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Gord Rixon, SJ , photo : Regis College, Toronto

What is spirituality? Religion? Secularism?

These questions are addressed in all their complexity by Gordon A. Rixon, SJ, Associate Professor of systematic theology at Regis College, an ecumenical consortium at the University of Toronto. In this article in the series on the role of Jesuits in today’s context, Professor Rixon provides a broad overview of religion and spirituality in Canada. He points out, as we have seen in the articles on statistics, that nothing is simple: religion occupies a different place in each culture, region, and group.

What is the difference between spirituality and religion?

Religion is ambiguous. I would say that the sociological function of religion is about group cohesion. You may be familiar with an anthropologist named Robin Dunbar. There is a phenomenon called Dunbar’s number, which is about social organization. Every time you move to a larger group size, you need a different strategy to facilitate group cohesion.

One of the functions of religion is to bind the group together through a sense of common values. Religion thus has a sociological function to sustain a group. This can be positive or negative. Religion can exclude others or be very welcoming.

Spirituality, I would say, focuses on transcendence, and it’s something that helps foster and use religion in a way that’s going to be positive.

We often hear that young Canadians today are returning to spirituality. What do you think?

“I’m spiritual but not religious,” is a common phrase, but I think it’s a bit naive because we are social beings. People who say that probably think of religion in a very negative sense, rather than recognizing that spirituality has a social dimension, for example with its rituals.

The problem is that if you have a spirituality that is too individualistic, it will not be a deep spirituality but will instead become an ideology. It will not be grounded in the reality that we are social beings. When you face the fact that you are a social being, then you must face the ambiguity. In order to have a holistic spirituality, I think you have to face the social quality of our humanity, then face the ambiguity of it (with its positive and negative aspects) and make good choices.

photo: Karl Fredrickson, Unsplash

Facing up to religious ambiguity invites spiritual development and social commitment. Saint Ignatius and his Spiritual Exercises have a lot to offer, especially in terms of discernment. How do I identify positive and negative movements in myself, the church, and society? How do I chart a life-enhancing path to the future? Ignatius has a real genius for these spiritual tasks.

What is the role of religion in Canada today?

The role of religion in Canada is different in different regions: that’s part of the complexity of the issue. It’s different in the city than it is in rural areas, and it’s different in different areas: it’s not the same in British Columbia as it is in Winnipeg, in northern Ontario, or in Halifax. As a theologian, I try to think about the role of religion in culture. For various ethnic, linguistic, and cultural communities, religion plays a different role.

The Olympic flame is a symbol of hope; the Ignatian torch is our collective conversion, symbolized by a work of art that crosses Canada. All members of Jesuit communities and works in Canada and Haiti will have the opportunity to experience and meditate on the themes of conversion and poverty embodied in a striking painting on wood by Daniel LeBlond, SJ, created especially for the Ignatian Year. This work will tour our Province until July 2022, a "marathon" stopping in different cities.

What do you think about secularization?

As far as secularization is concerned, people sometimes talk about it with only one reality in mind, for example, the work of Charles Taylor. But again, it’s complex. One of the things I try to get people to understand is that there are many modernities and many pathways to modernity. So the American experience is very different from the Canadian experience, and the Canadian experience from the European experience. Taylor talks about modernity pushing back the role of religion in terms of explaining natural phenomena, but it does not work that way in all cultures. Some people retain a strong tradition of belief and also use the scientific method. And of course, people like me actually believe that you can do both!

And so there are different types of secularism. Sometimes it can mean that people don’t practice a religion as much anymore, so we say that society is more secular. At other times, secularism means that religion is a private matter. There is also a more radical secularism that believes that religion is oppressive and that people need to be freed from it. Sometimes faith and secularism can coexist and respect each other; at other times it is more confrontational.

 What drives the younger generation to engage in spirituality and religion? What objections do they have? How can we respond to these objections? 

Young people want to be subjects of transformative change and, I believe, they are eager to develop and draw upon personal, spiritual, and religious resources. They do not want to be the object of the ministrations of spiritual experts or managed by religious authorities. Like older folks they are shamed and confused by scandals in church and society and look for ways to live in harmony and a spirit of gratitude. In my experience, they are willing to ask Jesuits and other like-minded, humbled people to be partners and collaborators in building a more just and meaningful society.

How are Jesuits uniquely positioned to engage today’s culture? 

Through their spiritual and theological training Jesuits and other members of the Ignatian family develop the intellectual flexibility, the affective freedom, and the self-transcending commitment to respect and accompany people from diverse cultural backgrounds to pursue common goals. Those who would share the Gospel with others need to overcome cultural blindness that assumes there is only one way to pursue fully human lives.

By deepening their own agency and participating in a project larger than themselves, members of the Ignatian family can encourage the religious and cultural interactions that build up personal confidence, social respect, and cultural esteem. By celebrating human diversity, contemporary followers of Ignatius encourage faith communities and advance the reign of social and ecological justice.



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