It is hard to witness in a closet

By Dr Michael W Higgins, 10 February 2024
Image: Stefan Kunze/Unsplash


Gilles Routhier, a prolific and eminent Canadian priest-theologian, in a recent address at St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto, titled “Theology in Universities is Changing: What’s Next?,” identified some key challenges confronting not only theologians but all people of faith irrespective of their religious allegiances.

Although his address was less than stimulating in delivery and more summary in substance than original, he did alight on two fundamental problems besetting religion in contemporary society: the widening fissure between cynical agnostics and zealous fundamentalists and the inattention to religion in the public square, providing in the process an analysis of the role of theology.  While addressing these and other issues Routhier drew specifically on the thinking of Pope Francis and what constitutes a synodal church.

For sure, religion continues its relentless disappearing act on the national scene surfacing only when dangerous scrabbles and rumbles between competing diasporic communities generate alarm.  The understanding of religion as a ligament that holds society together is positively archaic for most and public broadcasting has practically erased the religious presence in the country.  CBC and Radio Canada have over the last couple of decades eliminated such programs as Man Alive, Second Regard, Meeting Place, Celebration, Testament, OpenCircuit and most recently, Tapestry. Enrollments in theology and religious studies have in many institutions precipitously declined and in other cases barely stabled following programme renaming, curriculum revamping, and spastic bouts of hyper-marketing.

There are now only 1.5 religion correspondents in the print media left in the country. Diet counsellors, social media influencers, and real estate mavens have a prominence religion columnists can only dream of.

What gives?

I think it is reasonable to say that this is not the result of a secular agenda out to eradicate religion from the national landscape. Rather, it reflects the increased privatization of faith and the peripheralization of religious matters, in no small part because of the generally held perception that religion and the public space can be a toxic mix.

But the problem is surely broader than this. In an illuminating piece in the Report on Business in The Globe and Mail, “Focusing on STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics] degrees has its own economic costs,” the author, Victoria University academic Ira Wells recounts such shattering statistics as a 50 percent drop in humanities enrolments in Canadian universities in the last three decades. American statistics are even more arresting.

The consequences of this decline are long ranging and culturally debilitating. Wells quotes from Christian Madsbjerg’s Sensemaking: the Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm: “Our fixation with STEM erodes our sensitivity to the nonlinear shifts that occur in all human behavior. We stop seeing numbers and models as a representation of the world and we start seeing them as the truth—the only truth.”

When we reduce truth to a measurable reality, a quantifiable entity and deny other modes of knowing we pave the way toward a reductionist and instrumentalist vision of the human. We need both the scientific and the sapiential. As Thomas Merton would have it: we possess knowledge but we are possessed by wisdom.

Creative, bold and temerarious theologians can reset this cultural reality; they need to because all of us are diminished when religion and the study of religion are consigned to the closet.

Dr. Michael W. Higgins has been involved with investigating and expanding the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, particularly in Canada, for over forty years. Dr. Higgins is the Basilian Distinguished Fellow of Contemporary Catholic Thought at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto.

With thanks to Pontifex Minimus

Pontifex Minimus is written on the ancestral territories of the Haudenosaunee, Anishinabewaki, Attiwonderonk and Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation peoples, who have stewarded these lands since time immemorial.


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