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Faith in the New Century

Slightly Revised Text of a Talk by David Kilgour to

The Canadian Bible Society at the

Pleasantview Community Church

Camrose, Alberta

April 14, 2002

“Faith in the New Century” is a challenging topic.  For example, one estimate of the number of believers of all religions who died prematurely while standing up for faith in the century we just left is a dismaying 169 million persons worldwide, including:

  • 70 million Muslims,
  • 35 million Christians,
  • 11 million Hindus,
  • 9 million Jews,
  • 4 million Buddhists,
  • 2 million Sikhs,
  • 1 million Baha’is,
  • 5 million other faiths,

The twentieth century was the most violent ever in terms of religious persecution.  To take but one of numerous examples, how many Muslims died in recent years in parts of Europe?  An estimated 18 million Eastern Orthodox and Catholic believers died between 1917 and 1980, mostly in the Soviet Union’s prison camps. 

Many Christians—perhaps some of you—participated in a large rally at Edmonton city hall a number of years ago about the outrageous persecution of Muslims in Bosnia by self-described Christians.  There are many stories of brave men and women helping people of differing faiths around the world.  One which is timely today is about the Israeli doctor who donated his services to help Palestinian mothers give birth safely.  Is the parable of the Good Samaritan in the Bible not in contemporary about a Palestinian who rescues a badly beaten Israeli?

Contemporary Intolerance

Today, we are seeing a disturbing trend towards religious intolerance, hatred and violence around the world.  In too many jurisdictions, we see a willingness by governments to discriminate, to marginalize and to exclude persons of officially disfavoured faiths.  We see the love, peace and compassion taught to us by so many religions, but also the hurt, injuries and deaths caused by those who seek to attack believers in other faiths.  The actions of any who would discount any faith and marginalize those who wish to exercise the basic human right to worship in peace must be denounced everywhere.

In Canada, we have the right to exercise religious freedom, regardless of our beliefs.  This freedom to worship, or the liberty to choose not to worship, is one of the cornerstones of our appeal to so many people from other lands who come to Canada to pursue more fulfilled lives. 


“If our century is perhaps characterized by the greatest negations of Christianity in history, it is also the century that stands out for the extraordinary ranks of confessors and martyrs,” declared Pope John Paul II.  The Pontiff’s words reflect a dichotomy of the contemporary world: on one side, a secularization of communities which produced people without a developed spiritual nature; on the other, a revival of the search for religious principles and ethical authority.  The challenge for believers of all faiths is to reverse the “shedding” of religion where it exists by persuasion, not coercion.

The 19th century Russian novelist Dostoyevsky asked “Can we be good without God?”  In almost every age, the answer has been no until now, an era when some claim to possess the inner capacity to do good rationally, apart from God.  Some seek to redefine basic values all over again.  Right and wrong for them have no clear meaning; there are no universal truths.

The American criminologist, James Q. Wilson, attempted some years ago to identify the root causes of the violence in American cities.  Many blame unemployment and poverty for violent behaviour among a minority of young people.  Wilson discovered that in the great period of the industrial revolution in the second half of the 19th century there was actually a decrease in crime, contrary to what he expected to find.  He looked at the years of the Great Depression; again there was a significant drop in crime.  Frustrated by these findings, which negated so much conventional wisdom, Wilson decided to search for a single factor.  The one he found was religious faith.  In times of economic or other crises, people banded together and their faith and values sustained them.  Wilson concluded that crime was in a large part caused by a breakdown of ethics.  All faiths should help to build on the currently improving crime rate in Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere.

Who needs religion?

Can societies remain democratic without maintaining a religious base?  Religious and political freedom appear to march hand-in-hand.  The strength and values of democratic government and institutions appear to depend upon and come from religion at least in many democracies.  Equally important is the religious critique of laws and programs in such areas as economic policy, the human rights dimension of foreign policy, and so forth.  Contrary to the notion that religion is somehow merely a purely private affair, it is also central to the life of a community or nation. Religion sets forth norms and their applications as standards against which to measure public policies.  This is not to say that religion dictates all public policy, but it can and should scrutinize measures which seem inconsistent with the teaching of any faith (for example, child pornography or racial discrimination).

Canada bears the imprint of differing beliefs in the existence of God, each of which in their own way moulded Canada’s character.  Our society has the values, ways of thinking and living inspired by numerous religions.  Our national character owes its roots to a pluralist religious education based on various concepts and attendant ethical systems.  I pay tribute here to those many pioneers who, basing their work on the tested values of various spiritual traditions, founded towns, cities, universities and a host of other institutions and breathed into them the inspiration that sustains them still.

Much of Canadian society continues to reflect these principles.  They have lost none of their validity.  We might, therefore, in adapting them to current conditions, encourage people to understand what our country is and what its creative energy is founded upon.

Myths about Faith

One of the cruelest myths believers of all faiths have to dispel is the one that being religious makes one bigoted.  Somehow, there is an assumption among too many people that the more spiritual one is the more closed-minded you become.  Pollster George Gallup demonstrated years ago that practising Christians, for example, are much more tolerant of other creeds, philosophies and ethno-cultural communities than non-believers.  His study indicated that people of what he called “strong” religious conviction demonstrated through extensive testing that they were in fact more ethical in personal dealings, more tolerant of persons with different backgrounds, more apt to perform charitable acts, and more concerned about the betterment of society than others.  Gallup also found they were happier than others.

So let me conclude that I am personally optimistic that our own and many other faiths will flourish in this new century. Justin Long, a researcher working on the Christian Encyclopaedia, estimates that by 2025 the Christian population will rise to about 2.8 billion from the current estimate of about two billion.  Other faiths will grow too, partly because we are all helped by the collapse after 1989 of human-made gods, including communism, etc.

Like you and millions of other spiritual people of every faith around the world, I’d urge all of the world religions to build a global spirituality.  Robert Muller, a former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, believes that it is through the world’s religions and their common conviction that life is sacred that many global problems can be solved.  For example, His Highness the Aga Khan, Imam of Ismaili Muslims, has noted: “A shared sound ethic, underwritten by Africa’s faiths, can help resolve many of the problems afflicting Africa today.”

Bible Today

Let me switch to the book that brings all of us here tonight.  In the era of sailing ships, one found itself becalmed in the South Pacific somewhere between Chile and East Australia.  It was carried by a current to an island not then shown on any chart.  The crew scrambled ashore unsure of how they might be met by any local residents.

To their surprise, they were met by people speaking English, who took them to a neat village.  Their hosts turned out to be crewmembers from the "Bounty", who had murdered Captain Bligh.  Following the mutiny, the "Bounty" had been caught in a storm and wrecked on the shores of this island.  The crew, drafted off port city streets in Britain, soon began to fight and even to kill each other over ownership of the wreckage.

In the remains of the "Bounty", one crewmember had found a Bible, which he began to read to the others.  They began to worship and order began to take hold.  A community in which caring and justice prevailed gradually took root.  The few local women, once the cause of violent jealousy, became respected wives and homes were built.  Pitcairn Island eventually appeared on maps and was known as a haven of hope for all who came to it.

Such is the impact of the Bible – about 1000 pages long, composed of 66 different books by several dozen authors, and written several thousand years ago – that wherever humanity and social justice are found on this planet there is a fair likelihood that Bibles provided by the Bible Societies of the world are also to be found.

In the very month when the T.V. personality Oprah Winfrey declared that there are not enough good books being published for her to endorse regularly, I’m delighted to be with you to celebrate one that has changed millions upon millions of lives for the better during each of the past 20 centuries.

Daily Exposure

During the past year, I’ve been attempting most mornings to get through the entire book with the help of Philip Yancey’s and Brenda Quinn’s Meet the Bible.  It’s been an interesting experience and I’d recommend their guide to anyone.  Another excellent daily guide is My Utmost For His Highest by Oswald Chambers.

There are many reasons to read the Bible:

  • Spiritual enrichment, perhaps particularly the New testament, but also the Old,
  • As literature (who, including Shakespeare and Molière, have written better than some authors in the Bible?),
  • As history,
  • Understanding human nature at its best, worst and virtually every point in between,
  • A guide to living and, most importantly,
  • Learning about Jesus Christ, who has touched many peoples of the world for centuries and offers all the promise of eternal life.

North Alberta Branch

The North Alberta Branch of the Canadian Bible Society (CBS) is part of the vast non-denominational movement, which began almost two centuries ago and has maintained its trans-cultural nature continuously since. The first foreign language translation was the Gospel of John translated for Mohawks in Canada in 1804.  Local societies began to spring up across what is now Canada as early as 1807.  The CBS itself today distributes Old/New Testaments and complete Bibles in more that 120 languages, including 23 indigenous ones.  In 1999 alone, I understand it distributed 400,000 Bibles and New Testaments and seven million scripture portions and selections. The goal of Bible societies in more than 200 countries is to see lives and hearts changed through the Word of God.  By 1999, all the national Bible Societies, which make up the United Bible Societies (UBS), had together translated the Bible into an astonishing 2,233 languages.  There are still, however, many for which there is a recognized need.

Bibles Abroad

In Egypt, volunteers today go door to door for donations and more Bible stores have been opened to spread the Word.  In Peru, the local society presented thousands of copies of A Change of National Attitude—14 texts from Scripture—following the disgraced President Fujimori’s resignation. A scandal weary people took warmly to the publication.

The aim of CBS is to reach every person with the Word of God.  In many countries, the material provided is valued as quality educational tools.  “New Reader Scriptures” with simplified text and colorful illustrations are useful in literacy projects.  For instance, Andrew Rugege, a Ugandan working out of the CBS office in Ottawa, is fluent in nine languages.  He learned to read through early exposure to the Bible.  His wife Chantal lost several members of her family in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, which was the factor bringing them to Canada.

Janette Oke, the Canadian author of children’s books, says, “If a child has only one book to read, let it be the Bible.”  Would there not be much less violence among children if they were first exposed to the Bible?

It is estimated that 26% of the world’s adult population (about 900 million people) are totally illiterate.  Most have never held a book or even touched a printed page. Of the over six billion people living today, about 77% live in developing countries.  More than 95% of the illiterate live where it is difficult or impossible to learn to read without outside help.  They are locked in a time frame with no access to discover vital information to better understand themselves, the world, or God’s plan for our lives.

Faith Abroad

On a visit to South America and South Africa a few years ago, I discussed spirituality with a number of individuals.  A leader from Central America, a minister in the government of El Salvador, indicated quite spontaneously that God has been good to her and her family.  He, she added, gives talents to everyone; the more one has the greater the ability to be a “beacon”.  Whenever she feels herself to be in God’s presence, which I took to occur frequently for her, she wants to use all her abilities to advance His will.

A Canadian colleague on the same flight offered another perspective.  For him, Jesus offers every believer a sound basis for salvation because He came into the world to help the marginalized and suffering.  He loves every human being and does not judge individuals in the foolish way the world so often does.  Love and redemption are the promise to believers.

Several days later in Johannesburg, I met an old friend from Canada, who now works there with a lay ministry.  He and some others were invited to conduct a “spiritual wellness” forum for employees of a large utility company.  Its management, deeply worried about the HIV/AIDS pandemic in southern Africa, asked Christians to speak to employees on faith, self-esteem, family breakdown under apartheid and promiscuity.

Robben Island

Soon afterwards, I found myself on the rocks and sand of Robben Island off the shores of Cape Town for an unforgettable day of listening to one-time political prisoners of the former maximum security facility.  Beforehand, we 600 or so visitors, mostly from North America, were given a tour, beginning with the lime quarry known as the ‘birthplace of reconciliation’ because there Nelson Mandela and many leaders of the new South Africa first reached out in friendship to their guards.

The personal humiliation and natural human desire for revenge they had to overcome to do so became clearer as we listened to Robben Island ‘alumni’.  The white wardens at Robben Island tended to be bitter men who were often assigned to the island as punishment.  Beatings of prisoners were common, but in such rocky soil the ‘miracle’ of South Africa took root.

Desmond Tutu

Desmond Tutu spoke of reconciliation during a visit to Canada a few years ago.  Emerging from 27 years in prison, said Tutu, Mandela “urged his own people to be ready to forgive and to work for reconciliation.  He has preached his gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation a great deal more by example than by precept.  He invited his former jailer to attend his presidential inauguration as a VIP guest. Who would have imagined South Africa would be an example of anything but the most awful ghastliness?  And now we see God’s sense of humour, for God has chosen this unlikely lot and set up as some kind of paradigm…that just might provide the world with a viable way of dealing with a post-conflict, post-repression period.”

In a session on reconciliation and the future at Robben Island, we heard from an Anglican priest, Michael Lapsley, who as a New Zealander was expelled from South Africa for working as chaplain to both white and black students.  Shortly after he returned to Africa from a tour in Canada, he received the letter bomb, which destroyed both of his hands.  For him, Jesus looked to individuals at the bottom of society and offered the form of compassion, which liberates rather than merely pities.  He thinks believers today must also attend the poor, widowed and orphaned with a similar message.  In his own case, he has gained much from his faith journey, in part by refusing to accept the “harvest of hatred” of which he is one prominent survivor.


Let me close with three questions:

  1. Is it not very encouraging to Canadians of every faith that the Queen Mother, whose spirituality was at the centre of one of the most public-service-oriented lives anywhere over more than a century, evidently attracted more people world wide to observe her funeral than did Winston Churchill?
  1. Is it not good to read the cover story of last week’s edition (April 1) of Maclean’s magazine, “Living the Faith—Nine Canadian who put their beliefs into action”?  I was struck by the importance of the Bible in the lives of several of the nine women and men featured.
  1. Is Reg Bibby’s latest book, Restless Gods: The Renaissance of Religion in Canada (Stoddart), not encouraging to believers of many faiths?  I gather the work concludes that God is very much alive in the hearts and minds of Canadians and that if our various faith groups do the right thing they are primed for renewal.  Fully 81 per cent of Bibby’s respondents across Canada attested to their belief in God.  Three out of four Canadians say they pray at least occasionally and nearly half claim to have personally experienced God.  His 2000 survey, moreover, indicates that for the first time in years church attendance among teens is on the rise.

In short, let us all resolve to support the work of our Branch of the CBS even more strongly tonight and in the years ahead.

Thank you and God Bless!

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