Many Canadians began 2012 with their New Year’s resolutions at the top of their minds. (Right, readers?) Faith Exchange panelists have convened to discuss the religious take on new beginnings.
Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman has been serving Temple B’nai Tikvah, Calgary’s Reform Jewish congregation, for the past eight years. He is a community leader in the areas of human rights and civil liberties.
Lorna Dueck has been reporting on Christian practice in Canadian life for the past 20 years. She is an evangelical Christian and host of the TV program Context with Lorna Dueck , seen Sundays on Global TV at 9:30 a.m. ET and Vision TV at 12:30 p.m. ET.
Peter Stockland is director of the Cardus Centre for Cultural Renewal, a Canadian think tank that explains culture to religion and religion to culture. He is publisher of Convivium magazine and has just launched a collection of short stories called If Only.
Sheema Khan writes a monthly column for The Globe and Mail. She has a master’s degree in physics and a PhD in chemical physics from Harvard. She is the author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman.
Moderator Guy Nicholson edits The Globe’s online Comment page. He professes no religious beliefs.
Guy Nicholson: Thanks for joining us today, panelists. Which of these words with religious connotations comes closest to the secular New Year’s resolution: atonement, forgiveness, confession, reincarnation?
Peter Stockland: Well, I would say they are all part of the same process, so it is hard to pick one out. Before we are genuinely renewed (reincarnated?), we have to seek genuine recognition (atonement) of what we’ve done (or are doing) in error and in both Catholic tradition and, I think, standard behaviour-change theory, we have to admit the error out loud to seek forgiveness and so let past patterns go. We begin with recognition, move to expression and get to renewal or resolution. My resolution this year, by the way, is to answer questions more directly.
Sheema Khan: I think forgiveness is the closest, in the sense that one seeks forgiveness from God (for past transgressions), and one also forgives oneself. Of course, if the resolution involves changing one’s behaviour toward others (e.g., renewing family relationships), then a good way to start is to seek forgiveness of those whom one has hurt. Forgiveness is mentioned often in the Koran, and Muslims are reminded: “Forgive, do you not want God to forgive you?” Sincere forgiveness implies a change of behaviour as well.
Lorna Dueck: What a great way to start us off, Guy. I think the word “confession” best suits the New Year’s resolution. In Christianity, confession can mean letting go of our sin, and it also means stating a belief we want to own. Confession is a new beginning!
Peter Stockland: With perhaps the qualifier, Lorna, that Christian confession, like a New Year’s resolution, requires a concrete act (penance) to stick. We can't just have to say, “Oops, sorry about that.” We have to own it and take steps to change it.
Guy Nicholson: Does religious penance really hold enough weight to make a confession stick, Peter?
Peter Stockland: Well, it does continue the act of confession beyond saying out loud what needs to be fixed. In other words, it’s the first step from the act of actually confessing. It sets the bar, even though it isn’t a guarantee that, human, all too human, as we are, we will get over the bar. A priest once gave me the penance to “Go and be fully human, that is, love God fully.” That stuck in my heart, which doesn’t mean in any way that I’ve always lived up to it.
Howard Voss-Altman: Although the secular New Year lacks religious connotations, I believe the Jewish concept of atonement is a rough equivalent for the New Year’s resolution. The Jewish understanding of atonement requires a recognition of transgression, a firm commitment to change the behaviour, seeking forgiveness (if one’s conduct has affected others), and then an actual change in one’s own behaviour. Of course, the Jewish understanding of atonement requires change. Without some transformation, there is no recognized atonement.