The spir­i­tual in­gre­di­ent in na­tion-build­ing

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

At the 2011 census, 61 per cent of Aus­tralians iden­ti­fied as Chris­tian and a fur­ther 7 per cent as be­long­ing to other faith tra­di­tions (mostly Bud­dhism, Is­lam or Hin­duism). Ac­cord­ingly, about two-thirds of the pop­u­la­tion was at least nom­i­nally “religious”.

Yet the Chris­tian per­cent­age has been fall­ing steadily for decades, and this year’s census will no doubt re­veal a fur­ther fall since 2011.

Of course, the census mea­sures religious af­fil­i­a­tion only, not strength of con­vic­tion or depth of knowl­edge.

A more per­ti­nent statis­tic may be this: in 2016, only one Aus­tralian in 12 reg­u­larly at­tends a ser­vice of wor­ship. In the gen­eral com­mu­nity, ap­a­thy to re­li­gion is rife and an­tipa­thy not un­com­mon. This is so at all lev­els of power, in­come and for­mal education.

It was not al­ways so. In 1901, the year of Fed­er­a­tion, half the adult pop­u­la­tion went to church each Sun­day. Fur­ther­more, un­til quite re­cent times, most civic lead­ers and opin­ion mak­ers were at least re­li­giously lit­er­ate, if not no­tably pi­ous.

And as Wayne Hud­son is right to em­pha­sise in Aus­tralian Religious Thought, even “those who ques­tioned re­li­gion were not nec­es­sar­ily out­side it or free of religious con­cerns”. Many pub­lic crit­ics of the churches wanted to see them re­formed rather than gagged or side­lined.

Hud­son is an ad­junct pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Queens­land, Charles Sturt Univer­sity and the Univer­sity of Tas­ma­nia, with 18 books to his credit and im­pres­sive ex­per­tise across var­i­ous dis­ci­plines — phi­los­o­phy, the­ol­ogy, his­tory, pol­i­tics.

One of his op­er­at­ing premises is that re­li­gion as var­i­ously un­der­stood and ap­plied has been “a ba­sic el­e­ment of Aus­tralian so­ci­ety, if some­times car­ried lightly”.

But in this book he does not pur­port to prove that premise in any com­pre­hen­sive way. This is not a his­tory of the Aus­tralian churches, nor a his­tory of sec­u­lar Aus­tralia seen through a religious prism.

Hud­son’s aim is less am­bi­tious: to demon­strate, by way of six themed case stud­ies, the so­phis­ti­ca­tion and di­ver­sity of Aus­tralian religious ideas as pub­lished and pro­mul­gated since 1788. “My task,” he writes, “is to alert the reader to the wealth of ma­te­ri­als avail­able.”

In this he suc­ceeds. The depth of his re­search is prodi­gious, and re­fresh­ingly non-sec­tar­ian. While his ma­te­rial is selec­tive, most Chris­tian de­nom­i­na­tions are well rep­re­sented, along with in­dige­nous spirituality. The ma­jor non-Chris­tian faiths are also dealt with ap­pro­pri­ately.

But while Hud­son’s sub­ject mat­ter is al­ways fas­ci­nat­ing, purists may well quib­ble with the breadth of his con­cep­tion of “religious thought”.

For in­stance, two of the six chap­ters are de­voted to “sacral sec­u­lar­ity” and “post-sec­u­lar con­scious­ness”. As de­fined by Hud­son, th­ese no­tions en­com­pass al­most any realm of thought that is a step up from the to­tally self­ish and mun­dane; any at­ti­tude of mind that is not en­tirely closed off to the nu­mi­nous. He sets the bar low.

To give a flavour, An­zac Day is cited as Aus­tralia’s most ob­vi­ous com­mem­o­ra­tion of mod­ern-day “sacral sec­u­lar­ity”.

An­other his­toric ex­am­ple is Henry Law­son’s paean to the early trade union move­ment — “a new and grand re­li­gion”. Un­der the rubric of “post-sec­u­lar con­scious­ness” there is a dis­cus­sion of, among other top­ics, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism and psy­chi­a­try.

Sev­eral chap­ters deal pri­mar­ily with thinkers who stood — or stand to­day — on the fringes of tra­di­tional Chris­tian­ity. “Shapes of Dis­be­lief” is de­voted to those who mounted at­tacks on var­i­ous aspects of creedal or­tho­doxy — though not on the ex­is­tence of God.

Hud­son’s “religious lib­er­als” were cut from sim­i­lar cloth, in­flu­en­tial “heretics” of their day such as Charles Strong, founder in 1885 of the so­cially pro­gres­sive Aus­tralian Church, which re­mained a force in Mel­bourne un­til World War I; and Sa­muel An­gus, who twice came close in the 1930s to be­ing ex­pelled from the Pres­by­te­rian Church in NSW.

An­other chap­ter deals with no­table Chris­tian philoso­phers, in­no­va­tive fig­ures such as WR Boyce Gib­son, Max Charlesworth and Kevin Hart, as well as the most in­flu­en­tial athe­ist in Aus­tralian his­tory, John An­der­son. An­der­son, a Scot, was a long-time pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy at the Univer­sity of Syd­ney (1927-58) with some­thing of a cult fol­low­ing among im­pres­sion­able stu­dents.

It is only in the chap­ter headed “The­ol­ogy in De­vel­op­ment” that Hud­son deals pri­mar­ily with thinkers within, or at least close to, the main­stream Trini­tar­ian tra­di­tion, Protes­tant or Catholic. Here — and in his wide-rang­ing in­tro­duc­tion — he comes clos­est to the guts of the Aus­tralian religious story.

Since 1788, in ways ob­vi­ous and not so ob­vi­ous, ortho­dox Chris­tian be­liefs have mo­ti­vated

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