Cover Story

THE NEW BELIEVERS

Angela Ferrante January 1 1979
Cover Story

THE NEW BELIEVERS

Angela Ferrante January 1 1979

THE NEW BELIEVERS

Cover Story

Angela Ferrante

It stirs memories of penumbral chapels and candlelit visions. The image, imprinted like a photograph on a long piece of linen, is a brownish hue. The face is that of the icons, the holy pictures tucked in purses, the marble statues half-hidden in vaulted niches. The body is that of a tall man cruelly scourged and crucified. A patch, where a lance may have pierced the right side of the victim, is a deeper crimson, perhaps the trace of blood spent long ago.

Yellowed with age, the Holy Shroud of Turin bears the marks of centuries of reverence and curiosity, drops of candle wax, drips of tar from an old torch. Is it, as many Christians believe, the winding cloth wrapped around the body of Jesus Christ? Or is it a forged 14th-century relic? Last October, 45 scientists from four countries were permitted by the Roman Catholic Church to conduct extensive tests for the first time in history. Scientific empiricism aside, most of them were awed. “To see that kind of detail, that man beaten in that way, obviously dead, it moved me,” recalls Eric Jumper, one of the two U.S. Air Force captains heading the American team. “It was a solemn moment.”

Their results won’t be known for a year (see box). But already the world expectations have far outstripped what science is capable of satisfying. The object of books, films and a flood of stories, all of them panting for a miracle, the shroud, by its very existence, offers proof of its own. As the quintessential mystic symbol, it seems to be once again the incarnation of a longing for revelations and mysteries. In this time of unprecedented interest in religion, the shroud stands out as the most visible example of the renewed willingness-witnessed all over the world—to make that “leap of faith,” however lemming-like, that is at the base of the current resurgence in religious beliefs.

Only a decade ago, one persistent question gnawed at the very foundations of the great religious institutions: “Is God dead?” For the flocks of apathetic and confused who turned their backs on ponderous priests, “dead churches” and religion by rote, the answer seemed obvious. The Gothic God of cathedrals, the ritual of the Pale, was slowly being killed by science, state atheism and materialism. Attendance in church and synagogue plummeted, the vocation for the ministry

dried up. Most who left Mother Faith did so in a quiet, drifting way, choosing to reside instead in unexamining agnosticism—the no-fixed-address of theology. When a spiritual vacuum inevitably grew, attempts were made to fill it by skittering from exotic cults to psychics, from astrologers to mind development programs.

These days instead we are swamped in a wave of fundamentalist, Bible-thumping evangelism which has brought with it the highly seductive instant spirituality of born-again Christians, the toothy assurances of Praise-to-the-Lord television

preachers who sell religion like soap suds, and the group-grope of the charismatic prayer sessions. For proof that religion, like Elastoplast, sells, listen to the phonein after a daily religious talk show like 100 Huntley Street. The tiny tragedies of hundreds of voices whispering into the telephone all get the same reply: Christ solves all. For further proof, follow the fans of the new entertainers—the faith healers who advertise their next engagement. Nothing is too fanciful to plug into—and make money from—the religious connection, including a new literary genre, the religious thriller. Try Act of God, Charles Templeton’s best-seller about the discovery of the bones of Jesus,

or better still, Irving Wallace’s best-seller, The Word, serialized for television, about the discovery of a new chapter for the New Testament. It’s not surprising that a Toronto priest ruefully muttered that the current religious revival is merely “the revenge of the sentimentalists.”

But the return-to-the-roots movement seems to be at long last catching up with religion. Traditional faiths are at the beginning—the very beginning—of making a comeback. The need for stability and order that has sent almost everyone rummaging through their childhood in search of props for their adulthood has also rediscovered religion. In the world of unabashed generalizations where everything changes all the time, mainline churches and synagogues provide something that hasn’t changed—at least not too much. “There is no doubt,” says Emmett Carter, Roman Catholic archbishop of Toronto, “the swing is definitely toward religion. But it is more profound than just church attendance. What we are seeing is the swing away from the cult of affluence and materialism. All have a yearning for something above the bread and circus of the Roman Empire.”

In part, the “old” institutions are seeing the return of former members who never replaced their Sunday and Shabbat rituals and who now feel the emptiness. In part, they are reaping the benefits of the born-again zeal that has breathed life and emotion back into the empty formalism. After satiating on the “cream” of the rich personal born-again experience, the hope is that the believers will go back to the bread-and-butter religions. “They stay with them until the high wears off,” says Rabbi Jordan Pearlson. “The important thing is that they re-establish a linkage with religion.”

T'hat the linkage is in fact being reestablished was more than evident in Rome this past year where cardinals met twice to elect a successor to St. Peter under the glare of overwhelming world interest. The princes of an empire, which contrary to belief is far from fading, were sometimes taken aback at their sudden prominence. The figure of the Pope, which for a time had seemed distant if not irrelevant to the mainstream of change, was once again a spiritual signpost. The very choice of a Polish Pope (“a brilliant PR move,” judged a Roman Jesuit), who has so quickly become a superstar, served as a reminder that religion in Communist

countries, far from being extirpated, has never been stronger. And in the Third World, where mainline churches faltered in their missionary work like embarrassed liberals caught giving a handout, priests and ministers have established a controversial, high-profile linkage with liberationist movements as they seek to defend human rights.

In Canada, the signs of incipient revival are everywhere Just to take as an example the United Church of Canada: from 1948 to 1968, the United Church started up 400 new congregations enjoying along with all other denominations the post-war religious exuberance. In the past 10 years it has started a mere 20. This year there has been an increase for the first time since 1968—six new ones have been launched and plans call for an average of 10 a year for the next decade. Even more encouraging has been the surprising response to a new adult Bible study program (the book used for the course had to go into a second printing). Says Rev. Albion Wright, a United Church official: “It’s really been a turnaround for us.”

Canadian Jewry of every branch, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, is enjoying a similar boost as young Jews follow the worldwide return to intensive Torah studies. Rabbi Henry Hoschander of Toronto’s Shaarei Shomayim, the largest Orthodox synagogue in Canada, has watched membership jump by over 30 per cent in the past six years, while Hebrew day schools are booming. Young people who had grown up without any religious training are now making the synagogue their point of reference, and Hoschander finds he now spends much of his time counselling families and professionals—a throwback to the pre-psychiatry days when the rabbi was the only social worker. “There is a much stronger commitment to the very idea of being a Jew,” he says. “They are no longer hiding.”

Even in Quebec (see box), where the once monopolistic Roman Catholic Church suffered a severe decline (a drop of 35 per cent in church attendance in Montreal from 1960 to 1975), churches no longer need bingo to draw parishioners in. And right across the country, parents, unhappy with secularized public schools, are turning more and more to private schools teaching religion. (In Ontario last year there were 346 private schools, a 47-per;ent increase over 1977, most of which are affiliated religiously.) Interest in religious studies extends to university, where, despite the over-all drop in enrolment, religion departments are growing. Most encouraging of all, perhaps, for religious institutions is the record number of students attracted to seminaries and Bible colleges, most of whom are on their way to restocking the depleted ranks of ministers and priests. All the activity seems to be reflected in a recent Gallup poll that

showed many more Canadians think religion has an increasing influence over their lives—26 per cent compared to 12 per cent just a decade ago.

There are exceptions, of course. Total membership in the Anglican Church, for example, has dropped below one million for the first time since 1950. But religious fervor is not always measured in numbers. The change is as much a “weeding out process,” as one rabbi put it—those who choose to stay or rejoin are strongly committed, not the somnambulists of the comfortable pew.

Why are the disaffected and uninterested starting to go back? To paraphrase Voltaire, when God ceased to exist for many people, it became necessary to reinvent him. In retrospect the church or synagogue of one’s childhood still seemed the best place to alleviate the spiritual aridity. As Lou Battiston, a 34-year-old Toronto engineer who just completed a Roman Catholic re-entry “inquiry” program, put it: “When you are away you have a feeling that you’re missing out on something. Then when you go back you have a feeling of purpose.” Adds his wife, Bonnie, ‘There is a kind of strength that wasn’t there before.” Norm Esdon, a 34year-old former science teacher, switched careers two years ago and is now studying to become a United Church minister. He and his wife Marie found that the popular notion that faith alone would survive without a formal structure was false. “We realized we couldn’t go on by ourselves. We needed the support of a community of faith.”

Many of those returning are young couples with children suddenly sobering to the fact that in many ways the church or synagogue of their own childhood is the only continuity they can offer, the one institution that provides tradition and a moral structure. After an absence of almost 15 years, Dr. Stanley Debow, a 38year-old Toronto psychiatrist, was relieved to get back to the ritual of the synagogue. (“Whenever you are in the real world, you are always thinking about tomorrow. In the synagogue everything blanks out. It’s quiet. You don’t have to think about anything stressful.”) Faced with the sight of too many young people who “had choices but didn’t know what to do with them,” he gladly enrolled his three children in Hebrew day school at a cost of $2,000 each. Like many other parents, he and his wife discovered a startling fact: far from resenting the rules and regulations, their children wanted even more. Says their son, 12-year-old Sean: “In religion I like it stated down pat. I want a complete idea of what to do.”

Indeed, the mainline churches and synagogues are discovering a startling paradox. While they have spent the last decade busily becoming more “open,” less ritualistic, more responsive to moral contradic-

tions, more socially active, in part in response to the massive defections, the “returnees” now want a structure which is more authoritarian and morally strict. The return to religion, so much a part of the general drift in society to conservatism, is an attempt to find answers. Few want the rigors of Augustinian doubt. It’s not surprising that the fastest growing congregations are the conservative Evangelicals known for their strict moral codes and submission to the literal word of the Bible. The returnees also add power to the traditionalists already in the religious institutions who never accepted the reforming spirit. The Anglican primate of Canada, Archbishop Edward Scott, for instance, has been branded a Communist for the help he directed toward African liberationist movements, for questioning business investment in Chile and for fighting for a guaranteed annual income. In Toronto, the Orthodox Roman Catholic Movement sponsors the traditional Tridentine Latin mass twice a month in clear contravention of the spirit of Vatican II. And just recently a questionnaire returned by 3,000 United Church Observer readers revealed a deep-seated anger against “leftist” officials and clergy.

Rabbi Irwin Shild of the Adath Israel Congregation in Toronto has sadly watched Jews gravitating back to the faith searching for an ever more orthodox and extreme synagogue. “We live in a time when the middle is eroded. People look for certainties, absolutes. They want to go either way—but all the way,” he says. “Modern life offers a bewildering choice of options. People get confused. They reject the idea of choosing altogether. They prefer to be told what to do. We could find the easy way out by becoming more fundamentalist. Intellectual honesty does not permit that.” Adds Carter: “The church is shifting to be more liberal while the whole

drift in society is to the right. I’m worried we might be getting back to a repressive society.”

More worrisome still in a society where everyone seems to want to become a swami, preacher or faith healer is the great responsibility wielded by those in a position to manipulate society’s need for direction. The zeal to rediscover God can send converts in where the longtime believer fears to tread. The Catholic Charismatic Renewal Movement—started in the U.S. in the late ’60s and now numbering about 50,000 in Canada alone—is one example of how religious renewal can sometimes slip into cultism and self-obsessed theology. In the U.S.,the charismatics— Catholics and Protestants alike who believe in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, including prophecy, faith healing and a spontaneous praying “in tongues”—are under attack for obscuring the theological lines between the denominations and for indulging in dubious exorcism of demons and highly dramatized personal conversions. In Canada, the movement therefore has largely avoided the excesses.

Still some early leaders are turning back to the Roman Catholic Church and away from the charismatic emphasis. Bruno Scorsone, a 31-year-old Toronto social worker, is one of them. “For a while it answered my needs. It’s a party, a celebration. But I have come to understand more my Catholic traditions. I and many others chose to go back to the sources, to put it in a rational historical and theological context.” As someone who has watched the emotional conversion experience at work, he warns: “You tend to believe what you are told after an experience. If you are told sound things, you

develop soundly. If you are told nonsense, you believe nonsense.”

The young in particular are vulnerable. After a soul-thumping breakfast prayer meeting held recently by the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship (a lay evangelical organization) in Toronto, a young man quietly retold his experience of finding God. Brought up an Anglican, he left the church when his voice changed and he had to leave the choir. By his teens, he’d been arrested for shoplifting and possessing marijuana and had failed as a musician. ‘T got to the point when I knew I couldn’t do it by myself,” the diminutive, sandy-haired, bearded youth recalled. When he was 18 years old he found God at a Pentecostal Church service. “Before, I had fear. I was worried about things. Now I have this peace because Jesus lives.” Now a checker in a warehouse, 21-year-old Ross Newman no longer drinks, takes drugs or swears. He is certain that his parents, recently separated, will be brought together again through Christ. Three months ago he destroyed 200 albums in his record collection because they contained “satanic lyrics.”

Another youth, 24-year-old Graziano

Galati, an English major at the University of Toronto, is taking a longer route back to religion—through the religious studies at his university. Brought up a Roman Catholic, he drifted off as a young boy. When he turned 20, he had given up trying to succeed as a musician and was looking for direction. Attracted to religion, he tried Buddhism and Hinduism before coming back to his Judeo-Christian roots. “If during 2,000 years people smarter than me patterned their lives on Christ, who was I to say they were wrong without investigating?” In the past four years religion has given him “a viewpoint, a pattern.” His aim is to be a saint—able to withstand the pressures of the outside world and rise above his own selfishness. Married for a year, he expects fidelity and high religious standards from his wife, Candy. He’s not yet entirely comfortable with the ritual of the Roman Catholic Church. He is only just learning how to pray. Still he realizes that religion for his generation provides much the same thing' that political activism did for the youth of the 1960s—a reason. His leap of faith is made up of hundreds of cautious little steps. “It worries me. Is this just a phase? Is all this folly?” he asks.

“I don’t know.

“Do we believe God manipulates our life? I say yes. Something inside me wants me to say yes.” t;£>