Sunday, March 12, 2017

Rambling Thoughts upon reading Taylor’s Varieties of Religion Today version 2

Rambling Thoughts upon reading Taylor’s Varieties of Religion Today

Charles Taylor lays out an interesting philosophical look at early 21st century society and the place of religion today in a short (roughly 100 pages) book Varieties of Religion Today, where he ruminates on William James’s book, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). James’s book was based on  his Gifford Lectures given over 1901-02, just as this short volume was based on Taylor’s Gifford Lectures given in 1999. While the two are separated by the neat figure of 100 years, Taylor sees James’s work as mostly holding true for today, but with some modifications necessary. 

It is the second part of Taylor’s lectures and book that interest me most. Here he looks at the state of western society and therefore, of religion in western society at the very beginning of the 21st century. What he sees is the gradual growth of the individual pursuit of happiness and of the growing emphasis on the individual in society, two elements of modernity. Prior to the post-world war 2 period, this individualism was embedded in various checks such as ‘good citizenship’ of the sort envisioned by the founders of the American republic and their ideal of rule by the citizen, in a sexual morality that promoted and protected the family unit, and an ethic of hard work and productivity. What Prof. Taylor sees happening after the Second World War is the gradual removal of these checks on individual behaviour and their replacement by one only: that individuals do no harm to other individuals. He notes that this is not an abrupt change, though the 1960s can be seen as the turning point, but a change where old verities exist and perhaps recede alongside this new total unleashing of the individual. 

He uses several terms as labels: paleo-Durkheimian, neo-Durkeimian, post-Durkheimian, expressivism and the Culture of Authenticity. 

To boil down Durkheim’s work to sound byte size, in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, one can say that Durkheim saw religion as being essentially functional and about social cohesion.  By this light, crowds doing the wave at a football game could be seen as playing out a religious ritual - that is, a social ritual (as opposed to an individual ritual) that has the function of binding a group together in a common identity. 

When Taylor uses the term paleo-Durkheimian, he means it in this pristine sense and ascribes it to societies with a dominant church to which all are required to belong. Here in specific historical terms he refers to western Europe prior to the Reformation and the Catholic church. In this system also, there is a division between the sacred and the profane, but one where they are nonetheless, linked. Religion permeates society at the political level and at the level of daily life.  Neo-Durkheimian is used to denote a period where denominations have emerged with profound theological and ritualistic differences, but which accord a degree (sometimes less and sometimes more so) of mutual respect to one another. In this period, an individual may join whichever denomination suits their individual comfort. You might, to put this in obvious terms, belong to a Baptist congregation because you are comfortable in that particular congregation and at the same time accept the individual choice of a neighbour who joined a Catholic church. There exists a sense of an invisible ‘church’ consisting of accepting God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and of these denominations being merely individual expressions of a system that is both basic and overarching at the same time. It is also expected that this invisible church guides and directs society, but a level of individual choice has become the norm.  Religion here is still serving a function of joining a society together, but with a large step towards full individualism. Hence neo-Durkheimian. 

Post-Durkheimian is the situation obtaining today. Here Charles Taylor is less clear (to me, anyway). He earlier introduces the term expressivism, which seems to denote the gradual strengthening of the sense of passion as leading to religious truth rather than theological thought. Theology in the Middle Ages, was considered to be the Queen of the Sciences. This was the place where intellectuals who today are for example Physicists, congregated to understand the essential reality of the universe. Theology was a strict intellectual discipline with rules of thought carefully and arduously learned and followed once one became a Master. The truths of God, morality, social relations, the purpose of life and the physical world  were the objects of study and thought. Purpose lay at the heart of this intellectual pursuit in contradiction to modern day Physics which now posits a cosmic accident as being at the very beginning of existence. Scholars then saw Jesus as the Alpha and the Omega (beginning and end), now scholars see pure chance as the alpha, but human will as the omega. Taylor seems to suggest (and again I would need to read more deeply into his work to verify this) that expressivism, the victory of passion and feeling over intellect has led to this current situation. Taylor traces the growth of expressivism through historic periods quickly:  this is, after all a short book based on a lecture. He sees it beginning in the 18th century, which although historians have labelled this the Age of Reason, it was also the age of a reaction to hard logic in the Methodist movement and the Pietists who form the instigator of Methodism. Modern Methodists are not a passionate folk, but in the 18th century they based their view of Christianity on emotion more than reason. He then  looks at the impact of urbanization and industrialization which had their beginnings contemporary to Methodism and Pietism, and at the Romantic era and at the growth of individualism as being factors. 

Post-Durkheimian means for Taylor, the abandonment of religion as having a societal function. It is now to be a matter of personal emotional interest, or even intellectual interest, but personal, passionate and individual. Finally, in the post world war 2 period comes Taylor’s concept, the culture of authenticity. By this he means an understanding of the nature of life that emerged from expressivism. To be authentic, an individual must create their own way of being, that comes authentically from within your personality and predilections, and is not dictated by social norms including religion. 

In the mediaeval world of western Europe, there was one religion and a societal acceptance of two spheres of the sacred and the profane within that mental universe. There were physical objects and places which were recognized as sacred and those apart from the sacred were profane (or in more modern terminology, secular). Religion was experienced societally - individual happiness with or contentment with was not regarded as vital. Religion and society were integrated (to use my own terminology). I prefer integrated to other possible descriptors such as entangled or unified because I want to convey the idea that ‘religion’ and society, politics, daily life, work, play, pain, failure, success and so on were not separate categories, but part of an integral whole. 

How do I concatenate this with Taylor’s thesis of the separation of the sacred and the profane? I will have to think more deeply about this and read more of Taylor and perhaps Peter Brown on the origins of the mediaeval mentality as I do not at present see an obvious answer. Where they do meet is in particular places and times where human beings meet or enter. Thus, a church is sacred and people enter the sacred while literally entering a church building. Unlike today, there were other sacred places such as holy wells, or entire cities such as Jerusalem. There were objects that were sacred, primary among them being the bread viewed or consumed in communion at the Mass. ‘Communion’ is a good term here as it indicates ‘communication’ or ‘communing with’ the sacred ‘other’ and letting it enter your body.  In a more holistic or perhaps neo-Durkheimian sense, I would suggest that there existed an overarching reality that included the sacred and the profane into the same existence, that connected this world and the other world of pure God. They were connected, but not the same.  But I am no theologian or philosopher so must ground any thinking here in my study of the idea of mentalitié drawn form the work of the French historian Michel Vovelle, but that is another can of worms avoided here. 

In the modern world - that mental universe which began to overcome the mediaeval mindset - individualism began inexorably to replace the more holistic sense of reality that had obtained, not only in the western European culture, but that of the more Mediterranean centred world of ancient Rome. One can argue time frames,  but let us say that it began with the Renaissance and we can use Petrarch as a marker in the same way Taylor uses the 1960s as a marker of change. This is not a specific point of time, but a hinge moment. Petrarch’s ascension of Mount Ventoux is a tale of the conversion experience away from a holistic, social existence to one focussed on the individual called humanism. Modern research has cast doubt on this event, but that too is indicative of the change from a world that allowed for mystical experiences to one that always tries to debunk any mental or physical universe other than the purely material. 

Yet for Taylor, that individualism was still bounded and limited by other ideals still accepted by society in general and individuals in particular. Thus we may now be generally inhabiting a post-Durkheimian universe, but many still live in a neo-Durkheimian place where there is a real religious and Christian reality that acts as an overseer of individual choice to join a particular denomination or even to be agnostic or atheist. The next stage, not considered in this 1990s meditation of his, would require analysis of the impact of theist and non-Christian religion becoming significant in the West. Would the growing numbers of Muslims and Hindus serve to strengthen neo-Durkheimian society? That is, would Islam, for example, take its place alongside Presbyterians and Catholics? The present tense fear of Islam in the United States is probably more an indicator of a struggle to place this non-Christian religion within the context of a society that is still mostly neo-Durkheimian. For Canada, we are dominated by a post-Durkheimian mental universe so any struggle would involve the full privatization of Islam, rather than including it alongside Christian denominations, which are already mostly privatized. Again, I would stress that this is not a neat and tidy process, but messy and chaotic in the extreme. Any analysis or comment must require a large degree of humility on my part and on that of any other thinker. Fortunately I have a vast store of that.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Religion and Categories

I am reading a textbook I found a while back in my university of Guelph mailbox from Oxford UP. I have a lot of unread books on shelves and stacked on the floor. This book is nice and short and clearly written and gives a good overview of theory as used by those who teach in Religious Studies departments. My university does not have such a department, though years ago there was a move to create a 'minor' in Religious Studies at the U of Guelph. That came to nothing as the order of the day for universities is to cut back on the Arts and Humanities and move what little money they have into more pragmatically oriented disciplines.

In any case, I teach, write, think about religion from the perspective of an historian. That is to say, I am interested in the place of religion, of faith, of all the aspects of religion within a society and as part of its culture as it changes over time. But this roughly 200 page book gives a good introduction to theory. I have read the introductory section, mostly to see where my intellectual meanderings had placed me in this theoretical universe of thought.

The author, Chris Klassen (whom I met once long ago) teaches religious studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. He goes over various approaches to defining religion, while sensibly noting that definitions are not as solid as one might think or perhaps hope. Definitions fluctuate and change with new research and with the times.
He then looks at different theoretical approaches to the study of religion. He surveys the 'cognitive' approach:  looking at religion as ideas or theology which then affects culture, using the 19th century work of Sir James Frazer as best expressed in the book, The Golden Bough; at the functional approach, as expressed by Emile Durkheim in his book, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), which looks at how religion affects society by attempting to understand  universal basic elements of religion. The he surveys Max Weber and his thesis found in 'The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism'. Weber combined Luther's idea that "labour is a calling from God" (p 12) and the Calvinist view that if you prospered financially in life, this was a sign you were one of God's elect. Prof. Klassen then looked at Marx and his view that religion was part of 'superstructure' and designed to support the modes of production or the 'base' of society. Usually people do remember Marx calling religion the 'opiate of the masses'. Next up is William James, a psychologist who studied religion as an individual experience at the psychological level in his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). I have a little book that builds on this work by the philosopher Charles Taylor called 'Varieties of Religion Today' published in 2002 and based on a Gifford Lecture he gave. James's book was also based on a Gifford lecture. Next comes Mercea Eliade, perhaps the first scholar of World Religions - the others touched on so-called primitive religion, but mostly used Christianity as being 'religion'. Eliade studied a variety of religions and from an historical perspective and focussing on myth and symbolism. He thought religion  should be studied for its own sake, not as an adjunct to other areas of the human experience.
Then Chris Klassen gets to what is the meat of the matter, in my liking and view anyway:  Clifford Geertz and the anthropological approach; and a newer way to study, the 'lived experience' approach. Students of mine will recognize that I teach religion from this latter means: religion is something people do, live, experience and is often different and sometimes wildly different from the official doctrines and practices of a religion.

I think I will post more on this book as I move through it in my spare time. But for now, this introduces the ideas contained within and which will likely spark ideas in me too.

Klassen, Chris. Religion & Popular Culture: A Cultural Studies Approach. Don Mills, ON, Oxford University Press, 2014.

Saturday, January 28, 2017


A well known secret in the academic world is students often suggest the most interesting ideas.
In a recent discussion on the integration of religion into society in western Europe prior to the Protestant Reformation, a student commented on individualism. The reading at the core of the discussion described Mass in a large London church in about the year 1500. There were also brief mentions of the integration of worship into the street life of the city. In all this there was a sense presented of a corporate, holistic mentality that, to this student, stood in sharp contrast to the high individualism of the early 21st century.

This got me to thinking about individualism and religion. Of course, human beings are always individuals whether you lived in the socialist nirvana of the Soviet Union, or the modern dictatorship of the Party in today's China, or in that maelstrom of individualism, the United States. But there can be a weighting assigned to individualism and factors that tip these scales one way or the other without removing any sort of balance.

Historians use a term or category called 'modernity' and divide that further into early modern, fully modern and perhaps today, post modern. This all avoids to a degree debate on a usable definition of 'modern'. But part of what 'modern' means (to me anyway), is the gradual tipping of that scale in favour of individualism.

This individualism can be seen in the religious aspect of western Europe as early as the Renaissance. A reading that students are often required to engage with is Francesco Petrarca's account of his ascent of Mount Ventoux in the south of France. Although critically analysed for some time by historians (perhaps an early example of alternate fact?), the idea explains neatly the primary ideal of the Renaissance and a movement called Humanism, or Renaissance Humanism (to distinguish from the modern atheist/agnostic philosophy). Whether literally true, or an alternate fact, the ascent of Mount Ventoux is as good a means as any to describe the earliest beginnings of a cultural turn, from a society that looked to God firstly to a society where humanity was the primary focus. This was only an early beginning and in terms of numbers involved only  a tiny minority of people. But it was the beginning of the ultra individualism considered as normal here in the early 21st century.

The impact on religion was to be profound. The Protestant Reformation has too often been taught from a purely theological perspective, with a soupçon of political life thrown in for seasoning. The Protestant Reformation was a tectonic cultural shift, or to borrow from Thomas Kuhn, a paradigm shift. But it was not a change isolated from other ongoing changes in western Europe. Neither before, nor after the Reformation can one realistically separate religion from society or society from religion. Religion, whether considered from the institutional aspect or from the spiritual aspect was as fully a part of daily life and of all aspects of human social life as economics or medicine or sex or anything that goes to make up the individual and society in general. As my first professor of religious  history, Michael Gauvreau taught me, religion can be useful to the historian as a lens to understand change over time, quite apart from the study of religion as belief system.

What then appears in this lens in the period from 1500 to 2000? Among many other factors, of the type I listed above, individualism grows and begins to tip those scales. We have some of the earliest documentary evidence of individualism in the 14th century with Petrarca. But technology which is another of these social factors speeded up the process and more importantly, expanded its reach with the adoption of movable type, that is, printing in the 15th century. A greater number and variety of people could now sit sole and alone and quiet and read  ideas. It is true this did not happen all at once. We know that often the single local person who could read, would read out loud to others who were illiterate. We know that the status of written words as having a greater authority than spoken words preceded all this but was necessary to give the later printed word its authority.  I draw here on a book by M.T. Clanchy from a number years ago called 'From Memory to Written Record'.  But technology spread this. Printing technology was another of the multifarious factors that caused this particular snowball to begin rolling down the mountain (probably not Mount Ventoux!), gathering speed and gathering mass as it went.

It is worth noting that individualism was not yet in its glory and would not be so for many centuries after Martin Luther tacked his 95 theses to the door of his university church. The new national and Protestant churches enforced uniformity within state borders. Even after this, and in 19th and 20th century countries where multiple expressions of Christianity were dominant in settler colonies of western Europe, there was a social uniformity enforced by social pressures that did not need legislation. Nationalism itself took on religious aspects and enforced a collective discipline on minds.

I won't here get into thinking about why individualism seems so much more extreme, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, ordinary, today. But the process towards this particular point in time where we now live and where I write these thoughts has very deep roots and has disrupted the place and role religion has played for most of western history.

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.