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Christian Witness in an Increasingly Multi-Faith (and Secular) Canada | One Body

Julien Hammond

Thursday, May 16, 2024

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Christian Witness in an Increasingly Multi-Faith (and Secular) Canada

by Julien Hammond

A few weeks ago, I attended the “Grand Opening” event of a new Buddhist Temple recently constructed in my north Edmonton neighbourhood. It was a beautiful event, marked by ritual and ceremony, hospitality and fellowship. It also involved a fair bit of informal interfaith dialogue with the monks of the temple and between fellow visitors of various traditions, who, like me, appreciated the opportunity to see inside the temple and to learn what this new community was all about.
This is now the third new non-Christian prayer space and second Buddhist temple to open in my neighbourhood in recent years, the other being a new mosque, adding to the array of Christian churches and other prayer spaces already present there. It also reflects the diversity of the population that now lives in “our part” of the city: a population that values spiritual realities and draws life from religious traditions “ever ancient, ever new,” to steal St. Augustine’s formulation.
The ever-growing diversity of religious traditions present in my neighbourhood, a pattern now present in nearly every town and city in Canada, is celebrated by most voices in our community, but lamented by others. The latter is true especially of persons who look upon Canada as a “Christian country” and express regret that Christians have “lost a lot of ground” in terms of social presence and influence. Immigration, secularization, de-colonization, “woke-ism” and other factors are typically cited as the main culprits responsible for this erosion of Christian identity, influence, and interests. Whatever one’s perspectives on such matters, the reality is that Canada is, has always been, and will likely continue to be a land of ever-increasing cultural diversity and ever-growing religious plurality.
On the front lines of negotiating life together in Canadian neighbourhoods and communities, ecumenists and interreligious specialists are sometimes called upon to help navigate the hard edges of differences between religious communities, especially when the values espoused by one tradition seem to be in contradiction or competition with one another. This can be challenging work to be sure, but it is also one of the most rewarding aspects of “the job,” and when it is successful, it typically leads to new friendships and collaborations that in a moment of tension might not have seemed possible.
One area of particular concern to many Christians living in the context of religious pluralism is how to strike the balance between the universal mission of the Church (to “go and make disciples of all nations…”) and the pastoral intuition to enter into dialogue with people of different religions and cultures. At the heart of this concern lies different theological understandings among Christian churches about who the non-Christian neighbours are (vis-à-vis Christianity), the way that grace operates (or not) in their lives and the Scriptural teaching about salvation. The Faith and Witness Commission of the Canadian Council of Churches recently studied these matters, publishing their findings in a joint statement in 2018. 
The Commission found that “doctrinal debate about faith and salvation is still largely unresolved among [Canadian] churches.” Some churches espouse a more “exclusivist” perspective: “this theology maintains that explicit, overt commitment to Jesus as Saviour is required for salvation.” Others adopt a more nuanced “expansive-inclusive” approach such that “God’s saving grace and unconditional love, which Christians recognize in Jesus, is so absolute, complete, and comprehensive that all humankind is susceptible of being embraced by it, whether Christ has been explicitly acknowledged or not” – a theory that is often called “anonymous Christianity.” A third perspective, espoused by certain Canadian churches, advocates for a “many paths to God” theology, which the Commission identifies as “a position quite different from the first and second views.” According to this third theological perspective: “Christians hold to the core principle of ‘Christ as Saviour’ but acknowledge the validity of other religions as true paths to finding the perfect end towards which religion strives.” Each of these perspectives invites a quite distinct approach to evangelization in a context of religious pluralism.
A helpful, practical guide that I have turned to frequently for insight into such matters, and that I often recommend to others, is the 2011 classic: Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct
This extraordinary document, the fruit of five-years of intense work and dialogue at the international level, was released jointly by the Catholic Church (Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue), the World Council of Churches, and the World Evangelical Alliance. This tripartite partnership itself (which I believe to be unprecedented) signals the importance of this theme for Christians everywhere in the world and across the broadest spectrum of denominational identities within the church. 
The text is written in three parts, presenting:
  • a theological “basis for Christian witness”;
  • a dozen principles for Christians to follow “as they seek to fulfil Christ’s commission in an appropriate manner, particularly within interreligious contexts”, and 
  • six recommendations “for consideration by churches, national and regional confessional bodies and mission organizations,…especially those working in interreligious contexts.”
Key messages include:
In all aspects of life, and especially in their witness, Christians are called to follow the example and teachings of Jesus Christ, sharing his love, giving glory and honour to God the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit (cf. John 20:21-23).
If Christians engage in inappropriate methods of exercising mission by resorting to deception or coercive means, they betray the gospel and may cause suffering to others. Such departures call for repentance and remind us of our need for God’s continuing grace (cf. Romans 3.23).
Christians are called to commit themselves to work with all people in mutual respect, promoting together justice, peace and the common good. Interreligious cooperation is an essential dimension of such commitment.
The entire text is excellent and really should be required reading for anyone who wishes to give Christian witness in an increasingly multi-faith (and secular) Canada.
Another very helpful resource that I have utilized extensively in my pastoral work in the Church is the first-rate manual and website developed by the National Office of Religious Education (Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), entitled On Good Soil: Pastoral Planning for Evangelization and Catechesis with Adults.
Playing off Jesus’ Parable of the Sower (Luke 8), who sows seeds in every type of soil condition and circumstance, On Good Soil presents an in-depth analysis of contemporary “Canadian soil” and offers rich insights and best practices for sowing the seeds of the Gospel in the Canadian reality.
Included among the recommendations, evangelizers and catechists are counseled to pay close attention to the many “internal” and “external” challenges facing the Church today. Internal challenges include: relevance, response to the sexual abuse crisis, polarization in the Church, and a lack of transparency. External challenges include: multi-generational perspectives, increased multi-cultural and multi-religious communities, individualism, secularism, and a whole host of other “–isms”, that characterize Canadian society today.
Within this whole context, the authors of On Good Soil offer beautiful words of advice for today’s Canadian Catholic evangelists and catechists:
The goal or purpose of our activity must be a sincere desire to show Christ to the world: to make known his love for all people. Authentic witness is not motivated by numbers, nor is it competitive. Christian witness is respectful of the other, and thus does not coerce, threaten or manipulate. The call to respect the other does not mean leaving the explicit proclamation of God and Christ aside, but to know “when it is time to speak of God and when it is better to say nothing and to let love alone speak” (Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, n.31c). [On Good Soil, #36]
The rich “soil” of contemporary Canada need not be a place of disappointment, threat, and (certainly not!) hostility for Christians, or between Christians and people of other faiths or persons of no faith. Rather, acknowledging the increased reality and depth of religious and non-religious perspectives that make up the diversity of our country, Canadian Christians can and must be even more intentional about presenting the gospel in ways that show forth the love of Christ for all.

Julien Hammond has been the ecumenical officer for the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton for over twenty years. He has served as a member of the Roman Catholic-United Church of Canada Dialogue, the Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue in Canada, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)-Roman Catholic International Consultation. He is currently a member of the Jewish-Catholic national dialogue, co-sponsored by the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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