Future of God


Editor’s Note: On Nov. 15, 2012, Western News celebrated its 40th anniversary with a special edition asking 40 Western researchers to share the 40 THINGS WE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE NEXT 40 YEARS. This is one of those entries. To view the entire anniversary issue, visit the Western News archives.

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‘Spirituality’ is almost impossibly vague. Postmodernity has highlighted one cannot speak from a disembodied perspective, as if context and particularity don’t matter. The context from which I speak is as a North American engaged in Roman Catholic theology.

Given that context, my comments may be more or less applicable to other faith traditions or social locations. Here is a personal – and non-exhaustive – list of some directions in religion and spirituality over the next decades:

Spiritual vs. Religious. In North America and Europe, at least, overt membership in organized religion, such as mainstream Christian denominations, is on the wane (immigrant groups being the exception) as more people identify themselves in the well-known terms, ‘spiritual but not religious.’ Individual choice and multiplicity of religious/spiritual options are here to stay. Religious groups will continue to feel an immense tension between ‘relevance’ and distinctive traditions.

Religion will continue to flourish. Contrary to the secularist prophecies of the end of religion, religion continues to attract and matter. Debate will continue on the limits of religious tolerance within pluralistic democratic societies. As Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has asked, will religious discourses be included on conversations about ethics and public life, or excluded by a supposedly neutral secular narrative?

Practice over doctrine. While doctrine is not ignored, the attraction to religious traditions, and particular stances within those traditions, seems to have a great deal to do with practices, for instance forms and styles of worship or social outreach. The French community of Taizé, with its incorporation of various languages and traditions, simple chants and contemplative prayer, reaches out beyond denominational lines and crosses the lines demarcating spiritual vs. religious. And facilitated by the ease of global travel, the ancient practice of pilgrimages still finds profound resonance with many, whether explicitly religious and not.

Encountering the other. Due to globalization, the explosion in global communications, travel and migration, previously insulated religious groups now live as neighbours. High-level dialogues about religion and spirituality probably matter less than the day-to-day encounters among adherents of different traditions. One hopes difference will be a cause for celebration, learning and cooperation. This reality is a good reason for the continued exploration and teaching of religious studies within academia.

Moving south. Those of us in the ‘global north’ should be wary of generalizing too much. The most significant developments in spirituality and religion will probably be in the ‘global south,’ where new manifestations of spiritual practices and religiosity are revitalizing and transforming traditional faiths, and democratizing movements are creating new challenges for newly enfranchised religious groups.

Mark Yenson is a professor of Religious/Catholic Studies at King’s University College at Western.