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Discard the German theological textbooks, disengage from Greek philosophy, and look instead for spiritual wisdom right in your own backyard, a Canadian intellectual and writer urges church leaders and theological educators.
"The assumption in the word theology is that we're thinking about Christianity," says John Ralston Saul, who addresses a theological education conference in Winnipeg next week. "Maybe you (could) take into consideration other ethical and moral systems, for example, the ones which were already here."
The author of the best selling non-fiction book, A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada, expands upon his ideas of doing -- and creating -- theology in the Canadian context at a free public lecture 7:30 p.m. Monday, May 3 at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
Profoundly influenced by his encounters with aboriginal people in Canada's Far North, Saul says religious traditions in Canada should consider how aboriginal perspectives and practices regarding environmentalism, generosity and community can enlarge and enlighten current theological thinking.
"There's a whole other way of looking at the world which no one had ever told me about," he says of his first encounters with aboriginal practices three decades ago. "They were not even asking the same questions, let alone answering the questions. You start to hear this other approach which is circular and has a memory to it."
Raised in a family with Anglican and United Church backgrounds and influenced by encounters with Buddhism and Islam while travelling in Asia and Africa, the internationally known author and recently elected president of International PEN might not be seem a logical speaker for a theological conference.
But that's exactly the point, says the executive director of the Churches' Council on Theological Education in Canada, the sponsor of the conference hosted by the University of Winnipeg.
"We wanted to move beyond the usual people involved," explains Robert Faris from his office in Toronto. "He broadens the appeal in the university and (he) appeals to the general public."
Saul's lecture opens the three-day conference, expected to attract academics, church leaders, lay people and theological students from across Canada to hear a variety of aboriginal and non-aboriginal speakers wresting with how to do theology in a fair country.
"In a fair country, we would look seriously at the faith and faith traditions of all people, particularly aboriginal, in coming to understand who we are as people of faith in Canada," says Faris, adding that Winnipeg is an appropriate location for this type of discussion since it is the home of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
"This is a great challenge for the church in Canada, the relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people. We got it wrong in the past."
But the past is also a place where the Christian message was integrated with aboriginal teachings, although perhaps not in the way Christian missionaries intended, says the national indigenous bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada, who presents a conference workshop on training seminarians to work with poor people.
"The adaptation that native people used, from my point of view, was brilliant, sometimes startling in their example of the gospel message," says MacDonald, referring to how the ideas of kindness, generosity and welcome were embraced by aboriginals.
"Their values, their lives, gave a happy home to the essential part of the Christian message, quite different than the Christian missionaries wanted."
Students need to hear those stories of sharing and respect in Canadian seminaries and theological schools to gain a better sense of the theological history of their country, suggests a Anglican priest with Cree roots who will speak at the conference.
"I've been wanting people to realize if we graduate seminarians today, if we don't give them the true history of spirituality, you don't tell the whole truth about what North America is about," says Rev. Barbara Shoomski, outreach minister at All Saints Anglican Church in downtown Winnipeg.
One of the truths of in Canada's history is that it was a country built on conversations between immigrants and aboriginals, says Saul, whose opening argument in his book is that Canada is a Métis nation, shaped and influenced by aboriginal ideas.
He suggests going back to those original conversations -- and reinventing and re-imagining them for our time -- might be a correction to the current deference to European ideas of power and dominion, a tradition he says has failed us miserably.
"That would ensure there are actual conversations between aboriginals and new Canadians that would be theological, but not in the European sense."
Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.