Dangerous dreaming

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Religion doesn’t matter.

At least, it doesn’t seem to matter much in Canada.

Canada’s cultural magazine, The Walrus, devoted its June issue to The Future and covered all sorts of interesting subjects: nature, diversity, travel, cities, food, exploration, journalism, TV, and, of course, sex.

What it didn’t cover, however, was religion. Religion apparently is now merely part of Canada’s past: a hugely important issue at Confederation and in controversy after controversy since then. But it’s apparently not in Canada’s future.

Two recent books—sociologist Joel Thiessen’s analysis of people who rarely or never go to church (The Meaning of Sunday) and historians Brian Clarke and Stuart Macdonald’s survey of recent religious polls (Leaving Christianity)—also suggest that religion doesn’t matter to the majority of Canadians. Many may still profess belief in God and call themselves Christians (or by the name of some other religion), but there is no evidence that religion affects daily life for them.

Thiessen’s book also concludes that it’s unlikely that the people of low or no religious motivation are going to show up at church anytime soon. And why should they? Life in Canada for most Canadians is demanding, sure, but also pretty good—compared with that of most people in the world today and in every century of the past. Secure, comfortable, clean, entertaining: Why worry? Be happy!

If religion is, in fact, no more than a social club or a social agency, and if few Canadians are looking for anything more than social clubs (fun) and social agencies (service) for their precious non-work hours, and if churches don’t compete well as social clubs and social agencies versus the wide range of other options available, then…low religious interest is to be expected.

Christians, however, believe that quite a lot is at stake here.

First (and last), there is the life to come. Religion in general, and Christianity in particular, claims to answer this Big Question. And Christianity offers a particularly attractive answer, if one looks at what the Bible actually promises (Rev. 21-22), versus the boring “strumming harps in the clouds” version so often imagined as the Christian heaven.

Interestingly, movie after movie and novel after novel centres on a fountain of youth, an elixir of eternal life, a way to defeat death: from travel fantasies to techno-thrillers to transhuman utopias. So it’s not like no one actually thinks about death and what’s beyond.

We do not, however, think about such matters often. Our society has removed death and dying from (everyday) life into hospitals, hospices, and morgues. We have few occasions for memento mori, remembering that we, too, shall die—and that we are foolish to make no provision for that inevitability.

So there is death and whatever follows. Where, except in those fictions, can one seriously discuss this subject? Not in polite company: Imagine an article arguing for the Christian view of the life to come in The Walrus! Not even in religious studies departments at most universities, in which every conceivable aspect of religion is studied except the fundamental question of truth—which is, harrumph, theology, and thus not a fit subject for academic inquiry.

Second, there is this life, too. Thiessen’s interview subjects made it clear that lots of people live respectable moral lives without religion. Moreover, they testified, meaning and fulfilment could be found, and are found every day, in family, friends, work, and service. So the typical view of religions as uniquely offering meaning and significance seems wrong.

And if they also promise information about the world to come that most people don’t want to bother with, it’s not clear what’s left for religions, and Christianity in particular, to offer in a wildly competitive market for Canadians’ attention.

Still. One might respond briefly in three respects.

First, Christianity does offer great news about life after death, as well as a severe warning that it matters how one prepares for it. True, the comfortable cocoon of Canadian life insulates most of us most of the time against Big Questions. But life has a way of tearing through that blanket from time to time. And when the reckoning comes to a person, it would be well if she knew at least one faithful and well-informed Christian friend from whom she could seek the answers she had previously ignored or postponed. Will she?

Second, Christianity offers gigantic meaning and significance to life. In almost incredible terms, Christianity tells us that humans are creatures made in the image of the Supreme Being, capable of great good and great evil (rather than being the small mediocrities we typically imagine we are), whose every moral decision sends out ripples of consequence. We matter much more than we think we do, and the rightness or wrongness of our actions isn’t, actually, up to us to decide.

Third, Christianity offers us the company of fellow believers, of course, but also of God. Yes, God: not only available to hear the occasional frantic prayer, but God beside us, walking with us. God actually indwelling us, every moment, so that we have access to divine power to accomplish everything God wants us to do and become all God wants us to be. We have resources beyond our imagination.

My strong cumulative impression from reading Thiessen, Clarke and Macdonald, and The Walrus is of a Canadian populace obtusely sleepwalking: nice, intelligent people going about their business generally clueless about the vast stakes at risk in each human life…and death; blithely unaware of the awe-full significance of our existence; and completely blind to the prodigious power available to us from a patiently waiting Creator.

Religion doesn’t matter to most Canadians today. But it’s worth thinking about why it doesn’t, and how we will answer those Big Questions when we are finally roused from our fatal stupor.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).