Religion & Spirituality

A New Story


On a November morning, the sunrise can be spectacular, arousing a sense of awe.  It’s rare to take in the beauty of the natural world and the environment designed and built by humans from the same vantage point.  City dwellers may still enjoy seeing natural beauty during the day, but the bright lights have masked the visible stars of the night sky.  Those living in less populated areas may still have that advantage.

A recent exhibit, Anthropocene, on display at both the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Ontario, highlights what we humans have done to plunder and devastate our natural environment. This show is not the first to focus on this tragedy. More than thirty years ago, a Roman Catholic priest and cultural historian, Thomas Berry, expressed a need for a new story expanding on the one we find in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis.  He reminds us that earlier theologians like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas placed equal importance on learning from the Book of Nature.  What scientists now know about cosmology – the origin and nature of the universe - is astounding.

 Berry inspired colleagues to present this story in an award-winning film called Journey of the Universe. Since its release in 2014, the film and accompanying book have caused responses from a variety of Christian communities supporting Berry’s argument of the need for reassessment. This challenge is both complicated and contentious.  When Copernicus discovered that we were not the centre of the universe, his news was not well received. Nor were Darwin’s findings. Science has discovered that our milky way is only one among billions of galaxies.  The writers of the early books of the Bible had a lesser sense of history and it was limited to a very small part of planet earth.

 Journey and the first Genesis story share common elements.  Both start in darkness.  Light emerges, then water, then earth, then plants, then birds and animals and finally human beings.  In the Genesis story, creation is complete and humans become the focus of history.   In Journey, creation evolves in stages through billions of years and continues to do so.

 At the recent consecration of our new bishop in the Diocese of Toronto, we acknowledged that we are settlers.  What we celebrate less is indigenous peoples’ reverence for the earth - they see themselves as subjects alongside animals, vegetation and stars.  In contrast, we live in a world where anything other than ourselves is viewed as an object for our use and exploitation. The last 65 billion years of the Cenozoic geological period were the earth’s most creative and flourishing.  But in the last four hundred years we’ve managed to reverse the process of creative evolution - eliminating forests and species, polluting rivers and oceans, and robbing the earth of its resources.  And even as we put humans at the centre, we are selective about which humans, preferring those nearest and dearest and most like ourselves.

 Putting humans at the centre has a history and takes us back through 19th and 20th century industrialism and the earlier writings of Newton and Descartes, who proclaimed that everything that was not human was merely matter.  But we can also go further back to the two biblical creation stories, noting that the redemption story, where the world is dangerous and tempting, has prevailed over the creation account.  Within this context, we have taken the directive to have dominion over the earth and turned it into domination.

 People of faith now have an opportunity to learn.  Thomas Berry proposed more than 15 years ago that Christian and other religious communities can join with modern science communities to become part of a new Ecozoic era, where we return to intimacy with the earth and our place in the universe. When the earth itself becomes sacred to us, we recover both a sense of our miniscule presence as individuals – and at the same time, our sacred responsibility for it, owing to our gift of human consciousness.  It means rethinking the frameworks of theology and its implications - for liturgies, formation, stewardship, laws, governance, and for the challenges of our time – climate change, technology and the threat of annihilation by nuclear war. Meanwhile we have obsessed about gender and sexuality – not expressing with gratitude the wonder of the cosmos and our proper place in it.

 The first step is awareness.  Go to see Anthropocene.  Watch Journey of the Universe on YouTube.  Visit the associated websites: and .  You will experience the universe and our small planet in new ways. These are first steps that may lead to increased understanding and commitment.



Roots and Wings


I’ve come upon Margaret Silf’s book, Roots and Wings, a series of short meditations which explores life from the Big Bang to the present. She sees the possibilities of an evolution from a world of fear and survival to one where love and discerning choice is our guide. No pie in-the-sky idealist, she is not convinced that a better would will automatically evolve unless we individually play our part in making it happen.

She notes some positives that we should be grateful for:

  • There is more awareness that we are a global family, and that decisions we make here and now have an impact on everyone else on the planet

  • More people are protesting that military force is not the answer

  • More people are seeking a spiritual dimension to their lives, including many who would not describe themselves as religious

  • More people care about the environment

  • More people seek balance in their lives

  • More people are seeking peace and justice in specific contexts

But lest we be euphoric, she also reminds us:

  • There is a breakdown in trust – in companies, in institutions, in professions that leaves people isolated, fearful and defensive

  • Our lives are shaped by the consumer markets of multinational corporations who think they control what is good for us – and that often merely means profitable for them

  • Despair drives too many to addictive behaviour and compulsions

  • Fear makes us very willing to sacrifice our personal freedom and restrict that of others

  • There are dark forces of anger and frustration that are unleashed in destructive and negative ways


I read this book long before I developed my current interest in writer Thomas Berry and they are unlikely to have ever met. But her Jesuit roots intersect well with his Passionist ones in love of and concern for the environment.

Whither spirituality?

A friend recently passed on an article from the Toronto Star published on December 26, 2018 entitled “A New Type of Church for the Community”.  This kind of article turns up infrequently – usually in a slow news period – in which the reporter presumably tries to find a new thread of hope in what is generally seen as a declining religious presence.  In this case, it’s a storefront church, with white plastic chairs, a row of computers against a wall lined with Bible verses – an example of a concept called a church plant.  Interestingly the concept is supported and funded by existing denominations as the answer to their failing numbers and impact.

 The writer goes on predictably to report the decline in numbers in religious affiliation and the storefront pastor’s seeing this as an opportunity to meet local needs for faith in a neighborhood setting.  Like more conventional denominations, the storefront already has programs, services at times other than Sunday, and responses to other immediate social needs. We also learn that this plant is supported by an organization called Church Planting Canada which is using modern marketing methodology with Facebook video ads and expensively designed websites free from denominational affiliation.  All this is totally predicable based on what the late writer Phyllis Tickle told the book publishing industry and the traditional denominations twenty years ago.  Her book, The Great Emergence outlined the cultural changes affecting religious life in Europe and the United States that were happening decades earlier.

 Among these changes is the reality that science and technology are the primary cultural forces - but there are others.  The doubts of Albert Schweitzer that the Jesus of Nazareth was the the Christ of history led to new scholarship.  Pentecostalism is a new and growing religion – and incidentally forms the base of Church Planting Canada. Alcoholics Anonymous is a strong healing ministry that calls on a nameless higher power and anticipated the rebirth of the small group movement – and more often than not meets in Church basements. Self-help dominates as a literary form.  While immigration is front-and-centre of the news today – with the misguided narrative that immigrants are all terrorists - except that we ourselves are mostly descendants of  immigrants who destroyed the habitats and spirituality of our native people. We now live in multicultural environments where the teachings of other religions have seeped into our consciousness.  And I find it fascinating that most of these profound changes have occurred in my own lifetime since the end of the second world war.

 While the planters are hopeful, it is instructive that their projects cost $50, 000 to $100,000 in grants in their initial year and considerable additional ones in the years following – ending up with exactly the same challenges that conventional churches face. Leaders often burn out quickly like those of any start-up in the arts or technology and the next set of leaders institutionalize the project.

Tickle in her essay also talks about the three strands of any religion – the approach to spirituality and recognition of the divine - the institutional framework and how it deals with leadership, formation, property, statutes, governance - and the approach to morality. In a recent article in the New York Times, the writer Donna Freitas notes an interesting feature of formation that I should pay more attention to – the fact that writers are discouraged by their editors for writing on the subject of religion for their young adult readers.  Sex is fine – and so are LGBTQ topics - but faith is off limits unless you lampoon it.  And I find in my own experience of working with young people from toddlers to teens - from learning to be nice, to learning the intricacies of liturgy, denominational history and pretty literal reading of scripture - that the one thing we hardly ever talk about is spirituality.

 Donna Frietas talks about her own reading as a young Catholic and my own mirrors it to some extent.  God talk at this stage and later in the early years of University were informed by books we read – more often metaphorical readings of authors like Lewis and Tolkien which also helped us deal with the stories of religion and how to ground their truth.  I have to wonder whether Bible verses on a wall above computers is going to do the job.  But what Ms Frietas does point out is that spirituality is immensely important to young people.  How many meaningful articles about religious traditions of spirituality do we see in the press about that?  Understanding that, of course takes much more preparatory work and research than interviewing a storefront pastor.

 Someone I met at the 2018 Parliament of World Religions does get it.  In response to the young people interested in spirituality and wanting to know more, he has created a very impressive website,   What he said when we met was, “I’m not an expert on spirituality, but I know who some of the experts are – and I am trying to direct young people to them – and I try to help them avoid the too many quick fix answers that are out there.”

 If mainstream denominations took this quest for spirituality more seriously, they might focus on their spiritual traditions rather than their historic denominational ones. That culture leaves them fighting old battles wearing new clothes.  The old stories have frequently lost their context, leaving the young adrift on a planet with its own cosmology that is not being addressed for them.  The young know that and they want better answers than the ones we are giving them.