Thursday, March 26, 2015

What is Going on with Christianity? Part I

Christians are on the offensive. Most of my friends who are Christians would find that statement odd.  They feel they are on the defensive, a minority under siege, they might say, in their own homes. I have sympathy for this perspective. I don't share it but is important to note because the opposite perspective also finds a lot of support: that Christians occupy a dominant or privileged position in contemporary Canada that is manipulated in ways that subvert diversity and limit opposing spiritual perspectives. I have some sympathy for this view, too, and there is no shortage of examples to which we can point. Rather than trying to adjudicate between the two perspectives, I thought I'd make an effort to figure out what is going on. The sad truth is that there is not a lot of truck and trade between these two views. Christians don't spend a great deal of time talking to their critics and their critics don't spend a great deal of time talking to Christians. Each side, I think, is less vital and vibrant in its commentary than it should be.  That is, though, an ethical view. What is going on is something different from my ethical position. What is going on is an historic transition and what is going on with Christians, in particular, is their efforts (potentially problematic) to adapt to a post-Christian Canada.  In short, Christians are trying to work out a new relationship between themselves, the state, and civil society. Resistance from civil society is part of this dialogue -- part of this effort of an effort to define relations between Church, state, and society -- for a different time.

What I'd like to do is write a series of blogs about this subject because it is an important subject for Canadian Studies and one that I, at least, address too infrequently my classes. It is an important element of contemporary Canada that defines the framework of the diversity of spiritual beliefs with which we operate. Hence, the time I want to take with this subject. In this blog I'll address the broad parameters of the changing context of Christian spirituality.  The overall argument I want to make is that there are good reasons for Christians to embrace post-Christianity. That might sound like a silly statement. Why would someone embrace something that seems to set them in the past. I don't think that will be the case. What I think grappling with post-Christianity can do is to deepen Christianity and help define its perspectives and the relationships it tries to forge in a more meaningful way. There will be those among my Christian friends who do not like this. Who will see in post-Christianity a threat. To them ... I hope to be able to show that this is not the case.

One final opening word, this is a blog. Comments are welcome, disagreements are welcome. But, it is not a refined academic piece. I'm not looking up evidence as type this or finding sources for footnotes. I'm attempting to sketch out broad parameters of change and their implications.

What does it mean to live in a post-Christian society. The term is odd because Canada has and has not been a Christian society for a long time. Official state churches were disestablished in the colonial era. Canada has also made a sincere and honest commitment to diversity and religious freedom, particularly since the 1960s. I recognize that this commitment is often honoured in the breach but I also think that we need to recognize that this commitment was something more than hegemony. It represented an effort to define the basis of what could be a good society organized around individual freedom and protection, particularly from the arbitrary authority of the state and from prejudices in society. The Charter, for example, specifies that all Canadians are guaranteed freedom of conscience and religion. What is more, increasing numbers of Canadians are exercising that right. Agnosticism and atheism are rapidly growing in Canadian society and all major religions are well represented in Canadian demographics. Moreover, the state is prohibited from discriminating against people on the grounds of religion and Quebec has moved away from its "secular Charter," which would have marginalized Muslims and Sikhs, but not Christians.

In other words, we have a great deal of evidence that shows us that Canada is not an officially Christian society in terms of rights, established  religion, freedoms, etc.

But, we also have appreciable evidence that Christianity exerts an unusual influence over culture in society. If Canada did away with state churches before Confederation, this does not mean that the churches did not enjoy privileges with regard to public policy and its implementation. The state and the churches, for instance, worked together to run Native residential schools, the Christian calendar is imprinted on the public calendar in Canada (I always get Christmas "off"). Sunday is not the "day or rest" that it used to be, but its not Monday or Tuesday, etc. either. Things do slow down on Sundays, even if some shopping is allowed. In other words, while Christians cannot claim any special rights or privileges under the law, this does not mean that some elements of Christianity were not embedded in the operation of Canada long after the demise of state churches and, indeed, up to the present day. The effect of this embeddedness is that religious freedom falls unevenly across Canadian society. Christianity is easily accommodated to the public sphere because it helped build the Canadian public sphere.

Moreover, there has been more than a bit of "push back" against secularism and diversity from the current government. The Harper Tories have ditched the idea of rolling back equality rights for gays and lesbians, but they are also trying to draw lines. These lines are draw by offices of religious freedom that are supposed to detail the abuse of Christians in other parts of the word, citizen requirements that discriminate against some Muslim women, or anti-terrorist laws that restrict freedoms and that seem to be directed against the people of certain faiths but not others.

In other words, what living in a post-Christian society means is not living, as it were, after Christianity. I personally doubt that  could happen. What it means is living with a new relationship between Christians, the state, and civil society.

This relationship is perhaps most evident in the cultural realm. The high point of church attendance in Canada was the 1950s. We can likely see why. Not only was belief in God largely unquestioned in popular culture but the Churches offered stability, ethics, propriety. They helped explain right and wrong in a society where there were serious questions about the character and scope of right and wrong, a deep desire for stability, and grounding. Attending church was an ordinary and unquestioned part of middle class life for most people. Religious observance at university, for instance, was simply taken for granted; many universities maintained open and direct affiliation with specific denominations. There were people -- and perhaps a surprising number of them -- who had questions about the churches, but they tended to keep these views silent. Christianity was a fundamental part of Canadian culture, equated with progress, civilization, and morality.

What has changed since then is not necessarily the emergence of new ideas, but their broader diffusion in society. The great protest waves of the 1960s and early 1970s put other items on the agenda that the churches did not always deal well with. Some did. There were important church figures who stood up for the poor, argued against racism, urged Canadians to adopt a pacifist stance internationally, but as Pierre Burton pointed out long ago in _The Comfortable Pew_ these voices were not always heard and the weight of counter veiling conformism was strong.

The effect was to lessen the role of churches in society and the broader emergence of a view that suggested that one could lead a good life and be a moral person without attending church or even believing in God. Indeed, at times, the views of some people claiming to speak in the name of Christianity seemed to suggest precisely the opposite: that to be a good person, one needed to move past Christianity. Some Christians may have worked in urban missions, run after school programmes for disadvantaged kids, helped operate food banks, and the like, but others stood up for sexism and homophobia. The result was an increased cultural bifurcation. Christianity, which had once been part and parcel of culture, now became something that seemed, at least at times, to stand in the way of progress.  Increasingly, Canadians who sought to promote equality, autonomy, decency, found themselves fighting against self-defined Christians. They turned other aspects of culture and politics, such as the Charter to defend their views, explain their conception of the good, and promote it in society.

Consumerism promoted a similar type of process. Consumerism, I would argue, is deeply anti-Christian (which may be one of the reasons why Christians so opposed Sunday shopping but I'll get to that in another blog). Why? Because it promotes a non-Christian conception of the good life. This does not mean, I hasten to add, that one becomes a bad person by engaging in consumerism. I do all the time and I sure hope I ain't a bad person. What it means is that the values of consumerism and Christianity are different.  Consumerism is more  complex than most people give it credit for and I'll distort its operation by reducing it to a single line, but for the sake of brevity: consumerism places its conception of the good life in material objects. Those objects (computers, cars, going to the ballgame) fulfill us, or are supposed to. Christianity should place its conception of fulfillment in relationships: one's connection to God and one's connection to other people. Consumerism turns one's job into a means to an end. One works to afford to pay for things one wants (again, I do this so I'm not slagging it.) Christianity looks at work a different way. I won't get into the details because I don't want to engage in a theological discussion, but one's job and one's skills, in the Christian worldview, are supposed to match. One is supposed to go a good job at one's job (to be equal to one's calling) as an end in and of itself facilitated by the match between one's abilities, dispositions, etc., and what one does for a living.

Consumerism has been a powerful force in post WW II Canadian culture. It provides an alternative conception of the good life, one accepted, in some measure largely unquestioned, by many people.

Finally, we can and should not demographic changes. It is not just the rise of agnosticism and atheism that is of not by the fact that Christianity is not building a new relationship between itself, state and society by itself. All religions are looking to do this. Points of dramatic debate -- say, over Sharia law -- are important for a variety of reasons but they are also about the character and scope of that relationship. To what degree should the state facilitate religious perspectives as a mater of discipline over defined communities?  The so-called "secular charter" in Quebec was about the same thing.

This, then, is the position in which we find ourselves in Canada today. We have not moved past Christianity. Most Canadians believe in some sort of deity; most Canadians self-identify as Christians, and the churches play an important role in many communities. But, the situation is complicated and cross currents run rampant. We life, in other words, with a series of contradictions where Christians believe they are fighting a rear guard action and their critics believe that Christians occupy the high ground. It is the scope and nature of these contradictions and cross currents that define post-Christianity in Canada.
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