‘Count on what’s true to do its own solicitation’: VST’s Richard Topping on preaching to a skeptical world

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“I think in a secular society whose dreams for the future are restricted to climbing to the top over other people, and who are exhausted by that competition by the time they’re 45 and wonder what life is all about, you can speak to people’s imagination,” says the Rev. Richard Topping, principal of the Vancouver School of Theology. “That may be part of the church’s work—to render explicit what’s tacit, help people to see things that are there in this wonderful, beautiful, often broken but promising world.” Photo: Matthew Townsend

Since 2013, the Rev. Richard Topping, a Presbyterian minister and professor of systematic theology, has been principal of the Vancouver School of Theology (VST). A multi-denominational seminary, VST has trained many Anglican Church of Canada priests since its establishment in 1971 out of the amalgamation of the city’s Anglican Theological College with the United Church of Canada’s Union College of British Columbia. Topping, whose recent research interests have included the theologies of John Calvin and Karl Barth, is currently writing a book on the role of the imagination in postmodern theology. When the Anglican Journal came to Vancouver this July to cover General Synod, we sat down with Topping to hear his views on B.C.’s spiritual climate—and on how to speak the gospel to an at-times skeptical world.

This interview has been edited for length.

How would you describe B.C. culture in terms of its secularity?

I came here from Montreal. Statistically, Montreal has not a particularly high rate of church attendance. The difference between Montreal and B.C. would be, neither is really a church-going culture as I’ve seen them, but in B.C. there’s not a residual Christianity as there is in Quebec. So people may not go to church, but they still understand themselves as Roman Catholics, for example. [In B.C.], it’s not as though people are giving up something they once had—they never had it. And you get this kind of reflection in people like Douglas Coupland, in Life after God and all that.

It [also] depends how you measure secularity. I think of Charles Taylor, about secularity having three characteristics: decreased influence in the culture on the part of religious institutions; a decline in church attendance; but what he thinks is most significant—and it may actually be helpful for B.C.—is that participation in a religion of any sort is seen as optional. B.C. has always been a little less established where it comes to Christianity. There’s a book [Infidels and the Damn Churches] by a scholar out of the University of Victoria [Lynne Marks]—she talks about how B.C. has always been the most secular, and the most experimental, of Canadian cultures where it comes to religious participation.

Since the 1960s?

No, she’s arguing that secularity is not something new to the West Coast but in fact has legs, has a longer history in both Victoria and Vancouver, particularly in urban centres. Secularity is not as new as some folks think it is here.

The other thing is that it depends how you measure religious participation. When I first came out here, people talked about it being secular. But then you discover the number of storefront churches and you wonder, “Are these people being counted?” And immigration has a huge influence in British Columbia. The Roman Catholic church in British Columbia—they have whole churches of Filipino immigrants, and their numbers are burgeoning. St. Mark’s College at [the University of British Columbia], which is the Roman Catholic college, is experiencing record enrolments. There are church-going cultures that are landing here in B.C. and changing the reality on the ground. I live in Richmond; maybe 70% of the community is Asian. And some of the countries from which those folks come are church-going cultures. I’m at a Presbyterian church that was very Anglo but now is increasingly peopled by Koreans, by Filipinos, Chinese, Taiwanese, and it’s a really rich tapestry of people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds—people to whom the North American church at one point sent missionaries are now coming to the very place where the missionaries came from. I think that’s kind of hopeful.

We seem to be seeing that elsewhere in the country, too.

I think that isn’t always a part of the calculus for which the future of the church is determined. I’ve been spending a lot of my time in Asia lately, and you realize that on the West Coast, maybe elsewhere in Canada, the narrative about the decline of the church has to do—how do I say it kindly—with us counting how many white people still go to church. And you wonder, “Wow, what’s the subtext there?” The church is burgeoning in Africa—40% of all Christians in the world are [predicted to be] in Africa by 2025. I just got back from Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim culture—500 seminaries in Indonesia. The Philippines—90% of the population attends church. And these are the places from which people are coming to Canada, and they go to church—with their families.

Churches here, for the most part, especially the mainline—the formerly mainline—tend to be a little bit experimental or focused on particular issues. They can’t do everything, so they tend to do one thing well.

I think there’s a greater appetite in the West for missional theology, which emphasizes the eccentric character of Christianity. It’s not just about recruiting more people to come to church; it’s about making a significant impact on the community where churches are located—not just saying no to culture at every turn, but saying, “Hey, maybe this is God at work in the wider world, and how do we get with that program?”

One of the things we teach students at the Vancouver School of Theology is Charles Taylor’s notion of overlapping consensus. And what he means by that is, if we wait until we have consensus on belief to do positive things in the world, it’s going to be a long time where we won’t do much. If we look for projects or activities for human flourishing in the community and get on board, people will gravitate toward the activity. It’s amazing how you become neighbours by building a house together with Buddhists, or running a food bank, as the Presbyterians and other denominations do, or serving meals in Richmond together with people from the temple and the synagogue and the mosque. It’s a kind of neighbourly experience, that God is at work in the big wide world, motivating all kinds of people to care about human life.

Is the ecumenical or interfaith movement especially strong in B.C.?

I don’t know enough about the whole of the country to say that. At our school, rather than have somebody teach world religions, we try to have our students have some experience [with] somebody who belongs to a different faith tradition. And you know the city of Vancouver is anxious to hear from different faith groups, and when we speak together, we tend to get heard. For example, about two years ago an invitation was given that [evangelist] Franklin Graham would come to town, and Franklin Graham had said some really unkind things about other faith traditions. A group of us got together, including the Anglican churches, and there were evangelical churches involved, Presbyterians, United Church, even people from other faith traditions, from para-church organizations, and we issued a statement in the newspaper saying that we really didn’t think it was going to add much to our community to have someone coming in from the outside saying hateful things about groups that we’re cooperating with. It was an exercise, as the dean of the cathedral said, in protecting our brand. We wanted to represent good things about Christianity and not just judgement and condemnation of people from other faith traditions.

I think the really disorienting thing though, for us in Vancouver especially—those who grew up in mainline Christianity where we’re used to being at the levers—is, now we’ve become missionaries to the culture that we thought we owned. There’s a sense that this was our culture, or something like this—we were the conscience of the state. How do you deal with that, when the prime minister doesn’t necessarily have an inbox for us anymore? And maybe we go from always influencing policy to actually embodying in our common life an alternative—I don’t know about a disengagement with culture, but a kind of local option that is interesting, and a culture that’s different. It may speak to our need for communion, our need to be in communities where people care about each other and we’re not all anonymous and we’re not all climbing over each other to get somewhere else. Where there’s rest in church.

I just see opportunity everywhere. I got invited to West Vancouver, to somebody’s home—it’s a group of former university professors, former business leaders; most of them don’t believe in God, and they talk about how they’ve left that behind. But they invited me to come and talk to them about God and the kind of God I believe in. I was sort of being set up, and they weren’t counting on somebody who would fight back a little bit, in the kindest ways. And they maligned Christianity in one way or another. But I think we managed to get a conversation going. I said, “Well, that’s a pretty deep misunderstanding of Christianity, and I could see maybe from people like Franklin Graham how you could think that, but here’s actually the larger catholic tradition,” and pushed back a bit. At the end of our time together, they gave me all the cookies to take back to the school. So a group of predominantly atheists gave me the cookies to take back and give to divinity students, right? And they’ve invited me multiple times since. We’ve developed friendships, and we’ve come to agree on things, like, “Bad ideas about God are dangerous.” That has become a bit of a starting point, and a source of some humour.

If you prove yourself approachable and not selfish about everything, a fellow traveler and willing to talk as well as listen, there are opportunities for conversations. There is at times some hostility towards Christianity—that Christianity has been the source of difficulty and trouble in the world, and I think it does the church good to say, “There’s some truth in that, but that’s not completely true”—to kind of sort through that, and not always just get defensive.

Do you think there’s a lot of hostility to religious tradition today?

There’s some. There’s the prophetic dimension of Christianity, and I worry sometimes about mainline Christianity. When you’ve been the mainline, you find it difficult to find your own voice apart from the culture. So it’s almost like you pull back the bow and try to hit relevance, and you hit redundancy dead centre, because you end up not having anything to say that people can find out from other sources without anything to do with Christianity. I worry about a church that just wants to be avant-garde. But I also worry about a church that wants to get out their 8-tracks and play them.

I think the church’s creative piece is in wrestling with the kind of retrieval that speaks to the moment. I think of truth and reconciliation. When the government starts using the language of reconciliation—Christians ought to have ears for this. That’s our stuff, that’s language that at our best we deploy to do good things in the world. I think recovering some things from the past is important—those metaphors give life to some of the things we do. I live in that world, in that tension, as a theologian, between bringing a past forward and paying attention to what’s going on now, so those things come together in ways that speak to the moment. I sometimes think that we imagine that faithfulness is doing the same thing people before us did. Faithfulness is being faithful to the moment, the challenge, the opportunities right now, rather than acting like it’s another time.

One of the things I’ve found really works is to talk about imagination. In the past the church talked about the truth, and then we talked about what’s right, what’s good. Those are always important, but it seems to me that the language of imagination has entered into theology in the current time in a powerful way.

Especially on the West Coast?

I think so. But [generally] books and theology now, if you want to sell them, have to have “imagination” in the title; if you want to sell a lot of them, you say “re-imagine.” And I think what’s happening is, we’re recognizing that the way things are at the moment isn’t bolted to the frame of the universe. “We imagined this—we put it together.” As C.S Lewis said, imagination is the organ of meaning—imagination is this faculty that draws things together.

And in my teaching of theology, I use people like Northrop Frye, who talked about the educated imagination. I partly think of theological education as the theologically educated imagination. The Bible’s filled with metaphors of longing when justice and peace embrace and lions and lambs lie down together and swords are beaten into ploughshares, and when you imagine a future that isn’t here yet and try to live toward it, it creates this beautiful tension. And it’s funny—the authority of that is not a commanding authority in the way of saying, “This is true, this is right.” It’s solicitous authority, it has the power to invite you to a different kind of arrangement that is life-giving. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have a dream.” That’s a solicitation. It’s all carrot and no stick.

It definitely seems to me to be the spirit in which Lewis writes—that by appealing to people’s imagination you can get under their defences.

I agree. Think of what that means for preaching on the West Coast. It’s the power of re-description. How can you take the world that people think they know and re-describe it in terms of the world that God’s bringing in a way that invites participation, meaningful action for the good of all human beings but [also] as an act of faithfulness toward God?

And I think in a secular society whose dreams for the future are restricted to climbing to the top over other people, and who are exhausted by that competition by the time they’re 45 and wonder what life is all about, you can speak to people’s imagination. That may be part of the church’s work—to render explicit what’s tacit, help people to see things that are there in this wonderful, beautiful, often broken but promising world. And I think it’s through appeal to people’s imagination to see the world in a new way where they can inhabit it alongside of others for a common flourishing that there may be real opportunity for the church. It requires incredible powers of narration, and patience and a bit of the soul of a poet. It doesn’t mean you don’t believe things are true; it’s just that you count on what’s true to do its own solicitation. It doesn’t need you helping it get into people. Just speak it and let the beauty of God’s work in the world do what it does—invite people into it.

That’s what I mean by the prophetic side. It may be that Christianity can become interesting by its offer of an alternative, rather than just through accommodations—you know, where we weave into the fabric of what’s already going on and don’t say anything that a major newspaper wouldn’t commit to. It’s not that you want to be adversarial for the sake of it. I think you can be taught and surprised by the humanity of the world around you. But you need some basis to discern that. I think for Anglicans I’d want to talk about sacramental imagination, faith as figured in liturgy and architecture, to introduce you to something marvelous—how that is exported into the common culture to be solicitous, welcoming, for the sake of the gospel.

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Tali Folkins
Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The United Church Observer.

1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you for sharing Mr. Topping’s ideas through his own words. His depiction of a secular society “whose dreams for the future are restricted to climbing to the top over other people,” is a convenient caricature but does not reflect the passionate engagement of secular people with issues that are of extreme importance at this point in humanity’s history, much of it led by individuals with no use whatsoever for traditional Christianity. Nevertheless, his call to speak to people’s imaginations, “to render explicit what’s tacit, and to help people see things that are there in this wonderful, beautiful, often broken but promising world” is the central work of both the church and its leaders. The United Church of Canada has been about that work throughout its history. Unfortunately, reaching out to evangelical immigrants to stave up its membership, action Mr. Topping seems to support, was misguided. In doing so, it turned abdicated its responsibility to those who “graduated” from its own pews as the result of its contemporary perspectives on the Bible, God, and the person of Jesus. Like Mr. Topping, most prefer to consider them failures rather than assessing how the church has failed them. The rejection of its responsibility to the fastest growing demographic in the country – those who identify as having no religion – has risked far more than the church’s bottom line. Canada’s social capital is most deeply invested in its Christian congregations. As churches dwindle and die, they are not being replaced. Reduced voluntarism, philanthropy, and community engagement are the result; our local communities already feel the challenges of those losses. Refusing to value the “off-label benefits” of religion – primarily increased subjective well-being – the church has continued to isolate itself and make itself increasingly irrelevant. Had it, on the contrary, valued the values at the core of Christianity and provided theologically barrier-free space for those having no need of Christian language or symbol to wrestle with the challenges presented to us by the complexity of contemporary life, it may still be on the speed dial of the Prime Minister. Alas, the choice was made long ago. The future of the church and its impact on contemporary society will continue to be limited by that choice.

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