From The Ottawa Citizen, November 2, 1997.

Copyright 1997 The Ottawa Citizen.  Used by permission. 

 An Ottawa Citizen Q&A

Is Jesus God?
A conversation with United Church
Moderator Rev. Bill Phipps

Editor's note: Our recent editorial board meeting with Rev. Bill Phipps, moderator of the United Church of Canada, sparked lively debate among readers. Following is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Rev. Phipps (in introductory remarks): People are yearning for a strong moral voice again in public policy. I think most people sense that we've lost our moral centre, that society has lost its moral centre. The United Church, over its 72-year history, has been one of the fairly strong moral voices, or strong social conscience, for Canada, and it has contributed a great deal over the years to the development of the Canada we once knew. So we've been a major player in the Canadian social fabric, social-moral-political-spiritual fabric.

But over the past 15 years, a lot of that, for a whole variety of reasons, has really diminished. We, along with a lot of the other churches, have gone from being mainline in terms of part of the moral centre to sideline. No one really cares or no one is really aware of what the church says.

The Citizen: How do we recover the moral centre? Political activism, that sort of thing?

Rev. Phipps: My evidence for where I think it's gone are things like language. I have now been transformed from a student to a consumer of education, a consumer of health care, a consumer of social services. Our language over the past 10 or 15 years has almost been single-mindedly changed into a market-economy language. I think the only value of — the primary value that we seem to have adopted in the past 10 or 15 years — is the market. Let the market decide. The market, the bottom line, profit and loss, winners and losers, have been the language of not only economic debate but all the other debates that go on.

If you express concerns about poverty and start using language that expresses compassion and solidarity with victims of social policy and so on, you're more accused now of being either wishy-washy or a bleeding heart or you don't understand the realities of the world, you don't understand that we are in a global death struggle with global competition and so on. It used to be that you could bring the values of compassion and empathy and solidarity to the table, and most people would say those are values we've got to listen to. My sense is that people listen to profit, loss and market. So it's not just political activism, it's where the conversations take place that have to do with the development of social policy …

Jesus talks about economics more than he talks about anything else. But what happens in experience is that moral questions get reduced to: I don't beat my kids, I get along with the public, the PTA, I don't have sex out of marriage and blah-blah-blah … Some of the giants of Canadian commerce were Methodists who were absolutely moral, upstanding people in their churches but paid low wages to their workers and adamantly opposed unions.

The Citizen: I can't help but notice that the emblem you are wearing is not a religious, but a political one (editors's note: the emblem was a lapel button reading "Zero poverty"). I would have expected a cross on the lapel of the moderator of the United Church. You haven't mentioned Jesus.

Now, the Promise Keepers said that the critical thing is not whether you beat your dog or have extramarital sex; the critical thing, the foundation of everything, the centre of how you work is your relationship with Jesus, and it seems to me that a person who had a proper relationship with Jesus, who had opened his heart to believe in Jesus, would not engage in actions that harmed other people near or far.

Rev. Phipps: The experience has been otherwise. And I'm sorry the experience has been otherwise, but one of the worst regimes outside of the Nazi regime of this century has been the apartheid regime in South Africa which was justified on biblical grounds by high-minded Christians, mainly men. The whole system of apartheid was put in place by high-minded Christian individuals who had no problem putting in place what we now know, and what a lot of us fought against for a long time: a totally obscene, unbiblical, unjust, I mean all the words you want, system of exploitation of people. But it was put in place with all the Christian rhetoric by Christian individuals who love Jesus.

The Citizen: Nevertheless, should the United Church parishioners not have a true relationship with Jesus?

Rev. Phipps: I think that goes on in every one of our 4,000 congregations every Sunday. I know it goes on where I'm the preacher and where I lead prayer; we have three Bible studies in the congregation of Calgary. A congregation of 180 adults comes to worship on Sunday morning, we have three Bible studies every week, we have a eucharist and prayer service every Wednesday morning at 10 minutes after 7 to pray for members of the congregation who are in trouble.

In fact, I think, in many respects, another thing that's happened as we've kind of withdrawn a bit from the public world, the United Church has covered a great deal of its Biblical study and spirituality and its personal understanding of the faith, personal relationships with God and so on. That's going on far more than it did in the Church where I grew up as a kid. I've always been in the United Church, I'm 55 and I think there's far more serious biblical study going on, serious prayer groups and spiritual development. People never went on retreats. Geez, now we're going on retreats more than the Catholics are. You know? We're going to Catholic retreat centres. We keep them in business in some places.

So I think the United Church and other churches as well are doing a much better job than we ever did of that personal thing, and what I'm saying is we've never forgotten the focus, but we've got to be far more active and alive and let people know what we think about certain issues.

The Citizen: Unless you believe in Jesus, you will not be saved. Do you believe that?

Rev. Phipps: That Jesus is the only way to God?

The Citizen: Yes.

Rev. Phipps: No I do not believe that.

The Citizen: Do you believe that Jesus rose from the dead?

Rev. Phipps: I believe Jesus lives in people's hearts and did from the moment of that Easter experience.

The Citizen: But did he die, spend three days dead and rise from the dead and walk the Earth?

Rev. Phipps: No, I don't believe that in terms of the scientific fact. I don't know whether those things happened or not. Actually, I'm far more open to strange things happening and all that kind of thing than I used to be. I think it's an irrelevant question.

The Citizen: So, if Christ be not risen, our faith is in vain.

Rev, Phipps: No. No, no. Christ risen in people's hearts is extremely important. Something extraordinary happened that hadn't happened before in biblical records of resurrection to those people after they experienced Jesus alive. Obviously something absolutely stupendous happened to turn a bunch of cowards into people who are willing to lay down their own life.

But I wasn't there. But I'm the recipient to people who had a passion that Jesus was alive and well and not only in my heart but cruising around the world, trying to mend a broken world.....

The Citizen: But the gospel is reported as literally being fact.

Rev. Phipps: Well ,the gospels were written by people with a theological axe to grind and an agenda and fine, that's what they are. But they weren't historical records of anything.

The Citizen: Do you believe that Jesus is divine, that he was the son of God?

Rev. Phipps: We could have a whole discussion about that.

The Citizen: Well, I would think the head of a Christian church would have a clearly defined position on the issue. You have a clearly defined position on this world, but I'm asking about theology. What interests me about theology - and afterlife is more important to me than a soup kitchen.

Rev. Phipps: It wasn't to Jesus and it wasn't to people of the Bible....Your soul is directly tied (to) whether you care about people who are starving in the streets. Your soul is lost unless you care about that. In a country as wealthy as Canada ... there is absolutely no excuse, speaking as a Christian, for there to be any soup kitchens, anybody living in the streets of Calgary, any shelters for the homeless. There should be no excuse for that in a place as wealthy as Calgary and a place as wealthy as Canada, biblically.

The Citizen: "The poor you will always have with you." That seems.....

Rev. Phipps: No, unless you read the rest of that passage in Deuteronomy. People just like to lift it out and say there it is, Jesus said it. Read the whole Deuteronomy passage. If you have a Bible, we'll read it.

Soul has to do with those very practical social justice issues. It always has in scripture and it certainly did with Jesus. That's why I said Jesus talked a lot more about economics than he did about anything else.

The Citizen: In this argument, morality has become quite situational and is subject to fashion, and I'm wondering how you respond to that.

Rev. Phipps: Well, I think that's absolutely true, but those are two different things. "Subject to fashion" I think is absolutely right. What is the morality of the day? But you'd have to be more specific about that. Morality and ethics always has to relate to the situation in which you're in. I'm one of those people who's very wary about people who write down a bunch of rules and say that is going to pertain forever and ever. You look at some of morality and there's no way we'd follow those examples now. The main example is slavery and women. Those were just accepted parts of the social structure. It was not immoral to treat women as property. Well, it certainly is immoral to do that now.

The Citizen: Then what is the moral centre? If it's situational, then certainly there's no centre.

Rev. Phipps: The centre is in biblical terms, our concepts or words or experiences as compassion, justice, peace. The Jewish term "shalom" encompasses a whole lot of things. Peace with justice. There is no peace where there is no justice. It's how you apply that in a given situation. People, Christian people as part of the apartheid system, thought that peace with justice was there. Then people come along, like Bishop Tutu, say "Wait a minute, your concept of justice and peace is wrong. We don't have peace and justice."

The Citizen: I certainly see that in the situation of apartheid, but if morality is situational, who's to say that the people who come after apartheid are therefore correct?

Rev. Phipps: I could put that in the whole doctrine of original sin. Maybe a good example of this is our relationship with native people. In 1986, the United Church made an apology to native people for taking away their language, their religion, their culture and so on in the name of Christ. Our Methodist forebears and so on came over to convert the heathens to Christianity. I would never condemn them. The believed they were exercising their Christianity, and if you read some of their stuff, you're appalled at the language and so on.

But alongside those comments are comments of love and concern, and sacrifice to be with those native people. My white ancestors sacrificed a lot, a lot more than I ever sacrificed, to do what they thought their Christian duty called them to do.

Now in retrospect we say much of what they did was wrong. Now I know that much of what I do people are going to look back in 50 or 100 years and say "Gee, you know, they were misguided on free trade," maybe. Or on some other things that we believe in. That's because we're sinful people. We see through the glass darkly and we do our very best where we can. I don't have a problem with situationalism or those kinds of things. But I constantly have to ask myself: What is just? It clearly to me is unjust in a wealthy place like Canada that there are any poor people at all. Biblically, it's totally an abomination.

The Citizen: That's an absolute, then. You said you were uncomfortable with absolute rules, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt -

Rev. Phipps: Not absolute rules. In my context, in 1997, in the relative affluence of Canada, it is an obscenity that the gap between rich an poor is widening even more.

The Citizen: So would it not be an obscenity anywhere, in a society that is affluent?

Rev. Phipps: Probably.

The Citizen: So that's an absolute. It doesn't depend on circumstance. "No peace without justice." That's a moral absolute, isn't it? You're not that uncomfortable with moral absolutes, provided that you agree with them.

Rev. Phipps: No, no. I - those are terms that describe - if you want to call that a moral absolute. But how does that work out? What does love work out to be? In my grandparents' time, people living together without benefit of marriage was totally immoral. They were very strong Methodists in the United Church. And probably - and it wouldn't matter if they loved each other and were committed to each other - if they hadn't gone through a marriage ceremony, then that was immoral. Having a child out of wedlock was immoral and we hid them away, and that's how we did it. And I think now that it's not necessarily immoral to live with somebody without benefit of marriage.

Well, what does love mean? Well, if you're committed and you're not promiscuous and genuine love and mutual love and respect, then the act of marriage is not necessary for that relationship to be a moral, loving just relationship. Now that's changed in just two generations.

The Citizen: A true change or just a perception of it?

Rev. Phipps: The truth is love. The criterion is love, not a marriage certificate. I know you can write the moderator of the United Church of Canada does not believe in marriage, and that's not true. I believe very strongly in marriage. I'm a divorced person and I have remarried. Now we could just as easily have lived together. But we said no, we want to have this public ceremony of a recognition of our love and all that.

The Citizen: Why call it holy matrimony? Why say: "What God has joined together let no man pull asunder"? If getting married is not a commitment to God, how does it have any moral significance?

Rev. Phipps: Well, I think God and Jesus were a good example of this. Whether Jesus is God or represents God. Jesus' many questions were a question of love, not the trappings of it. And on that particular thing, I'm sure God would say: "Who cares if it's a Christian marriage or not?" These people loved each other in a committed relationship, raised a family, looked after them. That's what God is concerned about. How we treat each other. What our relationships are like. Are they relationships of loving justice or, too often, you know, we cover up lack of love with elaborate social paraphernalia.....

I believe that Christ reveals to us as much of the nature of God as we can see in a human being. Now that has some presuppositions to it, the major one of which is that life and death and God, the Divine and the Holy and all that, is a tremendous mystery of which anyone sees only a very small part. There is all kinds of stuff to discover that we don't know about. But as far as we are able to understand, Christ is that person who reveals to us the most about the nature of God, what God wants of us, who God is, of any human being.

The Citizen: So was Christ God?

Rev. Phipps: No, I don't believe Christ was God.

The Citizen: He's not part of the Trinity. He's not the son of God.

Rev. Phipps: I think that's - I'm no theologian.

The Citizen: You're the head of a Christian church, you have to be.

Rev. Phipps: No, I don't have to. I'm no theologian, but the beauty of the Trinity to me is that it recognizes various dimensions to the Christian understanding of God. If Jesus was God, there'd be no need for God in the Trinity.

The Citizen: I guess what I'm trying to get at is, is there any truth that the United Church, or Bill Phipps, agrees with? Is there any truth that we can say: "You believe in this. This is what the United Church says, this is what the moderator says, whatever...."

Rev. Phipps: The fundamental truth to me in the biblical story is that God loves us and the world unconditionally, and part of that unconditional love is, for Christians, it was that unconditional love was poured into the person of Jesus. The whole biblical story is one of God's unconditional love. Taking people who betrayed God, who said no to God, who were unjust and converting them and turning them around. Moses would be one example. that's a huge truth as far as I'm concerned, because a lot of people want to have a conditional love of God.

Part of the whole implication, to me, of the truth of God's unconditional love for the world is the freedom to try and bring justice and fail. The ethical outgrowth of God's unconditional love is just relationships in the Earth among human communities. If God loves me and everybody unconditionally, it means I can try to act justly, I can be vigorous in my engagement with the world, and fail. And God will love me. That's a pretty strong statement.

The Citizen: Is there a heaven?

Rev. Phipps: Is there a heaven, a place? I have no idea. I believe there is.

The Citizen: Do we all join with God in the afterlife regardless of our conduct? Does anyone get shut out? Some people et the gate in the face?

Rev. Phipps: I have no idea. But I just want to say something about unconditional love, seeing God as a loving parent. Anyone who has children knows what it is to love your child unconditionally and have heartache about your child. But we know - that's what unconditional love is.

The story of the prodigal son is one of the great stories about that and there are other stories and many religious traditions.

The Citizen: What' the worst thing that could happen to me when I die?

Rev. Phipps: The worst thing that could happen to you is that your worst fears of Dante's Inferno are actually true, that's the worst thing that could happen to you.

The Citizen: So there actually is a hell? And it's very bad?

Rev. Phipps: I have no idea. And I don't think Jesus was that concerned about hell. I think we're concerned about life here. And the Jewish tradition wasn't that concerned about hell either. They were concerned about just relationships here. I've got enough problems, and I think most of us have enough problems, trying to live an ethical life knowing all of the ways we compromise ourselves and all of the frailties that we've got. We've got enough problems trying to live ethically and well here to have any knowledge or understanding or worry about what happens after I die.

I believe there is a continuation of the spirit in some form or another, but I'd be a fool to say I know what that is or what it's going to be like.

The Citizen: But does it exist? When Jesus said -

Rev. Phipps: I think there is a continuation of spirit in some way or another, but I have no idea how it is.

Copyright 1997 The Ottawa Citizen.