerge is in the task of extrapolating her views to where the progressive life she proclaims leads.  Beyond a set of admittedly admirable “values” in the human community, she is very candid that she does not know.


The view that we alone define and delineate compassion, beauty and truth appears freeing at the outset. But there is a Mr. Hyde which bespoils this Jekyllian balance: it implies that we are also solely responsible for the hate, ugliness and lies which wait to snare us on the other end of the spectrum. When Vosper stated that “we, as humans, are merely potential” there wasn’t a serious exploration of why someone would choose one direction or the other. Bearing the singular custodianship of the burden of redemption (however one legitimately defines it) is onerous indeed. The success of twelve-step programs in sustaining the fragile cord holding an addict from the dark, descending spiral seems to require us to admit the importance of dependency on a source beyond the human arena.  Vosper calmly stated that the church is not essential; it is only important to the extent that it performs some ‘good’ in the world, namely, creating a community where people can share their experience of life.  Otherwise, as her interviewer suggested, she is working for her institution’s obsolescence.  In many regards, this is a beneficial notion. A church where the congregation feels no connection to the proceedings of the service, or no purview larger than themselves, is a dead one. There was a sense, however, that the idea of the church as a distinct space was hastily dismissed. While many social media outlets bring people together to cause revolutions, or raise awareness and funds, they also foster a false sense of intimacy. Moreover, actions don’t emerge from a vacuum but from deeply held beliefs. Indeed, by Vosper’s own admission we cannot simply demolish belief; her task is to substitute tired, oppressive dogma for a “progressive” set of values which would enable us to live better.


Nothing must annoy a physician more than self-diagnosing patients who, having frantically searched WebMD, present the doctor with the medical verdict Q.E.D. This does not have to be a bad thing. After all, Vosper pointed out that recent times have greatly broadened the access laity have to information - both theological and secular. She also bemoaned the difficulty that clergy often face following their training:  bringing their congregations “up-to-date” from their “Sunday School thinking”. While one wants to accord theology and divinity studies the respect it deserves, this view couldn’t help but come off as condescending to laypersons. This amounts to a jarring paternalism, particularly pointed since Vosper, as a woman, espouses kinship with the marginalised “outside the circles of power”.


What Vosper does not do is denigrate prayer as play-acting or placebo – she affirms that it can have a positive effect and that we’d all be better off if we practiced it more, so long as we don’t harbour the notion that it has any effect on the “natural” course of life. She remains adamant in drawing the line in the belief in an interventionist God (or any god beyond the human community).  In the end, Vosper holds a brave, honest posture, but, to this reviewer, serves largely to precipitate the diminishment of the hope meant to be imbued. In Donne’s words, “A fancy, a chimera in our brain” will then neither trouble us in our prayer(s) nor move us to pray at all.