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Living Water
to Light the Journey


In recent decades, religion has taken us unawares….Against all prediction, religion has resurfaced in the public domain.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

The Persistence of Faith


Despite the fact that Australia appears to be one of the most secular and godless societies in the modern world, there is good reason to suppose that an authentic rediscovery of the sacred is already in preparation here.

David J. Tacey

Edge of the Sacred


I have a feeling in my bones that there is a possibility of a creative religious explosion occurring early in the next millennium with the ancient land of Australia at the centre of it, and that the Holy Spirit may come home at last to Terra Australia.

Professor Max Charlesworth

2000 A.D.: Terra Australis and the Holy Spirit (in Millennium, edited by Helen Daniel)


Many people love house hunting. We hated it. It was February, the hottest month, and we had recently arrived in Melbourne from Tokyo. My wife, Younju, was seven months pregnant. Our two boys were aged four and three.


I would get up early on Saturday morning to buy The Age, and then prepare a long schedule of home inspections. But usually by about the third or fourth house Younju was wilting and the boys were fighting. We ended up buying a nice place, but in retrospect we wish we had spent more time looking.


Something struck me as I went from house to house, listening to agent after agent. One of the features so often stressed was that the house in question was convenient for this or that particular private secondary school.


As a boy growing up in New Zealand I had not known a single non-Catholic child enrolled at a private school. Such institutions barely existed. I played hockey at secondary college and I recall the sense of excitement that always attended away matches against King’s College, Auckland’s elite private school. It was like travelling to England, with gracious old buildings, sprawling fields, tall trees and a sense of genteel tranquillity. It was not until I started studying law at Auckland University that I actually came to know any private-school graduates (and I found them to be surprisingly normal people).


Yet in Melbourne it seems that inordinate amounts of conversation revolve around which private school to send your kids to. Fair enough. Education is important. We now have three sons at primary school and are far from immune from such talk.


But what I cannot understand is why so many posh private schools are associated with our Protestant churches. Why on earth do these churches feel that it is their duty to operate schools in places like Camberwell and Kew, and in similar leafy suburbs in other cities? I am still searching for that bit of the Bible where Jesus instructs his followers to provide a superior education for the eastern-suburbs elite while virtually ignoring the needs of underprivileged kids from the western suburbs.


Perhaps there are good historical reasons why the churches felt they should establish schools that allowed parents, through a degree of self-sacrifice, to choose a Christian education for their children. But today these schools have become out of the reach of numerous families. And, to justify the high fees they charge, they must provide a lot more than do the government schools. So the Christian-education side is often downplayed in favour of technology labs, music studios and whatever else is needed to attract enrolments.


The result is that, for me, these elite private schools, associated in some way with many of our Protestant denominations (the Catholic Church runs schools too, but they are aimed at all Catholics, not an elite), symbolise the church’s continuing accommodation with the establishment. I would suggest that if the church were serious about its role it would sell all its highly valuable school land, and use the money to provide superior educational facilities for the underprivileged.


In 1997, attacking clergy support for Aboriginal land rights, a Queensland politician said that the church in Australia had “missed the wavelength” of the 20th century.


Given that some observers believe the 20th century has been, in the words of Weekend Australian columnist Phillip Adams, “100 years of horror”, with world war, nuclear weapons, and the emergence of death as “a key ingredient in mass entertainment”, it might not have been such a bad wavelength to miss.


Would that it were so. The depressing truth is that the church in Australia seems to have been all too often on the same wavelength as our century, not to mention the century before. Many of our churches seem to be unable to kick the habit of siding with the establishment, sometimes against the interests of the ordinary Aussie.


Jesus mixed with the poor. He changed water into wine to keep the festivities going at a wedding party. Meanwhile, church leaders have sometimes tried to impose a wowserish, middle-class British morality on Australian battlers, quite distinct from the true liberating joy of the gospel. During our national shame - the episode of the Stolen Generation of Aboriginal children - many in our churches were working alongside the authorities.


Recently the wavelength of our society has been changing again; growing numbers of people have tuned out the concerns of the world and are tuning into themselves, their feelings, their neuroses, their navels. And within the church there is a boom in “Christian counselling”.


Part of the problem might be that the church has become a captive to - though some would argue that it is a willing collaborator with – what is known as the enlightenment view of modernism. In his book God’s Earth, Catholic priest and broadcaster Paul Collins noted that this view has four characteristics:


A commitment to a passionate, almost irrational belief in the myth of progress; the relegation of religion to the sphere of the private and personal; a focus on the importance and the rights of the individual; and a commitment to a rationalistic and technocratic understanding of life.


The church’s accommodation with this position probably derives in large part from the power of the media, who have the ability to set the priorities for public discourse. Christians nowadays too easily get caught up in what is on television or in the newspapers, and they start to lose sight of the kingdom of God. The church has let the secular world set its agenda.


The outcome of this trend is clear. People have found the church offers them little they cannot find elsewhere, and have stampeded out of their pews. Our religious leaders often lack the power - not to mention the will - to act as any kind of force on moral issues. Morale is drooping. Respect for the clergy is low. For many the church has become irrelevant. Yet amidst all the gloom are signs to hope.


When I was a stockbroking analyst in Tokyo, it was my job to write reports that would help our sales staff flog shares to the punters. We even jokingly suggested simplistic slogans, such as, “Buy in gloom, sell in boom”. Now, in the depths of the gloom that infects the church in this country, could be the time to be buying shares in Christianity. Who knows – we might even see a boom.


Our stockbroking sales staff did not want us to write anything too complicated. The KISS principle (“Keep It Simple, Stupid”) was paramount. Just give the punch points, was the standard demand. The punters didn’t need detailed arguments.


Here, then, in no particular order, are my punch points concerning the outlook for Christianity in this country:


·         As I have stressed repeatedly throughout this book, there is a spiritual vacuum today in our society. But one outcome of this is that people of all ages, especially men, are tearing off the hard, shellac-like crusts which have protected them from being hurt in the world, and are trying to find greater meaning to their lives. Some are afflicted by great feelings of loneliness and alienation.


·         Baby boomers, who rejected the church in droves, are aging and are facing mortality. Many are starting to search, for the first time, for answers to questions of life and death.


·         Today’s youth and young adults generally do not - unlike many of their parents - have bad experiences of church (because they were not forced to attend). Many young people, too, are sincerely searching for meaning in this world.


·         The detrimental consequences of our actions in removing God from our lives - such as giant, devouring casinos in the hearts of our cities - are beginning to become obvious. Parents, in particular, are worrying that their children lack a central, guiding moral force.


·         Some thoughtful people are starting to see that religion - with its emphasis on service and duty - is a necessary component of a properly functioning society.


·         The collapse of Communism, the false god of the 20th century, has demonstrated again that human-centred religions don’t work, no matter how theoretically sound is the “religion” and no matter how sincere the “worshippers”.


·         The influence of Sigmund Freud is dropping. I discussed this in the Introduction to this book. New studies are revealing a positive, dynamic relationship between religious belief and mental health.


·         A new generation of feminist theologians is breaking down the patriarchal traditions that have long existed in the church, by pointing out things that were in the Bible all along - for example, that it contains references to God as feminine, and that Jesus was a radical who treated women and men equally, at a time when this was virtually unthinkable. A growing number of Australian churches have women clergy.


·         In our post-modern culture, many have downgraded science, in reaction to excessive claims for science’s powers, leading to a greater openness towards the supernatural.


·         Science is even aiding religion, with a flood of new research that is bridging the gap between the two, challenging old assumptions that the world is a closed network of cause and effect with no room for the supernatural


I can see my own journey as illustrative of many of the preceding trends, and I suspect my journey is being replicated by many other Australians. The past couple of decades have seen a big move towards New Age spiritualities of all kinds, from Tarot cards to a belief in the healing powers of crystals. Yet certainly, many of these New Age seekers remain unfulfilled. That is why they jump from one guru to another. And it is also why there is a surge of interest in the West in Christian spirituality and mysticism - based on the life and teachings of Jesus - which boast nearly 2,000 years of tradition, and with roots that date back even further.


There is one more factor to consider, one that could prove crucial: the church is no longer inextricably bound to the establishment. For the first time in 200 years, most Australians no longer regard the church as an arbiter of their behaviour, or even as particularly important in their lives. (As I have said already in this book, even after church attendance started dropping, people generally continued - until recently - to adhere to Christian-based notions of morality.)


The result is that throughout Australia hundreds, perhaps thousands, of young (and often not so young) Christian leaders are preaching the authentic gospel of Jesus with renewed vigour. It is a message of service, of duty, of humility, of self-sacrifice and of justice. It is, at times, an anti-establishment message, and it is certainly counter-cultural. It is the message of a community called by God and working to remain true to the primacy of Jesus’ Gospel teachings, without fear or bias. It is also intensely spiritual.


Jesus was a radical who fought against the powers of his day. He fought for justice and reconciliation. He preached the need to support the underprivileged, the underdog, the battler. The entire church, at last unconstrained by its previous establishment links, is now free to do the same. It could even result in a boom in Christianity in Australia. I’d be buying shares now. I’d invest my life savings.


Come to think of it, I already have.




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