Many of the great
works in the classical-music repertoire are spiritual in nature. Aboriginal
music is spiritual, too. But, while our writers and commentators are quick
to recognise the latter, they are sometimes inclined to dismiss Western
music’s real origins. The result is that much of our understanding of the
inspiration behind many famous pieces is from popular writing or movies -
like the portrayal of Mozart in Amadeus as a giggling, immature
misfit. Non-Aboriginal Australians need to reclaim their spirituality.
At the same time,
while we rightly value our tradition of Aboriginal spirituality, we
sometimes tend to place it on a pedestal, almost like a museum piece. Yet
Aboriginal spirituality and wisdom have much to teach other Australians, and
a growing number of outstanding Aborigines are working to effect this.
In a fascinating
recent development, large numbers of Aboriginal theologians are working to
find a synthesis between their own beliefs and those of Christianity.
According to Sydney University academic Garry Trompf, writing in the 1996
book Aboriginal Spirituality, it is only very recently that “the
possibilities for Aboriginal spirituality as a catalyst for renewal and
psychic healing in Australia have become more patent”. According to the
book, more than 200 Aboriginal thinkers are ready to explore in a systematic
way the relationship between indigenous wisdom and the Christian gospel.
As Muriel Porter noted
in her book Land of
the Spirit?, published in Switzerland by the World Council of
Churches: “Aboriginal theologians are proclaiming a God who has lived with
them throughout their history, who gave them the Dreaming, and spoke to them
through it.” In a new millennium it seems we may also be at the dawning of a
new age of Aboriginal wisdom and spirituality.
What is wisdom? It is
not necessarily knowledge of a lot of facts. “Knowledge comes, but wisdom
lingers,” wrote the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson.
Wisdom is accumulated
knowledge and experiences applied to good use. The famous example is that of
King Solomon, around 3,000 years ago, who, according to the Bible, was
“wiser than any other man….He composed 3,000 parables and more than 1,000
songs. He spoke of trees and plants….He talked about animals, birds,
reptiles and fish.”
When two women came
before him, both claiming to be the mother of a particular child, he
proposed splitting the child in two and giving each woman half. When one
woman objected, and asked for the child instead to be handed to the other
woman, Solomon ruled that the protesting woman had shown by her concern for
the baby that she had to be the real mother.
Several of the books
of the Bible have been classified as “wisdom literature”, for the lessons
they teach us about God and about each other. The Book of Proverbs is
particularly valuable as a massive collection of traditional teachings on
life: an open rebuke is better than hidden love; as iron sharpens iron, a
friend sharpens a friend; in the end, people appreciate frankness more than
flattery; and much more.
Aboriginal wisdom and
spirituality are rooted in the land. As tribal elder Galarrwuy Yunupingu wrote, in Aboriginal Spirituality,
The goodness that is in the land - in the
trees, in the water, in the rocks, in the beauty of the landscape and nature
itself - enables us to breathe, live and enjoy. The land feeds and nurtures
all the time.
He wrote that
Aborigines enjoy a relationship with the land that is stronger than that
experienced by other peoples.
We give land ceremonial names as a sign of
respect….We acknowledge the land by giving it a title that is not used every
day, a special name….Our relationship with the land is much closer
spiritually, physically, mentally than any other relationship I know of.
Australian writers and poets have also felt profoundly the power and
spirituality of the land, and it is a recurring theme in their works. “In
Australia, landscape carries our experience of the sacred other,” wrote La
Trobe University senior lecturer
David J. Tacey, in Edge of the Sacred. But, he added, “for 200
years the majority of Australians have shielded themselves against the land,
huddling together in European cities, pretending we are not in or part of
However, I think
caution is in order. A proclivity to romanticise the land, with an attendant
anti-city bias, can sometimes lead - or seem to lead - to an anti-people
I am very much a “city
rat”. As a freelance writer I could live in the country, but I choose the
city. If it weren’t for our children I would probably live in an apartment
rather than a house, as near to the city centre as possible, among the
restaurants and coffee shops and bars and people.
Indeed, if I could choose I would probably spend part of my time in one of
the teeming cities of Asia, sitting and writing at outdoor cafés, happy with
a bowl of noodles and a glass of the local liquor. By contrast, just a few
days in the country are enough to drive me to boredom, my lungs protesting
that they are not receiving their daily ration of pollutants.
I can appreciate, and
marvel at, the spiritual grandeur of the majestic Australian outback. But
one of my most profound spiritual experiences was to be among 25,000
worshippers crying out to God while crammed into the
Yoido Full Gospel Church
in downtown Seoul.
There was wisdom in
the words that a snooty, mountaineering vicar in Birmingham, England, once
snapped at me (see
Chapter 10): God is everywhere.
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