Monthly Archives: September 2016

Should the Atheist Pastor Be Defrocked?

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When I told the people of Northern Ireland that I was an atheist, a woman in the audience stood up and said, ‘Yes, but is it the God of the Catholics or the God of the Protestants in whom you don’t believe?’ – Quentin Crisp
Tell me about the God you don’t believe in – Marcus Borg

 

Atheism is a tricky business – especially these days. It used to be simple: an atheist was someone who didn’t believe in God. Then many of us read or heard Marcus Borg describe his many conversations with university students. He recounts, “Every term, one or more of them says to me after class,‘This is all very interesting, but I have a problem every time you use the word ‘God’ because, you see’ – here there’s usually a pause and a deep breath – ‘I really don’t believe in God.’ I always respond the same way: ‘Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.’”*

As Borg tells it, the student then describes a version of God that he or she perhaps learned in Sunday school, from his or her parents or simply from popular culture. When Borg says, “ Well, I don’t believe in that God either,” a space opens up for conversation about other possible ways of understanding the Divine.
The United Church of Canada had an opportunity to enter such a space for conversation. Last week a review committee that found Gretta Vosper, pastor of West Hill United Church in Toronto “not suitable” to continue in her pastoral role because she doesn’t believe in God. Now she faces a formal hearing to determine whether or not she should13174092_952285084869494_4268620792734363335_n be defrocked.
A petition circulating in support of Rev. Vosper concludes:
“Persuaded that the theological conversation Gretta Vosper has provoked is a matter for dialogue and not a matter for discipline; we, the undersigned, urge the sub-Executive of Toronto Conference to reject the recommendations of the report of the Conference Interview Committee.”But what does Gretta Vosper believe? It might be easier to begin with what she does not believe: “I do not believe in a theistic, supernatural being called God.”

At her ordination in 1993, when asked if she believed in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. She said yes, speaking metaphorically. Eight years later, she began to deconstruct the idea of God. She said, “Our hymns and our prayers and the way that we did things, they all reinforced this idea of a supernatural divine being who intervened in human affairs. I just took it apart – I was not willing to continue to let (my congregation) think that I believed in that kind of God.” The worship service now uses more metaphorical interpretation of religious symbols and places emphasis a strong emphasis on environmental and social justice.
She’s been controversial, to be sure. The congregation has undergone a severe decline in membership. However, those who’ve stayed are steadfast. One member has said, “West Hill is the future of what religion will be like. We’re thinking and saying what the rest of the world is scared to, but moving towards.”
So is Vosper a church-wrecking heretic? Or a prophet, pushing to bring the “God” conversation into the church – a role she describes as “irritating the church into the 21st century”
 As more people discover that there are other ways of thinking about their concept of God, the old definition of “not believing” becomes more problematic. Agree with Vosper or not, she is bringing to the fore a conversation that needs to happen. Heresy trials aren’t the way to go.

 

*Borg, Marcus, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith. New York: HarperCollins, 2003, 68-69.

The Reviews Are in!

she likes it

I am happy to report that, so far, The INTRAfaith Conversation has a 5-star rating on Amazon. Below are the five reviews (in reverse chronological order) that have been submitted. And yes, I would love more! If you’ve read the book, please let me know what you think. After all, it’s supposed to be a conversation.


5.0 out of 5 stars
 
Giving Peace a Chance
By June on September 16, 2016

This is an important book for our times. It will be essential reading for all people of faith and those in our country who experience spirituality outside the faiths. Strouse explores what it means for Christians to dialogue together with the beliefs of other world religions, with other denominations and within one’s church. This book ushers us step by step into a process towards unity of love and respect that enables us to discover how to live the love in which we believe as well as to evolve from a rote worshipper to a discerning believer. She shows how Christians can accept and respect beliefs of others, find common ground and evolve in our own faith expression to prevent exclusionary or irrelevant evangelism.  It reads fluidly, is serious yet entertaining, logical in light of the history presented, compassionate, educational and inspiring. Strouse has addressed something so timely, necessary (in light of world terrorism), and helpful in understanding what is happening in our declining mainline churches. For the future of the Gospel and the survival of the world, this should be read in our churches for breathing life into our faith, in homes for raising generations of tolerant and inclusive people, and in seminaries as required reading to prepare pastors for encounters / interactions of cultures they will face in their neighborhoods as well as to assist them in utilizing the processes presented.  Whereas missionary work historically meant traveling to convert indigenous peoples, in America today we live amongst a multitude of spiritual / religious faiths which is now our fertile field for outreach, not necessarily for conversion but for establishing and nurturing peace. If this is a time in our world for the church to evolve, let us start with ourselves, those in our faith and others of all faiths to develop and share understandings. The world awaits a revolution of joy and open hearts.

From The Rev. Barbara Peronteau, M.Div.
Interfaith Chaplain Resident   August 28, 2016

5.0 out of 5 starsas Christians can better understand our own faith
This book was written so that in this pluralistic world in which we now live, we, as Christians can better understand our own faith, and the issues involved with interfaith dialogue, so that we might be more comfortable being in conversation with our neighbors who are not Christian. While this book was written to the larger interfaith dialogue within the broader culture, I find the insights in this book to be very applicable in the clinical pastoral care setting in which I minister. I hope the saying is true that we are judged by the company we keep so by keeping company with this book I might be somewhat smarter than before I read this book. I thoroughly enjoyed reading “The INTRAfaith Conversation”. Susan’s writing style is engaging, easy, and conversational, yet theologically intelligent.

5.0 out of 5 starsFive Stars bRussell H. Miller  June 22, 2016
Expertly laid out providing a roadmap for a much needed dialogue.

5.0 out of 5 starsCrisp and cogent treatment . . . bRichard G. Eddy  June 29, 2016
This crisp and cogent book by the Rev. Dr. Strouse is published at a time when both interfaith and intrafaith dialogue are critical to the vitality of spiritual life in our nation. As a parish pastor in a small, struggling congregation I have become increasingly aware of the insularity and isolation of many of our parishioners. This seems less the result of inadequate parish education as it is the byproduct of too many people getting their information from biased TV networks, so-called social media or word-of-mouth. We parish pastors need to examine our internal (intra-congregational) conversations about diverse faith traditions and how they bear on congregational mission. I was particularly impressed by the author’s use of footnotes and her extensive bibliography. The book is a “walking-talking workshop” in print with its detailed reflection/discussion questions and suggestions for further reading. Thank you, Pastor Strouse, for such a comprehensive presentation of how to approach constructively this timely and important conversation.

Inevitably, profound questions arise out of respectful encounters with people of religions other than our own. Many who have been involved in cooperative engagements with people of other faith traditions discover that it is often easier to talk with people of a different religion than it is with the person sitting next to you in your own congregation. For others, the struggle is within, as in the case of Elsie L., a parishioner in Buffalo. After a church session in which a Hindu woman active in interfaith activities had spoken to the group, Elsie spoke to Pastor Strouse. “If I accept the Hindu path as equal to Christianity,” she said, “I’m worried that I’m betraying Jesus.”

Years of wrestling with that question and similar ones resulted in Strouse’s new book, The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves about INTERfaith Matters? In it, Dr. Strouse addresses the challenges that the increasingly interfaith realities of today present to Christians, and invites reflection on how Christian theology and identity might be shaped and even strengthened by cooperative interfaith relationships.

Blending personal stories, thoughtful reflection on the changing face of America and pastoral concern, The INTRAfaith Conversation invites readers to understand and appreciate just what doing Christian theology means in today’s multi-religious world. The book’s sections reflect the breadth of Strouse’s focus: dealing with the new religious context; what it means to think theologically as a comunity; tolerance, exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism; personal experience; and pastoral and leadership issues for congregations entering the interfaith world.

The book is designed to be used with a discussion group; each section is followed by a series of questions for reflection and discussion along with suggestions for further reading.
I personally have been involved in interfaith work in the Bay Area for over 35 years and have never seen a book quite like The INTRAfaith Conversation. It addresses a very real issue with depth, humor, and pastoral sensitivity. I highly recommend it not only to pastors and other leaders in Christian churches, but to lay people who may be asking some of the same questions. Further, although it is specifically aimed at a Christian audience, it offers a model for how similar questions might be raised and wrestled with in non-Christian contexts as well.

“Talking with Strangers in Sacred Space”

There’s a really important article in this month’s issue of The Interfaith Observer. Lynda Trono, program convenor on the board of directors for the North American Interfaith Network (NAIN), has written a reflection on the first day of this summer’s NAIN Connect in Guadalajara. She begins by expressing the same feelings I had when listening to the opening keynote by Raul Vera López, bishop of the Diocese of Saltillo. And she ends up with an admission of arriving at the first ever NAIN Connect in Mexico with cultural blinders firmly in place.

I resonated completely with her frustration at having to listen to a very long Christian sermon at the start of an interfaith gathering. I also shared her chagrin at coming to learn that the bishop, a staunch defender of human rights, is beloved in Mexico – in fact is called the Oscar Romero of Mexico.

There’s a lesson here for us to learn. As open and accepting we profess to be, we still come into interfaith gatherings with cultural biases and expectations. In Guadalajara I was already aware of (and embarrassed by) my “ugly American” lack of ability to speak Spanish. Now I learn how much deeper my sense of privilege runs. And even as I wonder what might have helped us to bridge the cultural divide earlier than we did, I know that it’s up to me to learn about the culture I’m visiting.

I’m very grateful for Lynda Trono’s honest and reflective article.

 

 

9/11 and the INTRAfaith Conversation

img_1470I returned to the Jersey shore this summer. I hadn’t been there since 2001. In fact, I was in Ocean City on 9/11/2001. As I watched the towers fall on TV, I could see fighter planes and helicopters flying up the coast. It’s not something you forget. Of course, others have more horrific and tragic stories to tell. But for those of us who were old enough to be aware of what was happening at the time, we’ll always remember where we were on that day. And we should remember: those who died, their families, the first responders, the ongoing after-effects of trauma.alg-flag-jpg

But we should also remember other stories. In Ocean City – and I’m sure in many other
places as well – there was a run on American flags. A friend who was staying with me that week was determined to get a flag to hang off our balcony. I was conflicted about it. I didn’t want to hang a flag off my balcony; I’m not a big fan of flags in the first place. So I was quietly thrilled that every store was sold out.

I also remember overhearing conversations that included words like “rag-heads” and “towel-heads” and references to the Qur’an that were either completely false or taken out of context. The first hate crime reported as a result of 9/11 didn’t happen until the 15th, but the seeds were being sown.

I was due back in the pulpit on September 16. Obviously, I’d have to talk about 9/11. I decided to try to make the service a combination of remembrance, lamentation, and confession. The remembrance and lamentation parts were fairly easy to do, and there were lots of resources being sent out for use that Sunday.

But I was determined not to let us off the hook for our part in the rise of global terrorism. Simplistic answers to “Why do they hate us?” make my blood boil. “Because they hate our freedoms” isn’t an informed answer. We Americans are famous for our ignorance about history, geography, and geopolitical affairs. It takes only a scratch of the surface to find reasons for resentment of American arrogance throughout the world. Even our remembrances of 9/11 will usually neglect to mention the acts of violence and terrorism experienced by people of other countries each and every day.

Do I condone terrorism? Absolutely not. Do I understand it. Definitely yes.

So on that Sunday I tried to gently insert some reminders of our own American culpability. I don’t know how well I pulled it off. I do know that at the end of the service, one member asked if we could sing “God Bless America.” I didn’t handle it well. Following Nancy Reagan’s advice I “just said no.” Looking back, it would have been an opportunity to suggest singing “Finlandia” (“This Is My Song”). Here it is, sung by Joan Baez.

This is my song, O God of all the nations, joan_baez
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is,
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine.
But other hearts in other lands are beating,
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
A song of peace for their land and for mine.

So what will we do this Sunday? Will we have only remembrances and memorials? Or will we acknowledge the ongoing interfaith and intrafaith work we still have to do in knowing and understanding ourselves and our neighbors?