The ancient Greeks believed that a Muse, a ‘divine’ like creature, had the responsibility to inspire creativity and protect the arts. While modern society prides itself on no longer believing silly myths, we are still enamored with the past. Hence, the museum, a dedicated space shaped by a vision to preserve artifacts which once had a distinct purpose.
About 5 years ago my wife and I moved to Quebec, the home of one of the oldest museums in Canada now known as Musée de l’Amérique Francophone. While we love the historical richness of the province, we didn’t move back just to visit a museum. Our transition was birthed by a burden to engage with a shifting narrative about religious faith, culture, spirituality and the role of Christian community.
Charles Taylor, Professor Emeritus at McGill University, is leading voice in making sense of these shifts. His writing articulates how our understanding of what it means to be Christian is changing right before our eyes. Since our move back to Quebec this has been confirmed by numerous reports on the decline of religious commitment and the notable increase of empty churches. What may be interpreted as good news for condo developers remains a paradox about what happens as church begin a painful transition toward becoming part of a history lesson.
One article recently accentuated the new post-Christian realities in Quebec by highlighting the reluctance people feel about attending religious services or even just stating that they believe in God. If that wasn’t enough, a recent provincial law called Bill 21 demonstrates new challenges concerning religious symbols in an emerging secular age.
It seems that we are living through the development of a subtle ‘strategy’ to relegate places of worship to artifact status. A step that eventually leads churches to becoming heritage sites; a fancy word for museum.
BEYOND PRESERVATION MODE
This growing reality positions regions like Quebec as key learning spaces that must lead the way in rethinking how we present the message of Jesus and the role of the church in a secular age. It has never been more important to re-articulate the role of the Christian faith for a changing culture and to revisit the essential nature of the church as a vibrant Christian community.
While this is not the place for a deep dive into complex factors related to religious decline, I want to suggest that preserving historical church buildings may in fact add to the problem. When disorientation leads to reminiscing about the good old days the strength to forge ahead is lost for friendly offers of preserving what is left.
Moreover, this preservation posture does not cultivate the catalytic leadership needed to re-engage with the changes we see emerging all around.
My deepest concerns were again confirmed when Nathalie Roy, Quebec’s Minister of Culture and Communications, pledged 20 million dollars to re-purpose and repair historical church buildings.
It occurred to me that in emerging secular culture many will have no problem celebrating the past as a subtle way of minimizing the voice of religious leaders for the future.
The real question is whether we will have the courage to politely reject any handout that leads to a lifeless nostalgia which positions the church as a relic of the past .
BEYOND PRIVATE SPIRITUALITY
While it may not be intentional, it is inevitable that a focus on preserving the past is likely to limit the fervor and focus required to give shape to a promising future. Moreover, the role of religion is best experienced when it moves us to grow beyond our private preservation mentality. Only then does ones’ spiritual life really become a creative force for developing flourishing cities for the future.
The oldest museum in Quebec was started by two young seminarians, priests in training, who understood the importance of theological education for shaping a growing community. With that in mind, perhaps this is the time for us to reassert the need to converge theological reflection with communal accountability. Private opinions about religion(s) foster a form of private spirituality that rarely contributes to the larger common good.
When we become comfortable with this approach we settle with telling stories about the past, and hanging artifacts that used to matter. Consequently, the responsibility formed in theological reflection is lost and with it the true nature of the church for a secular age.
Understanding and correcting may be the first step in encouraging a new conversations about the role of a church as a community that should develop caring, collaborative and creative leaders. Men and women whose love for God inspires them to contribute, intelligently, to the ideas that will shape cities of the future. If this matters to you, you might enjoy listening in on this podcast dialogue I had the opportunity to engage in. This conversation may be the type of thing that renews our loving engagement with a changing world and the courage to reject the the label of church as a ‘heritage site’.
A CHURCH SERIOUS ABOUT THE FUTURE
A recent report highlighted dire realities facing the Anglican Church. Maybe, the difficult yet honest assessment of their situation provides a lesson for every church leader who cares about their local neighbors and cities. Moreover, this seems like the perfect time to remind ourselves that the church, from her humble beginnings, was a spiritual movement with an outlook toward a future that required learning to adapt to change.
Although buildings were never the primary focus of this movement, they soon became an important tool to facilitate gatherings so people could learn and mobilize in their response to love and serve others. Furthermore, these spaces for worship soon gave this growing Christian community credence, street credit, with onlookers who were still unsure about Christianity.
Museums, no matter how beautiful, do not cultivate this kind of visionary leadership essential to being the church. Christianity, as a movement , was able to push beyond its first adherents by engaging with an unknown future. This required structures, systems, symbols and spiritual leaders who learned to trust God, as the one holding things together. This has always been, and will always be the fabric of a living and changing organism we call the church.
Could this be an opportunity to revisit how God’s overflowing love, characterized by a mysterious empowerment, can thrust simple, yet faithful servants, to engage with a changing world?
MUSEUMS MAGNIFY THE PAST, THE CHURCH…
...adapts to engage with the future with the wisdom from the past. Anything less tends to overemphasize the symbolism of re-purposing building at the expense of a life giving mission which makes the church a trans-formative community. While the disorientation brought about by our changing culture is real it doesn’t have to be the primary way we think about the church and the future.
It is evident, at least in my context, that many will be fine with letting us preserve old spaces that limit our creative voice for the future. Moreover, the re-purposing project, although admirable, is not a feature of what it means to be a Christian committed to letting the life of worship wake us up to our God given responsibilities.
Thus, Christians, when at their best, have always modeled what it means to celebrate the past as fuel for shaping a new future. Anything less is historical idolatry.
In the midst of these growing trends may I suggest that we rethink what it means to learn from the past so that we can make room for religion(s) and their proper place in shaping the future as well. While the church still has many things to apologize for, we cannot lose sight of what Stanley Hauerwas calls ‘the great imaginative invention’ which led Christians, in different centuries, to develop hospitals, schools with a focus on caring well. This was future shaping vision.
We have lots to learn as we listen to the debates regarding the proper role of worship symbols and spaces. Yet, may we never forget our insatiable human desire to know about the past as a way to inspire new dreams about the kinds of people we are still destined to become. The Church will always have something to say about that.