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Australian Religious Thought launch speech

By David Tacey, Emeritus Professor of English, La Trobe University, Melbourne, 23 March 2016 Readings Hawthorn.

David Tacey

Wayne Hudson and his publisher are to be congratulated on an important book, one that fills a gap in our knowledge. It has already had an impact on my work; I hadn’t realised that my own heretical thought had so many antecedents in my own country. I had always looked overseas for my models and influences.

This book claims that taking religious thought more seriously suggests revisions to the way the national story has been told. There has been more serious religious thought in Australia than historians have generally acknowledged.

It is a plausible thesis, and Wayne assembles a fascinating array of materials to support his case. In this sense, the book is a success and proves its point.
But the book raises for me numerous questions that I still want Wayne to answer, perhaps in a follow-up paper. As impressive as the intellectual activity assembled here is, and as significant as the religiously-motivated social activism is that Wayne documents, why is it that this has all faded into near insignificance in terms of the story we tell about ourselves?

Will this book change the way we tell our story? I hope it will, but somehow I don’t think it will; the old story is too established and bolstered by lots of entrenched opinions. I don’t think we want to change our story, even though Wayne says it is wrong or incomplete. The current story suits us too well. We rather like seeing ourselves as godless bastards, even if we don’t want the truth to get in the way of a good story. Even with Wayne’s book as counter-evidence, I think we will continue to view ourselves as traditionally irreligious.

One of Wayne’s answers is that the master narratives of the country have disguised the religious dimension and misrepresented us. We seem godless because academic historians and makers of the Australian identity have designed things this way, and we have just sat idly by and allowed ourselves to be manipulated. Yes, I can see this point, but it is only one take on a complex situation. As a psychologist of culture, I can’t believe there isn’t more to this than academic manipulation.

Of course, another answer could be that the most interesting religious activity occurred well over a hundred years ago, when religion was far more important in Australia than it is now. Today, religious debate in this country is dull, lifeless and dreadful; one would have to look very hard to find anything of intellectual or spiritual interest.

Another answer could be framed around the difference between today’s secularism and yesterday’s secularity, which was more porous and nuanced. 19th C and early 20th C secularity was not opposed to religion, it just wanted it kept out of affairs of the state, and both religious and non-religious often agreed on this. Now that secularity has morphed into hardened secularism, the religious side of the national character has been eclipsed.

I often find that visitors from overseas end up confused about Australia when they arrive here. In preparation for their trip, they may have read some Australian literature, looked at our poetry and considered our visual art. From New York, Rome or London, Australia looks remarkably spiritual, even powerfully prophetic. Let’s suppose our educated visitor from foreign parts has read some of our novels, say, a Tim Winton or a Patrick White, and looked at some of our poetry, say, Judith Wright or Les Murray, and looked at our cartoons, such as those of Michael Leunig, as well as having considered Aboriginal art. Moreover, they may have dipped into Manning Clark, who reads Australian history as a vital clash between reason and faith.

It looks to the outsider as if the country is a hot-bed of visionary and prophetic intelligence. Then they arrive here, and religion, if spoken of at all, is spoken of with a good deal of derision. The only things that matter are sport and politics, and all the things that were described or evoked by Winton, Leunig, Murray, Wright, Boyd, Nolan, Sculthorpe, Edwards, are not to be seen or heard, except in galleries, museums and books. The public life of the country is nothing like its inner life expressed in art. What does our visitor from abroad conclude? That Australia is more interesting in books than in reality? That Australians live double lives, or suffer from split personalities?

Then Wayne suggests another answer:

Many Australians are uncomfortable with traditional religious language, but have not yet developed a vocabulary of their own. Indeed not being able to affirm religious statements is almost a national style.

This is ambiguous, but one could infer from this that Australians are deep and silent types; we have feelings for the sacred, but we don’t like to express them. But the question remains: are we unwilling to talk religion because we are protecting our profound depths? Or are we just thinking about ourselves, our bank accounts, sport, politics and have nothing to say about religious matters? Are we deep and silent or are we deeply shallow? An upbeat approach to this topic is found in the work of Sydney theologian David Ranson:

Australians are in fact deeply spiritual people. You will never see it. You will rarely hear them talk of spiritual things. However, it would be a great error to mistake this reserve for secularity, indifference or antipathy. In the midst of their ordinary lives, surrounded by their significant relationships, and sensitive to the opportunity of their vulnerable moments, Australians do enter the silence of this place and perceive a new and sacred reality.

How does he know this? Is this what Wayne thinks? What is going on in Australian consciousness; does anyone know? According to Helen Garner and Michael Leunig, Melbourne artists, we don’t talk about religion because we are embarrassed by it:
Helen Garner: ‘I’ve always thought that embarrassment is a key thing in the Australian consciousness. It’s very profound.’

Michael Leunig: ‘In a moment of embarrassment there’s a truth present .... The embarrassing moments are when control is imperfect, when other people see that there’s some big force.’

Leunig says that the big force is the sacred, and we shy away from it because we prefer to be secular; it’s easier for us to live that way. When we are secular, we don’t have to bother with ultimate questions, as we see ourselves as the controllers of our fate. I like Leunig’s point that embarrassment occurs when other people see there is some big force. It’s not just about what we perceive privately, but what we perceive publicly. If others see that an Australian is under the influence of a big force, then we are ashamed. This is an unAustralian attitude. Our national character is formed around the belief that the human will, not another will, is in charge.

So rather than just academic games about which picture of Australia is the correct one, I tend to believe that a great deal of emotional angst and defensiveness goes into the godless picture of the nation. The poet Bruce Dawe wrote of our national reticence in matters of spirit, when he spoke of this southern church of silence
Where to speak what’s in the heart is some dishonour.

Australian secularism has produced a culture of shame. We are ashamed to have feelings that do not accord with the prevailing secularism. Anthropologists tell us that a shame culture is one in which an individual feels ashamed by his or her inability to maintain the accepted norms and standards of the collective. The individual feels dishonoured by spiritual feelings because he or she realises that the image of reality accepted by the nation is too narrow to be sustained. To have other feelings is to be exposed as a betrayer, as an alien in one’s own land.

Finally, I think Wayne has a great ability to produce memorable one-liners.  This is probably my favourite line in the book:

With the help of the libraries in the mechanics’ institutes Joseph Furphy read himself out of conventional religion. p. 105.


Wayne Hudson, Australian Religious Thought, p. 15.
David Ranson, Across the Great Divide: Bridging Spirituality and Religion Today (Sydney: St Pauls Publications, 2002), p. 69.
Michael Leunig and Helen Garner, ‘A Kind of Reality’, in Art Monthly Australia, No. 56, Summer Issue, December-February 1991-92, p. 4.
Bruce Dawe, ‘At Mass’, Sometimes Gladness: Collected Poems 1954-1987 (Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1988), p. 110.

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