Towards an Australian Spirituality

An article published in The Melbourne Age "Faith" Column

A Silent, Australian Pathway to God

The vast majority of symbols of the Christian faith acknowledged by Australians have grown in other cultures. They have shaped us, but never touched us at the core of our being. Perhaps this explains why Australia has never experienced religious revival on a broad scale we are yet to find a faith which touches who we are, which is vastly different to saying that questions of faith don't plague us still.

Social researcher Hugh Mackay has noted that, according to historical precedent, present social conditions in Australia are fertile ground for religious revival, yet he added that such a revival would be unlikely. Perhaps that it is a measure of the church's inability to understand and communicate faith in a way that connects with the reality of Australian life and culture - or is there something within the Australian psyche that resists spirituality?

Even allowing for such resistance, we are still people of faith - a silent, untapped faith, reflected in theologian Paul Tillich's definition of faith as ultimate concern: the foundation that shapes all that we do. Ultimate concerns are the grid through which we filter everything for importance, reminding us that we are part of something greater which shapes our decisions. In the average Australian, however, this grid is a mystery, a silent partner knocking, gently within us when something needs evaluation. Why is family so important? Why does work provide significance greater than the pay? What makes us Australian?

We are easily locked into a lifestyle pattern, the purpose of which still eludes us. An inherent dissatisfaction remains. Yet the concept of God as the ground of our being reminds us that our actions and decisions flow from something deeper. We draw inspiration and meaning from here; it is the foundation of our whole value structure. We choose time with family over extra time at the office because we sense a greater importance in the former. We abhor certain thoughts or actions because something within us indicates repugnance. We are encouraged and uplifted by others' stories when they tap into something which affirms our value structure, reigniting hope. Still this unfamiliar friend exercises its mysterious power over us.

In many ways the inherent silent Australian faith echoes the silence of our land - a silence and barrenness which intrigues and invites us, yet a place in which we are not comfortable to remain. Our uneasy relationship with our land reflects our uneasy and silent spirituality.

How can we connect more overtly with this deeper reality? I marvel at the ability of Jesus, through an insightful question, to create that moment of encounter with that silent partner. "Which is easier -to forgive or to heal the lame?" he asked teachers of the law, challenging them on the most important values. In response to the question, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, inviting us to demonstrate a practical love and exposing our excuses for not helping. Jesus' parables -mysteries and riddles - travelled with his hearers. Through grappling with the parables healers could encounter themselves, and sometimes God, in a more meaningful way. Jesus' provocative questions exposed the assumptions and prejudices of his antagonists (and even his followers) in an effort to show them themselves, that they might understand greater things, and to show them how they had misunderstood God. His well-directed question can make us feel uncomfortable; give us an "Aha!" experience; lead us into deeper thought; challenge our preconceptions: and become the doorway to a deeper understanding of faith.

In the same way the outback invites us to become familiar with a silent and estranged faith. In the laugh of the kookaburra we hear the sound of joy and celebration, but also the tones of derision and skepticism which mark us as a people. Our climatic extremes echo life's extremities, with their reminder of the hope of transformation and the importance of endurance in times of suffering. The bushfire can remind us of our relative impotence and of the testing of all that we have built.
Indigenous Australians have long been in touch with these elements, which European settlers have disdained. We need to listen afresh to the challenges posed by our environment, for the voice of God is often found within them.

The journey of faith opens as we begin to understand this silent partner who guides our choices. Confronted with life's most important questions we are asked to recognise that Someone and Something greater beckons us. This was a large part of Jesus' ministry: bringing us to understanding who we are and who God is, that we might welcome what we might become, recognising that our spirituality need no longer be a silent stranger, but a mysterious and welcome friend. This journey of faith will enable us to become more fully and uniquely Australian.

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