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Spirituality takes centre stage

By David Wilson

Any notions I might have entertained about secular organizations not being interested in spirituality vanished about 30 seconds after I sat down with some senior staff at the Walrus Foundation about a year ago.

I had come to discuss the possibility of partnering with them on a Walrus Talks event focusing on spirituality in Canada today. Expecting a cool reception, I had crafted a detailed sales pitch. I didn’t get to present it, because the answer from The Walrus was an almost immediate and emphatic “Yes!”

Publisher of The Walrus magazine, the Walrus Foundation is a non-profit organization with an educational mandate. Walrus Talks showcase diverse viewpoints on subjects important to Canadians today. In the past year, popular topics have included Aboriginal cities, vice, creativity, energy and water. Walrus Talks are held before live audiences in different venues across Canada and streamed online for even wider consumption.

The enthusiasm with which The Walrus greeted the idea of an event on spirituality was illuminating: here was a major, secular opinion-shaper affirming that discussions about spirituality belong in the mainstream.

The Walrus Talks Spirituality will take place on Monday, April 4, at Trinity-St. Paul’s United in Toronto. As the lead sponsor, we’re encouraging readers to attend in person if they can, or watch via live streaming, perhaps as part of a group. You’ll find all the information you need on tickets and accessing the event digitally on page 26.

Sponsoring The Walrus Talks Spirituality is an independent initiative of The Observer, not unlike our sponsorship of a Charles Darwin exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum a few years ago. We feel it’s important for the magazine — and by extension, the church — to engage the public beyond our traditional borders.

We were praised by many inside and outside the church for our part in the Darwin exhibit. We also took some flak from people who objected to a church magazine supporting an exhibit others deemed too hot to handle. Not surprisingly, we’re now taking some flak for the Walrus Talks event, in particular the choice of one speaker: Rev. Gretta Vosper, the United Church minister from Toronto who says she’s an atheist and is facing disciplinary action for it. I got some mail demanding to know why we would choose Vosper, of all people, to represent the United Church. The answer is this: we didn’t choose her, The Walrus did. And she wasn’t selected to represent the United Church. She’s on the speakers list because, agree with her or not, she brings intelligent conversation about spirituality into the public arena; she’s the author of widely read books and appears frequently on radio, television and in newspapers and magazines. There’s no question she’s controversial, but navigating controversy is what organizations like The Walrus and The Observer do. Leaving aside the question of whether she’s suitable for ministry in the United Church, she’s eminently suited to participate in this event, where she will be one voice among several. 

A little over a year ago, I attended a Walrus Talks event on philanthropy. It was a well-heeled audience, and you could sense many patrons squirm when a non-profit executive suggested that the wealthy are often more interested in tax receipts than real charity. I won’t be surprised if The Walrus Talks Spirituality also makes some people uncomfortable. Conversations about things that matter often do. The point here is the bigger picture: in these secular times, a discussion about spirituality is taking place on a national stage.

Personally, I’d rather be uncomfortable in the fray than content on the sidelines.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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The author is baptized at Central United in Calgary. (Photo courtesy of Al Coe)

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