In Scottish poet James Robertson’s brilliant 2008 novel The Testament of Gideon Mack, the reader is confronted by the titular character: a Presbyterian minister and seemingly devoted “son of the manse” who discovers that he can “be a Christian without involving Christ very much.” Gideon Mack’s ministerial career seems to hum along under his dutiful and thorough skill, and his flock seemingly doesn’t pick up that the good reverend is secretly an atheist. Echoing Robertson’s fellow countryman, James Hogg in the 1824 gothic masterpiece The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, the good Rev. Mack finds his faith (or perhaps lack thereof) challenged not when he meets God, but rather when he is confronted by a distinguished and cosmopolitan Satan. The problem is that Satan is just as much at a loss as to where God is as Rev. Mack.
Hogg’s earlier novel, which seems so influential to Robertson’s post-modern pastiche, in part functioned as a parody of the rigid Calvinism of the Scottish Presbyterian Church in the nineteenth-century. This is demonstrated particularly by the stern belief in double-predestination, and also by the potential ethical lapses that could be encouraged by a misinterpretation of the potential dangerous doctrine of being a “justified sinner” (with the adjective’s ambiguity triggering all of the novel’s gothic horrors). If Hogg’s novel is a dark satire on the ways in which extreme faith can be twisted to justify atrocity, Robertson’s novel looks at the strange cynicism of a society in which faith is seemingly absent. Or is it? After all, Gideon Mack may seem to be a hypocrite – an atheist who knows that the Devil is real. But, is this any contradiction? Why can an atheist not wear the collar of the ministry?
I reflect on these paired readings because the United Church of Canada is about to start proceedings against the Rev. Gretta Vosper – a minister at the suburban Toronto West Hill United Church, where she has made her non-belief in God known since 2001 and where she has popularly become known as the “atheist minister.” Unlike Gideon Mack, Rev Vosper makes no secret of her apparent apostasy, telling the Canadian Press wire service that “I don’t believe in the god called God,” and further elaborating to the March Toronto Star that she didn’t think Jesus was the son of God. Now the general assembly of the UC Church, which is both the largest Protestant denomination in Canada and one known for its relatively liberal views (though apparently with a limit to that), is convening an assembly to judge if she is true to her ordination vows which affirm a belief in the Trinity. It’s the first time that this body has ever asked one of their ministers to do this.
Rev. Vosper is obviously not Giordano Bruno, and the United Church of Canada isn’t the Roman Inquisition. Further, I would be remiss to lecture an organization which represents a denomination, of which I am not a member, in how they should define ordination requirements – especially when that something is as basic seeming as a belief in God. And yet, I would like not just the United Church of Canada but indeed all people concerned and interested in theological expression and exploration to consider the possibility that an “atheist minister” need not be a contradiction at all. Too often our discussions on faith and theology are simply too shallow and restrictive – atheism is regarded as the absence of faith, but that’s what indifference is. An atheist ontology is by definition passionately concerned with the metaphysical status of a deity. It simply arrives at a different conclusion than the mainstream of Abrahamic understanding. The issue has been muddied by the arrival of the so-called “New Atheists,” who on one hand allowed previously closeted atheists to proudly declare their non-belief in God (admittedly through the most bellicose of rhetoric and often justified with an appalling ignorance of western philosophy and culture), but who also ironically restricted severely the many meanings of the word “atheist.” It’s the great ironic fallacy of the “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennet and the late Christopher Hitchens, that their writing has done more to diminish the philosophical variety around the word “atheist” than writers before.
Rev Gosper is not a “New Atheist.” In writings like With or Without God she seems to embody the most radical and fascinating aspects of atheism as embodied by figures such as Friedrich Nietzsche. The so-called “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” who represent the “New Atheism” to so many people, simply don’t like religion – theirs is a bourgeois, suburban, elitist prejudice against something integral to western civilization. It should not be confused with or reduced to atheism in general, or in all its great variety. Nietzsche may have declared the “death of God,” but he also knew what was significant about religion, and he took it seriously. Rev. Vosper is in this category, this particular tradition, which, contrary to the idea that this is a view against theology, is really just a theology in itself.
In fact, this sort of theology, which focuses on the silence of God to the point of his non-existence, has a venerable tradition. While apophatic and via negativa expressions about divinity, which were important to many medieval mystics both Catholic and Orthodox, aren’t atheistic per se, they certainly don’t reflect the positivism of fundamentalist religion today. Nietzsche’s pronouncement was central to a mid-twentieth century theological movement called “Death of God” theology, about which thinkers like Thomas J.J. Altizer, Gabriel Vahanian, Richard Rubenstein, and more recently John Caputo and Peter Rollins wrote. In their works there is a vital, impassioned, committed approach to understanding faith and religion, and their “atheism” more clearly matches the mystical visions of figures like Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagete, Meister Eckhart- the anonymous medieval author of The Cloud of Unknowing- William Blake, and Nietzsche. Today this movement is mostly famous for the Time Magazine “Is God Dead?” cover from 1966, which remains the bestselling edition of that periodical. It was also heavily featured in a scene from Roman Polanski’s film Rosemary’s Baby. This movement was of course never within the mainstream of American seminaries, even during its hey-day, but it never really disappeared either. I do not know whether Rev. Vosper would align herself with this movement, but, like a good minister, she seems to take the most complicated theological ideas of the movement and to simplify them so that her congregation can understand. She tells the Huffington Post “It’s mythology. We build a faith tradition upon it which shifted to find belief more important than how we lived.”
The great twentieth-century Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich said “God does not exist. He is being itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore to argue that God exists is to deny him.” This is strictly speaking an ontology which could be considered a type of atheism, yet to confuse it with the simply anti-religion pronouncements of the “New Atheists” is a mistake; to assume the same about Rev. Gosper would be the same. “Death of God” theology offers a vibrant, mystical, passionate, counter-intuitive, paradoxical approach to faith and religion right at the moment when it seems that the ghost-in-the-machine that is western spirituality is being exorcised. Thinkers such as the prominent Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek have popularized “atheist Christianity” in the academic world, but Rev. Vosper takes these ideas to the pew. While I do not argue that the UCC has no right to defrock her, I would ask them to consider the full multiplicity and variety that an engaged religious practice might take – even if it seems extreme. It is possible to both be and not be an atheist, as Gideon Mack, the unbeliever who met the Devil, knew.
Ed Simon is a Ph.D. candidate in the English department of Lehigh University. His research focuses on religion and literature in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Atlantic world. He has been previously published in Salon, Quartz, The Revealer, the Journal of the Northern Renaissance, and the Public Domain Review among others. Currently he is the assistant editor of the Journal of Heresy Studies, and one of the founding members of the International Society for Heresy Studies. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon.