How to talk about religion… at school.

Teaching about the world religions made the news in Canada a few months ago as the Supreme Court upheld the Quebec public school system’s requirements for its students to take an ethics and world religion course.  I like the concept and idea and believe that we should continue to develop a curriculum that encourages public discourse in our schools of religious ideals and ethics.  The pluralistic nature of our urban communities and universities guarantees a growing need to equip students with skills for understanding another person’s worldview–even if its a religiously informed view.

My friend Mark Chancey posted Robert Kunzman’s article, “How to Talk About Religion.”  He calls for “civic multilingualism” to be nurtured within public schools:

In recent years, the call has increased for U.S. students to study foreign languages. In an interconnected, global society, the argument goes, Americans must be able to communicate effectively with a diversity of peoples and cultures, whether for purposes of commerce, research, or national security. But given the prevalence of religion talk in today’s world, another form of fluency is increasingly needed: Civic multilingualism is the ability to converse across different religious and ethical perspectives in search of understanding, compromise, and common ground. At home and abroad, this may represent the greatest social challenge of the 21st century.

To meet this challenge, public schools cannot sidestep the influence of religion in society. Nor should they cultivate a model of citizenship that avoids religion talk altogether.

My experience in Vancouver is that we have difficulty with this vision of civic responsibility in part because of our virtue of “tolerance” based on ignorance.  Kunzman believes that  “tolerance” without “knowledge” actually creates citizens who lack “respect.”  He writes,

Public schools often see their role as promoting tolerance of diversity, and this is certainly important. But tolerance can be entirely ignorant—students don’t have to know anything about other beliefs or ways of life to tolerate them. Respect, however, requires an appreciation for why religious adherents believe or live the way they do. Students who have this understanding of their fellow citizens’ religious commitments will be better equipped to thoughtfully discuss those commitments, especially when conflicts arise in the public square.


half-naked skateboarders and university professors

This past weekend one of my kids turned thirteen.  My stressor was how to turn a UBC campus scavenger hunt into an epic event for thirteen year old boys.  Turns out the weather took care of that for me.  It poured!  We scavenged.

Along the way, my son says they ran into a skateboarder making his way across the campus with his shirt in hand.  As he sailed past them he cried out, “Hey young ones, what are you doing out here?”  An appropriate question.

Its the question that university professors should be asking.  “Hey young ones, what are you doing out here?”

Buried within the text of David Suzuki’s 1989 publication, Inventing the Future, is an article entitled, “Prostituting Academia.”  His concerns voiced 22 years ago are just as relevant today.  The article raises a question for me:  Are tenured professors meant to be the voice of conscience for the university?

Are tenured professors uniquely positioned to be able to ask us all, “Hey young ones, what are you doing out here?”  To do so, though, in an age of competitive funding from business, industry and government may cause them to loose their shirts.  Are they willing to loose  their shirts and call out to us, “Hey what you are you doing out here?”

Here’s an excerpt from David Suzuki’s article:

I don’t deny a role for university faculty in the application of new ideas.  Our top-notch people are Canada’s eyes and ears to the world’s research, and good people will have ideas that can eventually be exploited.  But the deliberate and urgent push to economic payoff distorts scholarship within the university and subverts its thrust to the will of those who have the money.  Profit and destruction are the major reasons for the application of science today, while environmental and social costs are seldom seriously addressed.  That’s why we need scholars who are detached from those applications.

I remain a faculty member of UBC and because I care so much for the university I am compelled to speak out in criticism.  Tenure confers the obligation to do so.

I don’t condone but can understand why university scientists, who have been underfunded for so long, are welcoming the Faustian bargain with private industry.  But I fail to comprehend why philosophers, historians and sociologists who should know better are acquiescing so easily.

The headlong rush to industrialize the university signals the implicit acceptance of many assumptions that have in the past been questioned by academics themselves.  For example, free enterprise, like most economic systems is based on the unquestioned necessity for steady growth–growth in GNP, consumption and consumer goods.

Steady incremental growth within a given interval is called “exponential growth,” and any scientist knows that nothing in the universe grows exponentially indefinitely.  Yet economists, business people and politicians assume the explosive increase in income, consumer goods and GNP (and inflation) of the past decades must be maintained to sustain our quality of life.  Historians know that this growth is an aberration, a blip that must inevitably stop and reverse itself.  But how can the fallacy of maintainable exponential growth be seriously challenged when the university is busy selling the myth that it can maintain such growth?

Scholars in universities represent tiny islands of thought in society.  They are sufficiently detached from the priorities of various interest groups like business, government and the military to point out flaws in our current social truths.  But by focussing on issues that are socially relevant or economically profitable, we lose sight of the broader context within which that activity falls; we forget history; we become blind to the environmental and social costs of our innovations.”  p. 75-76

chaplains today

Mark Gali writes of the need for more chaplains:

We find ourselves in an odd period of church history when many people have become so used to large, impersonal institutions that they want that in their church as well. Thus the attraction of megachurches, where people can blend in and not be seen if they want. Many thought leaders who ponder church life naturally end up championing massive institutions and denigrating (inadvertently, to be sure) the healing of hurting souls. And this in a community whose theology is supposedly grounded in the universal and cosmic love of God who gives attention to each of us as individuals.

There may be something else going on as well. A chaplain is a minister in the service of another. A chaplain at a hospital or in the military is clearly not the highest ranking member of the institution, clearly not the person in charge of running things. The chaplain’s job is defined by service—service to the institution’s needs and goals, service to the individuals who come for spiritual help. The chaplain prays for people in distress, administers sacraments to those in need, leads worship for those desperate for God. In short, the chaplain is at the beck and call of those who are hurting for God. He’s not his own man. She is not her own woman. There’s no mistaking a chaplain for an entrepreneurial leader, a catalyst for growth. No, the chaplain is unmistakably a servant.

Read the whole article here.

I want a career…

You know the moment.  The person across from you has been talking away and the moment is serious.  But your mind is light-years away from their concern.  Rather your mind has been hijacked by another concern.  In fact you showed up for the conversation with another agenda.  And finally the person takes a breath and you cross the threshold and carve out a doorway to your heart.  “I want… Please tell… Do this for me!”

People like me interrupted Jesus. He often used the moment to address the heart concerns of many other people.  In Luke 12 Jesus had been teaching the crowd to avoid hypocrisy by trusting God with their fears, when a man in the crowd revealed his distress.  “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.

Practical Security

An inheritance in Jesus’ day was most often held in the family property or land holdings.  Traditionally the first son would receive two-thirds of the property as his inheritance.  The remaining one third would likely be sold and divided among all else who had a claim to it.  The “wisdom” of this approach developed out of the desire to maintain the ability of at least one member of the family to secure a future, a lifestyle, and an income for the family through the property that remained.  This younger brother’s request was likely driven by the desire to also have some security for the future.

When I poll University students at UBC and in Vancouver as to why they are pursuing school, its most often because they “want a good job” in the future.  They want a career that will bring some sense of security for themselves and for their family.  Although “the career” may be fading as a sure promise of security, it still holds power over many–especially those who are about to graduate.  The stress created moves them into the realm of worry.  Worry habituates us to what Jesus calls greed and a view of life because it rules out God from the equation.  Worry moves us to the center and displaces Christ.

Greed Consumes

A flashback to Wall Street reminds us that our societal message is that greed is good.  However, Jesus tells us “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” Luke 12:13  A career can be a wonderful journey.  However, we can miss the joy of work and the real purpose of life when wealth position, and security become the end-goals.  The story Jesus told of a  successful rich man getting ready to retire, yet dying “prematurely” was meant to confront the prevailing narrative of both brothers and the rich and poor in the crowd.  Life is about more than securing wealth for ourselves; wealth will fail us; life is about being rich toward God.

What happens when greed dominates life?

1.  My wants exceed my needs and become supreme.
2.  I will use people rather than love people.
3.  I will sacrifice the most important for the mundane.
4.  I will have a shrinking faith in God and His providence.
5.  I will create a self-righteousness that allows me to judge others who have less.
6.  I will fail to enjoy giving.
7. I will view hospitality as a chore or a way to ingratiate myself to others.
8. I will be possessed by my possessions.
9. I will be deceived into become small and insignificant rather than great.
10. As greed is a form of violence I will become habituated to injustice.
11. I will be persistently pre-occupied with security and therefore fear-full.

Jesus secures life

Greed is contrary to the knowledge of God.  In fact Jesus’ view of life and career is so different from ours and He knows it.  In light of who God is Jesus then exhorts His disciples:

1.  Not to worry about their life; what they will eat, drink, or wear.

2.  Not to set their hearts on what they will eat, drink, or wear.

3.  To pursue the Kingdom of God.

4.  To live generously–to sell their possessions and give to the poor.

So when thinking about our careers, Jesus would have us re-examine the question of WHO we are living for.  If we are at the centre you can be sure greed will find open space to take root.  If Jesus and His rule and reign is at the centre greed will find little rest.  I pray that we would truly know Jesus.  “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”  2 Corinthians 8:9  When Jesus tells us to pursue the Kingdom first, he then reminds us that our loving Heavenly Father has in fact and will continue to “give you the Kingdom.” Luke 12:32  Jesus has secured what a career will never give us.

On Death and Dying at UBC

Blaise Pascal commented on the propensity of people to avoid the great issues of life.  “Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.  We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us from seeing it.” (Pensees)

Plans to construct a fifteen-bed hospice in the UBC campus community have been delayed because of concerns by local residents.  The concerns fall into two categories: 1. Investment anxiety–will the proposed hospice reduce property values?  and 2. Death anxiety–will proximity to death and the dying bring misfortune to the residents because of exposure to ghosts or “bad luck?”  The residents in question believe the proposed project is culturally insensitive and inappropriate for the University to pursue.

I believe it is appropriate for the University to lead its community both intellectually and practically into the compassionate care of the dying.  In doing so I believe they will help us all live better.  As Gay Klietzke writes recently in the Vancouver Sun,

If we judge a society by how it treats its weakest, we would currently have to give Vancouver’s a failing grade. We provide schools, swimming pools and yoga studios to support the living in every neighbourhood, but fail to provide hospice homes and supporting programs that would allow the dying a similar opportunity to live their lives fully in their communities, to the end.

In addition to our vision, we have a dream: A hospice home in every neighbourhood in Vancouver. Not only would this fulfil a need, but it would also assist in normalizing the natural cycle of life. A cultural shift away from viewing death with aversion and fear, to a healthier focus on living life as fully as possible, to the last breath, will be a welcome result.

We live in an international city that is admired by many across the globe. By creating a ‘hospice culture’ in Vancouver we would model a culture of compassion for the world at large to follow.

As a church pastor and as a chaplain, my perspective on death and dying is being shaped by the Gospel of Jesus.

1.  The Gospel challenges our preference for the strong.

Generally those who are dying are viewed as “weaker” than the rest of us.  However, compassionate society recognizes the continuing worth and value of people even if they are not perceived to be a big contributor.  In fact Jesus indicates that our care for the weaker reflects the very heart of God for people.

In His great parable of The Judgement known as the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus said, “Then the righteous will answer him, saying, Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?40 And the King will answer them, Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”  Matthew 25:37-40

The Gospel compels me to recognize God’s solidarity with the weak, poor, sick, and dying and their enduring value because of His love for us.  The movement toward hospice leans into this value and confronts our culture.

2.  The Gospel confronts our  preference to ignore our own mortality.

Our society has gone to extraordinary lengths to insulate itself from the reality of death.  The Gospel is God’s intervention in human history and participation in death, even death on a cross through Jesus Christ.  If Jesus was not spared the reality of death I am compelled to take seriously the reality that I am going to die.  Jesus regularly told stories of disturbance built around the reality of death and God’s judgement; these stories were intended to disturb the hearer’s misplaced sense of security.  Security in life would not be had by ignoring death, but rather by letting death compel one to think seriously about Jesus’ teachings and their implications for how we live.  Jesus used death to provoke awareness of our resistance to the first commandment.

We do a dis-service to  ourselves and the dying when we avoid death.  During a season in which people require honour they receive shame.  The “living” live without wisdom; we overvalue the small things and ignore the ultimate questions.  Hospice creates the space for a community to participate in the seasons of life and metabolize the lessons for living that dying may give us.

3.  The Gospel frees us from unmitigated fear of death and the forces of darkness.

In general, our western cultural and societal intellect tells us that “there is nothing else out there.”  However, we do maintain a curiosity about what others do accept as real.  “Superstition” and fear of spirits, darkness, evil, or bad luck is not difficult to uncover in our media.  Therefore, everyone of us who has experienced a wave of unmitigated fear in the middle of the night should find some empathy with our neighbours who fear that the presence of the dying will usher them into the presence of ghosts.

The Gospel declares that Jesus is Lord of both the living and the dead.  By faith in Jesus, the same power that delivered Him from death in His resurrection delivers those who believe from the powers of death.  The Apostle Paul inspired by the grace that has ushered him into a relationship with Jesus writes:

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?36 As it is written, For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.  37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers,39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Romans 8:35-38

While the Gospel also compels the followers of Jesus to fight for life, we also know that in Christ the sting of death has been removed.  Though death comes we know our final address is secure.  For the follower of Jesus death is not just the end.  Rather death for the Believer is a type of healing–in that we are then ushered into Jesus’ Presence, our faith becomes sight and we continue to enjoy the full benefits of eternal life in Christ.  Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.”  John 5:24

While we may not “enjoy” being confronted by death and our own mortality, the Gospel of Jesus will gives courage to receive the gifts hospice brings to our communities and to participate in the development of communities full of compassion and wisdom.