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The Church Outside In

Most Canadians don’t regularly attend church. Even though the majority of Canadians will say “Yes” when asked whether they believe in God, few argue that institutional religion is noticed in everyday affairs of contemporary Canadian society.

Throughout our history, any conversation about God is almost always tied into a conversation about corollary religious institutions. However, as a recent Statistics Canada report confirmed, recently this connection has loosened. Over one-half of Canadians regularly engage in some religious activity, but less than one-third attend religious services regularly. This disconnect between spirituality and religious institutions has been well-documented in recent years . Furthermore, historic assumptions about references to the Christian God in Canadian society are less valid than they once were. Mosques, temples, and synagogues, not to mention yoga studios and wiccan houses, are buildings which can be identified with institutional religion in Canada.

The significance of religious institutions for those who belong is self-evident. There are various ways to describe what attendees “get out of it.” For some, it provides a source of inspiration, of instruction regarding life’s bigger and smaller questions. For others, there is a sense of community and friendship, of identity and belonging. For still others, there are opportunities for service and a sense of place that emerges from living out of a particular tradition or in a particular lifestyle.

What about those who don’t belong? Do religious institutions have anything to say to those who never set foot within their doors? Do religious institutions affect society beyond the square footage they happen to occupy? While they provide suitable, and generally more elegant space for families to engage in their “hatch ‘em, match ‘em and dispatch ‘em” rituals, is there a public function that religious institutions play in our shared life together?

In our seemingly secular age, the answer to this question has been “No.” Religious organizations are private institutions that belong to their members, and are quite irrelevant to the rest of us. Historian John Webster Grant wrote that by the end of the sixties, “The nation had come to carry on its business as if the church was not there.” It is a rare voice that would argue much has changed in the thirty years since.

For the non-religious, the religious world seems confusing and fragmented. There are a seemingly endless number of denominations; each convinced that its particular emphasis is right. The intramural squabbles that take place between religious folk, even those of the same religious tradition, are dogmatic and arcane, only emphasizing their seeming irrelevance to the rest of society. Even if religion was to have a voice in the public square, how can coherence emerge from this cacophony? How can that voice be understood and be meaningful to our shared public life together?

I want to make the case that religious institutions play a vital part of our shared life together. Regardless of the religious convictions that one has, the influence and contribution of religious institutions to our shared life together is significant and, therefore, one can neither meaningfully understand society nor propose lasting solutions to our shared problems without at least accounting for how they are impacted by religion.

While some aspects of the argument are utilitarian in that it focuses on what people do as a result of their religious convictions, other aspects are more basic. Religious institutions confront individuals, but by logical extension, they also confront society with core questions. Who are we? What are we doing here? Where are we going? How we answer those questions both individually and collectively inevitably shapes what society looks like. Just consider how the answer of a remote desert wanderer half a world away, Osama bin Laden, has impacted our lives in recent years. Thankfully, the impacts of religion work themselves out in various ways, but one cannot pretend that religion has no impact.

I will use examples drawn from the Christian tradition. That is not intended to imply that there are not equally compelling examples that could be drawn from other traditions, but it is logical that I am most familiar with those from my own. I will also acknowledge that there are criticisms those outside of the Christian tradition can make regarding the sometimes confused voice, uncharitable tone, and smug dogmatism with which Christians have spoken in the public square. The fault for the present decline in the church’s contribution to the public square has to be borne as much by those who call themselves Christians as those who might have actively sought to diminish Christian influence.

However, even while we acknowledge our imperfection in living out our deepest beliefs and convictions, the fundamental point is made: our beliefs do shape our behaviours. Our institutions are physical icons of those beliefs and behaviours, as enacted and lived in the public square. It is common amongst urban geographers to reference the highest and most impressive structure in a centre as the leading moral and physical force behind a city. It is apt to note that where cathedrals, mosques, temples and shrines used to dwell in the some of the world’s grandest cities, they are now outstripped by banks, insurance companies and trade centers.

Yet, outstripped or not, these institutions remain. Though trade centers may tower overhead, faith institutions—against almost all predictions—have not merely survived, but continue to command the loyalty of the majority of the Canadian public, and certainly the world. The subsequent logical question is whether it’s proper for that loyalty to be public? After all, the definition of “public” is that which is shared; any system which allows private or religious beliefs to have sway in the public arena inevitably will result in conflict and chaos.

Leaving aside the controversial definition of “public,” as something which can be bereft of individual belief, faith and philosophy , the case here to be made is that other people’s religious convictions have a significant impact on the public square, most specifically in the form of those institutions which they build within civil society. At one level, we can engage in the discussion by examining the consequences of this connection. What is the impact of faith institutions on society today?

The first answer to that question must be general—it is far greater than is generally acknowledged. Especially if we consider society in its popular conception, shaped by the public media, few would argue that religion is neither widely covered nor well understood. National Post columnist John Fraser wrote in 2000:

Religion, as a source of excellent stories of all sorts, is one of two great no-go areas in the contemporary media (universities being the other)…. (A) s a general rule over the past few decades, stories on religion will break into the media only if they are (a) sensational, (b) bizarre, ? goofy, (d)gee-whiz, or (e) contemptuous.

It may be an oversimplified stereotype, but there is probably enough truth in it to warrant its repetition: the contribution of religious institutions to public life in Canada today is probably identified with a few contentious social and political questions. The perceptions that one holds regarding these institutions probably corresponds to the position each one takes on those particular questions.

Yet religious institutions fill a significant role in volunteering, donating and social services. Kurt Bowen, from the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy, in Religion, Participation, and Charitable Giving, notes that,

Though representing only 14 per cent of the Canadian population over the age of 15, religiously active volunteers make up 43 per cent of volunteers in Canada and account for a startling 50 per cent of all hours volunteered.


The 32 per cent of Canadians who are religiously active contribute 65 per cent of direct charitable donations. As one might expect, this group is responsible for 86 per cent of donations to religious bodies; yet even in the secular sector, the religiously active provide 42 per cent of the $2.1 billion raised by direct giving.

Bowen concludes: “We would do well then to pay more attention to the enormous contribution already made by the faith community, [and] to tap into its great potential”. Paul Reed similarly writes that this is an oft neglected perspective.

One factor, which my necessarily simplistic historical and scholarly reprise neglected, is the role of religious belief and values in motivating pro-social behaviour that is altruistic. In the Western and Mediterranean worlds—which dominate our own historical development—each of the three great desert religions has valued charitable and philanthropic behaviour as part of the individual’s spiritual journey. Maimonides was responsible for codification of an eight level hierarchical class of “degrees of charity” within Judaism. Zakat, the principles of charity within Islamic law, are the result of centuries of scholarly and spiritual study. Similarly, the Christian gospels and Pauline letters encourage charitable behaviour to those less fortunately placed, and admonish the mean spirited and greedy. In both Canada and the United States, a majority of financial donations flows through religious institutions into direct charitable activity.

However, the institutions of religion are not alone in public service. Many organizations donate, volunteer and serve, including non-religious. Is the church just another one of these organizations? Is it the institution of choice of one segment of the population, while other groups are chosen by other segments of the population?

A study of volunteerism in Canada by Statistics Canada a few years ago provides some thoughtprovoking data to consider. “Of the 31% of adults who reported having volunteered for a charitable or community association, the top third accounted for more than 80% of the total volunteer hours while the bottom third accounted for less than 3%.”10 That translates into about ten per cent of the adult population who do the overwhelming proportion of volunteerism in this country. And what do we know about those who are more likely to be volunteers? The study includes a profile:

What is the overall picture of the active volunteer in Canada? This study sketches a portrait of a person who

• has been involved in civic activities as a youth;

• has an above-average education and occupation;

• feels a sense of personal responsibility for or interest in community affairs;

• feels a sense of satisfaction and control in life;

• has children under the age of 17 living at home in a larger than average household; and,

• engages not only in volunteering but in other forms of helping, contributing and participating as well, especially through religious organizations.”11

Faith institutions are making clear, documented, and statistically significant contributions to the public square, and that square recognizes them every day in the lives of its citizens. Where would our cities be without the contribution of many religiously motivated groups—the Salvation Army being the most prominent, but certainly not only group—in providing shelter to the homeless and relief to the poor? What would be the foreign aid contribution of Canada if the activities of religiously minded relief organizations—the Mennonite Central Committee being the most prominent, but again hardly alone—were not included? How does one measure the value of the religiously-reminded organizations who visit prisoners, actively help in their reintegration into society, and run programs helping those who run afoul of the law become law-abiding citizens?

If we were to go into any Canadian city and begin to measure what would happen if the churches in that city closed their doors and ceased the formal programs of outreach and service to the community, what would be the impact on society? Then there is the service that religious organizations provide to their own members. If the counseling, “meals on wheels,” and youth programs were transferred to society as a whole, what would be the impact?

The evidence is not all one-sided. There have been abuses, misuses and mistakes in the name of religion, which have “cost society.” There are also perspectives advanced in the name of religion which unmistakably have as their objective the creation of a society that does not aspire to democratic values. This article is not a defense of everything that takes place in the name of religious institutions. However, it is an argument that any democracy that is worthy of its name must provide space for debate with all voices that raise arguments for the public good, within a democratic framework. The positive contribution of most religious institutions in Canada today is far greater than is generally acknowledged.

Obviously the interplay between religious institutions and society as a whole has proven a difficult subject throughout history. To those who find themselves outside any religious tent, the challenge seems doubly difficult. They will acknowledge that much good happens in the name of religion, but how does one get the good works without the gory religious headlines? Can we have the care for troubled youths without the shooting of abortion doctors?

For many these troubling questions have proved unanswerable. Hence, the wisest route seems to be to ignore religion and try to isolate it from any involvement in public life. Of course, that neglect of religious institutions in the public square for the past thirty years hasn’t really changed anything. We still must deal with the good and bad. The good works and their social benefits we have described have occurred without public encouragement or acknowledgement. Those aspects of religious life which many would prefer to see obliterated continue on, undeterred by the public shunning. Why is that?

To answer this, let us turn specifically to the Christian church, Canada, and the world’s largest religious institution. The church is an institution like no other. It is an organic institution. Organisms must either be killed or contended with, but they cannot be ignored. There are at least three distinct features that combine to give the church her organic character.

The first is a sense of truth. An orthodox Christian perspective begins with the fact that God created the world with a purpose, that evil came into the world when man sinned, and that God intervened with a plan of redemption and that the result of this will be a restoration of creation to God’s original purpose. This creation-fall-redemption framework has clear implications regarding all of life’s questions, and provides a story within which the challenges of society—including good and evil—will be met.

The second feature that distinguishes a church is a sense of transcendent participation. There is more to life than meets the eye. The social challenges we face and the public discourses we engage in take place at a down-to-earth level, where the rubber hits the road, but simultaneously coram deo—before the face of God. God has an interest in what is occurring in the world, most clearly demonstrated by coming down to earth in human form in the person of Jesus Christ. While this sense of involvement in the divine plan is most intensely realized through participation in the sacraments, every aspect of the Christian life is to be lived out of a sense of “Christ in us.”

The third feature that distinguishes the church is the sense of community. There is no church without community. The church is a body of believers, with a sense of obligation for each other and a mutual duty of service. There is a sense in which this community is felt by separation from society as a whole, a sense of being “called out”, but there is also a sense in which this community is felt through service to the community as a whole, a sense of obligation to show through word and action their belief that the entire world was created by, and is loved by, God.

While different faith traditions would articulate what gives their particular religious institution its vitality in different ways, it is clear that membership in a religious institution is something that is experienced differently than membership in a community association or a service club. While this may not be equally or fully understood by those outside of any particular religious tradition, the consequences are real and need to be contended with.

We live in a pluralistic society. While a secularist mindset—the belief that religion has no role in the public square—is alive and well in Canadian society today, so are religious institutions. Even Statistics Canada reports that if “the four dimensions of religiousity—affiliation, attendance, personal practices and importance of religion—can be defined into a simple ‘religiosity index’….40% of Canadians have a low degree of religiosity, 31% are moderately religious, and 29% are highly religious.” 12 By my math, that translates into a 60-40 split. If there are historic institutions deeply embedded into the fabric of civil society with the moderate to high religious loyalty of 60% of the Canadian public, I would say that makes faith institutions a relevant public dialogue partner.

Further I am convinced that this concentration of the population has a significant impact on our urban centers, and though the majority of Canadians may be Christians of one stripe or another, we must broaden the dialogue to include atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and other groups which maintain vital institutions of public significance. While the coloured glasses that we all bring to the dialogue mean that we see something different when we look through the stained glass of contemporary Canadian churches, I am quite convinced that any honest dialogue will recognize something of the positive contribution that an organic vibrant Christian church can make to our shared life together.




2. See especially Bibby, Restless Gods
3. Seven out of every ten Canadians identify themselves as either Roman Catholic or Protestant:
4. The prospect that “public” is value neutral, and therefore free of religious conviction, has undergone sustained assault in recent years. Many theorists who could be classified “postmodern” are quick to note that neutrality is often a catch phrase for a commonly agreed-upon ideology. In my opinion, the best author to offer a sustained criticism of neutrality in the public square, or in political philosophy in general, is Alisdair MacIntyre in After Virtue, and most significantly in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?
5. Quoted in Bibbly, Restless Gods p 9
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
10. MIE/75F0033 MIE00002.pdf
11. Ibid

Linked to Cardus' Social Cities research project.

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