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Over 500 people attended "The Walrus Talks Spirituality" event at Trinity St. Paul’s United in Toronto; at least 1,000 more watched online. Photography by Hugh Wesley

Talking spirituality

Earlier this spring, seven distinguished Canadians gathered in Toronto to share their views on religion, faith and secularism. Here are highlights from “The United Church Observer presents The Walrus Talks Spirituality.”

By Various Writers

Joan Garson
President, Holy Blossom Temple, Toronto

Identifying as a religious person opens a door to conversations with other religious people. Whenever we identify as religious people, we send a signal to others that we are willing to frame questions within a religious framework. My identification as a religious person is not obvious. I’m not kosher or observant, but that’s for another time.

Photo of Joan Garson by Hugh Wesley
Photo of Joan Garson by Hugh Wesley

In my office, we had a tough decision to make about an employee’s future. My husband and I and another decision-maker — Catholic — addressed the question using not only legal concepts but also religious language: repentance, forgiveness. It was a code that enabled us to access together ethical issues that we have addressed within our respective communities.

We all know that in 2016 it is not without concern to reflect that religious engagement is valuable. Extremists haunt us all. And there are Jewish extremists, I’m ashamed to say. But the awareness of common exploration among religiously engaged people enriches and connects, even when we must be sensitive to the complexities of that engagement. The topics we study can be shared broadly and lead to connections with communities beyond our own.

Photo of Nicole Brooks by Hugh Wesley

Nicole Brooks
Filmmaker, performer, playwright

When I was a teenager, my job every week was to get up in front of a congregation, and welcome them and have them greet each other. We would first start with music — get everybody up. Music prepares you for worship.

Why I’m not in the church anymore is a long story, but I realized that I missed the community, missed bringing people together. But I also realized that as an artist, any time I have an audience, I can use that same magic, that same power. I can use that thing that brings people together.

Music is a universal language, and it doesn’t really matter necessarily if I’m behind a pulpit, or standing on stage singing a jazz standard. I’m telling a story, and it is my job to change the atmosphere. It is my job to prepare you for an experience that you will never forget. It is my job to make you feel different — to make you forget about your worries, help you escape.

In some strange way, music is a religion, a spiritual act. When I started moving away from Christianity, which is a fairly young religion, and began to study Indigenous African spiritual practices, which are very similar to the Indigenous practices here in Canada — drumming, singing, music, rhythm, even the swirling dervishes — I could see that everyone uses rhythm and music to catch spirit in some way. It brings us all together.

So I guess my message is very simple. You can take me out of the church, but you can’t take the church out of me.

Photo of Natalie Bull by Hugh Wesley

Natalie Bull
Executive director, National Trust For Canada

Most sacred architecture is a deliberate physical expression of the spiritual. Sometimes the very form of the building itself is a metaphor for the spiritual relationship, designed to move us, or still us, or fill us with awe. Even if you never darken the door, I would bet that you consider the places of faith in your neighbourhood to be prominent cultural, social and spiritual landmarks.  

But many thousands of these buildings are doomed. Society is changing. Aging congregations, dwindling funds in the collection plate and different ideas about spirituality and worship are taking their toll. For heritage advocates, places of faith are front and centre on our list of species at risk.

While shifting attitudes to spirituality may be a big factor putting these buildings at risk, a new take on their value to the wider community may offer the hope of their salvation (if you’ll pardon the pun). The Toronto Halo Project is now adapting the methodology for use in Canada. I would say that the Halo Effect is alive and well here at Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church and Centre for Faith, Justice and the Arts. Its upward spiral of financial sustainability and community service include a baroque orchestra, a Montessori school, restaurant services, a Middle Eastern Language school, a powerful activist agenda and more.

Even when a congregation chooses to move on, sale and redevelopment don’t have to be a death knell. While condos and climbing gyms may offer an easier business model, what a blessing if a former place of faith can house charities and non-profits offering a sort of spirituality grounded in community service, community gardens, farm markets, affordable housing and more, with or without a denominational label.

My hope is that faith groups and their communities — all of us — will simply do our very best to make wise use of these sacred spaces we’ve inherited from the past. And my prayer is that wherever possible, they will be used in ways that help create resilient and sustainable communities with a powerful spirit of place.

Photo of Michael Ingham by Hugh Wesley

Michael Ingham
Retired bishop, Anglican Diocese of New Westminster, B.C.

It would be a mistake to think religions are incapable of being revitalized or that they are somehow dying. There are many examples around us of communities rediscovering the original vision of their religion, returning to ancient spiritual practices and braving oppression to restore life-giving dignity to broken people.

Nor should we think the whole world is like the western world. While churches are being closed in Europe and North America, new churches are being opened in China and Russia and across Africa at about the same rate. In fact, China will soon become the world’s largest Christian nation (that is, the nation with the largest number of Christians). This raises the interesting question: which has been more destructive of religion — communism or capitalism?

There is, of course, a lot of bad religion around us. Some of it is found in shallow spiritual movements. There is a modern industry devoted to commercializing and simplifying spiritual disciplines. The great English spiritual writer Kenneth Leech called it “Spirituality Inc.” It amounts to a repackaging of spiritual exercises drawn from major religious traditions that for centuries have taught them for free. These disciplines in their proper context present us with a hard path, not an easy path.

When spiritual exercises are detached from the traditions that developed them, and when individuals who take them on feel no need of the spiritual communities that sustain them, we have the real danger of narcissism. We can so easily create God in our own image, as our personal guru, or our national sponsor. And we can so easily fall into belief systems that encourage us to be who we are, instead of radically challenging us to be more than we are — the highest and best we can possibly be — which ought, surely, to be the goal of any religious or spiritual practice.

Photo of Gretta Vosper by Hugh Wesley
Photo of Gretta Vosper by Hugh Wesley

Gretta Vosper
Minister, West Hill United, Toronto

There is a land we’ve been conjuring, upon which we might build a peaceful future. Formed of the same elements of our early dreams, the hopes we pasted on the heavens, it began to coalesce as we lifted ourselves, theory by theory, truth by truth, out of the murk of childhood’s unknowing and into the accessibility of shared knowledge, out of the chaos of ignorance and into the promise of reason, the discoveries of science, the findings of our explorations. Out of absolute truths and into unceasing wonder. It writes a different future for those we love and those they love and those they, too, will love. It is the land we create beyond the beliefs that divide.

This land is public property; only those things accessible to all will thrive within it. [It is] worked out amongst people accountable only to one another, willing to take up the challenge to weave the moral fabric of community within the idea of a sustainable future, to explore the immensity of reality and the complexity of truth, and to do so with unflinching courage.

There are no gods here to interfere with love and justice. . . . Here, the gods are simply asked both to remain within the private realms of lives still strengthened by their presence and to relinquish their hold on those long-judged by ancient moral codes.

The good our religions have taught us — to act justly, love mercy, walk humbly — thrives here. But religion never owned this ground. It is built of empathy, a natural neurological function that we can strengthen or starve; the choice is ours. Beyond the beliefs that divide, empathy reigns. Here in Canada, we’ve made that land more real every time we’ve stepped away from religious doctrines that trouble justice: the personhood of women, the right to an abortion, the marriage of same-sex couples, the Supreme Court decision last year to allow for physician-assisted dying and most recently, the challenges presented to our nation from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — challenges that remind us that justice is not yet realized, the land beyond the beliefs that divide is not yet complete.

Photo of Lewis Cardinal by Hugh Wesley

Lewis Cardinal
Owner, Cardinal Strategic Communications

Canada has always been a confluence of rivers of spiritual traditions. Spirituality, in its broadest terms, is a way of knowing, a way of being and living life in good relationship with creation and the pursuit of purpose.

When we think of the word Indigenous, what do we mean exactly? Well “Indigenous” comes from the Latin, born of the land. But it also means relationship. It is a name that recognizes that our culture and traditions have been shaped by the land and the cosmos that we are in. We have, from that, learned how to live in balance and harmony for a very, very long time. It is a way of life.

Indigenous is another word for human being or being human. It has spiritual and philosophical meaning that is valuable, I believe, to all Canadians — how we see ourselves, how we live in relation to this land, and with each other. It’s a relational concept. It’s having that ability to observe and learn the knowledge of the natural and the spiritual world, because we are a part of something larger than ourselves.

As human beings, it is important for us to know that without being connected, we become dissonant. We lose ourselves. So there is a psychological power in knowing that you are not alone. You are connected to something greater than yourself.

We also have to understand that there is more to reality than meets the eye. There is a spirit in each of us. Your ancestors, they walk with you when you enter an empty room or an empty space. In fact, you are not alone. Your relations come with you.

Within our traditions, we see that all creation is sacred. The rock, the tree, the water, the air, you, me, all created from Mother Earth. The oceans, the streams, lakes, the lands, they run through us. We are a part of that. We are a part of that greatness and life force that comes down into everything. It is about respect and reciprocities.

Photo of Timothy Caulfield by Hugh Wesley

Timothy Caulfield
Canada Research Chair in health law and policy

I’m a science geek and a devout atheist. I’m going to claim that spirituality is not needed, that it lingers in places it doesn’t belong and that this is a problem.

Now I appreciate that on the individual level, spirituality can have great meaning. When I say it’s not needed, I mean that on the social level. If you look at the least religious countries in the world — Australia, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, France, Canada — they’re all progressive, they’re all educated, they all have low crime rates.

In addition to that, if you believe the most recent happiness index, there’s also a strong correlation between being non-religious and being happy. The happiest country in the world is Denmark. And Sweden. And you know what? Canada’s pretty happy too.

The point is not that being atheist or being secular creates good societies. But it does suggest that religion, that spirituality, is not needed in order to make a good society.

Second, spirituality lingers in places it doesn’t belong. Religion is on the decline in the western world, but the belief in the supernatural remains. You see it in the embrace of the pseudo-scientific approaches to health. You see it in naturopathy. You see it in Reiki. You absolutely see it when actor Gwyneth Paltrow talks about detoxing and colonics. All of these things have supernatural foundations. As Canada becomes more science-informed, these kinds of practices are increasingly framed as scientific, which makes them somewhat immune from criticism.

My third point: this is a bad idea. First of all, I believe it erodes critical thinking at a time when we really need critical thinking. It creates a space for bunk and quacks, and it creates the opportunity for individuals to exploit people who are really looking for help. As our society becomes more secular, we need to do a better job of distinguishing between things that belong in the realm of spirituality and things that belong in the ever-expanding realm of science. 

Excerpts have been condensed and edited.

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