David Goa says religion can play a transformative role in culture.


David Goa says religion can play a transformative role in culture.

February 3, 2014

Is there still a constructive role for religions in debating public issues? There is, if we value pluralism and the rich contributions religious institutions have made to the world throughout history.

So says David Goa, a University of Alberta professor and director of the Chester Ronning Centre for the Study of Religion and Public Life in Camrose.

At Steeps Tea on Whyte Avenue Jan. 25, Goa called for society to have a rich pluralism that allows room in the public square for all voices.

"It shouldn't be simply a kind of civil totalism which bans religious discourse," Goa said. "Pluralism isn't easy. Pluralism is bloody hard but it does make us modest because we have to negotiate with others."

Goa said often when we think of religions, we think of institutions and the diseases of history, of which there are many.

"We don't think of those men and women who have drunk deeply at the fountain and as a result have lived lives that have been transformative in human culture and lives that have brought an enormous amount of beauty into the life of the world."

However, religious institutions remain the only force in the world "with any capacity to take on the huge economic patrimony that we live under, the huge corporate reach that we live under and the extraordinary issues facing us regarding the ecology of the planet," Goa said.

In societies where the only legitimate voice is a voice of civil totalism, society often loses.

The Soviet Union, China and Burma are part of a whole set of countries where the religious voice was killed, imprisoned, vanished. It had no weight.

"It happened for a reason. Often it happened because those religious voices, prior to those revolutions, had been totalizing; those religious voices had expunged other voices," Goa said. "What goes around comes around."

Goa said the marginalization of religious voices has a cost.

"At least for me the religious traditions of the world, among other things, are the greatest work of popular art within those societies," he said.

Don't believe that news reports provide the only story. In the case of Malala, the young Afghan woman shot by the Taliban for seeking education for girls, there is another story behind.


"I suspect that for many the part of the story that jumps up is the damnable aspects of Islam, the damnable aspects of the Taliban. And I suspect that for many, Islam is reduced to that. But not for Malala.

"If you listened (to her interview) closely, her capacity to do what she has done, and behind her father's capacity, flows directly out of the first chapter of the Koran: 'The first thing that God created was intelligence.'

"The Taliban has misunderstood (that) and captured for a variety of reasons whatever remains of the public square."

Goa then invited his audience to think about the "extraordinary role" played by religious institutions in Western Canada, where most of the social infrastructure, if not all of it, was created by churches.

Years ago Goa invited NDP MP Bill Blaikie to the Ronning Centre in Camrose to speak about the religious sources of socialism in Canada. The audience included NDP sympathizers, university professor and students.

"I was amazed at how many of them were surprised by the forthrightness with which Mr. Blaikie spoke about the place of the Gospel in the forming of the party itself."


Goa believes it's important to be awake to the importance of human memory. "One of the things I have found troubling about the last 30 years is the degree to which we have been participants in deepening amnesia within our culture.

"There is the assumption that the past only brings stink and that the only option for the future is a kind of freedom from the past, forgetfulness of the past.

"My sense is that when we endeavour to clear cut culture the way in which we clear cut the forests of Western Canada, we do to the human imagination, the human memory, something akin to what we do to the forest."


Churches in Western Canada spent decades promoting justice, equality and care for the environment. They even had paid positions to work on social justice issues, on lobbying and to do research work. "Almost all of that has disappeared," lamented Goa.

"The capacity for critique in churches is nothing like it was 25 years ago."

There are a variety reasons for this, he said. But essentially those who argued for "salvation through secularism" have won.