Monash University Publishing: Advancing knowledge

Australian Religious Thought launch speech

By Constant Mews, 23 March 2016 Readings Hawthorn.

Constant MewsI’d like to make three comments about Wayne’s wonderful book.

My first comment: Wayne has done a terrific job in demonstrating the vitality of religious thought in Australia, both within a broader philosophical context, but also in the more specific domain of Christian theology, and increasingly interreligious theology. The paradigm of Australia as a secular nation derives from an assumption that religion means the cultural and ideological structures of Christian tradition. I was first alerted to this when I became involved in mounting a diploma course at Monash on Civil Ceremonies in the 1990s. I remember a very distinguished Vietnamese community leader voicing his distress to me at the dominant literature promoting civil celebrants as consciously secular rather than religious—a binary that came out from 1970s secularism, often promoted by ex-catholic priests with an axe to grind against their understanding of religion. As Wayne documents (and one could go further), there has been a profound Buddhist impact in Australia, not just in opposition to Christianity (as it may be for some people), but also now increasingly in a hyphenated fashion, as my friend John May has pointed out. This hyphenation is also going on in all sorts of ways: Jews getting involved in Kashmir Shaivism (part of classical Hinduism), Christians—current or lapsed—getting into Sufi thought, between religions as also between religious and secular patterns of thought.

Second comment : Lack of understanding in in Australia of the concept of Theology (generally a code term for Christian theology), a term that the Greeks used to mean: stories about the gods, but became used in Christian Platonic tradition to refer to contemplation of the divine beyond language, as Dionysius the Areopagite insisted. Yet for various reasons, to do with the development of the University of Paris in the early 13th century, theologia became institutionalized as a faculty of the University, engaged in a classic academic power struggle with the faculty of arts. The discipline of theology (a term never used by Augustine except in a dismissive way) was forged, most famously by Thomas Aquinas, as a way of combining understanding of the core themes of the Christian scriptures with philosophical reflection. The term theologia is closely related to the term Theory. Criticism of theology as a discipline is no different from criticism of any purely theoretical discoure.

In Australia (as elsewhere, theology tends to be used as separate discipline from biblical study—in which Australian has many outstanding scholars, like Brendan Byrne and Mary Coloe, sometimes with significant feminist and ecological inflection in their study of the Bible (as demonstrated by Norman Habel).

Third comment: There is an enormous problem with the way religious studies is classified by a system of thought with the boring name Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification. This system is enormously important because it controls research quality evaluation and thus funding. If we want to succeed in getting grant money, we must shape our thought according to its categories. This system separates Division 21 History and Archaeology from Division 22 Philosophy and Religious Studies. This means that any book about Religious History and Thought has to straddle two divisions. Not only is Religious studies (and Christian studies) a subset of Philosophy, but there is no category for religious thought, other than
220210 History of Philosophy of Specific Fields
220299 History and Philosophy of Specific Fields not elsewhere classified

In conceptual categories that step out of the 19th century the ARC tells us that biblical studies is a subset of Christian studies (something Jewish Hebrew Bible scholars might find irksome), while Theology is not mentioned at all in this scheme of knowledge—something 19th century secularists might have been pleased with, but is this where we are in the 21st century, when religious thought has a much wider significance than the ARC might recognise.

So these are the conceptual structures in which we must place Wayne’s book, which he is the first to admit offers a far from complete picture. Its real importance is that it urges us to address not only the stereotypes of educated opinion formers, but of the power structures in Australia that shape the way we think.

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