Here we go again, #Quebec #Secularism

My latest in the Christian Courier.

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The debate over secularism is ramping up here in Quebec. Again!

It wasn’t too long ago that the government of Pauline Marois introduced the Charter of Values in the legislature (Bill 60)—legislation that would have prevented public employees from wearing conspicuous religious symbols. That legislation died in the National Assembly when the minority government of Marois went down to defeat in the 2014 election. The bill only died, however, after generating a significant measure of anger and social division within the province.

And here we are, just five years later, with Premier François Legault making his attempt at legislating secularism. Legault hopes that Quebecers will see his Bill 21 as the less offensive cousin of the earlier Bill 60. His legislation, after all, only forbids religious attire among government employees in positions of authority; for example, school teachers, police officers, judges, and prosecutors. Legault also points out that his proposed law will only apply to new employees, meaning that no one who is presently employed in such a position will be fired for wearing a hijab or a turban.

Leaving those assurances aside, the most curious things about Legault’s introduction of the bill has been his unwillingness to defend it in any meaningful way. As he introduced Bill 21 to the province he suggested, essentially: “Quebec is a secular society, we have been wrestling with these issues for over 10 years now, and so we must separate religion from the operations of the state.” That’s it. Legault has been inclined to say less rather than more in defending Bill 21, which implies that there is no compelling argument to be made in its defence—or at least no argument that will stand up under scrutiny.

The basic question, of course, is “Why?” Why must religious clothing or symbols be restricted among those who are employed by the state, in positions of authority? Otherwise put: How is the rule of law compromised by a crown attorney who wears a kippa? How is the instruction of a child in math or literature undermined by a teacher wearing a hijab? How is the administration of justice diminished by a police officer who wears a turban? In each case, of course, the answer is: “It isn’t.” This leaves the distinct impression that the law’s intent is simply to remove from sight those who are culturally and religiously different from the majority.

In addition to this, we should note at least two confusions that surround Bill 21. In the first place, the law assumes it is possible to form a meaningful human community without reference to faith-based convictions; it assumes there are neutral or objective criteria for deciding what a good society looks like. But all ideas about goodness, justice, and community are to some extent tied up with theological or faith commitments—there are no faith-free points of view. A compelling vision of modern Quebec, then, would be one in which each person is invited to transparency about his or her faith convictions, and not one in which we marginalize those whose religious convictions happen to be visibly expressed.

A second confusion introduced by Bill 21 is the idea that Quebecers are incapable of distinguishing between the religious identity of a person and his or her role as a teacher or police officer or prosecutor. It does not take a great deal of imagination to understand, for example, that a Sikh police officer upholds the laws of the province by his work, and not the laws of his religion (even if there may be instances of overlap before them). It does not take much effort to understand that the law he upholds has been established through democratic and legislative processes, rather than by simple deference to a particular religious text or tradition.

It is difficult to anticipate how this latest chapter in the battle over secularism is going to unfold. But this much is clear: this legislation does little or nothing to illuminate our shared lives within Quebec—it does not show us how to live well together. And: We are capable of so much more than Bill 21 imagines.

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Lost: In the Memory of God

My latest piece in the Christian Courier.

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We’ve all had that feeling of disorientation at some point.

Perhaps you are staying at a friend’s house, and in the middle of the night you wake up not knowing where you are. The room is unfamiliar and you feel lost. You look for points of familiarity but can’t figure out why the door isn’t where it should be. Then, suddenly, clarity! You remember where you are; you can locate yourself in time and space. Your unease dissolves.

I have had a peculiar experience along these lines. One night some months ago I awoke after midnight and walked down the stairs of our home. As I did so I couldn’t think of who I was and also had a sense that someone was missing from the house. The person that I thought was missing was “dad” (though I didn’t know exactly who “dad” was). As I came into the dining room (where my wife was up late working) I asked: “Where’s dad?” She looked at me in great confusion, not knowing what to say. Then, after just a few brief moments, there was clarity for me: “Ah, it’s ok. I know, I’m dad.” Somehow, I was looking for myself?

There are different possible responses to such an experience. Some would laugh it off: “Wow, that was weird.” Others might worry: “Do I have dementia? Am I ok?” Still others might take the experience as an opportunity for armchair psychoanalysis: “Who is ‘dad’ anyway?” My initial response was to worry, though within a very short time I had moved on to the phase of “Wow, that was weird.” But since then I have also taken the experience as an invitation to think about my life and identity. Continue reading

Quebec and Religion: Response

In the light of Quebec’s proposal of a new “secularism” law today, I share this (entirely appropriate and relevant) statement of the Presbytery of Montreal from 2014.

Response to Bill 60 from
The Presbytery of Montreal, of
The Presbyterian Church in Canada (2014)

The Presbytery of Montreal, a body of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, hereby offers its response to Project de loi no. 60: Charte affirmant les valeurs de laïcité et de neutralité religieuse de l’État ainsi que d’égalité entre les femmes et les hommes et encadrant les demandes d’ accommodement. We offer our response in terms of the following affirmations and the following areas of disagreement.

  1. AFFIRMATIONS

1.1  We acknowledge and celebrate the unique identity of Quebec as a Francophone nation and province within Canada, and acknowledge the particular religious and cultural history that has shaped its values, laws, and social fabric. We also acknowledge and celebrate the presence of other linguistic and cultural communities within Quebec – including a large Anglophone minority – and celebrate the contributions such communities have made to the history, identity, and success of Quebec as a liberal democratic polity. We believe that Quebec has been enriched by this diversity.
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Belonging and Exclusion – A Conversation

The latest issue of the Christian Courier takes the question of belonging as its theme, with a particular focus on issues of race and culture. Here is my “column” for this issue.

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The theme of belonging is rich with challenge and possibility and it seemed to me that I would do better not to try and explore this theme merely on my own. As a result, I share with you the content of an interview/exchange I had with the Rev. Oliver Kondeh Ndula, a minister of the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon and a graduate student at McGill University/The Presbyterian College, here in Montreal.

RDV:  The idea of “belonging” is understood in variety of ways. How do you understand “belonging”?

OKN:  I understand “belonging” to mean the ease with which people get integrated into communities, especially communities other than those of their origin. From this perspective the concept is dualistic. On the one hand the other needs to take the initiative to get integrated into his/her new community. On the other hand, the new community can either facilitate or impair the process.

RDV:  Do you think it is possible to fully belong in some place or community? Continue reading

Telling the truth about our lives #Bach #Zagajewski

My latest column in the Christian Courier.

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Some years ago, I was introduced to a remarkable piece of music composed by JS Bach—the fifth movement of his Partita in D minor for solo violin (called the Chaconne). As with so many of Bach’s works, the Chaconne easily captures your heart; it has a way of lodging itself in mind and imagination. The piece is by turns pained and playful; dissonant and melodic. It sometimes rushes on almost to the point of stumbling and at other times strides smoothly towards its resolution.

At the heart of the Chaconne is a mystery that may go some way to explaining its compelling nature. The German musicologist Helga Thoene has suggested that it contains a hidden numerical code that references Bach’s wife (Maria Barbara) and the year of her unexpected death. Also, that the piece is built on an intricate musical scaffolding of eleven hymns that all reference the death and resurrection of Christ and invite us to put our trust in God. The Chaconne seems to be bookended by musical echoes of a chorale by Martin Luther and the phrases “Christ lay in death’s bonds” and “Hallelujah”.

bachAs we think about the Chaconne it is important to acknowledge that we are all Romantics—we see artistic expression as tied up with our personal lives and our internal emotional landscapes. We have placed ourselves at the centre of our imaginations and it is difficult for us to conceive a world that is not self-focused in this way. Since Bach predates the Romantic period, however, it is more likely that his music points to something outside of or beyond himself; something universal, rather than something merely personal. The glory of God, the compassion of God, and the hope that is found in Christ. Continue reading

A Christmas Prayer

My latest column in the Christian Courier is a prayer for Christmas.
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Praise to you, O living Word, for you give the gift of our world. You are the creating one through whom ancient Laurentian mountains have their craggy existence. By your imaginative power, forests of black spruce, larch, and balsam grow along ridges of granite and gneiss. By your gracious creativity, lynx and porcupine make their fleet-footed or lumbering way through habitats long called home. “All, at a Word, has become this almost overwhelming loveliness” (Margaret Avison).

Praise to you, O living Word, who has been born, like us, in a rush of blood and water—vulnerable, with your mother, in your passage into this world. The love displayed in your birth is an accompanying love that risks pain and loss and cold and homelessness, even as you are warmly received into the arms of Mary. This young woman who has borne God, leads you into a beautiful and fearful world, teaching you the prayers of your people along the way. You have learned from her; you are yourself with her and the people to whom she belongs. You find yourself, and are yourself, in relation to the God who makes covenant with this people.

Praise to you, O living Word, for you are the showing forth of God’s glory. In your speaking, the magnificence of God is heard. In your face, the beauty of God is seen. In your living, the grandeur of God is made apparent. We had always expected God’s glory to be otherworldly, almost unimaginable, yet here you are in time and space. God’s grandeur in a bawling baby. Glory to God in the highest; Glory to God in an unremarkable Lord alongside us. Continue reading

My garden won’t save the world…

My latest column in the Christian Courier.
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My front-yard garden measures 12 feet by 11 feet and so represents a modest effort in terms of urban agriculture. It certainly doesn’t compete with the larger plots tended by some Portuguese seniors in west end Montreal, or with the wide-open community gardens that flourish here. But its postage-stamp size doesn’t tell the whole story of my veggie patch either. Year over year my acreage (dreaming big, here) teaches me much more than many other areas of life—it is the source of innumerable successes, failures, and opportunities to learn.

This year I decided to plant kohlrabi for the first time, which one website describes as “a unique, easy-to-grow veggie.” Easy for them to say! I don’t know whether to blame the less-than-consistent rainfall of this past summer or my less than strategic enriching of the soil, but the resulting, stumpy little kohlrabi stems were rather disappointing. In my defense I should say that I didn’t have a lot of time to invest in the garden this year. And the decision to leave town for four weeks of holidays wasn’t exactly conducive to its flourishing.

IMG_1472Most of the carrot seeds I planted in early June simply didn’t germinate, though the few seeds that did spring up produced twenty lovely carrots. Twenty! (You can interpret that exclamation mark as either frustration or delight!) They were typically odd-sized and wonderfully misshapen. Also, at some point during the season I simply forgot I had planted onion seedlings in the back corner, and only discovered them when pulling out overgrown crabgrass and other weeds a few weeks ago. And there they were, 10 of them pulled up and held in one hand, as remarkable and beautiful as anything on God’s green earth. Continue reading

What is (a) man?

My latest in the Christian Courier.

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Having explored the question “What is woman?” in my last column, it seemed only reasonable to follow up with the question of man. In asking about man, however, we quickly discover an interpretive problem that didn’t arise in asking about woman. In the case of “man” we have to clarify whether we are referring to the human in general (“what is man that you are mindful of him”) or man as a specific sexed/gendered being different from woman.

My interest is in the latter question—man as a specific sexed/gendered being. But this interpretive problem already points to an important issue in any conversation about the identity of man/men. Specifically, that for most of history man has been defined as representative of human being. To speak of men was to speak of the human, and vice versa. At one level, of course, this has been no burden since it has meant a privileging of men’s lives and experiences Yet it is a kind of burden since man must now learn to be himself without also the measure of the human.

Man is what my son is becoming as he learns to play the flute, forgets to shower after a soccer game, studies for an English exam, or talks and argues with his sisters. In these things and many others he is sorting out what he cares about, what he enjoys, what he finds difficult, and what matters to him (or doesn’t). And in all of this we, his parents, encourage him to seek the way and service of the risen Jesus, since we believe that his identity and ours are found in Jesus. Continue reading

Rocks, boulders, pebbles, alive?

Stones of all kinds were a feature of my family’s vacation this past month – a vacation that included two weeks on the West Coast. We spent time in and around Vancouver, and then up the coast into Alaska. Everywhere there were stones.

With the tide out, wandering on rocky beaches – more stones than could be counted.

On a Sea-to-Sky hike and climb near Squamish – scrambling across rock falls and around boulders.

Along the coast and inland, too, mountains and massive outcroppings of rock – Mount Baker, The Chief, Grouse Mountain.

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Near Juneau, Alaska.

Rocks define our world, the earth, so why would they not define a summer holiday, also?

Sometimes those rocks and stones even appeared to be, somehow, alive. Continue reading

Summer Holidays — Making Memories??

Having just returned from a family, West Coast holiday, this blog post from 4 years ago came to mind. It all still makes sense to me!
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It took me a few years to get it, but I have now accepted the obvious – namely, that summer holidays aren’t about me. Vacations aren’t about me lounging in a hammock as I read a series of novels or about me leisurely exploring the natural world with camera in hand. Of course that doesn’t mean there’s nothing for me in the summer months, but I have realized that summer holidays, for the foreseeable future, are centred on the kids.

But having accepted the obvious (resistance was futile!) there’s another question that has dogged me this summer. The question whether summer holidays are essentially or primarily about “making memories.”

IMG_0379Over the past five weeks I have come across that phrase everywhere: in a PEI tourism brochure, at a Canadian interpretation centre on the St. Lawrence River, in the Facebook posts of friends, and in everyday conversations along the way. Summer vacation, it seems, is about making memories – for the kids, of course: Continue reading