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Living Water
to Light the Journey

Book Launch Speech, 1999

How Can We Live Without God?

Living Water to Light the Journey has actually been out for a couple of months now, and already I have had to talk about it quite a lot, in radio and newspaper interviews. And when I started giving these interviews I made a somewhat startling discovery. I found that I didn’t really know what the book was about.


Of course, I knew what was in the book - I’d written it, after all - and given 10 or 15 minutes I could have explained that. But when I was asked to summarise in a sentence or two the book’s main theme I just wasn’t sure.


The problem was that the book had changed so much while I was writing it. When I started out, my aim was simple: I planned to write a book for parents on how to give their kids a good character education. I thought I would present a few chapters on some of the things I felt had gone wrong with our society, and then end with examples of some Australian heroines and heroes for our kids to emulate.


But I have written half-a-dozen books already, and I know that somehow they tend to take on a bit of a life of their own. And over the two years of writing this book, that is what happened.


I came to see that some of the problems in our society come from a spiritual malaise, so I started writing about spirituality. Then I started to realise that the story of my own spiritual journey might be of some help and encouragement to others, and I added a few chapters about my own life, telling about my 17 years living in Japan, my deep involvement with Buddhism, and how at the age of 44 I became a Christian.


So by the time the book was published it seemed to be reaching out in several different directions, and thus my hesitation when I was asked by interviewers to explain it in a couple of sentences.


So I read it again, and immediately realised that indeed there was a central theme to the book, one that flowed right through it like a wide river. In fact, I could see that it was probably the dominant theme of my entire adult life and of my spiritual searching. And it is also what I want to talk about tonight.


And this theme is: How can we live in a world without God?


How can we live in a world without God? What do I mean by that question? Let me first of all say what I don’t mean. I am not asking, can we live in this world without being a Christian.


But the point of my question is that until one or two generations ago most Australians probably did recognise the presence of something higher than themselves, something they thought of as God, even if they weren’t church-goers or even Christians.


And there was broad agreement that this God had passed down certain guidelines—mainly through the stories of the Bible—for the welfare of our community: for example, that we were called to live lives of modesty and humility; to love our fellow humans; to have particular compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves; to act with a sense of duty and service to those over whom we have authority; to accept that we are not perfect and will make mistakes in life; to be ready to forgive those who do make mistakes and to allow them—where possible—another chance; to understand that life may involve some suffering; and so on.


I was brought up by parents who were atheists, who were intensely involved in left-wing politics - my father was for some years a member of the Communist Party - and who were hostile to religion. Yet they would seldom have questioned those guidelines for living. That was the way life was, and, indeed, ought to be. It was how their parents and grandparents had lived, and how they assumed their children would live.


But over the course of several decades there has been a huge reaction against the notion of any kind of God who might impose absolute rules on us. The reasons for this are many and I shan’t detail them tonight, but the fact is that academics, writers and opinion leaders have been working hard to persuade us that we don’t need God in our lives. And as the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche observed approvingly, convince people that there is no God and the downfall of Western morality will follow.


So today we see everywhere people placing self-love - even self-worship - and the acquisition of material possessions ahead of community obligations. And with no absolute guidelines to give them stability and security, too many people are forced to grab their ethics from the latest self-help guru, from the commentary pages of The Age, from TV programmes like Seinfeld and Friends. And as this is an ever-moving feast of opinions, we should not be surprised that we find ourselves in an era of moral ambivalence.


Let me tell you a story. Some of you may have heard it already. It is about an old man, living in a small village in central Europe about 100 years ago. He worked at the local factory, and he had a very important job there. It was his task to switch on the siren that summoned the employees to start work at 8 o’clock each morning.


He was a poor man. He owned one of those old-fashioned pocket watches, but it didn’t work especially well, and he couldn’t afford to repair it. So each morning at around 7:30, on his way to work, he would stop outside the village railway station and he would look up at the enormous railway station clock, and he would adjust his watch, to ensure that he set off the factory siren on time, at exactly 8 o’clock each morning.


Well, he had been doing this for years and years and years, and one day he was shopping in the village market when he bumped into a man he recognised as the local stationmaster.


“I know you,” said the stationmaster. “You’re the man I see outside my station each morning at around 7:30 setting his watch against my clock.


“That’s right,” said the man, and he explained the reason.


The stationmaster looked at him in amazement. “Your watch doesn’t work properly, so you set it against my station clock each morning, so that you can sound the factory siren at exactly the right time?”


“Yes,” said the man.


“But my station clock hasn’t worked properly for years,” said the stationmaster. “And we’re far too poor to fix it. So do you know what I do? Each morning I wait until 8 o’clock, when I hear the factory siren, and then I set my clock against that.”


And that I believe is what is happening to our society. We are moving away from our dependence on the central guiding authority that traditionally has sustained our culture, and, second by second, minute by minute, relying instead on our own ever-shifting moral structures.


So all that became the first part of my book. Then to help parents provide their kids with role models to emulate I looked for some Australian heroines and heroes to write about. And that was when I made a big discovery, that led to the second part.


I decided to write about Caroline Chisholm, who worked so hard to help women migrants to Australia in the 19th century, and is truly a great heroine. I looked for a copy of her 1842 book on immigration problems. Some of you may know that this was the first ever publication by a woman in Australia, and it seemed the only copy available in Melbourne was on microfilm at the La Trobe University library.


I consulted it there, and was amazed to find that it was not simply a powerful plea for greater protection for women migrants to Australia, but that it was also a deeply spiritual document. Like some of the mediaeval female Christian mystics, Chisholm was writing in graphic detail of her relationship with God and of her efforts to know and follow God’s will.


Now historians do generally point to Chisholm’s religious convictions when writing about her. But they seldom describe the profound depth of her spirituality. And I came to realise something that I think has great significance—that our society is hiding spiritual messages from us. It is concealing the spirituality that forms part of our heritage. And by doing so we are giving ourselves, especially our young, nothing or very little to believe in.


Of course it is far too glib just to say, give our youngsters some spirituality and they won’t get onto drugs or they won’t try to kill themselves. But is it not surely self-evident that too many young people today are given too little to believe in, other than money and success and a glamorous life. There is a vast wasteland in the lives of too many of our youth


It was something I came to feel strongly about as I wrote my book, and as I did research I was heartened to find that, ever so slowly, starting mainly in the 1990s, a growing number of informed voices are crying out for a return to spiritual teaching for our youngsters.


One of Australia’s best-selling authors is the family psychologist Steve Biddulph, who has written several books on child raising, including Manhood and Raising Boys. According to him, quote, “The most potent and effective men and women…are those with religious underpinnings to their life….To not have some kind of spiritual practice in one’s life…is a serious mistake.”


In a wonderful book called Greater Expectations, Professor William Damon, who is regarded as a leading American thinker on the moral development of children, wrote: “In just the last few years, some of our most noted authorities on child rearing have woken up to the glaring omission of spiritual messages from our children’s lives. Some of these authorities have tried to awaken a society that is forgetting how to give its children something to believe in.”


He said that religious worship is the primary means of imparting a sense of spirituality, and added that this had been shown to have, quote, “clear benefits for children” unquote. He believed that were it not for the antagonism of social scientists, many more studies would be appearing praising the benefits of religious worship.


I felt so strongly about this that in the Introduction to Living Water to Light the Journey I wrote: “My wife and I believe that one of the most important actions we take for the upbringing and welfare of our three children is sending them to Sunday School each week.”


Harry Monro, my pastor at Templestowe Baptist Church, said I should have written that we bring them to Sunday School each week, not send them. But I’m a Christian and must be honest, so I wrote send.


But as I said, I felt so strongly about this point that I repeated the message in another of the chapters, and then when my publisher asked me if I would write the back cover copy for the book, I repeated it again. The back cover copy is written to promote a book, and I had no particular illusions that stressing Sunday School would sell my book. But I simply hoped that someone in a bookstore reading the back cover, and not necessarily buying the book, might get the message.


I lived in Tokyo for 17 years. It is one of the world’s most modern cities. Yet the Japanese quite comfortably inhabit both this futuristic city and a spiritual world. It is commonplace for Japanese business executives or sporting stars or students or housewives to spend a week or so on retreat in the mountains, or at a country temple, for spiritual refreshment. Many Japanese homes still have a small family altar in one of the rooms where they place food for the spirits. In mid-summer the entire country shuts down for a few days so that family members can go and clean the graves of their ancestors and pray for their spirits.


Korea, which I also know well, is similar, except that now it is about one-third Christian. So large numbers of people head for spiritual refreshment to one of the Christian retreats in the mountains established by many of the churches.


It seems that it is mainly in the modern, sophisticated West that such large numbers feel they no longer need a god in their lives. I would not be surprised if 20 or 30 years from now people look back with horror at how so many in the Western world in the last few decades of the 20th century could deny their children a spiritual upbringing.


The third part of the book concerns my own spiritual journey, and I shall touch on this just briefly.


I was working as a foreign correspondent in Japan, and became deeply involved in Zen Buddhism. I was particularly attracted to the Zen worldview. As I understood it then, it stressed that this world is a pretty miserable place, and that because we cannot change things we must seek a way to transcend the misery. This is done by intense meditation, which brings us to a state of mind by which we feel removed from the meaninglessness of everything around us.


I did many long hours of group meditation in temples, seated cross-legged on hard cushions facing the wall while a priest walked around the room behind us with a long stick, ready to thwack people heavily on the shoulder when they started falling asleep, as often happened. I took part in purification rituals under thundering waterfalls, I became the first Westerner to complete an ancient pilgrimage to 33 country temples, I spent three days on another pilgrimage walking in straw sandals through the snowy mountains of northern Japan. I co-authored a book, Zen Guide, which is still on sale in Japan and America.


But my enthusiasm faded. I’ll repeat from Living Water one incident that helped disillusion me. I was visiting the 600-year-old Golden Temple, one of Japan’s most beautiful religious buildings and a famous tourist sight. I was privileged to be able to enter parts of the gold-leafed temple that are normally off-limits to visitors. I sat with one of the priests beside a delicately manicured garden and a small lake and we drank green tea together, ate traditional cake delicacies and discussed Buddhism. It seemed to me at that time to be a small taste of paradise.


But that evening, walking to catch a train, I passed through a park littered with rubbish. The park was apparently home to at least a dozen alcoholic, derelict tramps. They were lying around in tattered clothing, some sleeping, others singing and drinking cheap liquor. And I could not help making a connection with my visit just a few hours earlier to the utopia of the Golden Temple. I wondered what the priests there could offer the men in the park. It seemed to me they could only tell them that the world was a miserable place and that their lives were meaningless.


Our family arrived in Melbourne from Japan in 1993. Though this quickly became our home, I started to feel, for the reasons I’ve been speaking of, that I would like my kids in Sunday School. My wife Younju was already attending a Korean church in Box Hill, and she suggested we find a local church where we could worship as a family. I still had a spiritual hunger, so it seemed worth a try, and thus, one wintry Sunday morning we all turned up at Templestowe Baptist. I very soon became a devout Christian. I found I had a deep need for God in my life.


I am writing another book. It is about the loss of biblical knowledge in our culture—something that has happened quite suddenly over the past few decades—and the dangers this poses.


We sometimes think of the Bible as intended for Christians only, and of course it is through the Bible and the work of the Holy Spirit that Christians make progress in their spiritual journeys. So Christians sometimes forget that God also gave the Bible to the world, to believers and non-believers.


I spoke earlier of the shared values—passed down to us through the stories of the Bible—that bond us together in community: notions like living lives of modesty and humility, loving our fellow humans, having compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves, and so on. We may think these are universal values, obvious to all humanity, perhaps even somehow inherent in our genes. But when you have spent time living in other cultures, as I have done, you quickly see that this is not necessarily the case.


So when we downgrade God and the Bible, we are attacking the very foundations of our own culture.


Now of course we don’t have to live in a culture governed by the stories of the Bible. We could find something else. For 17 years I lived happily in Japan under a moral code based largely on a mix of Confucianism and Buddhism. Japan’s is a society that clearly works pretty well, and I’d be quite comfortable living in Australia under a Confucian system where the husband is the undisputed head of the household, and children have an absolute, lifelong duty to honour and respect and care for their parents.


But here in Australia we live in one of the most multi-cultural societies ever in the history of the world, yet there are no signs of our culture embracing any alternative system. Instead, we are moving from a system of values given to us by the Bible to nothing. And this is the whole point of my talk tonight. If we were abolishing God in order to install a different values structure, it might matter only to those of us who are Christians. But our society is working to abolish God, without finding anything else, and that surely has to matter to every thinking Australian.


I am a writer, so it is perhaps appropriate that I end my talk tonight with a story.


A Jewish man was travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes and money, beat him up and left him for dead beside the road. By chance a Jewish priest came along; but when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by. A temple assistant walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side. Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt deep pity. Kneeling beside him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with medicine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. The next day he handed the innkeeper two pieces of silver and told him to take care of the man. “If the bill runs higher than that,” he said, “I’ll pay the difference the next time I am here.”


This is of course the story of the Good Samaritan, and it is one of the most famous stories in the Bible. It was told by Jesus, and he asked the man he was addressing, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robber?”


His listener replied: “The one who had mercy on him.”


And Jesus told him: “Go and do likewise.”


Now I do not think that we could over-emphasise the influence that this simple and moving story has had on our culture. But the problem is, the story has become so well-known to us that we somehow think it expresses some kind of universal truth.


Yet there are plenty of countries where you don’t help a stranger in trouble. Living in Asia I saw that most people felt a strong obligation to help anyone in trouble from their own family, or from their own group—such as the company they worked for—but it was an utterly alien notion to help outsiders.


I am not here tonight to knock Japan—I loved my years there, and would be sorely tempted if I were somehow offered the chance to live there again—but the fact is that it is a country with little social welfare, and for those in trouble, and without the support of family, life can be devastating. Only about one percent of the population is Christian but during my time in Japan I saw with my own eyes—and they were non-Christian eyes in those days—I saw that it was largely Christian charities that provided a support net for those people.


Australia is still a caring society, as we have seen in our response to the Kosovo crisis. But I would suggest that we are ever so slowly becoming less caring. And worse, we are starting to accuse those in trouble. We say that they didn’t work hard enough or that they should have saved more money or they should have stayed on at school, or that they are welfare cheats, or something. We are starting to blame the suffering for their misfortunes.


I said before that despite our multi-cultural society there is no sign of our biblical heritage being replaced by any alternative. Maybe I was wrong. Consider my story of how my disillusionment with Buddhism was sparked in part by leaving the Golden Temple and just a few hours later passing through a park that was home to some alcoholic tramps.


I placed that particular story on a forum on the Internet, and recently I received an email from a man in Europe who had become a Buddhist. This is a part of what he wrote; quote: “Regarding those drunks you came across in the park. You must realise that those people made that hell for themselves; it is their karma.” Unquote.


That is the teaching of Buddhism and some other Eastern religions. That the victims of misfortune have created their own suffering, because of sins in a past life, or simply because it is their karma, or fate.


In fairness, I must say that Buddhism does include teachings on compassion for the poor. But it is hard to have much compassion when you believe that those who are suffering are themselves, for whatever reason, utterly responsible for their plight.


And as we in Australia, second by second, minute by minute, come to believe that success and lack of success in life are, ultimately, personal choices, we too become less concerned about the man lying on the side of the road.


I sometimes feel I have come a long way on my journey. And as I reflect on the paths I have taken, from the early days of my idealism as a student and my later involvement with Buddhism, I can see that there was always a light up ahead, beckoning me forward. At first it was the glow of that story of the Good Samaritan. But as I moved closer to the light and started going to church, I saw the features of the story-teller, Jesus, become evident, always beckoning me forward. And now I continue on my journey, and still I see that figure of Jesus drawing me nearer and becoming brighter, more radiant, more beautiful, every single day, and I know that I can never again live in a world without God.  


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