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Honest About God: A Review of “With or Without God” by Gretta Vosper

With or Without God: Why the Way We Live Is More Important Than What We Believe by Gretta Vosper is a book designed to reconstruct the Christian church, to free it from doctrine and superstitious belief. Since the Council of Nicea in the fourth century, the world has had a Christian church centered on belief in an afterlife. Because the findings of modern science and biblical scholarship shed grave doubts on such a belief, Vosper argues that what the world needs now is a church based simply on love which is the core of Christianity. We need to affirm loving relationships with ourselves, our families, our community, and the world. Vosper yearns for a church that will inspire the world with beauty, compassion, justice, and a commitment to truth. As a minister in the United Church of Canada, she knows first-hand the potential of such a church to change the world.

The problem with religious doctrine is that it is a human creation. Humans for centuries have believed in a theistic, personal God in order to gain control over a scary life. They have prayed to this God so that crops will grow or to heal disease. They have created liturgies in an attempt to manipulate this God in order to achieve protection. Again, the problem is that science and contemporary biblical scholarship have totally discredited such a God.

There is no proof of God beyond personal experience according to Vosper. Some sense a loving presence, others a connection to something much greater. Some hold to exemplary values despite the cost. In each case, these are experiences that cannot be named. Whether one labels them God makes no difference. In fact, Vosper suggests it might be helpful to remove the term God from common usage for a period of time because of all the baggage associated with it.

Instead of belief in a divine being, what is important is that we live the love encountered in the experience. To be a Christian is not about passing a litmus test of correct belief, but is rather about living love which leads to a passionate concern for economic and social justice, and the creation of a world at peace and one with environmental health.

Vosper pleas for religious leaders to be honest with their members, though she admits the difficulty of the challenge because most Christians don’t want their beliefs to be challenged. The problem is that mainline churches are slowly emptying, a Christianity centered around superstitious belief is not sustainable for future generations.

A good place to begin is with the Bible. Most Christians have not read the Bible in any comprehensive way, and as a result know little about what the Bible actually says. They focus selectively on the good parts and ignore difficult passages. They have no idea that Paul has a clear idea of an elect, the idea that God shows mercy toward some and hardens the heart of others. They have no idea that Jesus was wrong in his prediction regarding the imminent coming of God’s kingdom within the generation of his followers or that the God portrayed in Joshua is a serial killer. When the Bible is no longer seen as the literal word of God, it takes on a very different meaning. It becomes a source of inspiration rather than a blueprint for defining belief.

The one thing you cannot accuse Gretta Vosper of is sugar coating the truth. She is brutally honest because she believes passionately that the Christian church must reinvent itself around a vision of love made incarnate through justice and compassion as its supreme value. This church must rid itself of all human created doctrine in order to remain relevant in the age of science and modern biblical scholarship. The world needs such a church in partnership with other faith traditions with a similar vision to provide the moral leadership required for a safe transition into a very uncertain future. Vosper writes with an imaginative voice, a distinctive flair, and an encyclopedic knowledge. She is provocative, never boring. With or Without God is a book you won’t want to miss.

~ Rick Herrick
Dr. Rick Herrick (PhD, Tulane University), a former tenured university professor and magazine editor, is the author of four published novels and two works of nonfiction. His most recent book, A Christian Foreign Policy, presents a new way of looking at the relationship between religion and politics.

The Rev. Gretta Vosper is a United Church of Canada minister who is an atheist. Her best-selling books include With or Without God: Why The Way We Live is More Important Than What We Believe, and Amen: What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief. She has also published three books of poetry and prayers.

Review & Commentary