A witty fellow sent me an e-mail at the start of this week's Bridging the Secular Divide conference pointing out the paradox of it being held in Montreal.
Like their London antecedents, of course, Montreal bridges are now far more famous for falling down than they are for conjugating across chasms. Was the city of collapsing 25-tonne concrete slabs really the charmed place to lay the foundation for unifying conversation between Canada's myriad of religious faiths and the often-adversarial secular society in which they must exist?
As it turned out, it was. Thanks for that goes primarily to McGill University and the conference organizing committee not only for bringing in first-rate speakers but also for the seemingly seamless inclusiveness of the participant list. But Montreal's notoriety for having things cave inconveniently in might have also inadvertently contributed significantly, and in the very paradoxical way cited by my clever correspondent. Tectonic tentativeness, after all, creates a tremendous tendency for people to walk around on tiptoes, figuratively if not literally, and that is what many seemed to spend at least parts of the conference doing.
In doing so, they brought to the surface a much deeper challenge facing Canada's multitudinous faith communities. Before we can bridge our divide with those among us who are stoutly secularist, we must connect ourselves to a vocabulary of difference that is honest, open, and authentic.
Honest, open, and authentic are, we all know, frequently used euphemisms for nasty, bigoted, and hostile. That's the problem. But the solution is not to ward off such falsehoods with an excess of politeness that masquerades as pluralism when it is really a form of paralysis.
I am not—and I want to be absolutely clear about this—saying that is what happened at the Bridging the Secular Divide conference. I am saying only that the overall tenor of the event was such that the risk became plain.
There was much frank talk over the course of the two days. There were repeated invocations of the admonition that religions must make peace among themselves before they can make peace in the world. There was evidence presented during several panels that genuine progress has been made, at least in Canada, on that front.
Indeed, listening to that happy progress being charted took me back to my own childhood and my mother, face sepia with nostalgic light, voice a-lilting, teaching me the song of her youth, learned among young ruffians lined up and down the street curbs of a summer evening in a remote northern Ontario town, as they taunted the children of God on the other side:
"Catholics, Catholics ring that bell.
"Send those Protestants straight to Hell."
From the "potlicker" side, of course, the chorus would echo fulsomely in kind, duly amended for denominational preference. Occasionally a stone would whizz. Infrequently, there was a reenactment of the Children of the Somme going over the top.
We don't want to go back there. God willing, we never will. But because of the very peace that reigns—I discount as threatening to that peace the tiny minority of screw-loose violent fanatics running around defaming the name of Islam—we have the means to speak our particularities honestly, openly and authentically, shorn of euphemisms. We must take advantage of that.
For it would be a Montreal-scale source of embarrassment if, by walking on tiptoes around our differences, we brought about the collapse of all the sound bridges we've succeeded in building so far.