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Australian Religious Thought launch speech

By Stuart Macintyre, 23 March 2016 Readings Hawthorn.

Stuart Macintyre

Some time ago I had the pleasure of reading a draft of Wayne’s study of Australian Religious Thought, and over the past few days I have been reading the book with renewed pleasure.

As the title indicates, it is concerned with a particular dimension of the history of religion in Australia – it does not follow the fortunes of the various faiths, their organisation, forms of worship, adherents, missions, concerns and place in national life.

Rather, as Wayne explains, his is a study of religious thought as a powerful and pervasive component of Australian intellectual history, of the ways that different forms of belief and disbelief have absorbed the attention of some of the country’s most fertile minds in ways that have shaped its public institutions. He is particularly interested in the theological inheritance (‘cultural capital’) and the ways that it has been renewed, and there are substantial chapters on Australian theologians and Australian philosophers who have contributed to the enterprise. As was Frank Brennan, I was delighted with the extensive consideration of Max Charlesworth.

To my mind, the two most arresting chapters are those that deal with what he calls ‘sacral secularity’, the ways that the secular space was understood, marked out and even filled in by different forms of religious belief, and then his argument for a ‘postsecular consciousness’, a return to a new religious sensibility to make good the limitations of secularism. The two chapters are linked conceptually, the first dealing with the project of constructing a redemptive new order and the second an expression of dissatisfaction with its worldly limitations. I have to confess I find the first more persuasive than the second, which gathers in naturalism, vitalism, environmentalism, postcolonialism and psychoanalysis. A postsecular consciousness that joins Greg Dening to John Carroll and Paul Davies seems to me in need of reformation.

It is a longstanding complaint of religious historians that the historical profession has largely overlooked the significance of their subject. Part of the explanation lies in the design of the Australian university, which excluded the teaching of religion, and part in the configuration of the historical discipline, which paid limited attention to fields of human activity – such as economic history, educational history and art history – that were studied elsewhere.

Religion entered the undergraduate history curriculum at specific moments. It was observed that Cardinal Moran refused to participate in the Inauguration of the Commonwealth, that the churches were heavily engaged in the conscription debate during the Great War, and that there was a religious component in the Labor splits of 1916 and 1955. There was increasing attention to Aboriginal missions. But as successive editors of the Journal of Religious History remarked in periodical surveys of the field, religion was taken for its political and social consequences with a conspicuous neglect of the spiritual dimension.

This neglect is commonly attributed to the influence of national and progressive historians who were critical of religion, and Wayne is not alone in identifying Brian Fitzpatrick, Russel Ward, Lloyd Churchward, Ian Turner and Bob Gollan and Geoffrey Serle as examples. I’m not convinced. As he observes, Ward was strongly influenced by his Methodist father, and so for that matter so was Lloyd Churchward. Lloyd’s father Spencer was a Methodist minister of strong left convictions, and one of his ministries was in that remarkable weatherboard Gothic church at Penguin where Lloyd Robson was committed to the cemetery overlooking Bass Strait. Religion lay lightly on Turner and Serle, but Gollan’s parents were members of the Salvation Army.

Nor were these radical nationalist historians alone in paying scant attention to the religious impulse. It is no more prominent in the national histories of Keith Hancock, Frank Crowley or Geoffrey Blainey, all sons of the manse (though Geoffrey Blainey published a world history of Christianity in 2011). The same is true of Max Crawford, brought up in a devout Presbyterian family. His faith seemed to slip from him easily and with little regret, though I was struck recently when exploring the papers of his brother John Crawford to find there a more to it than that.

John Crawford, who directed Australia’s trade policy in the 1950s and was later vice-chancellor of the ANU, was a younger brother of Max Crawford (the tenth of twelve children), and interrupted his final year of school for a year to support the family as Max departed Sydney for Oxford. Winning a scholarship to Sydney University, he undertook his degree as an evening student so he could continue to assist his parents; and he recalled that since he could not undertake household tasks during the week, he was expected to wash up after Sunday dinner, a lengthy operation and one he tried to finish by 3 p.m. so that he could return to the church to teach his Sunday School class. ‘Sometimes I got help with the wiping up, but very often I did that too.’

Like Max, John was active in the Presbyterian Fellowship Association and later the SCM. He recalled that when he was fifteen the local minister took exception to him challenging the doctrine of predestination in his Sunday School teaching. As an undergraduate he served as a lay-preacher, relieving ministers, but with strict limitations: ‘I would not pray (part of my doubting Thomas character)’, ‘I would not give a theological sermon’, and ‘above all I rejected completely suggestions that I enter the Church’. He finally confessed to his parents that he had lost his belief. They were understanding, he recalls, ‘and grateful for the fact that I did not “look down” on their stronger faith’.

There is not a word of this in the biographical essay, My Brother Jack’ that Max wrote for a festschrift for John. The tribulations and self-sacrifice are described in detail, as is John’s protestation that he felt no bitterness but rather formed a lasting sympathy for the underdog. He protested too much. Filial duty and self-abnegation were tangled up in a feeling of hardship and loss that took John out of the church. Unable to accept the formal doctrines of Presbyterianism, he severed the connection. His public career was undoubtedly marked by a strong social conscience (he was a principal figure in Post-War Reconstruction) but he made no effort to reconstruct any form of religious faith. Indeed, he scorned confessional religion.

I have a suspicion that Crawford’s experience was common. A large proportion of Australian children were brought up within the circle of the local church, a familial connection that marked out patterns of association, friendship, and intermarriage until some way into the last century. And a large proportion of the more inquisitive experienced a crisis of faith, often centred on the doctrine of atonement and clerical authority. Some, like George Higinbotham, ‘set out, alone and unaided, on the perilous path of inquiry’; others abandoned the path altogether. 

Wayne’s book attests to the rich variety of destinations to which such journeys led. His book provides both a map and an explanatory guide, and the explanations are clear and informative. They are admirably ecumenical and non-judgemental; you have to read very careful to discern that he is less than sympathetic to some of these religious thinkers.

When I read Wayne’s book in draft I wondered if his rich and erudite survey might not allow him to make some suggestions about how religious thought here compared to that in other settler societies. He was understandably wary of such an enterprise, but in his conclusion he notes some recurrent tendencies. Australian religious thought avoids positive affirmations; we tend towards a religious republicanism or spiritual democracy. It tends to associate faith with good works and is less concerned with clarifying first principles or indeed proclaiming the transcendent than affirming the immanent presence in the world at hand.

Perhaps it is this that explains the temperate, pluralist and multifaceted nature of Australian religious thought. When Kevin Rudd invoked Bonhoeffer in his essay in The Monthly, it was strained as his reference to a fair shake of the sauce bottle. But when President Obama conversed with Marilynn Robinson in the New York Review of Books, there was a meeting of minds. Wayne Hudson’s great achievement is to explicate the more subtle forms of religious discourse conducted here in a way that illuminates the life of the mind in Australia.

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