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Q&A with Douglas John Hall

Rev. Douglas John Hall is a United Church minister and a professor emeritus of Christian theology at McGill University in Montreal. He told The Observer what he makes of the 2011 Faith Survey results.

By Samantha Rideout

Q Our survey reveals a wide range of beliefs within the United Church. Does that surprise you? Is this a problem for church unity?

A The results are more or less what I would have imagined if you asked me to guess. Is it a problem? In reality, maybe it is. I suspect most United Church people are rather uninformed about Christian doctrine. For instance, if you ask them about the doctrine of the Trinity, a terribly important doctrine in historic Christianity, I think you’ll get some fuzzy answers.

I don’t want to question anybody’s existential faith. I mean, if they believe in God that’s all right — I’m not going to question that. But I do want to question what they mean by “God”, and what this leads to. How does it work out in terms of people of other faiths, or minorities and marginalized people in society? Because different ways of believing in God lead to different ways of living, and treating others.

Q Maybe ethics and lifestyle, unlike beliefs, are areas where United Church people aren’t so scattered all over the map.

A Well, I think that’s true. I think our strong point in the United Church, insofar as we have one, is on the ethical side of things. I feel that on the whole, we’re on the right side of the issues. But I’m not sure we know how we got there, and I’m not sure we know how this relates to Christian belief and faith. Has it been thought through? I worry as a theologian about the lack of thought in our churches. Whatever else the Christian faith is, it involves thinking.

Q Do you suppose we don’t think through our beliefs as much as we could because we’re afraid of infighting?

A Oh yes, there’s that, isn’t there? But any kind of belief is potentially controversial. You don’t want to be nasty, but you also don’t want no arguments and all coffee-hour sweetness. You want to be free to think things through to certain conclusions. And if these conclusions are not majority conclusions and you have to go against the stream, so what? Jesus certainly did.

Q Do you think these survey results will get people thinking more about what they believe?

A I have mixed feelings about surveys. It’s hard to do a survey and really catch the nuances. I think statistical analyses are important, but we mustn’t put too much faith in them. They don’t go deep all by themselves, but they may help us start to go deeper.

Samantha Rideout is a freelance writer in Montreal.

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