Review: With or Without God, by Gretta Vosper

As I've mentioned before, I wasn't overly enthusiastic about reading this book when I first became aware of it in March. Years ago I read a couple of books by John Shelby Spong, and while I enjoyed them, I ultimately found his vision of what Christianity might become to be a little thin. Spong was good at deconstructing Christianity, but much less capable of reconstructing it. When I saw that he wrote the foreward of Gretta Vosper's book, and found his name on the dedication page, I assumed Vosper might be offering up much of the same.

I wasn't wrong. And yet, I still enjoyed the book, even as I found it really underwhelming. Vosper writes with good humour, and avoids the counterproductive polemical tone found in Spong's work. Like Spong, she's good at identifying where changes need to be made.

Vosper echoes some of the points made by Jack Good in his book The Dishonest Church, which she explicitly cites. She notes the disparity between what members of the clergy are taught in seminary and what they actually preach from the pulpit. She rejects the approach taken by Historical Jesus scholar Marcus Borg, who seems content to keep the established language and forms of worship, while reinterpreting them in a non-literal way. I agree with some of her criticisms of Borg, but I hardly consider him to be part of the problem.

One major disagreement I have with Vosper is in the understanding of spiritual development. She draws on the work of James Fowler, and to some extent seems to have a good grasp of his theory. But I wonder. She writes at one point, "Fowler's ultimate stage in faith development ("Universalizing Faith") is where I believe the church should be as an institution" (275). I'm not sure what to make of that. The number of people who reach that stage is miniscule -- about 0.3% of the population, according to Fowler's Stages of Faith (319). This assertion is so preposterous, it makes me wonder if Vosper has actually read Fowler's work.

It should definitely be a priority of the church to encourage every member to develop as far as they will go. Needless to say, this doesn't happen: Church teaching is often aimed at stopping people at Stage 3 ("Synthetic Conventional"), before people start questioning authority and the tacitly held beliefs that are considered "orthodox."

Having said that, even if people were encouraged to develop as far as they could go, the fact is, people have to go through the lower stages. You can't just teach your kid to be a Stage 6 Christian. Everyone has to go through every stage, and they have to be taught at the stage they presently inhabit. You can't teach a Stage 6 level of faith to someone at Stage 2 ("Mythic Literal") any more than you could teach quantum physics to a six year-old.

Vosper's ideas about Jesus are interesting, but not without problems. Like progressive Christians generally, Vosper argues that a lot of the traditional beliefs about Jesus have got to go. She goes a bit further, though. Pointing to the scholarly efforts to determine what Jesus really said, Vosper writes, "In trying to capture exactly what he said, we have found, quite by accident, that what he said has little power" (41). I disagree with that, but judging from Vosper's interpretation of Jesus's message, I can see how she would arrive at that conclusion. Which is to say, I don't agree with her interpretation. She dismisses Jesus's words in Luke 12:22-29 by saying, "We cannot afford to be reckless about the future" (154), as if that's what he was counselling. If I felt that Jesus's words had "little power," I'm not sure I'd bother with Christianity, to be honest, but maybe that's just me.

Vosper acknowledges that, "Progressive thinking is not everyone's cup of tea, but it is the only tool that will possibly pull us through to the next stage of the church's development" (150). I agree, but I don't think Vosper's brand of progressive thinking is going to do the trick. I'm glad I read her book, as it's given me an opportunity to think about, and clarify, my own perspective. I would recommend it to anyone interested in progressive Christianity. But I can't endorse her main suggestions, because I think a much more robust and profound spirituality is possible, and necessary.

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Blogger Mystical Seeker said...

It's interesting that she cites Jack Good, becasue I have read Good's book and I agree with what he has to say.

I think your comment about why a lot of church leaders remain at a level 3 or 4 makes sense. My guess is that people who rock the boat too much are not likely to rise to the top very often.

It seems to me that it is one thing to rethink God's nature and relationship with the world. But if you think that Jesus has no role to play in your faith, then why is it Christianity at all? I have a pretty broad definition of Christianity. I think that Christianity is a collection of diverse belief systems that all derive in some way from the person of Jesus, or represents some way that one can be said to be a follower of Jesus. But if you think that Jesus's words have "little power", then you aren't really following Jesus at all, are you? I don't quite get that.

12:32 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

I wouldn't say that Vosper claims that "Jesus has no role to play," though she comes close.

When I was an undergrad, in Religious Studies, we were given a simple, very inclusive definition of "Christian": anyone who calls themself a Christian. This is a fine "outsider" perspective, but within a tradition it's sometimes necessary to be more specific. So, for example, if someone from "Jews for Jesus" wants to call themself a Jew, I'm not going to argue with them. On the other hand, if an Orthodox Jew wants to deny that someone from "Jews for Jesus" is a Jew, I'm not going to argue with them, either.

So as a student of Religious Studies, I have no problem recognising Vosper a "Christian," as she calls herself that. As a progressive Christian, I don't have a problem calling her that, either, but I do wonder why she bothers.

4:49 p.m.  
Blogger James F. McGrath said...

I too wonder why (or if) Vosper wishes to continue to be identified as a Christian. I'm still reading her book, and will refrain making a final judgment until I've finished. But it seems to me that whereas a progressive Christian like Borg values the Christian tradition, I'm not sure to what extent Vosper does, at least with respect to anything that isn't shared with any humanist.

11:44 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


There's no question that Vosper wants to continue to identify as a Christian. Vosper seems to value the reach of the Christian church, the ability to get a message out and mobilise a large number of people to bring about positive change. Which is valid enough. But I don't think her vision of Christianity has much depth, and imposing the kinds of reforms she proposes would alienate large masses of people, which would kind of defeat the purpose.

7:19 p.m.  

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