Saturday, April 23, 2016

Australian Religious Thought*

(Monash University Press, 2016. Buy it here.)
So many popular myths about Australian intellectual life are utterly undermined by this intelligent new book from Professor Wayne Hudson. I read it this week - and recommend that others do too!

Myth 1: Australia is an intellectual desert
We all know how this one goes - Australia is a bit of an intellectual wasteland, far away from anywhere that matters, with a chronic brain drain to overseas. It's a place where even the Prime Minster can win points by saying he’s not a ‘tech-head’. (Such a contrast  Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, going viral with an impromptu explanation of quantum computing!) 

This book points to the extraordinary extent and diversity of Australian intellectual life – not least in the area that might be termed ‘religious’. It takes in an enormous amount but as Hudson says, it offers still ‘partial vistas on a vast theme’. The brain drain might be real, but Australia has a fascinating and substantial intellectual history. And it will be very difficult, after Hudson, to suggest that religious thought was anything less than a significant and dynamic part of it.

Myth 2: Australian religious life and thought is more or less derivative
Christianity, in particular, is readily caricatured as an inflexible import - even an intrusion - from Britain or, more recently, from the United States – an import that hasn’t really taken root or developed authentic forms in Australia. It is easy enough to imagine, with Peter Carey in Oscar and Lucinda, the stories of the gospels lying across a harsh landscape ‘like sheets of newspaper on a polished floor.’ Or, in the thick of the US primaries, contemplating our own federal election, to assume that certain voices in the political sphere more or less replicate the American Religious Right.
Professor Hudson helps us to a far more nuanced view. He shows how Australian religious thought is marked by fluid and reciprocal movements of people, texts, ideas. He discusses sacral perspectives related to religious traditions other than Christian ones. He also draws attention to the ways such thought has been intimately concerned with land, with place, with country even.

Land and the sacred 
This was one of the most interesting themes of the book to me, and it gets a really stimulating treatment. For example, there is a section on the place of land in Australian contextual theologies, including indigenous theologies. There are also fresh discussions of 'sacral naturalisms', environmental philosophy, and historical narratives of place - all as examples of what Hudson calls ‘post-secular consciousness'. By this, he means that ‘sensibility that accepts secularity in relevant domains, but evidences an openness to what is beyond a strictly secular horizon’ (pp.197-8).

Hudson covers a lot of ground, but he is right to emphasise that the potential field of Australian religious thought is still greater. This is certainly true in terms of the land theme. To mention a few examples which could easily come within the scope of Hudson's analysis: 
John Dunmore Lang, arguably the most prominent Protestant in nineteenth century Australia. Hudson discusses his thought in terms of republicanism. JD Lang also had an idea of Australia as a wilderness to be transformed, a promised land to be enjoyed. His theology included a providential view of the formation of the earth, with implications for how its resources might be used – a view I would argue that, in secularised forms, has been quite influential in Australia.

Or perhaps:

The utopian strain in turn of the century thinking about major developments in scientific efficiency – the possibilities of large scale irrigation, for example. Such thinking was infused with an extraordinary religious idealism. Engineers talked about reviving the lost Garden of Eden; Alfred Deakin spoke about irrigation in biblical terms so often that a contemporary political cartoonist depicted him as Moses striking the rock and making water flow in the desert wilderness! [Punch, 3 June 1886]

Or differently again:
Dave Passi from Mer in the Torres Strait, a law man and ordained Anglican minister, one of the original plaintiffs in the Mabo case. Like Djiniyini Gondarra, whom Hudson discusses, Father Passi is another very significant example of an intellectual rethinking Christianity for their indigenous community – though it seems to me that only a few academics, apart from anthropologist Nonie Sharp, have really grappled with his thought in a sustained way.

Religious Thought in Australia is a wide-ranging book that highlights issues that I think really matter. After all, we live in the midst of unprecedented climate change – at a time when the devastating prospect of warming above two degrees is quickly becoming a certainty. In my view, the rich history of Australian religious thought in relation to the land is something we need to explore more thoroughly - to understand much better - if we are going to effectively re-orient ourselves, our communities and our cultures to wider creation.

Some might think it a long leap from an academic book of Australian intellectual history to the global problem of dangerous climate change – but then, the cover of the book carries Arthur Boyd’s Mining Town: Casting the money lenders from the temple! This book is definitely valuable in drawing out the continuities and complexities of religious and secular thought in Australia. It thoroughly unsettles the old binaries between the religious and the secular -– binaries we need to discard if we are to make an holistic response to the challenge of our times.

Arthur Boyd c.1946 The Mining Town: Casting the money lenders from the temple. National Gallery of Australia.
* Speech by ML made at the Sydney launch, Gleebooks, 22 April 2016.

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