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Considering post-theistic churches

A debate over God’s place in 21st-century Christianity can’t be avoided

By David Wilson

A well-known minister recently sat in my office, sipping coffee and chatting about the state of the United Church today. The conversation turned to the subject of theology. Matter-of-factly, the minister declared, “Our congregation now considers itself post-theistic.”

I felt my eyebrows rise, but I’m not sure whether it was the content of the declaration or the blasé tone in which it was delivered that startled me the most. As I understand post-theism, the minister was saying that his congregation has come to believe that the traditional idea of God no longer speaks to their individual or collective experience. Post-theists don’t reject God, as do atheists, but rather take a neutral view: God takes a back seat to spiritual questing and community building.

Most United Church members likely reject this idea with varying degrees of chagrin. They have a point: editing God out of the Christian narrative does seem to change the story beyond recognition. It raises a fundamental question: is a church that plays down God even a church anymore?

The congregations that writer Sarah Boesveld visited while researching this month’s feature on post-theistic churches answer with a resounding yes — the loving, just and peaceful community nurtured in these churches is deeply sacred.

These first stirrings of post-theism are bound to get tongues wagging. And that’s good. Talking about faith ranks alongside asking for money in the United Church’s list of things it does with little relish. In the past, theological debates have left scars, which is perhaps the risk you run when you forge a new denomination out of three different traditions. I can’t see how a debate over God’s place in 21st-century Christianity can be avoided. It goes right to the heart of what it will mean to be church in the years ahead.

People are already talking. Last fall, we asked six United Church writers to describe what God means for them today. They delivered six equally heartfelt yet significantly divergent points of view. We also ended up with a slew of letters that thanked the writers and us for breaking the ice and getting the conversation started.

Whether it takes place in lecture halls, in ministers’ studies or at midweek pub nights, the conversation is nothing to fear. It goes hand in hand with being a church irrevocably in transition. Undertaken with respect and civility, it will show those already in the pews that their church is serious about the future, that it isn’t stuck in the past; to those on the outside looking in, it will show a little of the spark Canadians expect from the United Church.

Who knows — maybe that spark will ignite something.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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