Sunday, November 27, 2016


I haven't posted here for quite a while, but a few things caught my notice recently.  Three things to be more precise, and all three contain elements of irony. One involves a new movie; one a poet who has just died; the third my father.

First, the movie: Silence - a movie by Martin Scorsese

The irony was pointed out in a post by the ultra Catholic Regina Magazine as Martin Scorsese is a lapsed Catholic. I didn't find this surprising as I am not surprised that even those who reject their childhood faith retain it somewhere in their conscious  or unconscious minds. I am always reminded of the probably apocryphal story of the emperor Constantine waiting until he was on his deathbed to convert to Christianity fully. I have had my own struggles with faith throughout my adult life so am less inclined to throw the first or even the eighteenth stone than those comfortable in their beliefs.

Second: Leonard Cohen. He was raised Jewish and his songs and poetry often contained religious references, sometimes Jewish, sometimes Christian and sometimes Buddhist. He did spend years in a Zen monastery living as a monk and learning from a Zen master. Yet he enjoyed the full sexual fruits of the successful troubadour if legend be true. I cam across this 'homily' by the Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who analyzes Leonard Cohen's last recording and one track especially. Leonard Cohen the man of the world, first famous and envied for his sojourn on a Greek island with a beautiful woman, ending his life returning in song to the faith of his ancestors?  Irony? No, like Martin Scorsese, perhaps one cannot deny that silent still place deep inside.

Third: my father.  My father was born a Canadian Methodist, then when that church became the main component of the new United Church of Canada, he belonged there. Around about 1960 he switched to the Anglican Church of Canada, spurred on by the local Anglican priest knocking on our door one day doing a little evangelizing (yes, on rare occasions even Anglicans attempt to convert people). As I liked to tease my Dad, the proximate cause was the local United Church minister passing the temperance pledge around the congregation one Sunday. My Dad fumed over that, ranting that no minister was going to tell him he couldn't drink his Labatt's IPA while watching the CFL in the Fall. Later in the 1970s and on, my Dad fell away from church attendance, leaving my mother to go alone. He had all the memes and shallow arguments atheists hold dear for his drifting away, until that is, he came to his final illness. Although he had lost much of his ability to make sense, when the Anglican lay ministers arrived at his nursing home, suddenly his mind sprang to life again and he knew all the responses to Anglican Holy Communion and took Communion every Sunday until he died.

Irony?  Well I don't know, though I suspect not. Rather these three stories are typically human. We humans struggle in life and that includes struggling with faith. Even the archpriest of atheism, Richard Dawkins said once he is only 6/7 convinced there is no God. Faith, and no faith,  like life, is struggle. I, for one, do not hold myself above those who are certain and those who are not, as I am also a fellow struggler, without irony.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

George Grant

This announcement arrived in one of my email inboxes yesterday:

(I have redacted the name of the group and the place the meeting will be held as it is not open to the public - but i cannot attend anyway)

George Grant was a Canadian philosopher, professor, and political commentator. He is best known for his nationalism, political conservatism, and his views on technology, pacifism and Christian faith. He was one of Canada's most original thinkers. Join us for a series of presentations and a panel discussion on Grant’s English-Speaking Justice, originally delivered as a lecture at Mount Allison University on the meaning of justice in a society dominated by technology. This little book sums up much that is central to his thought, including a critique of modern liberalism, an analysis of John Rawl’s Theory of Justice, and other insights into the Western philosophical tradition.

For a George Grant primer, see this inteview from the CBC archives he gave in 1973 that includes comments on liberalism and technology, topics covered in the book we will be studying:

9:00am   Welcome: Dcn. Charles Fernandes, St. John's, Dundalk (Moderator)
9:05am   Introduction to George Grant: Prof. Norman Klassen, St. Jerome's University
9:15am-10:00am    Part I. Fr. Mark Morley, Pastor, Sacred Heart Parish, Rockwood and Chaplain, University of Guelph
10:00am-10:45am   Part II. Prof. Nikolaj "Nick" Zunic, St. Jerome's University
10:45am-11:00am   Break
11:00am-11:45am   Part III. Stephen Jones, Managing Editor of The Conrad Grebel Review
11:45pm-12:30pm   Part IV. Richard V. Marchak, Criminal Lawyer
12:30pm-1:00pm    Moderated Open Discussion

Some time ago, a TV interview show - The Agenda with Steve Paikin -   did a piece on Grant, where as I recall most of the panel were only vaguely knowledgable about his thought - one panel member even admitting that he had skimmed through Lament for a Nation the night before, not having read anything other of Grant's ever, and not having read this for many years. 

This is sad to me. A number of years ago when I still taught in the classroom at the University of Guelph, I was packing up after a class in the Mackinnon Building, when another prof and his class came in - I was in a good mood, my class having gone reasonably well (not always a given for me) and asked what the course was. William Christian, a political scientist at Guelph, answered that it was his course on George Grant. I was pleasantly surprised that the university had such a course and said that no student should graduate in the Humanities or Social Sciences from a Canadian university without having had to grapple with the ideas of George Grant. Prof. Christian asked me to say that to his class before I left - I did, while noticing there were probably only about 20 students. Well, better than none, I thought. William Christian is, of course, George Grant's biographer.

The above invitation included a link to a TV interview of Grant done in 1973 as a refresher because Grant is largely forgotten and has always been misunderstood, the latter being perhaps a worse fate than the former. The interviewer was Ramsay Cook, an historian who specialized in Québec and was a big name at the time and was still required reading on PhD syllabuses in the 1990s, so the interview was intelligent - but still it required some knowledge of what Grant had to say in order to make sense of the interview.

The introduction to the meeting I pasted from my inbox reflects both an acquaintance with Grant's thought and a misunderstanding at the same time.

The essence of Grant's thinking is contained in the word technique not technology. The other aspects of his thinking: his nationalism, his critique of both the United States and of Marxism alike, his understanding of conservatism, his pacifism and his deep Christian faith are entangled in his use of this word technique.

By technique Grant means not technology - the understanding and manipulation of machines and tools in a technical sense - but the impact on our understanding of reality, of life, of materiality and of truth that a civilization worshipping objects and the technical manipulation of objects (and now of living organisms including human beings) has. 

He was saying as early as the publication of Lament for a Nation and in all his subsequent writing that we view reality as an object to be manipulated. Technology is the means; technique is the mental attitude and mental habits that drive all other understandings of reality to the periphery. 

His critique of the United States was just that, a critique, not a criticism simply because in his lifetime the United States and the Soviet Union and China were enmeshed in technique and as such had more in common than not. He saw that Canada, or Britain or any other part of the world had little chance of genuinely adhering to a different view of reality because of the juggernaut of technique, to which they also assented. 

By conservatism he did not mean what is today considered conservative. I would say that both conservatism and liberalism as currently defined are merely two sides of the same coin called technique. They merely have different paths to the veneration and worship of the material world. Today a conservative is defined as someone who believes in small government, low taxes, and local social traditions being maintained. For Grant, a conservative was not primarily a fiscal policy. It was a philosophy that desired the retention of local customs and traditions, but most importantly conservatism meant a society where the general good was over and above individual rights. If you read the thought of conservatives on the ground so to speak in the 19th and earlier centuries you will see a concern for the common good and an abhorrence of what they called license. They did not mean society received a permit of some kind, but rather this use of the word is related to the English word licentious. Licentious today means sexually promiscuous or unprincipled sexually - but its older meaning was 'disregarding accepted conventions'. Well today increasingly there are no accepted conventions in society in general and virtually none in human sexuality - other than a general rule that what gives physical pleasure must be good and true. 

I think if George Grant were alive today he would not be surprised by the world of today. You might think too that he would approve of protest movements against technology such as pipeline protests or those who refuse to drive cars. I do not think this, however. I think he would see that we have become ever more deeply part of technique, whether you support of oppose pipelines. The argument is over how you manipulate objects for maximum human physical comfort and pleasure, not whether the manipulation of objects is the primary goal of human existence. Do we ride bicycles or drive cars to put it plainly:  both automobiles and bicycles are high tech objects requiring sophisticated technology and the love of sophisticated technology that is implicit in the term technique.

George Grant too would not be surprised by the status of faith in this world of today. Faith, whether you be Christian or Hindu or Muslim or a Druid requires the individual and more importantly, a society to place something other than objects at the centre of life.

This is most difficult for us today, especially if you have no connection to a time where religion was at the centre of life, not materiality. This mentality does not require the rejection of technology; it does require the rejection of technique. I used to debate someone who claimed to reject materiality by saying he did not like computers (and tellingly, he used computers) that technology is an inescapable part of being human ever since the first person to take a stick to root under a rock to get the choicest bugs to eat. That too is technology, but not technique   The problem was and is the worship of technology and the worship of science, that methodology that perfects technology. We, as humans, are tool users and tool devisers, but we have not always worshipped our machines and worshipped those who delve into the mysteries of material objects. 

This, I propose, is the essence of what George Grant was saying in all his work.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Minor rumination on secularization

I was idly ruminating today on secularization. Well, this is a fraught and fascinating topic with permutations that sprout daily.

But, this particular morning I was thinking rather more simply about why some Christian churches are vibrant and others not in Canada. Thinking back, the Anglican church, into which I was confirmed at age 13 in 1964 began to lose its youth in the 1960s. And come to think of it, its youth in both senses, the children of the active adult members and the ability of the church itself to speak to youth. This did not seem a problem at the time as no one knew they would never return and the parents of that generation were in their prime, mostly in their late 30s and 40s. Other mainstream Protestant churches followed roughly the same trajectory. The Catholics held on to the 1990s when the same began to happen there, although immigration has softened and slowed that decline.

But the evangelical churches are different. By evangelical, I include Baptists, Pentecostal churches, 'Gospel' churches, 'Bible chapels' and so on, that whole Christian ferment of individual congregations (though usually grouped to pay for the training of pastors). They are nimble and quick on their feet and congregations contain an array of generations still today.

'Why' is the subject of this rumination and I mentioned one hypothesis just now. They are nimble, that is, for one example, they have no difficulty including rock music into their worship. They are relaxed. Sunday best is jeans and shorts and comfortable tops. If you want to wear a suit then do so. They include clubs and activities and chat and laughter. They help each other in times of trouble like a large, happy extended family.

There is more though, and this is the thought that caused me to write this post. I have attended a Baptist church two or three times a year for the past two or three years. I am Catholic now, and raised United Church and Anglican. I have a good sense of the 'feel' of mainstream Canadian Protestantism and Catholicism. Now I am getting a sense of the evangelical stream in Christianity. More than the community, more than the way one dresses is the focus of the underlying, foundational message in these churches. The mainstream Protestant and Catholic churches alike stress sin and guilt and begging for forgiveness. Services are depressing even where the music is uplifting as the overall, holistic aura is down and dark. Evangelical churches present hope and a spirit and flavour of joy.

I must stress it is not the words coming from a pulpit alone, or even primarily these words that form the atmosphere of a church worship service. It is an underlying texture of architecture, attitude, degree of regimentation, dress..... how often people smile, to put it simplest.

Maybe I should have given this post the title: To Smile or not to Smile, that is the answer.

A curious fact

Another semester of teaching the History of Religion is coming to a close. Two courses this summer: World Religions and Religion and Society in the Modern World (mostly the British Isles and North America). I have been teaching these two courses in one form or another for about twelve years now. Sometimes they were offered twice a year; in one case I taught a classroom version and an online version of the same course running concurrently.

The curious fact?  I have noticed over the years that students whose surnames indicate a Christian family history are less knowledgable about Christianity than students of non-Christian ethnicities, or who are immigrant Christians from Africa or the Philippines. I encounter thoughts and ideas that indicate a fundamental ignorance of Christianity with students named Smith or Jones, or they have very odd ideas about Christianity. I wonder if this comes from snippets of conversations with parents who went to church as children?  For the generation I teach currently have often never been inside a church and their parents last attended as children. Immigrant Christians and immigrants who are non-Christian start fresh, in a zero-based form and read the course content and perhaps some secondary sources giving them a good grounding in what Christianity is. The immigrant Christians, of course, have a good grounding in their denominational beliefs which fits the course content. Those who have Christian grandparents only have rumour and half understood ideas their parents recall vaguely from childhood.

Anyway, to give any substance to this hypothesis would require a juicy research grant and expertise in random sampling techniques.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

a reposting

I thought I would link one of my own posts from a few years back so those of you new to this blog will understand its focus more clearly.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Rudolf Otto

I am posting this excerpt from a course I teach on World Religions, so students in another history of religion course I teach where I do not cover Rudolf Otto can see a précis of his ideas. This stems from a comment by a student who agreed with Otto without knowing about his thinking - that is, the student came to the same idea on his own.

Here is the quote from myself:

...religion provides an undefinable mental, or rather spiritual state to the individual human person. The first scholarly attempt to describe this experience is found in the writings of Rudolph Otto. 
Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), published a book called Das Heilige, or in English The Idea of the Holy, in 1917. Otto was one of the first scholars to study comparative religions in order to understand what all religions had in common. Despite the age of this book, it is still read and studied by anyone who is serious about the study of religion. Rudolf Otto not only read about religions, he travelled extensively around Europe, North America and in the Far and Middle East in order to experience other religions first hand. The first English language translation of his most famous book, The Idea of the Holy,  was published in 1923. A second, and better translation was published in 1950, which is available through the Trellis library system. You can find online copies at the Internet Archive site.
Otto proposed that the essence of religion lies in this concept, which is non-rational (n.b. this does not mean irrational), and does not include ethics either. That is, he was concerned to define the word holy apart from any idea that holy=good. He did not deny that holiness could cause people to act in a good manner, to act ethically, but that ethical behaviour was an adjunct to the holy, and not of its essence. This essence was also non-rational, that is its essence does not lie in rational cause and effect relationships, but in presence - it was just present. 
For this mental state Otto coined the term numinous. The numinous state - the holy without added ethical considerations and indefinable by means of reason was, to use an old but necessary term sui generis - meaning it is in a category by itself. It is unique, in the pure sense of this word. Today people speak of things or events or people as being very unique or more unique. Properly speaking, however, the word unique means one of a kind - a person, place, thing, experience is either unique or it is not. The numinous is unique. 
What is it then
The numinous is a feeling, an emotion-like experience, but not one of the standard emotions. Otto uses a Latin phrase he invented to label this emotion-like experience: mysterium tremendum. Mysterium means mystery, or that which the human mind cannot know or understand. Tremendum means fearful, or terrible. He uses Latin words because this fear is not a normal fear, rather it is a sensation more related to awe, than fright. Tremendum is a Latin gerund used as an adjective, but it comes from the Latin word for earthquake or trembling - so the phrase coined by Otto tries to describe a kind of internal, spiritual earthquake. 
The numinous is a sensation similar to the feeling produced by music, or poetry, or perhaps in a horror movie though in this last as often a pleasurable feeling more than one of dread.
Not every person who is religious experiences the mysterium tremendum and even for those who do, it is not usually frequent. But the numinous is perhaps the essential component of religiosity, beyond doctrine, structure, prayer or any of the usual defined characteristics. 
For a detailed summary of Rudolf Otto's ideas read this Short Essay by John Durham.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Religion and War

I came across a blog by an evangelical atheist where the meme that religion is the principle cause of war was repeated. I wrote this response on this blog, but I wonder if the blog owner will publish it.

While religion has been intrinsic to many wars in history, it is not a major cause of most wars. Wars generally are caused by greed, a lust for power, and pride. Often religion has been used to motivate followers as an effective tool for battle. 
Religion, of course, is not ‘modern’ but has existed, as far as archaeology and history can tell, since humans were identifiably human. But lets to do a quick count of wars in western history: wars in ancient Greece were not about religion but about city state rivalries; the wars that created the Roman empire over a thousand years were about a lust for power and a kind of tribal/ethnic pride in battle as being glorious; the multiple wars that destroyed the empire in the west were about migration and about a Germanic tribal culture that glorified combat; the expansion of Islam was about religion, but also about keeping the original Bedouin Muslims from fighting each other – better to have them fight someone who was not Muslim than engage in inter tribal battles. Ironically, the Crusades were about religion but when Pope Urban II preached the first crusade in 1095 it was also about stopping the knightly class from fighting each other by pointing them at a common enemy, Islam. 
In western Europe, the 100 years war between the places that became England and France was not about religion, but again about a culture descended from the Germanic tribes that conquered the Roman Empire and which maintained their belief in glory in battle; the first set of wars following the Protestant Reformation were about religion – which is where the meme you write about originates – as were the French wars of religion in roughly the same era. The 30 years war used religion as an excuse but was in fact a dynastic dispute – as the Lutheran Swedes were allied with the Catholic French against the Catholic Spanish. This long war also contributed to the meme that religion is a principle factor in war. The various wars fought by European powers to expand around the world had religion sometimes mixed in and sometimes as an afterthought. The Spanish famously (or infamously) came to the Americas for God, Gold and greed, and you can debate which of these was paramount. The English and the French came to the Americas to profit as capitalists but brought their religion with them. 
Africa and Asia was colonized by the Brits as part of imperial expansion primarily for profit and with virtually no religious motivation. Religion came as a means to pacify locals once conquered and from a genuine belief in the truth of Christianity. The European wars caused by Napoleon were not religious; the French revolution was anti-religious (you might argue that atheism was a motivator here – and if you define religion functionally rather than substantively, you could argue that atheism is a religion); the American revolution was primarily political and economic, but the evangelical roots of much of the 13 colonies contributed to the sense of a special mission which helped motivate the revolution. The First World War and the Second World war were not religious at all, unless you define Naziism as a type of religion focussed on race rather than God; the Russian revolution and the expansion of the Soviet Empire was partially driven by atheism and specifically rejected Christianity (except in the second world war where Stalin used Russian Orthodoxy to inspire defence against the Nazi invasion). Korea was not religious, Vietnam was not religious. 
The various other wars fought by the American Empire since the second world war were wars of cultural and social and economic expansion – I suppose in a functional sense, nationalism can be equated to traditional definitions of religion, but not in the way you mean religion. The Gulf war, the Iraq war, the war with ISIS/ISIL are religious on one side but not on the side of the Western powers. The western powers are concerned with oil supplies and control of the states where most oil is produced, while the wars fought among Muslim states, within Muslim states and against western powers are religious on their side. So these modern wars are 50% religious. There are numerous civil wars occurring all over the Muslim world, usually moderate Muslims battling extremist Muslims. These are religious wars. 
To summarize: I will say something that is not politically correct: most of the wars in history that are specifically religious involve Islam. Yet even here, once Islam settled down into functioning polities war for them also became about power and lust for power and only superficially about religion. As for Christianity, there are only three specifically and unequivocally religious wars: the Crusades; the Protestant Reformation wars that ended in 1555 and the French wars of religion, ending in 1598. I have said nothing about Africa and Asia as I am not well informed on their histories – what I do know says there were no or few wars based on religion, but there were many wars.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Speaking Truth to Power

I have been listening to an interesting podcast on CBC Radio’s ‘Ideas’ show. In it, an Indian journalist, Palagummi Sainath gives a speech at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. The podcast consists of a recording of  his speech with a studio interview of Sainath by the show’s host, Paul Kennedy,  interpolated.  

But I will give a synopsis. Primarily he is saying that journalism is owned by major corporate interests and its reporting and publishing now reflects those interests. Journalism, he implies functions as public relations for the powerful. He notes further that today  there are more PR people than official journalists, even as journalists mostly themselves function in a PR mode. I would add journalism also functions as  public relations for the powerful in government - not necessarily politicians as politicians are only temporary placeholders, the front men and women for true power. 

Sainath notes that the biggest story of our generation - the degree to which the government in every democratic country has its own citizens under surveillance - was broken by figures such as Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. These two men are not journalists and these two men are paying a price for challenging power. 

My second and related link is to an article on the state of research and science into fat in our diet. On the face of it, there is no obvious connection between these two disparate news items (and they are properly speaking ‘news’). 

What this author, Aaron E. Carroll, a professor of medicine says in summary, is that science into the impact of saturated and unsaturated fats on human health has suffered from poor reporting. That is, even in science (and in this case, medical science), some good research findings get published and some do not. Those that do not get published go against the prevailing wisdom of medical science at any one time. This, to anyone who understands the proper nature of scholarship in any discipline, is a violation of that proper nature. Science, we are told by the leading popularizers of this methodology (science is a method, not a thing), must be objective and neutral and led by the facts. 

Yet, this scientist is troubled that it seems not to be so in his field of study - that some kind of herd instinct is at play where even those who ran good blind or double blind studies doubt their own evidence because it runs off in a different direction than the herd. He looks specifically at a major study done over several years spanning the late 60s and early 70s that was not published. Dr. Carroll wonders if the researchers did not try to publish because they doubted their results, not because their methodology was flawed, but because their results did not match the prevailing wisdom. Or was it not published because medical scientific journals would not accept it for that same reason.

Here you see the link between the ideas presented in the podcast on journalism and its relationship to power, and scientific journalism and its relationship to power in the scientific community. 

One of the foundational strengths of western civilization is its ability to go in new and surprising directions - to innovate, to think outside the box, BUT to do so with intellectual rigour. Apart from the various moral and ethical collapses of our society today, I would say that the underlying problem I see in both these thought pieces (what an awkward phrase, but what else can I call the two?), the underlying problem is our abandonment of innovative and honest thought, subjected to intellectual rigour and its concomitant captivity by the powerful. 

There are those who sense, if not see, the problem. The Open Media group of young people here in Canada, along with the law professor Michael Geist at the University of Ottawa see this lurking in the trade deal, the TPP. Who benefits here?  A free internet and its unleashing of free ideas is damaged and perhaps killed by specific terms in the agreement. These terms keep the internet captive to large corporations, facilitated by ‘trade’ deals negotiated among governments. The PR journalists tell us that the deal is about gaining access for our products to large markets, while in sotto voce trying not to mention that our market is also opened to the inflow of products from more powerful economies. No one looks at the larger picture, or if they do, they keep quiet. Who benefits?

Many years ago Canada entered into a trade deal with the United States - one which Donald Trump wants to end - but this deal brought no benefits whatsoever to the vast majority of Canadians. Indeed it can be argued we lost heavily, and if ordinary Americans as Trump claims, also lost, who won?  I won’t lead you any further along this line of thought, you can see the cheese at the end of the maze already I think.  

The same outcome will likely come from the TPP - benefits to already massively large corporations and to their facilitators in government, and no benefit to the majority of the population and quite possibly a worsening of our situation. And don’t let the propaganda from our journalistic elite fool you - times are worse now than only short decades ago. Mind you, I base this prediction only on the existing outcome of the North American Free Trade agreement - maybe the TPP is different. Maybe. 

One last point of hope here. I note that Sainath’s speech is at a Christian university, one that has a history of speaking truth to power. You might say that the Catholic church is hardly democratic, but in terms of power bases in the world today, it is one of the few alternate sources of power equal to corporations or government that often opposes their agenda. You can see the same in Islam - the Arab Spring was an uprising of Muslim youth against naked power. Buddhism presents an alternative lifestyle to the pursuit of material wealth. Without belabouring this point further, religion, whether organized and institutional, or as a grass roots movement usually speaks against power, except where it is corrupted and taken in as part of that power. Secondly, the article by Aaron Carroll  is published in the New York Times. This indicates the possibility that free thought may be down, but is not out.

Free ideas are anathema to power. As an historian I can say this with rather more certitude than is normal for a cautious scholar. Now, perhaps the analyses of the journalist Palagummi Sainath, and the physician Dr. Carroll, and my summary of their thoughts, are wrong. 

But what is definitely wrong and is occurring, is the growing intolerance of alternative opinions in the western world. We expect that of Russia or China, but not in free, functioning democracies. And, alas, we are all complicit in this. Social media are replete with people shouting opinions they have not thought through, and bullying anyone who disagrees by using violent language empty of evidence. 

Who knows how this will turn out? My usual cop out is to state that I am an historian and have enough trouble analysing the past, without attempting to understand the future. Yet, the path we, as a civilization are following now can be seen as well trod and clear already in the past. It is up to us to move this path in a different direction, or to stay on it and accept the consequences. 

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Hand Shaking and the impact of Science

In Christian worship, traditionally a point in the liturgy came where clergy and people would embrace with a ritual kiss, called the holy kiss, signifying the love of God and unity. I'm not speaking here of a passionate kiss, but a kind of perfunctory pecking.  In later eras, this was often restricted to the clergy alone, but has been reintroduced to the congregation as well in the past number of decades. In mediaeval England, the 'peace' or 'pax' (Latin for peace) was an actual object of wood or wax passed about the congregation to signify love and unity, and which each person would 'peck'.  The reintroduction in the later 20th century of this ritual came in the form of a handshake usually. In this part of the liturgy, people in the pews, standing at this point, would smile and shake hands with those nearby saying 'Peace be with you'. Although found mostly in Christian denominations where ritual is primary, it is also found sometimes among so-called 'anabaptists' or Mennonites.

This is a very circumscribed history and description of this practice just to set the scene for my point.

What actually interests me here is the element of human, physical contact. Ritual forms of Christianity do stress that worship should involve body, mind and soul working in a unity. Thus, the 'pax' or 'peace' or 'holy kiss' necessarily involves actual touching between Christians to join the physical with the spiritual and emotional - a wholeness.

In the 21st century, however, this touching, this physicality in the 'peace' is receding. People still say 'peace be with you' but they cross their arms and bow slightly and smile. The crossed arms indicate they do not intend to touch the other person. This absence of touch springs from our fear of germs and of illness and sickness spread person to person. Science tells us not to shake hands unless we have sanitized our bodies first.

It seems to me that far more is lost by this lack of human touch than is protected against. It seems to me that isolating ourselves in this way from others is a far greater disease than a cold or flu or any merely physical affliction.

Finally, it seems to me that this is a sign of a belief that only the physical matters and that physical suffering of any sort is far more to be feared than any spiritual outcome. I proffer my hand, and find that where someone responds in kind, we give each other a kind of .."aren't I daring and a rule breaker' smile.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016


My body was following the straight lines of city sidewalks this evening with my dog Roscoe, but my mind was meandering here and there as is its wont.

I was thinking about hospitals. My wife is incarcerated in one of these rather mad institutions, but the keepers have decided to attempt a move to another system where she can get specialized care.

This is beside the point however. The hospital she is in is a part of an atheist healthcare system, while the other is Catholic Christian. This division occurred to me on a particularly straight section of sidewalk and a particularly meandering sweep of my mind. I asked myself why I classified the Juravinski hospital and the Hamilton Health Sciences system of hospitals as atheist. I answered myself this way: If one truly believes in God or a god or any transcendent entity or force (say the Dao, for example), then life must be structured around this fundamental, overarching reality. It would be like rocket scientists ignoring gravity to do otherwise. I can imagine such a scientist. I can't see gravity!  Therefore I will build this rocket and just pick it up and toss it up in the sky... and off it will go! Hmmmm. Well, Hamilton Health Sciences does its very best to apply the dictates and discoveries of modern medical science without reference to God. The system allows for God for patients - preachers and priests do stalk its corridors, but this belief is not imprinted in the DNA of the system.

St. Joseph's Healthcare System is somewhat different. It is a Catholic hospital system founded by an order of nuns in the 19th century. Looking at patients as a whole, in a holistic sense, used to be central to their mission. I am not sure this is the case anymore. The nuns no longer dominate or run the place. I hope that some vestige of this essential view of healing remains, lying in littered places in corners, picked up on the shoes of busy linear thinking medical scientists as they pass busily and importantly by. I suppose that is the difference between a hospital system that does not, in its heart, believe God exists and one founded on that belief. One regards healing as an exercise in repair, a mechanical act. The other regards healing as, well, as healing the whole person, not 'repair' of a mechanistic bodily system, but of a restoration of physical and emotional and mental balance. In short, healing.

Anyway, that is where my mind wandered as I walked in straight lines tonight.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

What is Religion?

Presently I am listening to a podcast from the CBC Radio program Tapestry. Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom is being interviewed. Quite apart from the fact he is a highly intelligent and thoroughly decent man and of course a very religious man was his definition of religion. The interviewer said she had a friend who no longer practiced the religion she was raised in, but felt a need to find one she could believe. Jonathan Sacks's reply was that in Judaism religion is not a set of beliefs. The word 'faith' in Hebrew, he said, is better translated as 'being faithful', rather than by the word 'faith'. He goes on to say further, that 'religion' for Jews is not a body of knowledge that could, for example, compete with science.  Religion, he said, is not a set of beliefs, rather it is a set of relationships.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Women and Religion

I watched this TVO - The Agenda video today on Women in Religion - represented was a Sikh, a Christian, a Muslim and another woman whose religion I could not identify. The interviewer was Steve Paikin's new back up interviewer. She did fairly well though she stuck to her script mostly.

The discussion was good and covered the main points and in a fair and even handed fashion, which was a relief as so often gender studies are just man-bashing.

This got me to thinking. While I was doing my PhD research, I came across some interesting tidbits of information that I had hoped one day to expand into something more. I noticed how in the late 19th century, women had begun to speak and vote in Anglican congregational meetings in Hamilton, Ontario (called Vestry meetings by Anglicans) and I have wondered ever since, if this was happening in other Christian denominations at the same time, and have wondered further if the practice of women voting in what was then the single most important social meeting place in society, had some kind of impact on women being granted the vote federally at the end of the First World War.

The second tidbit was more narrowly focussed, but also suggestive of social change more broadly speaking. In one particular Anglican parish, the men who handled the finances had pretty much bungled this chore - for example Anglican parishes could not be fully consecrated until free of debt. This particular church could not shake its mortgage, until the men got the bright idea of mortgaging the church hall and using that cash to pay off the church - robbing Peter to pay Paul is the old expression. Next, this parish, because of its financial problems brought on by foolish spending, could not afford to buy a house for their minister and family, and rented instead. The women decided this was not good, and set about to raise funds to buy a house. They used the usual techniques employed both then and now by Christian women, bazaars and bake sales. Of course they could not raise the entire cost of a house, but did raise the down payment. They then went to a widow who used money from her late husband's estate to give mortgage loans. Middle class women did not work outside the home then - to do so would have been humiliating personally, so lending money at interest was a way to keep eating regularly and a roof over your own head. So, here we had a group of church women borrowing money from a woman to buy a  house for their minister and family.

They took out the mortgage loan, then continued their fund raising. I don't recall how long it took but if memory serves, three years later they had paid back the loan and the house deed was in their possession.  Now this little tale is interesting enough on its own merits, but what happened next is where the story made me sit up and take notice and think ... one day... an article....

Once the house was paid for entirely, the men of the parish - the official leadership, assumed the women would then turn over the deed to the parish, which is to say, to the men.

A little word of explanation is needed here for those unfamiliar with the structure of the institutional body of Anglicanism. Each parish is headed by the minister/priest who is called the Rector. The Rector is assisted by two lay officials called Wardens. One is the People's Warden who is elected by the 'Vestry' (the members of the church) and the other is the Rector's Warden, who is chosen by the Rector. Legally they form the officials of the parish and are legally accountable for taxes, services, repairs, and ownership of the buildings (church, hall, rector's house). To complicate matters further, final ownership belongs to this church's territorial division called a diocese, headed by a bishop.

Well, to return to the story, the women who had worked so hard and prudently to buy the house, refused point blank to turn the deed over the the male leadership. I discerned from other evidence that they (quite rightly) did not trust the men to keep the house debt free, but feared the male leadership would mortgage the house to raise money for other things in the parish.

The fight went on and on and finally the bishop had to step in to act as a mediator. In the archives of the diocese, I found the written out agreement. Apparently the bishop called the women involved, the rector and the two wardens to a meeting at the diocesan headquarters to find a solution. The agreement was written out on a piece of paper - typed, but with parts crossed out in pen ink, and changes written in, between the typed lines. At the bottom were the signatures of all those present, including the bishop.

The essence of the agreement was that the deed and therefore ownership of the house would be given to the diocese and the bishop, to be used exclusively as a residence for the Rector of this particular parish.

And a final note:  I wish I could have been the proverbial fly on the wall - not at the meeting, but - the woman who lead this protest and the fund raising was the Rector's Warden's wife - I have wondered just how frosty the interior of that home was during this incident......

Monday, March 28, 2016


Thomas More's book Utopia has given to the English language and imagination the idea of an ideal. In it, this Humanist scholar invents a place, necessarily on an island, where exists a perfect society. The details are irrelevant. What is relevant is the word utopia itself. It is based on a Greek word meaning 'not or no place' - More's little joke being that there can be no perfect place here in this broken world. More was, of course, more than a Humanist, he was a devout Catholic Christian. Only paradise was perfect as one was in the near presence of God who is perfection and perfect love. Thus no place (utopia) could exist on this earth. To all Christians, since Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden this world is and will be, imperfect.

This is a roundabout introduction to a podcast I have just finished listening to called Brother XII (for those who are Roman numeral challenged, that is Brother 12). The documentary details the attempt to find utopia on the coast of Vancouver Island in the 1920s by Edward Wilson, who called himself Brother XII. He was a retired sea captain who became a theosophist, a mystical belief system that mashed together various bits and pieces of eastern and Egyptian mysticism with personal mystical experiences. Wilson himself branched off into his own alternate universe, described in the podcast.

My interest was captured by the Canadian connection and by a general interest in the various forms mysticism has taken, often in Protestant countries. I probably don't have enough years remaining to add another research interest, but I have indeed been interested in mysticism for many years and now my interest makes me ask what need is fulfilled by the mystical impulse.

I have no answers here, only questions....

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Music, apples, oranges

At this very moment I am listening to Rachmaninoff's All Night Vigil on CBC radio's Choral Concert. I have heard this piece many times by different choirs. This recording is currently nominated for a Grammy award!  When 'Grammy Awards' is mentioned I immediately think Rock or Country - but in fact all types of music recordings have their categories. Choral is found under Classical.  This is the piece that Catherine Duncan played at the end of today's show:

Rachmaninoff: All-Night Vigil

Charles Bruffy, conductor (Paul Davidson, Frank Fleschner, Toby Vaughn Kidd, Bryan Pinkall, Julia Scozzafava, Bryan Taylor & Joseph Warner; Kansas City Chorale & Phoenix Chorale)
Label: Chandos

Russian Orthodox church music is mystical and soothing and deep, dark on an emotional plane. This is very different from Greek Orthodox music that has a distinctive 'middle eastern' sound. To my ear it has more in common with Arabic chant and Jewish Mizrahi music. Not in its theology of course, but the cultural similarities are obvious to me. 

Western (often called Latin) music divides along the familiar Catholic/Protestant divide. Catholic was formal and serious with a dash of mystery in its pre-Vatican II incarnation - and in its life going back to the early Middle Ages. Prior to that Catholic music was congregational, but that is lost to us, other than the fact.  Protestant music was and is congregational. It teaches and preaches as you sing. I attend a Baptist church a few times a year when visiting friends who are members.  Their music is happy and open and easy to follow even for the non-musical. I was raised in the United Church of Canada and the Anglican Church of Canada where music contains the same preaching and teaching, but is formal and semi-Catholic in its musicality.  Catholic music itself has largely abandoned the mystical aspect and moved towards the Protestant in late years - though once in a while you will find an adventurous choir leading a congregation in a Latin hymn in the old style.  Western Christian music is in general varied and accessible in its content and musicality to ordinary singers. There are exceptions in keeping with it variety - tune into a YouTube video of Anglican Evensong where the choir sings and the people listen as the music is too complex for the untrained voice. 

My point (if there is one) in this rambling discourse is that religious music and religion itself is culturally modified. I am not speaking here necessarily of theology, of underlying doctrines, but of the presentation of a faith.  Years ago a brilliant student of mine wrote an essay on Jewish music, dividing it into Sephardic (Jews of the Iberian peninsula and their diaspora), Ashkenasic (Jews of Germany and France and mostly commonly of North America), and Mizrahi (the Jews of the Middle East - those who never left that area of the world). She detailed the same religion, the same faith but with very different cultures reflecting their social and cultural experiences over the centuries. This is true of all divisions of Christianity and is true of all religions. Place and time and experience over changing cultural and social norms adds salt and pepper to the base mixture of any religion.