A few months ago I wrote a short series of articles critiquing avowedly atheist United Church minister Gretta Vosper. In the articles I critiqued Vosper for being offended that the United Church was subjecting her outspoken atheism to a church inquiry and possible censure. (Here are the first two articles in the series: “Is the Christian minister Gretta Vosper being persecuted just because she’s an atheist?“; “Are Christian denominations permitted to expect theism of their ministers?“.)
Background to the Vosper Debate
My critical response to Vosper can be summarized as follows: expecting Christian ministers to tow the line on theism is no different than expecting a vegetarian activist to tow the line on not eating animals. Consequently, the chapter leader of PETA who makes a point of eating Foie gras at the monthly meeting will be turfed, and rightly so. Organizations have a right to expect among their leadership common support and agreement on the core identifying marks of their belief community. And news flash: when it comes to Christianity that includes theism.
Two qualifications are in order. First, Christians disagree on the definition of God, and not everyone is going to be satisfied with everyone else’s definition. Second, Christians hold belief in God with varying degrees of conviction. Some never waver in their belief while others find their journey vacillating between belief and doubt. I am not talking here about either of these points. That is, I’m not addressing the issue of whether active leadership are obliged to hold a specific definition of God or that they are required to retain a degree of conviction in their belief. Here I’m only saying this: they cannot be actively and avowedly denying the existence of God. This is a very minimal and eminently reasonable condition for leadership in the Christian church.
Vosper and the Oasis of Secular Intolerance
That is all introduction to an update on Vosper. First, she is still a United Church minister. And it won’t be until late 2017 that the United Church renders a judgment on whether she can remain so. (The wheels of ecclesiastical polity turn slowly.)
But in the interim, and even as she continues her ministerial duties, come February Vosper will be starting a Toronto chapter for the Oasis Network. The Oasis Network is, for all intents and purposes, a secular church. On its homepage it declares “People are more important than beliefs.” Apparently this is, ahem, its core belief.
The homepage then goes on to list several other core beliefs:
Reality is known through reason.
Meaning comes from making a
Human hands solve human problems.
Be accepting and be accepted.
So while the Oasis Network purports to value people over beliefs (even though I’m not sure what that even means), they definitely wear their beliefs on their sleeve (i.e. their homepage). So their beliefs still are very important.
On the page About Oasis the Network acknowledges the tension. On this page they unpack their five core beliefs. Here is what they say on the first, i.e. the valuation of people over beliefs:
Throughout history beliefs, dogmas, and ideologies have divided people and have been the source of wars, persecution, and other conflicts. The Oasis movement values the well-being of people over any abstract belief, dogma, theology, or philosophy. Our common humanity is enough to bind us together in meaningful community. (And, yes, we are fully aware that this is also a belief—but we’re just fine with a little irony in our lives!)
It’s more than “a little irony” though. Much like any church, the Oasis Network has a set of core beliefs which define the community. You can say you value people all you like: that doesn’t change the fact that your community is defined by a particular set of core beliefs. And those who explicitly and vocally deny those beliefs thereby exclude themselves from that community.
And so, just as Gretta Vosper ultimately excluded herself from orthodox Christianity through her vocal denunciation of theism, so any leader in the Oasis Network who vocally denounced one or more of their core beliefs would do the same.
But in fact, the Oasis Network, or at least Vosper’s conception of it, is far more intolerant than your local church. At the end of the Globe and Mail article from which I first learned of Vosper’s new church, we read this: “Vosper said the group is open to anyone who shares the five core principles of Oasis.”
Let’s put that into perspective. Vosper has vocally criticized the United Church as intolerant for expecting mere theism of its leadership. At the same time, she founds a secular community that requires adherence to five specific principles. and not just of its leaders, but of any participants. So Vosper’s new secular community is far more intolerant than the church whose alleged intolerance she now protests.
This is way more than “a little irony.” It’s outright hypocrisy.