by Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Last week I had the opportunity to lecture at uOttawa in a first year Religious Studies class. I’ve spoken in a variety of contexts before, but this was the first time entering the university classroom in order to share some reflections on the future of religion in Canada.
The course itself, from reading through the syllabus, asks some very important questions about the relationship between religion and multiculturalism. These are, of course, questions that the church needs to start asking of itself, in order to re-examine how (if?) it interfaces with society. One of the most helpful pieces for me was simply repositioning Canadian culture not as a post-religious society, but insisting, rather, that we are actually in a post-secular society.
Christians always seem to demarcate our current location as post-Christendom (which it is), and yet, that does not mean that this is a godless place. What it means, rather, is that Christianity has lost its hegemony, and is being displaced from the centre for the first time in, well…you do the math.
With a broader perspective influenced by the confluence of religious and cultural traditions, our current location is not one in which we have reached the end of religion, but rather, an entry-point into more intentional, and community-based inter-faith communication.In an increasingly multicultural and multifaith society, we have many more opportunities to meet with people of varying faith perspectives, to learn from others, and to share our own faith perspective with them. This is an exciting time.
Entering into this classroom, I was, I suspect, entering into a place where many of the folks there were a part of the post-Christendom effect. There were many students of European descent, and for many of them, there may be some vaguely Christian memory. Christmas and Easter. Some relatives who go to church. But how many of them come from practicing Christian homes? How many of them, as students out from under their parents’ roof would have anything to do with church anymore, if they were involved before?
University can be a daunting place if you’ve never really owned your faith before. Can be a daunting place in the face of new ideas, new perspectives, and a whole lot of other compelling, or at least new, experiences. Freedom comes with choice. And choice sometimes means leaving things behind that are less relevant to our lives (for whatever reason). Why hold onto something that does not connect? It’s a viable, and an important question.
So it was an interesting context to walk into. And an interesting context in which to speak about the future of religion in Canada.
I am no prophet, and I am no fortune teller.
All that I could do was to speak about the exciting currents that I see bubbling up in the present – the currents of a radical deepening of the practices of the Christian faith. And I was speaking out of my own personal experience, my own experiences of growing up in a closed community, of church vs. world, of us and them, and then having to navigate some deep waters when I stepped into University. I shared about the many times I wasn’t sure what (if anything) Christian faith had to say about how I lived my life. And I spoke of the importance, in hindsight, of asking questions of God, of the church, and of others, in order to see if that faith (or in this case, that received tradition) had legs to stand.
In terms of the academy and the often disconnected posture of so many departments of religion, perhaps this was not the recommended way to communicate. And yet to assume that I can communicate in some vaguely disinterested way about how I see the church and its future in Canada seems to me terribly counterintutive. The truth is that I am enmeshed in a particular culture, a particular way of being, and cannot distance myself from those things in order to provide objective perspective.
I can’t distance myself from my understanding of the Christian gospel and talk about the future of Christianity (as though I might somehow be able to speak for all of Christianity in any case). By locating myself, and telling some of my story, I hope that I was able to provide some context for my remarks on this emerging movement of the church towards deep community centered on Jesus Christ, and moving outwards to seek justice and peace.
It’s not like I was providing a 30,000 foot objective analysis. I suspect that my perspective is not broad enough to do such things. I’m no sociologist of religion. And yet – and yet, what I can do and what I hope I was able to accomplish last week was to provide something of an insider’s view of the current shifts taking place in Canadian Christianity.
I showed a clip from Joe Manafo’s engaging One Size Fits All? documentary on new and evolving forms of church in Canada. The clip I showed featured Nick Brotherwood (from the Emerge community in Montreal) talking about post-Christendom. I also had the opportunity to show a clip from Jamie Moffett‘s Ordinary Radicals film, talking about a growing movement of young people who are changing the face of North American Christianity. Sharing perspectives from folks like Shane Claiborne, Brian Walsh and Brandt Russo helped, I hope, to flesh out a more rooted expression of Christian Spirituality.
I also had the opportunity to touch down (if ever so briefly) on the work of Nadia Bolz-Weber and Karen Ward in their various communities. Seeing women empowered, encouraged, and embracing leadership in this movement is incredibly exciting.
This is a radical (that is, rooted) faith that has something very important to say not only about expressions of religious piety, but about the ways in which life is lived seven days a week.
All I could do was speak of an emerging generation of Christians who are leading the church into a future where body and soul and practice are intertwined, not easily spliced. This is a world in which notions of Christian escapism (“going to heaven when I die,” or “leaving this world behind”) have been replaced by an understanding of God’s kingdom descending, transforming, making all things new.
But what is the Kingdom of God? If we’re going to speak about these things in a post-Christian society, or even in a post-secular society, we cannot simply assume that everyone knows what we’re talking about when we discuss “the Kingdom.” Perhaps this is the ideal week to speak of this. Perhaps in the midst of the season of Lent, in the lead-up to Christ’s death at Calvary, we have the prime illustration knocking on our doorsteps.
The Kingdom is not about political power or ideological hegemony. It is not about creating the New Christendom. The Kingdom is not about coercion or war or conquest or crusades. The kingdom is amongst us in the seeking of justice and peace. The kingdom remains here with us when we give ourselves for others, in the same way that Jesus did. The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. It takes the shape of a man hung on a cross, not one seated on a jewel-encrusted throne. It is small, and it is emerging. It is like a crocus popping up through the last dusting of snow.
It is conspicuous, to be sure, but it is not overbearing. And it is a movement, a living, breathing, transformative and transforming movement of people who have encountered God and who are forever changed.
Communicating such things in the midst of a classroom where, perhaps (and I’m making baseless assumptions here) the majority of notions of Christianity are founded upon some vaguely recalled childhood experience, or the media’s coverage of fundamentalist rhetoric, is a challenge. And at the end of the day, I wonder:
What are students to make out of someone who has come into their first year Religious Studies class, and spoken about what he sees as an exciting, growing movement of Christians with perpetually dirty fingernails? What in the face of lived experience is their response to Christians who have the welfare of society deep in their hearts? What to do with folks who are deeply interested and invested in working within a multicultural mosaic to live out the good news of Jesus Christ? What to do with those who crazily think that the outpouring of faithful living does not start and stop on Sunday morning, but rather flows out of the life of a worshipping community to invest deeply in our communities?