A response to Toronto the Good

September 3, 2008

The recent Work Research Foundation report, Toronto the Good, goes a long way toward redeeming that rusty and increasingly ironic old sobriquet. Once it was a description of the city's embrace of a grey and graceless religious morality, and then long a snickering diss—everything from the perennial haplessness of the Leafs, to the lack of a night life, to rigidly controlled liquor sales—in a phrase, our collective clumsiness as we tried to dance.

The report's reclamation of the term 'good' is, I think, very helpful. This 'goodness' is not the application of a specific or doctrinaire moral code, but the kind of thing we mean when we say, on a hot summer day, "This ice cream is really good."

Strange to think that the church could afford to take a lesson about such goodness from the City's official plan, which sets out values of diversity and opportunity, beauty and connectivity, and leadership and stewardship. I can't remember the last time I heard any of those first four terms used in a conventional church context, but they are surely core spiritual values.

Back when the phrase 'Toronto the Good' was first coined, the church was a substantial power and power broker in city life and politics. That kind of power has long since dissipated, and is perhaps not to be lamented. And now we seem to be—finally!—emerging from a lengthy period in which spiritual communities have been relegated to the margins of civic life, distrusted by business and city leaders, and operating out of their own sense of inferiority and exclusivism.

Ironically, the deplorable rise of poverty and homelessness may be the reason for the new, fruitful relationship between city and spiritual communities described in the report: it's largely in seeking to care for the poor and excluded that those communities have re-discovered their social raison d'etre, and in the process, have proven themselves not only worthy partners to secular and government initiatives, but also as creative initiators in their own right. And when spiritual communities reclaim this historical ground, it seems the arts (beauty and connectivity!) begin also to burgeon again among them.

I've been using the term 'spiritual' rather than 'faith' communities because our city is so diverse that even the latter term, as generic as it may seem to Christians, does not apply to all people of deep spiritual conviction who live here. Many Buddhists, for example, feel that the term 'faith' does not exactly apply to their approach to life. People of Christian faith have not often, in the past, taken much time to try to understand such subtle differences. One of the great gifts of working together on common, neutral ground (often with the City as the facilitator) is that we do begin to recognize the nature of both our differences and similarities; as a Christian, every such contact convinces me more and more deeply that all truth is God's truth, and that His grace and mercy cannot be contained by the church or anything else. Not even the City.

"Seek the peace [health, wholeness, prosperity] of the city," God instructed the Hebrew people long ago during their exile in pagan Babylon. "For in its peace you will find your own."

We are beginning to do this together, I believe—the City, the church, and other spiritual communities. I can hardly wait to see what good thing will spring to life next.