Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 22, 2002
'Restless Gods' heralds renaissance of spirituality
Restless Gods: The Renaissance of Religion in Canada, by Reginald Bibby, Stoddart Publishing Co: Toronto, 2002. 224 pages. Hardcover.
Review by WAYNE HOLST
Special to the WCR
For more than a quarter century, Reginald Bibby, a sociologist at the University of Lethbridge, has been surveying Canadians about life as they are living it. Since 1975, his assessments have been carried out, with growing refinement, every five years or so. He has carefully monitored our social trends generally and our religious trends, specifically.
Bibby's first bestseller, Fragmented Gods (1987) looked at the results of three previous surveys and told the story of a decline of engagement in organized religion that had been occurring since the 1950s.
Cultural conditions had turned Canadians into cafeteria styled consumers of what religious groups had to offer. In 1993, Bibby published Unknown Gods which updated his earlier work and pointed to the important role religious organizations in this country played in the participation drop-off.
Now, Restless Gods has just appeared. It draws on all of the author's previous work. Intriguingly, this book does not provide more of the same bad news. Included here are the results of several new surveys which make the data current to the year 2000. The result is a book that is descriptive, not prescriptive. Also, Bibby is far more hopeful.
The author looks at the state of organized religion in Canada and pays considerable attention to spirituality in Canadians' lives beyond their involvement in religious groups. He makes sense of what has been happening recently, what is taking place now, and what can be expected to occur into the foreseeable future.
What this book heralds is nothing short of a religious and spiritual renaissance in Canada. "New life (is) being added to old life," Bibby states. Sometimes this is taking place within religious groups but often it is happening outside them. "The gods are extremely restless."
Something is stirring in the nation's Christian communities, both Catholic and Protestant. Bibby describes why Canadians have been reluctant to abandon their churches; even though most churches have experienced attendance decline.
We err, however, when we conclude that inactivity implies rejection. Many would return if they were helped to experience that there is something worth coming home to.
In addition, there is a stirring among many outside the churches who are pursuing answers to questions of meaning and value - about life, death and other spiritual matters - with more openness than at perhaps any time in our nation's history.
For one thing religion persists, says the author, because science has not proven itself adequate to deal with life's "why" questions.
Science is based on empiricism, or sense based reality. Yet, much of reality seems to exist beyond the ability of our senses to comprehend it. As long as there is death, people are going to be asking "Is there life after death?" and science will have little if anything to say.
Put succinctly, says Bibby, "we sometimes look to nonscientific explanations because the question being asked cannot be addressed by science."
We are creatures who need meaning, and if we can't build a faith into our lives, we seem to fall into despair. We have underestimated the staying power of the Christian Church and its message, including its potential to reinvent itself.
The surviving groups with potential to thrive again are those that have been around a long time and continue to have a solid, though possibly a reduced, base of support.
No adequate substitute for Christianity has emerged to provide Canadian society with new philosophical underpinnings. Canadians are remarkably reluctant to heed religious expressions far removed from what many know already exists.
Bibby ends with a caution. There is no guarantee we will seize the day. If mainstream churches don't respond, many may be left spiritually hungry.
(Rev. Dr. Wayne Holst is a writer who has taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary.)