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Faith Exchange: New year, ancient resolutionsReuters

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.

Guy Nicholson: "Of course, the Jewish understanding of atonement requires change." As does successful fulfilment of a resolution! I wonder whether religiously inspired resolutions are held to more firmly than the famously forgotten New Year's equivalent.

Lorna Dueck: No, I don't think they are, Guy. The human condition is flawed with or without religious conviction. That said, failed resolutions amongst believers in God do exist in an environment that is more successful at generating guilt for failure. Christian teaching continually points to the need for forgiving oneself and others and getting a new beginning in Christ. Provided you're putting yourself amongst community like church or family that believe that, you keep getting the inner challenge to raise yourself to a better standard than where your failed resolutions take you.

Sheema Khan: Guy, you raise an interesting point. Real change occurs from a deep commitment – best done upon personal reflection and thought. For those with belief in the divine, this would also involve some form of solemn prayer. Whether a believer, agnostic or atheist, I think the deeper the personal reflection, the greater the resolve. Resolutions made to go along with the crowd, or in response to what's in season (e.g. New Year's time), may not stick – simply because the deep personal reflection and commitment has not been thought through. The best resolutions are made in private, away from seasonal trends.

Howard Voss-Altman: I think they are. Religiously inspired resolutions are accompanied by centuries of religious ritual, custom and prayer that have been handed down over the generations through a powerful chain of tradition. In Judaism, our atonement rituals take place during a 40-day window each year, when we are required to seek out those whom we have wronged and seek their forgiveness. This ritual is supported by penitential prayers, the daily blowing of the ram's horn (the shofar) and, of course, the services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (the day of atonement). When one's atonement is informed by such ancient and revered traditions, not to mention one's relationship to the holy/divine presence in the world, I believe religiously inspired resolution has a greater chance of success (or at least commitment).

Peter Stockland: A Jewish friend introduced me to the custom on Yom Kippur of carrying pebbles in your pocket and tossing them into still water. I love that as an act of atonement. It is so concrete and yet something you would do only for God.

Howard Voss-Altman: It is indeed a beautiful ritual. It is called tashlich, which means casting out. As you cast our the pebbles (most Jews use old bread crumbs), you cast out the sins into the water. We do it every year – as a community – after our Rosh Hashanah services, and it is the moment, I believe, where I can really focus on what the new year will be and how I can change in the coming 12 months.

Guy Nicholson: Howard, I'm trying to imagine blowing the ram's horn in an effort to make myself stick to a gym regimen. Maybe it's worth a try …

As to Lorna's statement about community reinforcement (a.k.a. guilt), even a non-believer like me can acknowledge that it's easier to keep a resolution when you're surrounded by like-minded, supportive people. I know someone who's trying to stop drinking. Even though family are supportive, it's seen as his battle to win or lose. Nobody would make him feel guilty for the occasional lapse, as long as it didn't hurt anyone else.

Howard Voss-Altman: I suppose I should clarify. It's not the act of blowing a ram's horn – indeed, few Jewish people blow the shofar . It's hearing the sound of the shofar – a mournful, haunting sound that tells us it's time to wake up, to recognize that we've fallen away from our best selves, and to take action. As for the example of the friend who wants to stop drinking, it always depends on the norms of the community. Whether it is an AA group or a religious community, or just members of the family, there's a valued relationship that helps guide people in their choices. For better or worse, most of us do not want to disappoint the ones we care about. If it's a spouse, a god or a best friend, if we value the relationship, we want the other to think well of us, which will often be the motivation for change.

Sheema Khan: Going to the gym can be combined with faith. For some, the human body is seen as a trust from God. Therefore, one takes care of that body. For example, there are many teachings in Islam about maintaining one's health (dietary laws), recommendation of eating habits and personal hygiene. Physical exercise is part and parcel of that trust. Unfortunately, the trend in some Muslim countries (especially in the Persian Gulf) is towards obesity, due to neglect of these very teachings.

Lorna Dueck: Guy – even though I may fail, despite good family or community support, there is more to equip us: the "new in Christ" part that Christians take very seriously. It means that you bring your failure and admit it to Jesus, to God, and ask for help. We ask for forgiveness from our Creator. Supernatural exchange happens and there is a new beginning. This is a daily (sometimes hourly) battle, depending on the issue and consciousness.

And when community fails, there is source material. Reading the Bible, passages like II Corinthians 5:17, Jeremiah 29: 11-13, I Corinthians 2:9 – feeling the gift of these sacred insights does help.

Peter Stockland: Moses led the people through the wilderness for 40 years, yet was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. Did he fail? He brought God's commandments to His people, and served his Lord with all his heart. I'm thinking "failure" isn't what we should worry about.

Sheema Khan: I agree, Lorna – forgiveness and renewal go hand in hand. And for Muslims, remembrance of God throughout the day is key. Whether through the five daily prayers, or the invocations/supplications mentioned at mealtimes, leaving/entering the home, starting a task (we begin in the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful), etc. – all provide ample opportunity for daily renewal. Muslims are also encouraged to follow the example of Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) who would ask for forgiveness at least 70 times a day (as reported in the authentic narrations of his life).

Guy Nicholson: Do you make resolutions? If so, do you see them as linked to your faith?

Sheema Khan: I personally do not. In fact, seeking to change one's behaviour for the better is a year-long endeavour, through small, consistent steps. The five daily prayers help in this process. For some, fasting during the month of Ramadan offers the biggest opportunity to change. During that month, one naturally contemplates the plight of others, renews one's faith and enhances gratefulness for all of the blessings in life.

It is also during that month that many people pay the zakat – the obligatory 2.5-per-cent tax on net wealth – to the less fortunate, as a means of purifying one's wealth, and as a reminder that wealth is a temporary gift to be distributed fairly. Sometimes, people will give up smoking or other bad habits during Ramadan, then maintain the newfound resolve to completely rid themselves of such habits.

Peter Stockland: I set goals rather than making resolutions. And they are made with an effort to be attentive to how I best serve God.

Lorna Dueck: I don't think I can call mine resolutions; I've become too experienced in failed ones to bother. But I did do a lengthy spiritual exercise to launch January, keenly aware I was stepping into a new, unspoiled year. I see Christianity as a journey of daily renewal; my resolving for newness was deeply tied to my faith. I wrote down three pages of things I had been thankful for in the past year – it was good year – and then I picked a focus for 2012, and chose Ephesians 3: 14-17 to seal it.

Howard Voss-Altman: I don't make resolutions for the secular New Year. But I make them at the beginning of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. And as our new year is an internal, introspective view of the previous year, such resolutions are critical to my (or any Jew's) spiritual life. These resolutions are referred to as teshuvah, the Hebrew word for "return." In other words, our teshuvah is the return to our best selves – the self we ought to be.

Guy Nicholson: My own New Year's practice is to make resolutions only if I'm truly motivated to keep them. I don't like the self-inflicted guilt of failing at them, but I don't know if that guilt is as strong as would come from a community of others.

Peter Stockland: How, then, do you challenge yourself to move beyond what you already know you can do? And why feel self-inflicted guilt at failing? As the old saying goes, our reach should exceed our grasp, or what's a Heaven for?

Guy Nicholson: What I'm talking about is more than idealizing my abilities – it's about setting priorities. I would love to look back on 2012 having accomplished A, B, C and D – but I know there are only 24 hours in a day, and it's actually realistic for me to do B and D. Maybe all four are realistic, but at a cost I know I don't want to pay.

Lorna Dueck: I'm chuckling now, Guy, because you are describing a practical transaction. One of the realities that happens with spiritualizing our goals as I've been talking about means we can be, to quote an old proverb, "so heavenly minded we are no earthly good."

Peter Stockland: I think that is well said, Lorna, and I think at bottom is less about being heavenly minded, maybe more about human vanity, than actually being attentive to the best way we can serve God.

Guy Nicholson: Well now I'm chuckling, Lorna, because I've been described as too literal and practical for my own good. But I'm talking about specific, empirical objectives, like "Go to the gym three times a week" or "Spend more time with old friends." There's not really a time transaction involved with "Be a better person" or "Raise myself to a higher standard."

Peter Stockland: But those last two phrases of yours aren't resolutions, they're fantasies. "Be a better person" by what? For what? "Raise myself to a higher standard" by what? For what? "Be a better person by working at a homeless shelter once a month because I am called to love my neighbour (charity)." That's a resolution and, funnily enough, it has a specific time commitment.

Guy Nicholson: I'm just saying that, if your time is already well spent, adding too many new commitments can only happen through subtraction. I try to be realistic about this, lest next year's resolution become "Stop making promises I can't fulfill." Perhaps you're right that it isn't challenging enough, though. Sleep when you're dead, isn't that the saying?

Back to the wider discussion – does everyone agree that religious fasting periods, such as those practised on Ramadan, Yom Kippur or Lent, fit the pattern we've been discussing? Or are these about something else, such as sacrifice?

Peter Stockland: I think they are the pattern we are discussing. Days of fasting and similar kinds of limitation are specific actions to make you stop what you normally do, take you out of your normal patterns of behaviour, and turn your attention away from the rest of the world and toward the heart. I never think of them as denial for the sake of denial, but denial for the sake of renewal.

Lorna Dueck: I agree – fasting is a gift that helps remind us to focus on God ahead of whatever need we are feeling in our own flesh or pysche.

Sheema Khan: I've already briefly mentioned Ramadan, which is seen as an annual opportunity for renewal. For Muslims, the hajj provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for renewal, as it requires much sacrifice, discipline and humility. For those who cannot make it to hajj, the Day of Arafat, which precedes the Feast of Sacrifice ( Eid-ul-Adha), is a voluntary day of fasting, which expiates sins from the previous year and the coming year. It is, in one way, similar to Yom Kippur.

So, fasting is seen as means to expiate one's sins, and also to renew one's relationship with God. For fasting is not for any person, nor through any person, but an act of worship between the individual and God. It is deeply personal.

Howard Voss-Altman: I can't speak for any other religious custom, but fasting on Yom Kippur is part of a much larger ritual of simulating the death experience as a way of recognizing how cherished our lives really are. In short, atonement truly matters because death is a reality, and it is up to us to change while we still have the chance – that is, while we are still alive. Fasting helps us simulate death and therefore enables us to cherish the life we've been given.

Guy Nicholson: Does knowing that one's faith has provisions for a fresh start – confession and absolution, for example – make one more likely to transgress in the first place? I'm not just talking about yourselves, pure-of-heart panelists, but others you may have encountered.

Lorna Dueck: That's a tough question. I've been trying to read between the lines on the Bishop Lahey tragedy to see if that had been part of the problem, and wondered if there had been too many new beginnings that were all too shallow. That happens when we live in a stronger sense of grace, than fear of God's accountability, or judgment. "Cheap grace" is how martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer described it. I think what this discussion shows me is we are stewards of the gift of our life, we are invited to make it a gift back to God, and a resolution to do that is a good thing.

Peter Stockland: I think the answer is definitely no. It's like asking if the refrigerator is what made you gain 30 pounds because it contained cheese, wine and chocolate cake along with nutritious food. It's there, and you have the free will to make proper use of what is good … or not. What confession, absolution and penance do is provide the perpetual opening, and constant reminder, that you don't need to just wallow in your mistakes, failings, weaknesses. You can do something about them over and over again no matter how much the risk of failure looms each time. It's up to you how seriously you resolve to take that gift.

Sheema Khan: As far as purposefully transgressing, yes, some will do so, thinking that they can change their behaviour later on in life. Yet, there is no such guarantee. Human beings are weak and rely on the mercy of God for many things. The first step is humility, the recognition of one's own weaknesses, and the need to change for the better. Without that desire to turn things around from within, behavioural change will be minimal at best – even if one has supportive family, friends, community etc. New Year's resolutions are a good start, in that individuals recognize the need to change and make a first step to do so.

Guy Nicholson: That's all our time for today – thanks and best to everyone for 2012.