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Canada’s ‘Spiritual Geography’ Shifting
Should we celebrate the incredible variety of Canada’s spiritual landscape or worry that it’s leading to fragmentation?

The “spiritual geography of Canada” has a nice ring to it.

Three new books try to help us negotiate Canada’s changing spiritual and religious terrain.

And it’s a phrase you’re likely to hear more as Canadians try to understand the tectonic shifts taking place across the country’s spiritual landscape.

Canadian religion has been hit by cultural earthquakes since the 1950s, when the spiritual geography here was dominated by European-rooted Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants.

Canada’s religious and spiritual trend-lines continue to be shaped by the land, by history and by immigration, but these forces are influencing Canadians in a much different way than in the past.

And, in the early 21st century, when most Canadians say they’re either “religious” or “spiritual,” these movements affect virtually all of us. While some shifts may be welcome, others can be disturbing.

Three new books try to help us negotiate Canada’s changing spiritual and religious terrain.

Two of them track developments in Christianity, which remains relevant in a country where two out of three people tell pollsters they believe Jesus is divine, even though only one in three regularly attend church.

The third book explores non-institutional spirituality, particularly West Coast nature reverence. In other words, the third book delves literally into Canada’s spiritual geography.

As I checked out these books, I kept wondering whether we should celebrate the incredible variety of Canada’s spiritual landscape or worry that it’s leading to fragmentation. At what point does religious and spiritual diversity cause cultural disintegration?

If you still think of Christianity as monolithic, the delusion is broken by reading Northern Lights: An Anthology of Contemporary Christian Writing in Canada, edited by Byron Rempel-Burkholder and Dora Dueck.

This collection brings together 46 eclectic writers, poets, educators and commentators to reflect on whether Canadians have “a spiritual geography — an identity uniquely shaped by their land, their history, their people.”

Those contributing to Northern Lights range from conservatives like Reform Party founder Preston Manning and columnist Michael Coren, to liberals like B.C. author Ralph Milton and New Democratic Party MP Bill Blaikie.

This is a serious set of writings about how the country’s Christian heritage has been affected by so-called spirituality of place. It doesn’t try the impossible, to offer a cohesive portrait of Canadian Christianity.

A harder, more analytical current runs through the scholarly 2008 book, Christianity and Ethnicity in Canada, edited by Paul Bramadat and David Seljak.

As a result, the range of Christian perspectives expressed is breathtaking, and a touch unsettling. But maybe that’s all right. In contrast to the aggressive “culture wars” that blow up in the name of religion in the United States, the Christian voices in Northern Lights are refreshingly enigmatic, nature-oriented and mystical. A gentle Canadian Christian breeze blows through the volume.

Bramadat, head of the University of Victoria’s dynamic Centre for Studies in Religion and Society, writes that there is a “discourse of loss” among Canadian Christians. Many are lamenting the sharp decline in European-based churchgoing in the country since the 1950s.

Christianity and Ethnicity in Canada captures how dramatic changes in immigration patterns — newcomers now coming overwhelmingly from Asia — are re-ordering the face of Canadian churches.

For those with a liberal bent, some of the changes can be off-putting. The book takes a broad-minded approach but makes it clear that most Asian, Middle Eastern and South American immigrants moving into Canadian churches are culturally conservative.

The Filipino, Chinese, Korean and other non-European immigrants who are filling congregations are typically patriarchal, deferential to authority and elders, and opposed to homosexual relationships, the book says.

These authority-seeking immigrant Christians take moral positions that often contrast with those of native-born Canadians, who tend to follow more individualistic and egalitarian values. The new Christian immigrants are also colliding with their own children, who are exposed to more freedom-oriented ways in Canada’s public schools.

The third book, Havens in a Hectic World: Finding Sacred Spaces, is an insightful exploration of the inward and individualistic spirituality that is increasingly practised across Canada.

Vancouver Island writer Star Weiss focuses on the West Coast of Canada as she recounts her personal journey to discover “sacred places” throughout the region, most often in the wilderness.

Since Havens emphasizes the spiritual power of nature, it generally illustrates non-institutional spirituality, which is most prevalent in B.C. but expanding across the country.

Weiss participated in some of the early discussions that went into a related new book I edited, Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia - Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest, which looks at the region’s largely “secular but spiritual” residents.

Southern Oregon University professor Mark Shibley, whom both Weiss and I admire, is quoted in Havens as saying that people of the Pacific Northwest aren’t “less religious” than others. They’re just “differently religious.”

While Weiss celebrates nature reverence, I also appreciate how she quietly raises concerns that nature-based spirituality has to be about more than enjoying impressive scenery or having mystical moments in the forest. It’s hard to form communities around private experiences of trees, eagles and rivers.

To varying degrees, these books on Christianity, ethnicity and nature reverence reflect the reality that Canadians are moving toward greater individualism.

The question they raise is: If every person just does his or her own spiritual thing, what glue will hold Canadians together across a diverse cultural and spiritual geography?

To find reasonable cohesiveness, Canadians will need to develop more creative ways to balance historic forms of community-based spirituality with their increasingly private approaches to divinity.

These books don’t give road maps for how such a transformation could occur, but they describe what’s happening on the spiritual ground in Canada. And that’s a crucial place to start.

Douglas Todd is a writer on spiritual matters for the Vancouver Sun. He can be reached at Vancouver Sun Blogs. An author of several books, his latest is Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia: Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest.

Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia: Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest
appeals to anyone who wants to understand the unique culture and spirituality of the fast-growing Pacific Northwest (British Columbia, Washington and Oregon) – home to the least institutionally religious people on the continent. The book portrays the residents of this area as eclectically, informally, often deeply “spiritual.”

Originally published in the Star Phoenix, February 7, 2009.




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