Should I go ask Alice?

On Sunday, October 18, I will be giving my first sermon in years. It’s entitled, “Goodbye God, Hello Life.”

Okay, technically it’s a keynote address, not a sermon. And the venue is a hotel, not a church. But it will be delivered on a Sunday morning to those attending the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity’s third conference, entitled, Exploring the Elements. Organizers are anticipating about 300 attendees. Screen shot 2009-09-06 at 9.48.26 AM

The Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity (CCPC) is a network of individuals and churches who focus more on values-based living than on particular beliefs. It is theologically as far from fundamentalism as you can get and still in any way call yourself Christian. (In fact, I often wonder why they continue to use the name “Christian” at all.) It was founded by Gretta Vosper, the minister at West Hill United Church and author of the best-selling, With or Without God. Gretta is a visionary woman who is intent on transforming Christianity from a source of dogma to a well-spring of free-thinking, compassionate-living, justice-seeking communities. CCPC currently draws most of its constituents from the United Church of Canada, although participants are increasingly coming from other denominations. It is a testament to the truly progressive nature of this group that they are including three atheists on their program (other speakers from the Canadian freethought community include Justin Trottier and Christopher DiCarlo). How many other religious groups would do that?

The upcoming conference is now being advertised in a variety of sources, including the United Church Observer, the monthly magazine of the United Church of Canada. I have not yet seen it, but apparently the ad appears in the September issue.

Last night, I received an email from Gerry, one of the conference organizers going over some of the logistics of the event. Gerry also included a copy of the following letter which had been sent to the conference website, but was addressed to me. It reads:

Dear Scott, I have seen you “advertised” in The United Church Observer as a speaker at this conference. It was a great shock and it is with genuine sorrow that I write this. Obviously you went through some traumatic experience in the ‘90‘s that caused you to abandon your belief in God.
I went through a traumatic experience as a teenager when I also questioned the existence of God. It, and a number of subsequent experiences led me to a firm belief in Him.
I see your mom’s sweet face in your smiling face. How sad she must /would be for you. Maybe, Scott, it’s time to leave the lure of the city for a bit and go home and walk the paths of the cows in the cow pasture and renew your acquaintance with God Who still loves you and would love for you to “come home”. Can’t do that? Why not go and see Dr. Ravi Zacharias on Sept. 18th at Convocation Hall, U of T. Tickets $5. Tickets call: 2893383864
I’ll be praying for you.
A fellow student at Mrs. McKelvy’s DVBS
(Rev.) Alice (Fraser) McAlpine

(For those of you not up on evangelical-speak, DVBS = Daily Vacation Bible School, a standard method for trying to convert neighbourhood children during the summer months.)

Alice is a few years older than I, so I remember her by name, but not by face. She is currently the minister at a (conservative) United church in Montreal.

When I read her letter, I experienced a mix of emotions. The first was surprise; the second, bemusement; the third, nostalgia; and the fourth, irritation.

The surprise was simply a matter of hearing from someone out of the blue from the area where I grew up.

Bemusement emerged from the apparent assumption that big, bad city life has seduced my thinking and blocked my channel to God and that somehow, the cow paths on our former family farm (as far I can remember, we had no such paths), would be a natural place for recommitment to the divine. As far as I can recall, the Bible does not suggest that God has a particular affinity for cow paths.

The nostalgia came with the mention of Mrs. McKelvy. She truly was an amazing woman. She was the wife of the minister at the Brodie Reformed Presbyterian Church. She was full of love for kids and strict as all get out in how she ran her Daily Vacation Bible School. I remembered the rides home we would get with Mr. McNaughton and the roller coaster-stomach-lurch we would get as he sped over the hills on the gravel roads back home. I have fond memories of “Sword Drills,” competitions to see who could find a Bible verse the fastest. Yes, Vacation Bible School had its appeal.

But the primary emotion I experienced last night was irritation. I know that Alice was well intentioned. Her letter was written out of concern for me and my supposedly eternal soul (now threatened with eternal punishment). Nonetheless, I was irritated by her letter.

I was irritated by the implicit arrogance of evangelicals who think they can prescribe exactly what I need and who think they have a corner on the truth (an arrogance I once shared and of which I am now ashamed).

I was irritated by Alice’s use of the memory of my mom as an attempt to guilt me back into the faith.

I was irritated at the assumption that somehow I was just mad at God, I hadn’t really reasoned my way into disbelief.

I was irritated at the idea that Ravi Zacharias (a Christian evangelist/apologist) would provide the answers that I – either in willful disobedience, woeful ignorance, or devilish delusion – could not see myself.

What Alice doesn’t know is that the very faith that was supposed to bring my mom comfort in her last days on earth, caused her immense grief as she pleaded with me to believe in Jesus, ravaged by the fearful belief that I was facing an eternity of torture in Hell (you can read more of this event with my mom in a previous blog post here).

What Alice doesn’t know is that I bent over backwards for God for years, giving him chance after chance after chance to prove himself real, to show me that the promises of the Bible were true and trustworthy, to provide answers to the questions my heart and mind were seeking — all to no avail.

What Alice doesn’t know is that I have spent hours, days and weeks, reading and researching answers to my great philosophical and theological questions and that they have led me to the considered conclusion that, almost certainly, there is no God.

What Alice doesn’t know is that my life is infinitely more satisfying, happy, and contented without God in it than when he was. Life with God was miserable. Life without God is immensely more pleasurable.

So, should I write back to Alice? Should I invite her to come hear me speak and consider what I have to say?

What do you think?

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4 Comments

Filed under Athesim, humanism, religion, social commentary

4 responses to “Should I go ask Alice?

  1. Scott, you have so clearly laid out some of the many challenging considerations people experience in the oft difficult journey away from fundamentalism. Thank you for that.
    As for calling Alice… Usually I’m happy to leave people in their position of belief (unless they are displaying faith-based judgmental or oppressive behavior) because, contrary to popular opinion, I really don’t think it is my place to rip people’s faith from their bosoms and expose them to the enormous challenges created as a result, expanding and enriching though they may find the journey to be. But Alice is a United Church minister and, as such, she will have been exposed to contemporary scholarship in regard to theology, biblical studies, church history, etc. To know all of that and ignore it in order to hold to a personal experience of God is fine if you’re doing it for yourself. Suggesting that others need to experience God as she did and that if they do not that they are somehow lost is a potentially dangerous and damaging interference in people’s lives. I do not consider that an appropriate stance for a leader in the church, particularly in the United Church. It is the stance found within fundamentalist churches but it completely undermines the United Church’s celebration and affirmation of diverse perspectives. I was shocked to see it coming from one of my colleagues.
    I was also very concerned about the comments made about your mother, comments that, coming from a pastoral leader were harsh, inappropriate, unkind, and dangerously manipulative. Such comments which display behavior in complete opposition to any pastoral counseling training Alice would have received at a United Church theological college, combined with her apparent disregard for the contemporary scholarship taught at those colleges, makes one wonder where she did prepare for the ministry in which she is currently engaged. And, if it was a UCC institution, how she managed to get through without having assimilated some of its core teachings.

  2. Barrie

    From her point of view, she sees you as falling into an abyss and is trying her best to offer you a hand. As a Jew, I have spent years working myself towards a state of compassion towards those who seek to evangelize me. I have tried to find a place of kindness within me by walking in the shoes of those who have caused me so much irritation through the years. By recognizing the concern they feel for me I am able to let go of the anger at their presumption that so often gripped me before.

    I have a reasoned faith, while some might think this is an oxymoron, I have found that the deeper I delve into the mysteries of Physics, Philosophy, etc, the more I believe there to be some sort of guiding force in the Universe. I have found though that religion tends to make me miserable, even as God has made you miserable.

    I can see all sides of this issue and have no need to change anyone’s mind on the subject. I think that if you have to preach to others then you are not secure in your faith.

    I would not reply to the letter of Alice’s statement as much as I might to the spirit of it. Perhaps a note to tell her that you remember her fondly and appreciate her care and concern. Other than that, I don’t see that she would either understand or appreciate your rebuttal of her comments. Just as it was presumptuous of her to argue with your views, so it is unnecessary to argue with hers.

  3. Susanne

    Allow others to have their own beliefs, as you wish them to allow you yours. She’s attempting to change your mind – take the high road and don’t try to change hers.
    Strength and self-confidence give you the deep-felt awareness that not everyone thinks like you or wants to think like you, and that it’s OK. After all, it’s our differences that keep life interesting.

  4. Sue

    If this were my challenge, I’d be inclined to write her and say something like, “Your comments were not helpful. Far from having the effect you might have intended, when you use references to my mother I experience them as an effort to manipulate me through guilt; when you talk about what experiences I “must” have had that have led me to the place of faith I now occupy, I am irritated by your presumption.” I agree with the other commenters that trying to change her position of faith is as disrespectful as her trying to change yours. But as a minister, she might find it helpful to know that her “counselling” techniques are so abysmally far from the mark in their intended outcome.

    However, mostly, when I read her comments to you it seems to me that she’s just trying to sell tickets to this other event. Also manipulative.

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