By Ian Robinson

A number of studies have described emergent trends in Australian spirituality both within and outside organized religion, in the wake of the late twentieth century collapse of the dominance of rationalism. Some research has showed a menu of options, others have shown an environmentally-motivated deep concern for the earth. A large number described a desire for connection with the sea and the land. Some have claimed a great renaissance for religion but others have represented its shyness, a difficulty coming to birth. Several of these will be discussed in turn below.

Spiritual Hunger

The theologian Michael Raiter (2003) found a widespread hunger for what people call ‘spirituality’ as they strived for life among the alienating strictures and mass-media of a technologically-driven life. People, he reported, were feeling fragmented, exhausted and anxious, and sought an inward centre. In his study of the trends and the commentators, he found nine things that people were looking for in a spiritual dimension to their lives, though not every one was looking for all of these:

1. A relationship or connectedness, not organisational

2. Experiential methods

3. Non-rational content

4. Non-judgemental practitioners

5. Inclusive relativist values, in the name of pluralism

6. Everyday application, which may or may not involve ethical implications

7. Uncommitted practice, a marketplace of personal self-fulfilment

8. Therapeutic outcomes

9. Inwardly – directed goals

Many of these categories overlap, reinforcing his point that these nine items acted as a menu from which a person, acting from a worldview as a consumer, might select whatever offers the satisfaction of their own spiritual longings. He described this as a quest for inwardly satisfying experiences that were self-authenticating. Ethical or political consequences were usually of secondary concern if at all. Intellectual discussion was frowned upon since it sounded like religion, which was thought to lead automatically to judgemental attitudes. These were the contours of what Raiter observed in an emergent and secular spirituality.

Raiter’s intellectual goal was apologetic, based firmly in the church tradition that others wanted to escape. He did not trust the experiential and inward-directed approach so favoured by those of whom he wrote, but for whom he was not writing. Even Christian mysticism was conceived by Raiter as something divorced from thought, Bible and theology. His political goal was to stop people from turning away from conservative churches to seek more experiential methods in the contemplative or charismatic churches.

Similarly, Allan Chapple, though confessing his own shortcomings in the practice of his faith, makes an unambiguous claim for the singular priority of the Bible in the formation of the ‘religious affections’. He too can only speak of historic Christian contemplation as a form divorced from Scripture, tradition and faith. Raiter and Chapple have a selective history, partly the result of their own cultural captivity to Enlightenment rationalism, partly fostered by the historically narrow base of Reformed scholarship. They speak with sympathy for the ‘cry of the heart’ that they are observing, but the door to the heart is in their heads. Raiter partly acknowledges this.

On the other hand, Raiter sounded a legitimate alert against the appeal of self-authenticating existentialism. Such instinctual approaches forego the benefits of ancient and contemporary wisdom such that there is no distinction between the wise and the fool. Similarly, the broadcaster Rachael Kohn (2003) criticised the series of best selling books Conversations with God by Neale Donald Walsch, about whose consumer-oriented approach she says: ‘as it turns out, what God had to say was exactly what a lot of people wanted to hear. Just about everything we thought was true about God was a lie.’ In an era now infamous for individual consumer choice, it is hard for many people to hear a view which says that such individualistic and existentialist approaches to spirituality do need discerning support from relationships within a community.

New Believers

A startling omission from Raiter’s ‘menu’ was the strength of environmental concern of most spiritual seekers. This was described by author and broadcaster, Rachael Kohn (2003). In her chapter ‘Restoring the Earth: the Earth is a Bible’ she returned to the scientist James Lovelock who re-introduced the idea, from pre-Christian Greek mythology, of the earth as ‘Gaia’, having a singular personhood. The personhood of the earth was seen as a substitute for the personhood of a transcendent god.

The plight of the earth called for a personal response, due to the speed and scope of the human damage. This anxious plight drove the spiritual dimension of this personal response, which the Canadian scientist David Suzuki described as a ‘change of heart’, and constitutes a commitment of faith for these ‘new believers’. To give scientific credibility to a spiritual devotion towards the earth, Kohn cites Suzuki, who draws on the spirituality of indigenous peoples, and also invokes Fritjof Capra, who draws on Taoism to re-define the new Physics.

Across the western world, Kohn observed a number of characteristic attitudes of these new believers. They discard the Bible as a textbook with easy answers, believe that Christianity may have been a cause of environmental disaster , identify with pre-literate societies’ reverence for earth (new paganism), and they regard the Earth as a partner with whom we are in responsible relationship. This four-fold pattern suggests a more or less coherent spirituality, even though intellectual coherence is not necessarily a high concern of these ‘new believers’. In this spirituality Earth-ecology is the new meta-narrative, and competes with theism in the perception of many westerners. Kohn suggested that a new pantheism is rising and that theologically-motivated attempts to defend a patriarchal model of theism were doomed (she would bracket Cavan Brown and Michael Raiter). A ‘mother earth’ was being adopted. Paganism, shamanism, Wicca, voodoo – all earth-spirit religious practices were being rediscovered. Monotheism no longer has tacit approval.

From her closing chapter, she might have added two more tenets to the four basic attitudes above – autonomy with equality and interfaith relationships. New Believers promote the autonomy and the equality of male and female. The writer Suzanne Clores (2000), with Raiter above, emphasised more than Kohn the importance of personal autonomy in this experimentation. New belivers also promote interfaith relationships and oppose the use of religion for factional violence. For those who are not practitioners of a religion already this is likely to be less important than the non-religious expression of their spirituality.

An example of a ‘new believer’ is Amy E. Dean (1997). Her goal is to help the reader restore a ‘profound ecospiritual connection, a relationship with nature that can help you to connect or reconnect to your natural community, your inner spirit, and your self.’ She assumes the busyness and fractiousness of urban life and offers ten principles to implement into one’s lifestyle which, beyond appreciating nature, could restore ‘natural’ relationships. There is not a hint of the transcendent among them, the closest being to ‘hear the call of the wild’. Nevertheless, it is missional, ethical, pro-active, appreciative and autonomous and is an alternative nature-based spirituality of the kind described by Kohn.

Kohn acknowledged that new spiritual trends necessarily expose people to shortcomings and corruption. She lauded attempts by theologians who were ‘just a few examples in the area of spirituality and the environment where more critical thinking is necessary even though it might be sharply injurious to long held beliefs and trendy new attitudes.’ Religions old and new needed to welcome constant respectful critique and not immure themselves or their adherents by ‘saving face’.

One whose critique has struck a responsive chord is David Tacey, an academic in English Literature and Jungian analysis.

Earth-based spirituality

David Tacey has also sought a renewed spirituality arising from Australian soil. He is still writing and exploring.

He grew up in Alice Springs, spent years overseas, returning in 1984 to find that his own implicit spiritualty of the land resonated with his decidedly un-religious students at La Trobe University. The land, he said, was ‘a key player in the Australian psyche’. With tongue in cheek, he called himself ‘a geo-psychologist’, in the ‘laboratory of landscape’, having himself routinely experienced ‘the beyond’ in the land. ‘I felt I was somewhere special, in a cosmos of rock, that was drawing me out of my habitual ego’.

At the outset, it is important to note that Tacey’s predominantly psychological approach was, by the nature of psychology, introspective. Philip Drew took an external starting point, the verandah, holding that ‘Australians are not by nature introspective – we look outwards to gain a sense of who and where we are.’ This observation alone signalled that both inward and outward approaches may be required in interpreting the spirituality that befits Australia. Drew’s verandah will be discussed in the next chapter.

Tacey noted the irony of a nation of coastal dwellers seeking a spirituality of the land, when he recounts a personal conversation: ‘Here was a Melbourne poet (unnamed), still at the edge of this great continent, and consequently, still excluded from its emotional and mythopoetic resources… in a sense, he had never arrived in Australia.’

Tacey concurred with Cavan Brown (1991) and Belden Lane (1998) that a self-sacrificial leap had to be made, before one made an entry into appreciation of otherness. He sought the ‘re-enchantment’ both of the soul and of worldview wherein persons appreciated the importance of the spiritual dimension of life which therefore influenced both private and public life. How could this begin? Tacey found four avenues – literature, ancestry, depth psychology and some other categories of spirituality, which we will look at in turn now.

It is through literary works that he felt the transformation could begin with the imagination. He named Les Murray, Judith Wright, Rodney Hall, and John Shaw Neilson as the key Australian authors who are ‘intuitive listeners to the voice of things’. Hall, he said, ‘shows a way that is clearly beyond white consumerist appropriations of Aboriginality. His theme is that living side-by-side with Aboriginality can set our own Dreamings going…the re-mythologising of one’s own spiritual heritage.’ This was a very different standpoint from that of Drew’s veranda, described above, an open engagement without assumed privilege.

Drawing on his Celtic ancestry, Tacey maintained that in Australia, Spirit entered us from the earth upwards unlike other countries where it descended to our intellect downwards from above. And further, ‘We do not just walk through the world; we also walk through the soul of the world, and at every point in our journey, it is possible to catch something of the divine spark’.

Tacey’s project was heavily indebted to Carl Jung’s theory of archetypes, called ‘depth psychology’, for his interpretive framework, especially in ReEnchantment (2000):

Jung’s thesis, which is ideally suited to Australian social conditions, is that the living spirit has fallen out of religious high culture and into the soul of the individual, where it has to be rediscovered and encountered anew.

The appeal to Jung’s archetypes was one way that Tacey could lift spirituality from the subjective private realm to the public realm. ‘We arrive at a transpersonal dimension with immediate and enormous ramifications for society, politics, and the environment.’

He also used more traditional categories of spirituality, but, like Kohn’s new believers, consciously avoided traditional forms of religion: ‘…much of what has passed for spirituality in history has indeed been marked by transcendentalism, disdain for the world, and a negative attitude towards the body, sexuality, nature and passion. This is where important new work has to be done.’

A spirituality of the 21st century, in Tacey’s vision of the future, would be non-clerical, non-fundamentalist, non-transcendental, and democratic and therefore would encourage personal responsibility for our own spiritual lives.

Raiter, Kohn and Tacey have described an emergent secular spirituality. It holds to a code of ethics which is accorded ultimacy, provides a sense of life-call, urges people to be pro-active in social and environmental action and forms short-term communities of common-interest. It is not a spirituality that is waiting to be informed by Christian religion, but borrows its terms and values without its structures or its God. Ex-priest and psychotherapist Thomas Moore wrote bestsellers on ‘care of the soul’, and the writer and therapist Stephanie Dowrick expounded ‘Forgiveness and other acts of love’. This movement may have too much autonomous individualism to be religious in the classic sense.

For the purpose of this thesis, a summary of the menu which many contemporary Australians are unconsciously using for their spiritual enquiries includes:

• Mystery, which would predominate over Enlightenment rationality and to some extent over Western materialism. There is a suspicion of the Bible;

• Connections in human relationships and with nature, which would predominate over religious and academic organizations and dogma. They would seek a sense of reverence for the earth;

• Appreciation of ‘the Other’, who is different from oneself, which would predominate over patriarchy, judgmentalism, competition or tribalism. It would include gender equality, the privileging of relativist pluralism, and an inter-faith perspective.

• Experience, which would be more authentic than just concepts, and spiritual experience would be satisfying if not directly therapeutic. The immediacy of the role given to experience is in some ways opposite to ‘mystery’.

• Autonomy and self determination, which would predominate over a shared habitus, and historic wisdom. This privileges the principle of consumer-choice and exaggerates the politics of democracy.

These characteristics act as a filter for the ways that contemporary Australians might approach desert spirituality. They mirror the trends described by Haynes since post WW2 of an emergence of spiritual perspectives in desert art and literature.

The appetite described in this section is open to a spirituality of the land that encapsulates the values of mystery, connection, appreciation, experience and autonomy. The contemplative disciplines have traditionally offered these. However, Tacey, Kohn and Clores insisted that the clerical or monastic forms of this practice are not the way that emerging seekers wish to engage.

GETTING TO VERSE 24 – confessions of a failed evangelist

There are two cracks emerging in my faith, in particular my capacity to share the gospel. Am I confused? Dislocated? Dizzy, certainly.

One crack comes from the long history of Christianity in this culture. The church has been the founder of public schooling and hospitals, a driver of social change and social welfare, prison reforms and unionism, provider of community centres of suburbs and cities, and the smiling collector of odd-bods and broken people. All that is now taken for granted by society as though it is ‘natural’ or ‘human’.

It seems the church’s  track record has been re-populated with a series of half-truths about bible-bashing, religion-based violence, paedophilia and the stealing of children. We did all those things, but we spent an awful lot more energy on the other stuff and now we are hugely quiet about it because Jesus said to do our deeds in secret.  So the half truths roll on and on in public consciousness, and we and our good news are on the nose.

Despite the atheist twentieth century and its sum of totalitarian butchery, people assume there is safety in atheism , agnosticism or, more likely, pragmatic apathy. I need to re-imagine the position and posture of the church in this society, for we are no longer a welcoming host but a tolerated guest.

That’s one fracture, but the second is waiting there too.

The second is the very changed context in which we now find ourselves.  No centre, allergic to truth-claims, multi-cultural and relativist, liberal to the point of anarchic, so how do we ever talk?

There is no trouble for me in getting out there, though I note that for many the church is ghetto-ised. In conversation I identify and affirm people, listen to their truth and enjoy their sacredness, as in Acts 17.22-23. But I can’t make it through to verse 24. There it is – I need to bridge that gap, as Christians always have sought to do in every time and place.

So, both ‘where I am coming from’ and ‘where I am heading for’ are cracked. Both feet unsteady, no wonder I feel dizzy.

For these two reasons and two others, I need to build new bridges between the culture and the gospel – because of the unsurpassed access to God that is present in Jesus and because I love Him and want people to know the Grace of his love as I do ( in their own way of course). Those reasons are not negotiable, though I have seen ministers and theologians who gave up on the task.  Easier to retreat to some sort of fundamentalism or , on the other hand, to revert to the proclamation of a non-gospel of “shared values” and “nature-spirituality”. Worthy though they are, popular though they are, these options are not enough good news for people to change their lives.

I carry nine questions that are too engaged to escape:

  1. What do atheists really need and miss out on in their lives if I were able to press them to admit it?
  2. What would assist agnostics to have enough confidence to act?
  3. What trust can I build with the ex-Christians that they would try Jesus again?
  4. What would make the apathetic majority, marinated in wealth and security, to care enough and to see that the Jesus way was necessary?
  5. How can I address gay persons and stolen/abused children who have been so publically hurt in the name of Christ, plastered with texts from the bible?
  6. What do Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu and Sikhs persons need that a Jesus-focus in their religion would address? And what distinguishes “double-belonging” as a cultural stance from a syncretistic one?
  7. And even if we could find our way into these questions (I don’t believe in pat answers), how could church leaders motivate church people to pursue their capacity for witness?
  8. How do we do this “with all gentleness and respect” ?  How do we “ready” ourselves? (1 Peter 3.15-16).
  9. And out of all these, how can we (congregations, church schools and agencies, including church office) make to the wider community an unavoidable offer of the Jesus-option?

There, I think that describes my dislocation. I am not confused. I know the goal and the values, thanks to a long love of scripture and a grey-beard track-record. But the track behind is not the way forward. Stories from St Elsewhere, in Europe or America, will mislead the questions from here. Come, Holy Spirit, the road beckons ahead.

And the tenth question (there had to be one): Who is there to walk this way with me?

There are two cracks in my faith. And that’s how the light gets in.