Interfaith Talk in a Pluralistic World

Janet Somerville

Hey Dude, I've Lost My Meta-Narrative, Can I Borrow Yours?

On March 26, 2007, Janet Somerville invited us to remember what it was like—not so long ago—when most people lived inside a vast, shared, inherited “dome of meaning.” This dome gave connection and grounding to all separate streams of personal thought and experience. That was what it meant to be in “a Christian society”, or for that matter a Muslim or a Hindu society. Of course there were variations and minorities living with their own identity and their own “dome of meaning” within the bigger society. But there was a very strong social and public dimension to religious faith. It was built in to institutions, laws, customs, habits, and social expectations. It was publicly potent.

Today’s philosophers often call that big arch of shared meaning a “meta-narrative’—an originating “story” that can gather most of life’s actual stories into its orbit. And most of them think that a meta-narrative is somehow primitive, and probably oppressive too. They take it for granted that a meta-narrative has nothing at all to do with objective truth. And they feel free to warn us away from such cathedrals of meaning, even though the great civilizations of human history have been powerfully shaped by them.

Miss Somerville thinks that in Canada, the great shared Catholic meta-narrative into which she was born (like her parents and grandparents before her) didn’t make it through the 1960s. It did for some people, of course, but as a major cultural force—something you can easily and confidently hand on to your children—it cracked and crumbled under the growing weight of cultural change.

A meta-narrative is not the same thing as personal faith, not the same thing as someone’s discovery of the living God or of the saving power of Jesus. It’s a cultural thing. But it has a lot to do with how hard or how easy it is to be a religious believer right here in Canada, right now in the twenty-first century. A culturally alive meta-narrative can make your world hospitable to traditional faith, or hostile to it. Miss Somerville noted that Donald Posterski, Reginald Bibby and other sociologists of religion in Canada calculate that for every Canadian adult who joins and stays in a Christian church, twenty others drift out of the organized church.

Twenty (adults) out of church life for every new one in? No wonder it’s tough to be confident or optimistic if you’re a church leader in Canada. No wonder young Christians here often feel like strangers in their own land, surrounded by a sea of people but alone with their sense of what is most deeply meaningful in life.

In Western European countries, the same collapse of the Christian social meta-narrative seems to have happened some decades before it happened here. The same forces are at work in the United States, but in that country there seems to be a feistier public resistance to them, so the overall picture is a bit more conservative.

But in Africa (especially), in the Arab world, in much of Latin America, and even in Asia, the picture is very different. Religion there is still intensely public, still stirs social hopes and passions, still matters to people’s very identity as citizens. Read, for example, The Next Christianity, by Philip Jenkins.

For the peace of the world—and also for the sake of our humanly crucial search for truth—two kinds of dialogue have therefore become very important.

One is the dialogue between people like us, who live in a publicly “secularized” world, and people in the rest of the world, whose energy as citizens still draws on religious sources and whose “we” is a religious “we”. (This isn’t just an abstract question; think of Iraq or Afghanistan if you want to remember how relevant it is!) Western leaders tend to think that those societies are “backward” compared to ours, and in their eyes the West seems arrogant and disrespectful. But why do we Westerners identify a loss of shared religious meaning with progress? Don’t we have a great deal to learn from societies that still share a deep and ancient sense of the meaning of life?

Another crucial post-modern dialogue is between convinced religious believers who live in a secularized society like Canada, and the majority of our fellow-citizens for whom religion has become either unimportant or purely private. Faith does make a difference when big, important questions of public policy are being debated. Right now, older Christians in Canada are unsure of how to stay in the big debates. Janet Somerville thinks that it will be younger Christians who will discover again how to make the voice of faith feel at home and vital again in Canada, in all the domains of our common life. And she can’t wait to hear how we’ll do it.