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For Canada, relativism is not the problem

Changing society yields competing sets of values

Trinity Western University’s proposed law school is in the news, and I am not going to write about it.

I am, however, going to write “around” the TWU issue. That is, the unfolding of the public debate about the school’s lifestyle covenant, and whether it renders teachers (the Supreme Court vindicated the university’s teacher training program 8-1 back in 2001) or lawyers (I expect this will also be litigated at the Supreme Court, too) hostile toward LGBTQ Canadians exposes a very interesting dynamic at work in our public debates.

It is a dynamic that Joseph Bottum’s recent book, An Anxious Age tries—I think effectively—to unravel. Though he is concerned with sociological data from the United States, his thesis carries over into Canada as well, broadly speaking.

Here’s Bottum’s thesis: those who have stepped into the culture-and-morals-shaping vacuum left by the implosion of Mainline Protestantism have shed their parents’ and grandparents’ Christian identities, but have not embraced “moral relativism.” They can be, in fact, as finger-waggingly frustrating as the most pious Puritan. They need be good as well as seen to be good.

In addition, the definition of what counts as good has undergone a radical change. These people are wrongly called “elite,” and are more rightly called “elect.” Like their Puritan ancestors, they still wish to make their moral vision the moral vision of the nation.

Similarly, there was a time in Canada when the cultural fabric of the nation was determined by members of the United Church of Canada and (to a lesser extent) the Anglican Church of Canada outside Quebec and by Roman Catholic Christians inside Quebec. The catastrophic hemorrhaging of members that began in the late 1960s and has only accelerated since has eroded that influence. Politicians who do have some Christian formation in their backgrounds now refrain from speaking about how their religious commitments influence their decisions (former NDP MP Bill Blaikie is a notable and important exception), or insist that such commitments have no bearing upon their public service.

Those who, without over-advertising their Christian faith, nevertheless are unembarrassed by it and refer to it as an important factor in their personal and public lives (former Liberal MP Dan McTeague and current Conservative Jason Kenny spring to mind) are few and getting fewer.

The Canadian governing classes, much like their American counterparts, are shaped by (and increasingly shaping) a public morality that deliberately resists any appeal to God or to the transcendent. But we must be clear. This is no easy live-and-let-live relativism. It is a radically different vision of what constitutes the Good Life. A vision that sometimes comports with biblical and Christian ideals, and sometimes does not.

This notion of competing “Goods” is, I think, very evident in the struggles TWU has faced and fought since the early 2000s. This will continue to define our work as evangelical, or traditional Christians into the future. We are not battling relativism. We are battling a competing vision of what constitutes a good, flourishing, human life and body politic.

And perhaps that’s the most important thing to remember. The battle is at the level of ideas and that is where it needs to be kept. And make no mistake, it is not a battle about re-claiming Canada. It is one about ensuring a genuine pluralism in which traditional Christian voices remain permitted in public life.

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About the author


ChristianWeek Columnist

Tim Perry is rector at Church of the Epiphany in Sudbury, Ontario. He blogs about theology, religion, politics and sometimes the blues at texasflood.ca.