Winter 2006 - Volume 9 Number 1
|Reviews||Restless Gods: The Renaissance of Religion in Canada
Toronto: Stoddart, 2002
Everyone knew Nietzsche was indulging in a little hyperbole when he announced, in Thus Spake Zarathustra, that “God is dead.” Still, emboldened by the “Enlightenment,” given fresh evidence by natural philosophers from Copernicus to Darwin that the universe and our own species were not quite as biblical sources proclaimed, and made confident by the material and political progress evident in the industrial revolution and the spread of democracy, it certainly seemed that the mad German might be on to something. In fact, for much of the past century and more, the gradual replacement of superstition by science, of prejudice by reason and of supernaturalism by secularism was an article of (dare I say it?) “faith” among people of intelligence and progressive ideals.
By the mid-20th century, some impressive Christian theologians were “shaking the foundations.” From Paul Tillich to James Pike and from Karl Jaspers to Malcolm Boyd, there seemed to be a new “turn” in Christian thought. The publication, in 1963 of Honest to God by the late John A. T. Robinson, the Anglican Bishop of Woolwich seemed at the time to be a “tipping point.” It took some time, but its theology was matched, in Canada, by the Episcopal Commission for Social Affairs of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. They saw fit, in 1983, to state unambiguously their belief that there was a moral crisis in contemporary capitalism and that “there is … an ethical order in which human labour, the subject of production, takes precedence over capital and technology.” How it must have warmed the heart of the progressive true believer to hear Roman Catholicism embrace “the priority of labour principle,” a sacramental restatement of the secular theory of the “labour theory of value”!
Were such ecumenical notions to have endured, religion might have been transformed from its doctrinaire, literalist, paternalist and theistic form into something more akin to the desires of humanists who wished to retain a sense of the sacred while going about their secular business. Who knows? Different paths may have been taken. The martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero might have stood in the place of the dubious Mother Theresa. But, those are the pointless hypotheticals of history.
For a time, of course, exploration and experimentation were quite in evidence. Dabbling in some sort of aboriginal or Eastern spiritualism betokened a “New Age” of crunchy granola and Birkenstock shoes. Young folk took their cues and their clues from Broadway and Hollywood (“Hair,” “Jesus Christ, Superstar”), phantasmagorical Yaqui Indians, the teachings of Alan Watts and Ram Dass (alias Richard Alpert), and gurus from the mildly disreputable Maharishi Mahesh Yoga (guiding light to the Beatles) to the plainly evil Sun Yung Moon, guiding criminal moonshiner to the US Republican Party.
It was all very refreshing, if sometimes a little silly. Sometimes, it was genuine and I know of more than one person whose authentic spiritual path ought not to be disdained. Good for them. Good for Bill. Good for Neil. Good for Adam.
I confess. When in the physical or disembodied presence of a man named Chaitanya, I feel no urge other than to shut up.
Revivification of Western interest in Eastern religion was, of course, nothing new. Surely everyone recalls Madame Blavatsky. At least, everyone should remember Krishnamurti.
If not, even more confounding would be the re-emergence of two contrasting trends.
One is the obvious rise of religious fundamentalism, whether in the form of Islamic “jihads” or in their mirror image, the largely Protestant fundamentalisms now extant in the so-called “red” states, large parts of Alberta and, apparently, the non-fiction “West Wing.”
One who did see this coming was Peter L. Berger. In his counterintuitive study, A Rumor of Angels (1970), he deflated the notion of a modern society which had been left constricted by a “man-to-himself” humanism and sought desperately after some sort of transcendental existence. This theological turn seemed a little strange to those who had seen his previous work, The Social Construction of Reality (with Thomas Luckmann, 1966) as a pillar of secularism but, perhaps, we just weren’t paying sufficient attention to details. His “wit and wisdom” needed only some “breathing space.”
Ideology can best be countered by empiricism. Reginal W. Bibby is an empirical researcher of long standing and high reputation in Canadian sociology. He eschews the sort of grand narrativewhether sacred or secularthat Berger advances. Instead, he goes to the data and to the subject populations he seeks to define.
Restless Gods is not a first jaunt into the minds of the general public. Bibby’s early career focused on the elusive character of youth, begetting books with titles such as The Emerging Generation (with Donald C. Posterski, 1985), Teen Trends (1992) and Canada’s Teens (2001). Upon reaching maturity, he wrote on the subjects of Fragmented Gods (1987) and Unknown Gods (1993) before the current volume hit the press.
Bibby’s research is very hopeful for those who admire the tradition of theism, but it is even more optimistic about the future of some sort of religion, even if it descends to the level of a vague belief in “something else.”
Restless Gods documents not only the fact that growing numbers of young people are “interested in religion” but also gives some hints as to the prospects of such “restless people and restless churches” in the future.
As someone who long since lost faith in religion and is only now losing faith in secularism, I look forward to sensible, level-headed and professional works such as those provided by Dr. Bibby. I have heard noises from people like me too often. I have heard even more strident and nonsensical noises from my putative opponents. I would like to learnfrom reliable sourceswhat other sounds are being made.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at
The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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