Gretta Vosper on spirituality vs. religion, prayer as placebo, and how to become an agent for change.
Gretta Vosper has been in the spotlight since founding the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity in 2004. Her first book, With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important that What We Believe, quickly became a national bestseller (and one of Amazon's "Top 25 Books that Caused a Commotion") and attracted media attention and debate across the country. Met with both acclaim and vitriol by those inside and outside the church, the book challenges the clergy’s silence on contemporary scholarship, arguing that people need to know the Bible is not the authoritative word of God for all time. Having twice narrowly avoided heresy trials, Gretta continues to lead West Hill United—"a progressive community of faith growing out of the Christian tradition"—in Scarborough, Ontario. In 2009, Gretta was named one of the Most Compelling Women in Canada by More Magazine. Amen: What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief is her latest book (HarperCollins Canada). Visit her at www.GrettaVosper.ca.
Julie Wilson: From your site: I think it is high time we stopped feeding the acrimony between atheists and people of any faith tradition and start looking at the values that lie at the heart of whatever it is we believe. If those values are grounded in a respect for the dignity of all life and in creating and sustaining right relationship with self, others, and the planet, then who cares what religious or philosophical perspective one holds? I am seeking a way for liberal Christianity to move beyond the confines of its own divisive theology into the shared space of that values-based spirituality.
This would answer "Why", but, why you? How do you see yourself placed within this discussion?
Gretta Vosper: I must admit, Julie, there are days when I read a particularly snarky email or another nasty letter in my denomination's national magazine, or someone's vitriolic blog and wonder, "Why me?" Walking the line between the atheists and the religious left is not easy, sometimes, but, right now, there is no other place for me to be.
The reason I’m doing this work is tied to who I am and what I do. That seems obvious, but it's the particularities that I’m talking about. I'm a woman in leadership within a mainline liberal denomination. Each one of those things is significant for different reasons: female; leader; mainline denomination.
For the balance of recorded human history, women have been excluded from power circles. The gavel—or whatever it was that conferred its power in the past—hasn't been shared with us for very long. Most of us haven't even been allowed to mark a ballot for much more than a hundred years and some of us still can't. Most of our history has been lived outside the circles of power.
From that vantage point, we’ve witnessed much. In particular, we have seen those who have been outside of the circle with us. We’ve heard their laments rising with ours. With them, we've tasted the tears of humiliation, felt the frustration of anger, known the hunger of want, and experienced the violence perpetrated against those who are seen only as chattel or worse. And we have also seen, with a terrible clarity, that the origin of those humiliations, frustrations, hungers, and violence lies within those circles of power.
I grew up in a denomination that has been ordaining women since 1936 but I never experienced the leadership of a female minister until weeks before I became a candidate for the ministry, and her advice—wise advice to any woman in ministry—was to pick my battles. (I often remember that and smile. I like to think she’s glad I picked the ones I did!) Shortly after I was ordained—and it is interesting that I'd been oblivious to this argument before that—some within my denomination were speaking disparagingly of women who became members of the Order of Ministry, arguing that those who did were either being co-opted unwittingly into a patriarchal power-archy or intentionally reinforcing it. And, in some ways, it was true. I had become, through my ordination, a leader within the church, part of the leadership/power/patriarchal circle women had long been shut out of.
Here in Canada, as in many other countries, women now have seemingly unlimited access to those leadership circles in the church and every other field. Many are so used to the idea (even if the reality falls far short of it—check out the stats on women in Parliament) that—like my naiveté before my ordination—they don't think the history of being outside the circle has much to do with them. And it's true: remembering our history isn’t a prerequisite for participating in the echelons of power.
JW: Does that hold true for you?
GV: For me, that history reads like a training manual. I can't ignore, forget, or freeze in some-other-time-that-doesn’t-concern-me anything to do with who or what is outside the circle. It's like I can still hear the laments, feel the hunger, the violence, the pain. Every choice, every decision I make is lived on those things. Every word I write, is written on those things. I don’t get to walk free of that history, lovely though that may be.
The church I am a part of, The United Church of Canada, came into being during a time when social justice was beginning to be seen as a significant concern in the Christian world. The growing disparity between the wealthy "captains of industry" and the working poor had shifted the idea of achieving the Kingdom of God from something otherworldly to something we were responsible to create here on earth in our own lifetimes. So the UCC has been on the forefront of social justice issues throughout its history and it has addressed power-archy in many ways, most recently in its work regarding the concept of empire. Many have been inspired to be part of that incredibly important work through their relationships with the UCC and similarly progressive denominations. The liberal church has been a huge force for good over the past hundred years.
But religion as a whole is diminishing in relevance in people’s lives. Mainline denominations—those that most often stand with the disenfranchised—are dwindling faster than most and my denomination along with them. That would not concern me if I were able to find an organization, institution, or network that was raising the same values in its members in the same degree the mainline church once did. Avaaz, change.org, and other online networks are great for mobilizing, but they aren’t bringing people face to face and teaching them or creating a space for them to teach one another about being in relationship, about how to care for someone even when they are a bully, how the way we challenge one another draws us together or tears us apart, or how we can make something sacred of the space between us rather than see each other as threats or as means to some self-gratifying end. They aren't instilling us with a deep respect for life, with a galvanizing awe in the face of it. Religion, at its best, has been able to do that. It's been all about that, in fact. So while I do not fear the disappearance of church or religion, I do fear the lack of places to be about the work of deepening the connections between us and practicing right relationship, building community, and honouring life. I think church needs to find the will and the courage to meet that need. And I think it’s going to cost us our dogma which means costing us our sense of separateness, of distinctiveness. In my eyes, that's a small price to pay and well worth whatever conflict it may cause.
JW: How does the church respond to distinct voices?
GV: There are no circles in the world that have been more resolutely closed to external voices than the church and the many monarchies that have ruled in various places and times. With every ordination, the church reinforces the circle and strengthens itself. I may be one of those people who has been ordained into it but I’m unwilling to ignore those who remain outside the circle. In fact, I think that ministering exclusively to those inside is tantamount to ignoring the essential teachings purported to have come from a Nazarene Jew some two thousand years ago—the same teachings that came from the founders of almost all the great religious and philosophical traditions: we are transitory beings and we do best when we recognize our interconnectedness—my happiness tied to your happiness and yours to mine; my values include honouring you as a beautiful and deeply worthy being and yours include honouring that truth about me.
I have come to believe that either every circle of power needs to be continually expanded to include more within it, or we have to come up with a better, non-exclusive model. It's the non-exclusive model I prefer and that is part of what my work is about: distilling the best from each of our traditions, religious or not, and calling us to see each other as worthy of being called to live up to that best—all of us sharing in the responsibility of that. There is no circle for someone to be in or outside of in that. Whether we're atheist, or agnostic or both, whether we're evangelical Christians, orthodox Jews, or progressive Muslims, whether we don't think we're anything special or we do, we are all human. That gives us the power to be part of creating a world built upon principles and values defined by beauty, goodness, and truth, and lived out in ways that hallow one another, honouring our interconnectedness.
Because I'm a woman, I feel the truths of those who remain maligned, ignored, and disenfranchised and recognize the inhumanity that thrives inside the ring of power. Because I’m a leader, I am privileged to do something about it. Because I hold that privilege within what is likely the most progressive Christian denomination on the planet, I find within it the permission and the responsibility to call us to divest ourselves of any differentiating power—erasing the circle, in effect—so that we can do what needs to be done, what we’ve always excelled at.
It may seem that all that has seamlessly come together to put me at the right place and in the right time to do this work. That's true in part. “Now” is always the right time to work for positive change. But the right place is not always available and the United Church notwithstanding, I could not do what I do without the congregation with which I serve. West Hill United is made up of a bold and courageous people who walk with an incredible integrity. There is truth and courage and steadfastness and compassion and challenge and humility. I am often in awe of them and their commitment to one another. And I am always appreciative of their support and their strength.
JW: What is the significance between one who identifies as "religious" vs. one who identifies as "spiritual"? Would it be fair to say that there's a growing trend toward treating religion as something suspect? If so, where do you think this stems from?
GV: Several years ago, I contributed to a radio documentary called "God and Other Dirty Words" produced by Frank Faulk for the CBC. Even then, the idea was gaining ground that religion was not just on the wane in western society but was becoming something to be disdained, something worthy of our contempt. I've watched television shows that include scripted eye-rolling when someone professes belief in the Ten Commandments or that otherwise disparage anyone who aligns him or herself with organized religion. Diana Butler Bass, a church historian in the States, has recently published a book based on the "rise of the nones" in response to the increasing number of people who check off "none" as their religious affiliation on census forms. I expect Canadians aren't far off the statistics she quotes if, indeed, we aren't ahead of our southern sisters and brothers in the distance we are placing between ourselves and anything religious.
I believe the shift is the result of the holes postmodernism poked in our religious absolutes. As soon as religious groups realized there were other religious groups in the world also extolling "absolute" truths, it became increasingly difficult to argue that one's own religion had the corner on truth, though far too many are still carrying on their insufferable, and dangerous, soliloquies in that regard. The idea of absolute truth fractured under the weight of scrutiny. Anyone who purports to hold a 21st century perspective on the issue has to acknowledge the difficulty in presenting a singular truth. And a multiplicity of absolute truths is impossible.
So where does that leave religion? For those willing to accede to the new world order, it leaves it in the same position any paradigm shift has left, those no longer included in the new understanding—in the dust. Once people accepted that the world was round, those who continued to argue it was flat looked ridiculous. The world changes. Our knowledge grows. We can't stay confined within a former paradigm and survive. (There will, of course, be those who are still arguing for a single absolute truth and who will point at the precipitous decline of the religious left and argue that we are losing numbers because we don't believe. But their members are waking up to the reality of a pluralistic world. It took awhile for everyone to agree that Earth really was round. It's going to take awhile for everyone to agree there is no absolute truth.)
Many who have relied upon the security inherent in religious beliefs can't easily walk away from that security, even if they can walk away from the traditions and doctrine and preaching from the pulpit. They still want to believe in something. Not yet ready for atheistic secular humanism, many are of them are parked in the lot marked "Spirituality." They cut and paste (which is not a bad thing in and of itself) and put together a something that allows them to feel mature in their thinking (and so can align themselves with others who eschew religion) but secure when it comes to their personal safety and mortality (that is, not yet ready to live in an existential vacuum).
I think those who use the term "spirituality" are objecting to the worst parts of religion and wanting to keep an assortment of what they consider the best parts of religion. They consider the worst parts those things that were necessary to create cohesion within groups that were larger than a single tribe: dogma; tradition; creedal assent, etc. And they think the best parts are those things that offer the individual security and affirmation: belief in a supernatural, benevolent power; prayer; rituals. It's a shift away from the corporate—in the sense of people gathered into one body—to the individual. And individualistic spirituality can be very popular. Anyone can create his or her own practices which offer the sense of security and the particular affirmation that certain individual is looking for. Religion can't do that. Not without fundamentals or absolutes that would apply to everyone and, with our current understanding of the world, absolutes just no longer apply.
There are valuable aspects to religion that we will want to keep. It has survived the test of time for more reasons than the power its inner circle has wielded. Created out of our deepest need—a quest for meaning, a justification for our pain, an explanation for our mortality and death—for much of its history, it has done that, sometimes brutally; but, it no longer can in its present iteration within our contemporary worldview. The idea of spirituality seems, for many, to be the evolutionary step that frees them from the distasteful parts of religion they see as unhelpful and archaic. I hope what they now embrace is not the end of their journey, though. For those who now call themselves spiritual but not religious, another step remains to be taken and that is the step that will be realized when they find ways to fulfill their need for interconnectedness and meaning without the supernaturally conjured security that both religion and spirituality purport to offer.
Because I have come to find the idea of spirituality intertwined with the concept of a supernatural being or power, it's now a troublesome word for me. I don’t believe in anything that resides or exists in a realm "beyond" the natural world. Although we can't prove it, I don't believe there is a "beyond the natural world." Certainly I believe in concepts that have no physical manifestation—love, compassion, and evil, to name a few—but they are only concepts; they can't act upon me or make me do anything in any supernatural way; they have no agency. Certainly, I'll act out of love and compassion. And just as certainly, I'll condemn that which I would name as evil. But there isn't anything called "Love" that guides me or tells me what to do or "Compassion" that gives me strength where I otherwise wouldn't muster it. I can follow where the concept of love would lead me to truths I might otherwise want to ignore, but it is me doing that work, not something outside of me. I now try to use other words that aren't imbued with that sense of the supernatural or some other power with an agency I wouldn't grant it.
JW: Do we put too much pressure on religion to perform to our personal standards and expectations?
GV: I think those of us who currently find ourselves within a religious tradition need to put pressure on it, but not to make it perform to our personal standards: to demand that it respond to our personal experiences. The more our own experiences are validated within society and we are called to empathize with the experiences of others, the more persistent and diverse our questions have become. "Why aren't my prayers answered?" Or, perhaps more bravely, "Why were my prayers answered when someone else’s weren’t?" "Why would a divine being possibly want to cast a significant portion of the world's population—its own creations—into a place of perpetual torture?" "Why is one baby born into a loving, welcoming family and another baby born into an abusive, destructive environment anyone would be hard-pressed to call a home?" "Why would God create a man and trap him in a female body or a woman and trap her in a man’s?" These are not questions that can stand simple answers and we should not allow ourselves to be lulled by the security those simple answers provide. "God has a plan" is cold comfort when you're seven years old and your mom's dying. We shouldn’t allow those kinds of answers but should press and press and press until the leaders within our traditions can come up with an answer that makes sense. Much of the time that answer is going to be "I don’t know." It’s time we had the courage to say that.
We’ve all had experiences that don’t add up to whatever it is we’re "supposed to believe in," whether we’re Christian, or Jewish, or Buddhist, or atheist. And we are all aware of and touched by the very real experiences of those we have come into contact with that don’t add up either. The more we allow ourselves to really explore our questions—and by that I mean beyond the assumptions religions and philosophical premises are based upon—and open ourselves to the realities others bear, the less acceptable rigid belief systems will be. We, who are no longer content to isolate ourselves in our confusion when religion doesn’t answer our questions adequately, have a responsibility to open the doors to those who suffer with their questions in silence. Religion, indeed any belief system, should be able to respond. If it can’t answer us, we need to ask "Why not?" I don’t think it would have an adequate answer for that.
JW: What else would you suggest the church needs to acknowledge?
GV: Up until now, "evolved religion" has been a bit of an oxymoron. There have been liberal movements and progressive offshoots, but, for the most part, religions still hold to supernatural premises. But religion could evolve and must if it is going to be able to answer the kinds of questions contemporary society presses to it. In the past, if their doctrine couldn’t come up with a satisfactory answer, religious officials rejected or excommunicated (something akin to spiritual capital punishment) those who dared to ask the questions. Many religious or philosophical traditions—liberal and conservative alike—now offer environments that welcome questions but either don’t change the answers—God has a plan.—or merely fall silent in response to them. The non-response serves the dual purpose of allowing some to remain comforted by traditional doctrine and others to think their church has evolved beyond that same doctrine. It’s as though they’ve all huddled behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz and are collaborating on new ways to pull the levers that let them keep everything their religious traditions have ever done for them.
Religious traditions (and philosophical ones) that are staved up in such a manner are not conducive to the evolution of humanity as it must now evolve. I qualify that because many argue, and quite convincingly, that religion has had as much to do with the evolution of human community, or perhaps more, than has science. But right now, the way religion has been in the past, the efforts it expended that asserted our advancement as co-operative organisms, will not affect the changes we need to bring about if we are going to achieve a nurturing, life-honouring sustainability on this planet. While it may pride itself on having helped us evolve in the past, unless religion becomes responsive to personal experience in the present and so explores with those who are broken and who raise the most difficult questions, it will not be a significant evolutionary force into the future.
JW: From Amen: What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief (p 138), you say: Prayer is a contract for hope, not results. . . . When we enter into prayer, we become a participant in that story, a party to its contractual promise, and we can be deeply, powerfully, physically, and emotionally soothed as a result.
Talk to us a bit more about this.
GV: There is a premise that undergirds prayer and that remains its foundation for almost everyone who enters into it: the being or power to whom or to which we pray can be influenced by us to respond in the way we want it to. It is a form of magic, if you think about it. We say a few words—formulaic or spontaneous—or participate in a ritual—simple or complex—and, if we do it right, we can expect results.
That prayer has had a perpetually abysmal track record at producing the results people have asked for doesn't seem to matter to the millions who participate in it on a daily basis. That's not a surprise. Think of the lottery and the millions who buy tickets despite their minuscule odds of winning. If you pray, you likely don't have any better odds of getting exactly what you've prayed for than you do of winning the lottery. But if you're a betting person? Best head down to the convenience store and pick up a ticket and play. If you're religious person? Best get on your knees—or whatever it is your religious tradition expects of you—and pray. Play or pray, you're not likely to get what it is you’re looking for.
Of course . . . every Saturday night, someone wins the lottery. And sometimes, the things people ask for in prayer do happen. I have a friend who did win the lottery and I tell a story about my personal experience of "answered prayer" in Amen. Because the things people ask for in prayer are sometimes realized, the premise of prayer remains strong: we continue to believe that if we pray, we will, just maybe, get what we want. We know that doesn't often happen, but who doesn't want to hope that it might? Hope is sometimes the only salve we have to apply to our particular misery.
JW: (p 180): When we pray for something to happen, we are . . . more likely to make the leap to a positive outcome regardless of what happens . . . We are primed through prayer to constantly look for proof it has worked.
Is this akin to a placebo effect?
GV: Although I believe the placebo effect has a great deal to do with what it is people experience as the positive results of prayer, that's not what I'm addressing here. Here, I'm exploring our ability to deceive ourselves or, as some might prefer, to find solace in something we get which isn't what we really wanted.
When we pray and we don't get what we want, the desire to maintain the belief that we will get what we want is so strong that we "translate" our circumstances to fit what it was we prayed for. If we are religious, we fall back on the other answers our faith might provide and they pull us through: God didn’t answer our prayers because he has something greater in store for us or because we don't yet understand the whole situation. If we have cast our desires "out to the universe," and they remain unfulfilled, we look for other signs of the universe's positive regard for us. When we don't get what we want, we are soothed by the belief that something else is happening, even if it is that we are being strengthened for some other trial that will come in due time. It's a great system if you can believe in it.
Often, this kind of interpretation shows up in what are called thanksgiving prayers. We thank God for preserving someone's life after a car accident yet they have been so severely injured that life for them and everyone around them will now be seriously compromised. We give thanks to the universe when someone finds out her cancer hasn't traveled to her lymph nodes and she's "only" going to lose her breast. Praying like this reinforces our feeling of security and safety in what would otherwise be a capricious universe, God or no God.
If we believe that we are being heard by God or that we have the power to influence the universe, then we will conform our experiences to make them consistent with that belief. In place of the effect we wanted, we will find another reality onto which we will transfer God's response: "Thy will be done." Or we find in the unfolding of events, a greater purpose the universe has been creating for us or calling us toward: "Things happen for a reason; just believe." None of our prayers may ever be answered; yet, if we are believers, we consistently find answers all around us. The positive effect of prayer is not in how it influences the world around us but in how it calms those who confidently find higher, more sacred meaning in their lives than circumstances might belie.
JW: How do we, can we, document the positive effects of prayer?
GV: The whole idea of studying the efficacy of prayer is fundamentally flawed. I do think that what some experience as the positive effect of prayer can be understood as similar to a placebo effect: an inert substance is given to someone or he or she is led to believe a medical procedure has been performed and the condition that was being experienced is cured. The strength of our belief make positive results happen. I don't think it would be a surprise to any medical practitioner if prayer were found to be efficacious to the same extent as are medical placebos. But it is important to remember that a significant element of the placebo effect is that one party knows a ruse is being performed. Do we in the church want to accept responsibility for performing that ruse and is it ethical for us to continue to lead people in prayer allowing them to believe it will bring about the positive results for which they pray if we do not believe in it the way they believe in it? And, if we told people that prayer doesn't work that way, that we had been toying with magic that we now know has no power, would any positive results disappear?
I believe it is unethical for religious leaders who no longer believe in the power of prayer to affect the natural world to continue to present it in a manner that suggests it does. It’s that simple. As for lingering positive effects of prayer after the ruse is exposed, in some cases, when a placebo is exposed the effects continue; in others, they disappear. Since prayer has never been a reliable source of any ongoing healing, wellness, or positive outcome, I don't think we have a lot to lose. The loss, the enormous loss, will be of the element of hope that prayer has always offered. That's what we need to address. And I don’t have an answer to that dilemma. I wish I did.
JW: (p 209) Obviously, not all ideas about prayer are grounded in the story of a supernatural being who is waiting to hear our hearts turn toward him so he can shower us with manifold blessings. . . . [Like] theologians, practitioners, and poets who have already walked the edges of the definition of prayer, we too must be creative in our response.
You go on to say that the beginnings of our wondering is also our greatest promise. Talk to us a bit about the evolution of prayer and how it transitions, if it transitions, from private ritual to global action, as an agent for change.
GV: The premise prayer is built on that I mentioned earlier has three significant elements, three assumptions that I play with in the book. It posits a supernatural source of all goodness that has the power to provide us with that goodness, in other words, is the agent of that goodness, and which also promises that if we don’t experience goodness now, we will experience it later, and if not in this life, certainly in one to come. Prayer has been based on a supernatural source, agent, and promise.
But prayer in a natural worldview, one that doesn’t fall back on supernatural assumptions, has to be grounded in everything natural, in the stuff of this world. Apart from the natural forces of this world, e.g., weather, if things are going to happen, they are going to happen because we make them happen. Goodness doesn’t come from another realm; it comes from us. (As an aside, nature, in and of itself, is neither good nor evil—it just is; we name parts of nature as good or evil so, even when we’re talking about nature, we have to still see ourselves as the source.) Where we are able, we realize ourselves to be the source of goodness. It becomes, then, our responsibility to cultivate it; our responsibility to distribute it. In a strictly natural worldview, it is we who are the agents of goodness. We are the instigators of change, the voices of affirmation, the hands that build the well and draw the water. We get to be the courage someone else needs, the inspiration for a movement, or the one who pours a cup of tea to enter and share the terrible loneliness of a neighbour. We are the agents for that kind of goodness. No guarantees, no supernatural rescues, but the opportunity for goodness that will not happen unless we make it happen.
What does it take to do that, to see yourself as a source of goodness in the world and the agent that brings it into people’s lives, to make it real in human community? Whatever it is, that’s what prayer evolves into beyond the belief in a supernatural being, whether that ends up being a communal gathering of people on their knees or an individual working to bring about well-being wherever and in whatever circumstances she or he happens to be planted.
Prayer comes of age, steps out of the supernatural framework in which it was birthed and accepts the responsibilities it once handed on to that supernatural something. How people act that out is up to them. If you never used prayer as a religious tool, there is little if any need to do so now as long as you can shift the focus of your life to the sharing of well-being with all life on the planet without such a practice. (You might want to look up some empathic brain exercises, though.) There may be something you do that others may call prayer—taking your dog for a walk or sharing a rich conversation with friends—but there is no need for you to call it that as many do to validate their choices. If meditation has been meaningful, then keep it meaningful with the focus now on yourself and others as source and agent of goodness. If lighting candles, or chanting, or silent retreats, or singing The Messiah, or hanging prayer flags is part of what energizes that work, then keep doing those things. Or explore new ways, or invest your present actions with deeper meaning.
The point is that we consistently remind ourselves that we are the only source of goodness there is and it is our work, our privilege, really, to live our lives lovingly with ourselves and others, to share that goodness in the world. Some might call that work prayer. Some might just call it love.