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Learning to Speak of BeliefsLearning to Speak of Beliefs

Learning to Speak of Beliefs

The suburban Canada I grew up in contained people from many different backgrounds—German, Ukrainian, Italian, Scottish, Irish, Greek for instance—but was almost entirely white. In terms of belief, we were all either Roman Catholics (Habs fans) or Protestants (Leafs fans) although I was aware of a few Jewish kids here and there and couple of Chinese heritage families. Regardless, almost all of us came from a Judeo-Christian, European cultural context. The only major fracture in our country was that elsewhere in it, people spoke another language, which made Canada into an officially bilingual country founded by English-speaking people whose origins were in Britain and French-speaking people whose origins were in France.

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Topics: Culture, Literature, Religion, Institutions
Learning to Speak of Beliefs January 14, 2013  |  By Peter Menzies
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Recent shifts in language use and demography make it clear that Christians will have to broaden their understanding of other faiths or risk being isolated in their own cultural catacombs.

The suburban Canada I grew up in contained people from many different backgrounds—German, Ukrainian, Italian, Scottish, Irish, Greek for instance—but was almost entirely white. In terms of belief, we were all either Roman Catholics (Habs fans) or Protestants (Leafs fans) although I was aware of a few Jewish kids here and there and couple of Chinese heritage families. Regardless, almost all of us came from a Judeo-Christian, European cultural context.

There were differences, to be sure, but it was easy to assume certain shared fundamentals in terms of our most deeply held beliefs and how we could communicate them to each other.

The only major fracture in our country was that elsewhere in it, people spoke another language, which made Canada into an officially bilingual country founded by English-speaking people whose origins were in Britain and French-speaking people whose origins were in France.

Some still debate the orthodoxy of the "two founding" nations mantra and insist that there were/are actually three—Aboriginal, French, and English. These days, it's not hard to concede that point when—at least in terms of Canada's 21st-century structure—the past is increasingly at odds with current reality.

Canada's 2011 census indicates that the number of people who speak French in the home—about one in five—is now in a virtual tie with the number of people who speak a language other than English or French in the home. This is primarily due to the fact that Canadians in general and Quebeckers in particular have lost interest in reproducing (having babies) at anything remotely connected to replacement levels while immigrants have shown great enthusiasm both for Canada and for babies.

A lot of them speak Chinese and Punjabi, with Tagalong becoming more common along with Arabic and a plethora of others. Their presence varies across the country, but the trend is most apparent in urban areas such as the Greater Toronto Area and Vancouver where, respectively, 35% and 31% of the populations speak a non-official language in the home. So, with the vast majority of French-speaking Canadians living in Quebec (the percentage of Canadians bilingual in both official languages remains stable due to more Quebeckers learning English), some extreme anomalies are apparent. In Toronto, only 1% of the population claims French as a "mother tongue" whereas 45% claim a mother tongue other than English or French.

Some of these trends are long-term, others less so but their impact on society goes beyond mere language and deeply into culture, including faith backgrounds which inform people's most deeply held beliefs which in turn have a lot to do with how people perceive the world around them.

Traditionally, the burden of adaptation has been squarely on the shoulders of newcomers and that probably remains the rule of thumb in non-metropolitan areas. But in metropolitan Canada it is now becoming a shared expectation: all of us—those with 200 years of history on this land and those with 200 days—have to adapt to each other and figure out how to understand our new cultural reality and how each other's faith backgrounds influence our perceptions.

Key to that will not just knowledge of faith, but keen attention to the language of faith. The language of faith will likely be to 21stcentury Canada what debates about bilingualism were to the middle of the 20th century: intense, occasionally disruptive, and absolutely unavoidable. For if we are to congeal as a culture, we have to know how to talk to and understand each other and that is only possible by understanding each other's most deeply-held beliefs.

For Christians in particular, that means learning how to speak of and about faith to others—Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, etc—effectively, intelligently, and above all fluently. It is no longer enough to just use a language with which we are already comfortable. Like those who ventured out on the uncharted shores of official bilingualism nearly half a century ago, we must speak in a fashion that others will understand.

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