Saturday 15 November 1997

Moderator's views 'boringly conservative'

Phipps's critics confuse faith and belief, professor says

Bob Harvey
The Ottawa Citizen

Pat McGrath, The Ottawa Citizen / Antonio Gualtieri says faith, not doctrinal belief, should define Christian identity.

John Major, The Ottawa Citizen / This Presbyterian church on Bronson Avenue is reacting to the controversial views of United Church moderator Bill Phipps.

The moderator of the United Church is almost boringly conservative in his theology, and those who attack him are confusing faith and belief, says a retired Carleton University religion professor.

Antonio Gualtieri says Rev. Bill Phipps's critics make the mistake of saying that Christian identity is defined simply by what people say they believe.

Some United Church members maintain Mr. Phipps is not a Christian and should resign as moderator because he told the Citizen's editorial board "I don't believe Jesus was God, but I'm no theologian."

Since then, Mr. Phipps has clarified his views, saying among other things that Jesus is as much of God as can be poured into a human being, but is not all of God.

But, Mr. Gualtieri says, the New Testament itself says that "even the demons believe" there is one God, and the book of James makes the point that "faith without deeds is dead."

Belief has little to do with faith, which is perhaps most clearly expressed by the way people live their lives, Mr. Gualtieri says.

He says another problem with defining Christian identity by what people say they believe is that words convey different meanings to different people.

The religion professor and his wife Peggy often attend a Pentecostal church, but he says the Pentecostals who sing "Oh what a saviour, Oh what a friend (we have in Jesus)" believe there is a real person available to them somewhere.

Mr. Gualtieri sings the same words and thinks of Jesus, but says, "I don't have the same confidence there is a Christ who is alive."

Like the moderator, Mr. Gualtieri is also a United Church minister, but he calls himself an atheist, because he believes the conception of a God who watches over us is no longer credible in an age of technology.

Mr. Gualtieri will be speaking tomorrow at 11 a.m. at Ottawa's Glebe-St. James United Church on the topic of The Media and the Moderator: Confusing Faith and Belief.

He said the controversy in the United Church over Mr. Phipps's remarks three weeks ago is not really a debate between liberals and conservatives. The real schism, he says, is between those who believe doctrines do give an accurate picture of spiritual realities like God, the soul, heaven and hell, and those who are more skeptical of doctrine's ability to give a full picture of spiritual realities that are ultimately a mystery.

Mr. Gaultieri said: "God did not give doctrine. Doctrine is the way the church tries to protect its faith.

"Jesus did not teach doctrine. He told stories."

He said that if you analyse Mr. Phipps' words in the initial Citizen interview Oct. 23, and at meetings like that at Ottawa's Parkdale United last Monday, you find that "Mr. Phipps is almost boringly conservative."

"He said, 'I believe there is a Christ who is alive.' What more do you want?"

Mr. Gualtieri compared the words of the Nicene Creed, one of the traditional statements of the beliefs of the Christian church, with the words of Mr. Phipps.

The Nicene Creed says "the begotten of the Father, the only begotten, of one substance with the Father."

"That's a belief," said Mr. Gualtieri. "Compare that with: 'Christ is that person who reveals most about the nature of God, what God wants of us, who God is.' That's another doctrinal statement, this time by Bill Phipps.

"My hunch is that the vision of the reality that is communicated by these (two) belief systems is identical. That we live in a world that is in many ways mysterious, that there is more than meets the eye, yet this mystery is revealed in Christ."

Mr. Gualtieri said that Mr. Phipps's language is simply more modern. "Nobody in their right mind today talks about 'begotten of the Father.' "

He said his analysis of the transcript of the Citizen editorial board's discussion with Mr. Phipps suggests there was one persistent questioner whose agenda was to discredit the moderator.

This one questioner "knew just enough to ask the questions, but not enough to understand the answers."

Mr. Gaultieri said the questioner obviously believes one test of Mr. Phipps's orthodoxy is whether he believes Jesus is the only way to God.

Almost no mainline Christian theologians, including Roman Catholics, believe that today, Mr. Gaultieri said. He said most churches have come to terms with the idea that a non-Christian can attain salvation.


Copyright 1997 The Ottawa Citizen