Australia is an ancient country with enduring expressions of Indigenous spirituality, usually derived from a sense of belonging-to the land, to the sea, to other people or to one’s culture. In recent centuries spirituality in Australia has been influenced by the religions of colonial peoples, predominantly Christianity. Christian spirituality itself has evolved and diversified through the centuries, strikingly evident in Australia’s multicultural and increasingly secular society. But are Australians spiritual people? Are Australians any more sensitive to the spirit of the land? What is “spirituality”? Is there such a thing as an Australian spirituality?
In his 1981 book, The Sunburnt Soul: Christianity in Search of an Australian Identity, based on the ABC TV series, David Millikan said there were many people who shared his experience of being committed to but frustrated by the religious life the churches offered.
Toward the end of the book he referred to the frustration of rock musician Ross Nobel, operating outside the perimeters of the churches. Nobel believed there was a feeling for “serious” or “religious” things in Australians. “We keep going because quite often we come across people who do sense something beyond the daily grind ... Australians are full of depth. I’m just sorry the churches are not open to getting into the sorts of places where they can talk about it.”
Millikan’s general point was that the Australian experience had produced a unique form of expressing matters of ultimate concern and that worship and ministry needed to be expressed with a distinctively Australian voice.
“It is impossible to live in this vast continent and not be affected. We recent arrivals are not so much lords of the world that we are not in significant ways shaped by its spirit.”
He quoted Manning Clark’s Boyer lectures: “The climate and environment gradually made us accept the values of the Aborigines — become fatalists, accepters and sceptics about the fruits of human endeavour. The spirit of the place had contributed to the Australian understanding of failure — to our conviction that no matter how hard a man might try he was bound to fail — that in Australia the spirit of the place makes a man aware of his insignificance, of his impatience in the presence of such a harsh environment.”
Millikan continued, “We huddle around the edges, creating one of the many Australian paradoxes. Though Australia is the most sparsely populated continent, we Australians are one of the most urbanised nations in the world. The silence and paralysing vastness of the interior seems too much for us. The Israelites looked back on their days in the desert as a time of purity. The later complexities of politics, international affairs and cultural change made the desert experience seem to the children of Israel an ideal time of simplicity and insight.”
A photo caption in The Sunburnt Soul notes, “Sixty-five per cent of Australia is technically desert but the desert experience has not yet become part of our culture.”
Millikan said, “I think we are still looking for a form of religious expression which is sensitive to the spirit this land has within it. Australia has a vast and silent spiritual heart. Its capacity to make itself felt has been experienced by almost everyone who has been there. But somehow we have not in our religious life yet been able to tune our ears to the sound of its voice. It ought to be easy for Australians to believe in an eternal creator spirit but something within our perceptions of what God is like has not prepared us to see that He is already here.”
Searching for spirituality in Australia
At its inception in August 1982, in the year after The Sunburnt Soul was published, the Eremos Institute expressed its aims in two simple slogans: deepening Christian spirituality and helping Christians to understand and contribute to Australian society.
Eremos described itself as an ecumenical association with its roots in Christianity. Taking its name from the Greek word for “wilderness” or “desert place”, a major source of spiritual inspiration in the Bible, Eremos was founded as a result of the work of Anglican priest (later bishop) Bruce Wilson and his vision for a new spiritual movement. (An added factor in the choice of name was recollection of a line from the poem “Australia” by A. D. Hope, “Hoping, if still from the deserts the prophets come”, also mentioned by Millikan.)
The first occasional essay published as a supplement to the Eremos Newsletter was Bruce Wilson’s “Keeping the Rumour of God Alive”. Wilson thought a “second wave of renewal” had begun with the worldwide revival of the Christian mystic and spiritual tradition. He said the Eremos Institute was just a small part of something that was happening everywhere in the universal Church.
“Of primary significance is the fact that in the Christian mystical and spiritual tradition we have an expression of spiritual experience just as precise and refined as the great intellectual compendia of the Faith such as Calvin’s Institutes or Thomas’s Summa. If those intellectual compendia may be called the theology and philosophy of the Christian Faith then the mystical and spiritual compendia are its music.”
Speaking of the challenge for evangelism, he said, “What is really needed is not technique but a deepening of Christian joy in the Holy Spirit such that our ordinary lives and conversations automatically become a constant witness to the faith of Christ within us. This is why Eremos, by teaching about the Holy Spirit, by exploring the Christian mystical and spiritual tradition, by conducting retreats, teaching methods of prayer and meditation, encouraging the art of silent listening to God and by studying scripture for its spiritual not just historical and linguistic meaning, seeks to promote spiritual growth.”
Three decades later, EREMOS magazine editor Frances MacKay, writing about a recent Eremos event, “Breaking the Silence on Spirituality in Australia”, reflected on the work of David Tacey.
Tacey, a professor in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University, teaches courses on spirituality and cultural studies, analytical psychology, and literature. His contributions to EREMOS magazine in 1997 and 1998 led MacKay to read Tacey’s Edge of the Sacred: Transformation in Australia, first published in 1995, and his other “popular” books.
“David’s interdisciplinary and holistic approach (he draws on the psychology of C. G. Jung, theology, literature, history and social and cultural studies) makes him a godsend for those of us who are seeking an authentic spirituality with roots in the tradition, but also addressing contemporary issues and popular culture. What I find particularly valuable is his emphasis on the importance of the metaphoric and the poetic if we are to avoid fundamentalism.”
Tacey, speaking on “The Rising Interest in Spirituality Today” to The Theosophical Society in Australia Convention, January 2002, said, “We may not be traditional in our spiritual tastes, but this should not lead us to conclude that we have become identified with worldliness or that Australians have somehow turned away from spirit. It is important to recognise that ‘secular’ does not mean ‘profane’, and that the secular condition is one in which spirit continues to exist, although in forms that tradition might find hard to recognise.
“From where I stand, it looks like Australia is going through a spirituality revolution, and there has never been more longing for the spirit and therefore more hope for the future.”
In the book Shaping Australia’s Spirituality: A Review of Christian Ministry in the Australian Context, by Philip Hughes, Stephen Reid and Claire Pickering (Christian Research Association, 2010), Hughes said, “To look at the spirit of Australia is to look at the inner life and people’s relationships. The inner sense of peace and purpose, the quality of family life and friendships, the quality of love in our broader social relationships are indicators of the spirit of Australians. My own rough schema is to condense those relationships into five types. In each of these we can ask about the quality of the relationship with self, close others, the wider society, the natural environment and God.”
Speaking at a roundtable on “Shaping Australia’s Spirituality” (August 31-September 3, 2010), Hughes said the significant decline in attendance in churches over the last generation was not largely a rejection of faith, but due to their:
- cultural expressions reflecting the 19th century;
- lack of affirmation of the workplace and business values;
- high demands for literacy in expression;
- strong connections with ethnic cultures;
- not being holistic in relation to life; and
- often being seen as irrelevant to life and society.
Churches, he said, were built around organisations and required much effort in maintenance. They were often built on local communities which were largely irrelevant and their activities centred on the repetition of tradition rather than addressing contemporary life and society. They were often more focused on self-maintenance and mutual support than changing the community, society and the world.
He thought new forms of God’s activity included the faithfulness, goodwill and sacrificial service of many people, with much happening in small and informal groups. There needed to be a change from organisation to movement, which would involve the formation of task groups rather than organisations and the development of networks rather than formal associations.
Churches, he said, needed to focus on relationships rather than structures, about living in families in fragmented communities, in the pluralistic, globalised society. It was about living justly and with care and compassion. The primary challenge of faith, he said, was “to love God and our neighbour”.
The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought says “we turn with relief from theology to spirituality but may find ourselves enmeshed in a bewildering variety of techniques or excitedly following a trail leading nowhere.” For the Christian, spirituality is essentially life in the Holy Spirit, the life and love of God, released by the death and glorification of Jesus Christ. “Grounded in a sense of incarnation, it both transcends and involves the material and physical, the means of subsistence and the satisfaction of bodily appetites.”
Even Christian spirituality is diverse, with different forms and techniques, much influenced by the various cultures of Christian history. Hence: an early emphasis on ethics, specialised spiritualities and the growth of monasticism, the influence of the desert and the abandonment of “the world”, a grounding in communal prayer and labour, mysticism and the longing for union with God, the spirituality or nature, social justice, anti-nature spirituality, Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, Julian of Norwich and the balance between suffering and love, and spiritual ecumenism.
David Tacey admits that “spirituality” is difficult to define, but suggests that it is not organised and institutionalised like “religion”; spirituality is “a desire for connectedness, which often expresses itself as an emotional relationship with an invisible sacred presence” (ReEnchantment: The New Australian Spirituality, 2000).
NCLS Research says the term “spirituality” is French Catholic in origin and did not fully develop as a concept until the 18th century. “Giving an exact definition for the term becomes difficult. Used by the Church at many stages and in varying ways to attempt to define, explain and outline the entire relationship between a person and God a precise definition becomes impossible. Contemporary usage in wider society complicates a definition further with the concept leaving its Christian roots behind and coming to mean any aspect of humanity’s connection to something other than itself. This includes deism (natural revelation), and theism (revealed revelation), yet also expands to include even other human relationships. Spirituality in its broadest sense is the evidence of, or attempt to explain, human transcendence.”
In an article on “The Relationship Between Spirituality and Artistic Expression: Cultivating the Capacity for Imagining” in the Spirituality in Higher Education Newsletter, January 2007, Christine Valters Paintner said there were three dimensions of spirituality she considered relevant. “First, spirituality can be considered a search for meaning in life. The psychologist Viktor Frankl developed a school of therapy around this profound human need after being in a concentration camp and discovering that those who were able to create a sense of meaningfulness fared much better than those who did not. He described the search for meaning in one’s life as ‘the primary motivational force’ in persons. By cultivating a sense of meaning, spirituality can provide an orientation to our lives, a set of values to live by, a sense of direction, and a basis for hope.
“Second, spirituality can help us to cultivate a relationship to mystery. In our search for meaning we discover a hunger for something that is beyond the limits of our capacity to fully describe in language. We come to recognize there is a depth dimension to the world beyond surface appearances. This is the presence that great mystics have described as the God beyond all names. It also is an awareness of the presence of love in the world where there might only have been hate; hope where there might only have been despair; being where there might have been nothing. Spirituality facilitates an encounter with the presence of mystery in our lives and nurtures a relationship with it.
“Third, spirituality is about transformation and should challenge us to stretch and grow through commitment to a set of practices. In our search for meaning and relationship to mystery, spiritual traditions have advised particular ways of entering more deeply into this search through a set of practices or disciplines. Practices help us to cultivate a way of being intentional about our spirituality and help us shape our lives around the meaning and mystery we are discovering through this commitment.”
Awe and wonder is how spiritual people often describe their relationship with the world. There are moments that seem transcendent in their lives — a beautiful sunset, a football crowd filling a stadium with noise, or a moving piece of music.
But such an understanding of spirituality, though common, is not regarded as useful for scientific or practical purposes. Michael King and Harold Koenig in “Conceptualising spirituality for medical research and health service provision” attempt to arrive at a working concept of spirituality and suggest that desire for understanding, wonderment at beauty, art or nature, or the intention to live an ethical life are neither necessary nor sufficient for a definition of spirituality, as all occur in what is regarded as everyday, secular experience.
King and Koenig instead describe spirituality using a table with four components (belief, practice, awareness and experience), any one of which may stand alone. “The components are ordered in terms of increasing awareness of relationship to something that is beyond empirical verification.”
The authors also make a distinction between religion and spirituality: “Religion and religious practice are increasingly criticised as rigid, moralistic and unnecessary in many Western countries and the word spiritual has come to stand in opposition to them. Being spiritual has become a way of putting distance between oneself and religion, while holding onto something regarded as good. Thus spirituality is defined against what it is not. Inevitably this means that what is seen as the negative about religion will be influential in what is seen as spiritual.”
Religious studies scholar Marion Maddox (God Under Howard: The Rise of the Religious Right in Australian Politics, 2005) also recounts common definitions of the spiritual as “individualised, internal, eclectic, dynamic, anti-institutional and free form”, as opposed to religion, which is “organised, external, inherited, formulaic, regulated and traditional”.
What is spirituality if not religious?
Attempts to identify, understand or describe spirituality in Australia — if not a distinctly Australian spirituality — typically lead to nebulous conclusions but often have a common factor in distance from or disenchantment with institutional religions and their doctrines.
NCLS Research describes how some have sought to argue that religion refers to an institutional dimension whereas spirituality is to do with more subjective personal perspectives (Hill, P. C. & Pargament, K. I., “Advances in the conceptualisation and measurement of religion and spirituality: Implications for physical and mental health”, American Psychologist, 58, 2003).
“Such distinctions are often used to paint religion in a negative light in contrast with more ‘enlightened’ contemporary spirituality. Of course, there can be both helpful and unhelpful religions and spiritualities. Religion can also be intensely personal (for example, Wuthnow, R., After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), just as some contemporary spiritualities can form part of large international business complexes. Further, in practice, many experience spirituality in a religious context and do not draw such distinctions (Marler, P. L. & Hadaway, C. K., ‘“Being religious” or “being spiritual” in America: A zero-sum proposition?’ Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 41, 2002).”
Religions may still claim or recognise a spiritual element within their teachings and structures but not all people who profess to be spiritual identify with a religious faith. Some even accept the label “spiritual but not religious” to signify their rejection of traditional organised religion as the sole or most valuable means of furthering spiritual growth. Wikipedia describes “spiritual but not religious” as a concept that one believes “something” but that they have rejected organised religion’s attempts to explain, define, or confine it. (See also Wikipedia “Spiritual but not religious”, in particular reference to Robert C. Fuller, Spiritual But Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America, Oxford University Press, 2001).
“Historically, the words religious and spiritual have been used synonymously to describe all the various aspects of the concept of religion.Gradually, the word spiritual came to be associated with the private realm of thought and experience while the word religious came to be connected with the public realm of membership in a religious institution with official denominational doctrines.”
Spirituality that is not religious can refer to a range of concerns such as the human search for and creation of meaning in our lives; the quality of the interior experience of human beings; deepest motivations that define and direct our lives; and narrative and mythic structures that connect and contextualise human beings among one another and in the world — or simply just a “feeling” that there must be something else; or even more simply it is a response to awe and wonder (see A Sense of Wonder Inspires Spirituality).
Writing on “Psychology, spirituality, religion and culture — harvesting the gifts of all our ancestors” for InPsych, August 2009, Heather Gridley defined spirituality as the human quest for meaning, purpose and transcendence, while religion delineated the convictions, traditions and shared practices of a specific faith community. The concepts were related but by no means synonymous, she said.
“The world is changing rapidly, and in times of global crisis and uncertainty, the human yearning for meaning beyond the mundane intensifies and demands recognition of multiple world views and systems of knowledge. Cultural traditions such as Buddhism and Islam are becoming better known and accepted in the Western world, while Indigenous peoples demand respect for their own systems of knowledge, usually incorporating spiritual beliefs and established healing practices …
“Often, stories and cultural representations of what is deemed spiritual are controlled by privileged groups, excluding or violating those with less social power” (with reference to Rappaport, J., ‘Empowerment meets narrative: Listening to stories and creating settings’, American Journal of Community Psychology, 23, 1995).
Gridley said spirituality and religion were aspects of culture that could not be excised from a contextualised consideration of human experience and behaviour.
According to Tanya Luhrmann, a Stanford anthropology professor and co-author of an article in Current Anthropology, culture makes a significant difference to how people experience spirituality.
Christians might “kindle” or generate different kinds of spiritual experiences than Buddhists because their cultural understandings of those mental or bodily sensations were different, she said.
“We suggest that phenomenological experience is always the result of the interaction between expectation, cultural invitation, spiritual practice and bodily responsiveness.”
From a humanist perspective “spiritual but not religious” indicates a move away from religions and their authoritarian and restrictive aspects, and toward exploration, innovation and risk-taking.
Critic of religion Sam Harris (author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation) is nevertheless interested in the nature of human consciousness and the possibility of spiritual experience. In Waking Up he attempts to show that a certain form of spirituality is integral to understanding the nature of our minds. Harris says the late Christopher Hitchens “believed that ‘spiritual’ was a term we could not do without, and he repeatedly plucked it from the mire of supernaturalism in which it has languished for nearly a thousand years.”
Hitchens spoke of the spiritual pleasures afforded by certain works of poetry, music and art. He used the terms “numinous” and “transcendent” to mark occasions of great beauty or significance, and Harris says Carl Sagan also freely used the term spiritual in the same way. Harris says he has no quarrel with Hitchens and Sagan’s general use of the word to mean something like “beauty or significance that provokes awe” but he believes it also can be used in a narrower and more personally transformative sense; one with which to “discuss the deliberate efforts some people make to overcome their feeling of separateness — through meditation, psychedelics, or other means of inducing non-ordinary states of consciousness”.
Christianity and the University Experience, a three-year British study into undergraduates who describe themselves as Christian, found that the moral consensus has shifted irrevocably — not just among non-Christians, but among Christians, too. For the majority of “hidden Christians”, Sunday attendance becomes infrequent and they reject traditional morality; but their Christian identity and spirituality remain important.
Robert Warner, Head of Theology and Religious Studies, and Professor of Religion, Culture, and Society at the University of Chester, said, “From the perspective of the new paradigm, the Church has become a bastion of reactionary attitudes, and moral blindness. The Church has lost its moral authority among Christians, let alone in society, because it has lost its moral credibility, and is seen to defend indefensible prejudice. While the hidden Christians have overturned traditional Christian moral teaching, they continue to practise personal spirituality. At university, nearly half of all Christians pray more than weekly. In some universities, this means one in four of all their students are praying regularly. That is an awful lot of praying by a supposedly secular generation.”
How religious or spiritual are Australians?
Dr Ruth Powell, Director, NCLS Research and Associate Professor, Australian Catholic University, in December 2013 wrote a guest post for Christianity Today, responding to the question, How Religious are Australians?
With reference to the 1993 National Social Science Survey, 1998 Australian Community Survey, 2009 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, and the ABS National Census 1991, 1996, 2001, 2006 and 2011, her conclusion was, “Yes, but …”
She said, “Yes, most Australians claim to belong to a Christian faith tradition. Yes, most Australians say they believe in God or a higher power. Fifteen per cent are frequent church attenders. But … the trends have all been downward — particularly in recent decades. So, many Australians may not feel comfortable with this description. To describe Australia as a Christian nation, does not acknowledge the rich and ancient Aboriginal spiritual heritage. It does not recognise the small, but growing proportion of people of other faiths. It also does not acknowledge the increases in those who claim to have ‘no religion’ — a group that has more than its share of younger Australians.”
The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes in 2009 showed just 50 per cent of adult Australians regarded themselves as Christian (compared with 86 per cent according to the 1966 Census), and 46 per cent of adult Australians said they did not have a religion. Of those who indicated they had “no religion”, 32 per cent said they considered themselves to be spiritual and of those who said they had a religion, 15 per cent said they were more spiritual than religious. As part of the survey, some 1,718 people were asked how important their religious faith or spirituality was in shaping their life’s decisions, such as career, relationships and lifestyle choices. The results indicated that, while religious faith or spirituality was important for four in ten Australians, a greater proportion claimed it had little to no importance in shaping their life’s decisions. (See Spirituality fact sheets.)
Figures from the Australian Community Survey (1998) showed that two-thirds of Australians claimed that a spiritual life was important to them and that most Australians (74%) believed in God or a spirit, higher power or life-force. Of those who described themselves as having “no religion”, almost half (49%) said that having a spiritual life was important to them.
In the 2010 Australian Spirituality Fact Sheet “Something beyond this life”, with data from the International Social Survey Program, NCLS reported “many Australians agree ‘there is something beyond that makes sense of it all’.” Twice as many Australians agreed as disagreed with the statement (44.6 v. 21.8%). Close to a third of Australians were non-committal; they neither agreed nor disagreed (33.5%).
Research conducted by McCrindle Research in October 2011 for Olive Tree Media based on focus groups and a national survey of 1,094 Australians found one-in-two Australians did not identify with a religion, 40 per cent considered themselves Christian, 31 per cent did not identify with any religion or religious belief and 19 per cent said they were spiritual but not religious.
Similar observations have been made about religion in Britain. According to the 2011 Census, 59 per cent of people in England and Wales consider themselves as belonging to a religious group, a decline of 12 per cent on the previous census. But The Spirit of Things Unseen, based on research commissioned by CTVC and Theos and conducted by ComRes, found support for the idea that a “post-religious” nation was not a “postspiritual” one — despite the decline of formalised religious belief and institutionalised religious belonging, a spiritual current still ran powerfully through the nation.
ComRes interviewed 2,036 GB adults aged 18+ online in September 2013. Over three-quarters of all adults (77%) and three fifths (61%) of non-religious people were found to believe that “there are things in life that we simply cannot explain through science or any other means.” The study, looking at the state of spiritual belief in “postreligious” Britain, found that “spiritual beliefs, in particular the more esoteric ones, are no weaker today — and in some instances stronger — than they were in the past. Moreover, such spiritual beliefs are not the preserve of the elderly, who might be more inclined towards them on account of having grown up in a more religious culture, or the preserve of the ‘religious’ alone. Rather, they are to be found across the age ranges and across religious and non-religious groups.”
Philip Hughes, speaking on ABC Religion and Ethics, November 26, 2010, commented on the 2009 survey of Social Attitudes, saying, “These figures are a clear indication that, while many Australians consider themselves spiritual, many of these do not look to Christianity or other religions to nurture that spirituality.” He said many people had withdrawn from the Christian faith, sometimes to a more general spirituality, sometimes to “no religion” at all. But he said Australians were confronted with major issues that had a spiritual dimension: economics (growing inequality and the demands of work and consumption in a capitalist system where even spirituality can be made into a saleable commodity); and climate change (and related migration, threats to bio-diversity, population growth and increasing energy use).
“If the Christian faith were to be seen as providing workable solutions to the spiritual dimension of such problems, perhaps it would come back onto the national agenda. Perhaps it would re-enter people’s consciousness as an alternative way of life. Perhaps it would be seen to be relevant to the deep and abiding concerns of Australians.”
Is there a distinctive Australian spirituality?
The land first called The Australian Land of the Holy Spirit (named by Pedro Fernandes de Queirós, a devout Catholic in search of Terra Australis) is what is now the island Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu. Queirós nevertheless claimed to take possession of all that part of the South as far as the pole and some Australian Christians consequently believe that Australia is God's own country.
Spirituality in Australia, while dominated by the spiritualities of Christian churches and, to a less extent, the spiritualities of other faiths (see also From Religious Diversity to a Multi-Faith Society) and alternative and New Age spiritualities, exists alongside and is frequently influenced by or incorporates aspects of Indigenous culture and spirituality.
Describing Indigenous spirituality, the Australian Museum says some Indigenous Australians share the religious beliefs and values of religions introduced into Australia from other cultures around the world, particularly Europe. But for most people religious beliefs are derived from a sense of belonging — to the land, to the sea, to other people, to one’s culture. The form and expression of spirituality differs between Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders. Aboriginal spirituality mainly derives from the stories of the Dreaming, while Torres Strait Islander spirituality draws upon the stories of the Tagai.
While the Australian Museum provides a succinct overview, Vicki Grieves’ Aboriginal Spirituality: Aboriginal Philosophy: The Basis of Aboriginal Social and Emotional Wellbeing accords an in-depth reading. It contains a comprehensive literature review, “sourcing a range of literature across disciplines that are concerned with this phenomenon, including Aboriginal philosophy and the range of expressions and practices that occur in the lives of individuals — despite living in a colonial regime”.
John Thornhill, writing on Discovering an Australian Spirituality as part of the Emmaus Series for Catholics on their journey of faith, said, “A ‘spirituality’ is an approach to life that is in touch with the yearnings, hopes and commitments that are the measure of our human existence. As Australians, we share a distinctive culture, derived in part from the old world, and shaped as well by the experience of sharing life in this unique continent. Australian spirituality can be defined as the ‘best self’ of our distinctive culture.”
In May 2007 Paul Collins wrote for Eureka Street about how Australians were “quietly spiritual, not godless”, referring to Gary Bouma’s book Australian Soul (Cambridge, 2006). Collins said Professor Bouma, from Monash University, argued that Australians were not godless. “We’re quietly spiritual rather than explicitly religious, holding on to what Manning Clark called ‘a shy hope in the heart’. Bouma says that Australian spirituality is rather understated, wary of enthusiasm, anti-authoritarian, optimistic, open to others, self-deprecating and ultimately characterised by ‘a serious quiet reverence, a deliberate silence ... an inarticulate awe and a serious distaste for glib wordiness.’
“It could be argued that these characteristics are secular and that to use the word spirituality to encapsulate them is a misnomer. However, it is the reference to ‘reverence’ and ‘awe’ that spiritually transforms these attributes. Bouma says that part of the problem is that we unconsciously tend to judge ourselves by the rather ostentatious religiosity of some American Protestants. Australians are far more understated and reverent.”
Collins said Bouma had argued for two decades that faith and spirituality were not marginal to Australian life, and that the large majority of Australians had usually thought of themselves as believers, and today identified with some form of personal spirituality.
“Throughout much of the 20th century and certainly after the1960s the predominant view among the chattering classes was that ‘meaning’ questions would all eventually be solved by science and that Australia was an explicitly secular society, with an odd and contracting remnant group of ‘god-botherers’ maintaining the faith. However, Bouma has argued that most Australians described themselves as religious persons even back in the 1970s, the heyday of triumphant secularism. This doesn’t mean that people are flocking to churches. They are not looking for pat answers and don’t need a religious authority to tell them what to do. They are suspicious of institutions with all the answers. They are content to live with the questions and certainly want to take charge of their own spiritual lives.”
In December 2013, interviewed for a pre-Christmas spiritual snapshot of Australia in The Age newspaper, David Tacey said Australians found it hard to talk about spiritual matters because “they fear being stigmatised or categorised as a lunatic fringe.” He said, “We are such a radically secular culture, so materialist, that to talk about the transcendent is almost un-Australian.”
In the article, written by Fairfax religion writer, Barney Zwartz, Tacey said a spiritual snapshot of Australia depended on where one looked. “There is a decline in religious participation, which can be very disturbing for religious people — or there is the quest for transcendence, which can be very heartening and can lead to the opposite conclusion.”
He said, “People are hungrier than ever for the transcendent — an experience beyond themselves, beyond the material — but because they are not finding traditional religion, a lot of the searching doesn’t get noticed.
“We are definitely in a transitional period as a society. When the formal traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam understand that the hunger is for spiritual experience of God and not simply talk about God, they may find young people are getting attracted to the traditions.”
Tacey said that many people were turning to the East for answers and many were doing a lot of reading. He told The Age he often talked to members of Catholic religious orders in steep decline and their tone was great despair and bewilderment.
“But I don’t go along with all that pessimism. I’m pessimistic about a lot of mainstream churches but I’m not pessimistic about God. We need a better understanding about what God is and a lot less cliches and platitudes.”
In The Age article, “Quest for the divine”, Zwartz wrote, “Many people find meditation leads in other directions than church. But the numbers turning to that and other practices to satisfy a spiritual hunger is rocketing. As mainstream churches empty and as the traditional bulwarks of community falter and fragment, there is a growing backlash against what many see as a high-pressure materialistic lifestyle.”
In addition to Tacey, he referred to psychiatrist Louise Newman, director of the Monash University Centre for Developmental Psychiatry, who said the evidence showed spirituality, a sense of meaning, was fundamental to mental health, whether organised religion or a system of values. Without it, people were liable to depression, feelings of social alienation, drug and alcohol problems and relationship difficulties.
She said it was part of the human condition to seek values and purpose. “We see it today in hugely different ways; the rise of fundamentalism, particularly among the young, is part of that reaction against what we’ve seen as a decline. People are getting on to creeds as a way to re-establish core values.”
Zwartz also quoted Simon Smart, director of the Sydney-based Centre for Public Christianity, who thought hunger for something beyond the material world was utterly basic, part of being human. But Smart said people were good at distracting themselves and hiding or sublimating that hunger. It was a time in history when people did not know what to do with their longing for transcendence, so clutched at answers that wouldn’t satisfy. Zwartz said Smart believed, “We all know we are composed of physical particles but no one lives as though that’s all we are. ‘We resist that radical reduction.’”
Zwartz asked, if orthodox religion does not satisfy, where else can people turn to satisfy their spiritual longings? One traditional answer was beauty, whether through nature or art. “In today’s technological West, in which the rational is elevated, people tend to be suspicious of emotions and detach beauty from any improving role. But as far back as Plato 2,400 years ago, beauty was prized as morally good because it lifts one outside and beyond oneself, a critical step in morality ...
“Plato tells us that beauty is the only spiritual thing that we love immediately just as part of our human nature,” he said, with reference to Iris Murdoch. “Nearly everyone has experienced being profoundly moved by beauty, especially music because — as Martin Luther observed — it bypasses reason in feeding the emotions. ‘‘Beautiful music is the art of the prophets that can calm the agitations of the soul; it is one of the most magnificent and delightful presents God has given us.’’
Zwartz moved on to theologian Tom Wright, who called the transcendence brought by such examples as “the fingerprints of God” because it could awaken hearers to a further spiritual reality. And Melbourne University philosopher Christopher Cordner said the experience of real beauty was always a shock, taking one out of oneself. “You are jolted from being the centre of your world, somehow. You acknowledge the marvellous, wonderful nature of the otherness of the world.”
Tasmanian poet Janet Upcher made the same exalted claim about poetry, said Zwartz, and its ability to present the world in a fresh and amazing way. “Upcher never felt transcendence through religion, ‘but I have through the poetry of Wordsworth and R. S. Thomas [an Anglican priest], where you connect with something greater than yourself, something fathomless and ineffable.
“‘Poetry, through metaphor, allows us to see the world with wonder, through fresh eyes and with new associations, so that we can recreate the cliche of reality.’ It offers a connection that opens out into something cosmic.” Whereas science confined, explained and reduced the objective world, poetry sought to explore the infinite, to expand and to create mysterious possibilities that were not quantifiable or explicable.
Poet-illustrator Michael Leunig told Zwartz there was a need to regain the spiritual. It was an instinctual desire, even if it was not conscious. What awakened the spiritual dimension was hardship or threat or suffering. To find relief one must first be aware that there was such a thing as the spiritual, then value it and feed it.
Sr Michaela (Merle Davis), an Australian member of the Sisters of St Clare, in September 1987 wrote an occasional essay supplement for the Eremos newsletter, “Towards an Australian Spirituality”. Before concluding there could no more be an Australian spirituality than a German spirituality, Spanish spirituality or English spirituality, she canvassed the land, its history and people, Aboriginal spirituality, open spaces, a sense of place, a sense of wonder, culture and poetry. The deepest spiritual experiences of humankind, she said, were ineffable; they could not be put into words. Such experiences belonged to “a state where words and logical reasoning no longer apply ... beyond the world of concepts on which language depends.” At the same time, paradoxically, she said it was well known that those who had those experiences felt compelled to write about them.
In January 1987 Eremos published another occasional essay, “Embodiment and Incarnation: Notes on Preparing an Anthology of Australian Religious Verse” by poet Les Murray, who said, “Poetry is my work, my field and I think my vocation, the prime channel through which I ever achieve (or am given) any apprehension of ultimate and Divine things.”
The importance of the relationship between creative arts and spirituality was confirmed by a survey of Eremos members conducted in late 2013. Common themes identified in responses to the question What aspect of spirituality or spiritual practice most interests or concerns you?included meditation/reflection/contemplation/mindfulness, prayer, relationship with God/nature of God/presence of God, worship/eucharist/sacraments/ritual, community/relationships, nature/ecology/environment, journey/pilgrimage, reading/literature/poetry, music/singing, oneness/totality/unity, art, social justice/social action, (life after) death, silence, meaning, inner peace and Indigenous spirituality.
Asked about the kind of spirituality with which they identified, survey participants gave the highest rankings to “Incarnational” (focusing on the presence of God in the world and in human relationships), “Mystical” (based around a desire to move beyond the material world, beyond the senses, ego and even beyond time), and “Intellectual” (focusing on building knowledge and understanding of spirituality through analysing history and spiritual theories; perhaps with a particular interest in theology or the study of religion).
Most popular reasons for people’s interest in spirituality or spiritual practice were to respond to a deep need and desire and to gain perspective, recognising that their role in life had a greater value than just what they did every day.
EREMOS magazine editor Frances MacKay, writing in late 2013, said, “Recently I read an article in Presence: An International Journal of Spiritual Direction addressing the challenge of ‘generational ministry’. Although the context was spiritual direction and it was in a US context, some of the principles might apply to us. The author, John Mabry, claims that the Baby Boomers (b. 1943-60) were the first to make such a break with traditional faith paths. Distrustful of religious institutions they tended towards eclecticism and private spiritual practice, on an immanent God rather than a God out there. Some of these characteristics continue with Generation X (b. 1961-81), but the idealism is less marked. There is also a dose of scepticism, as they have needed to confront a post-modern and relativistic Zeitgeist, requiring an ongoing process of constructing and deconstructing beliefs to serve authenticity (the most important spiritual virtue). The Millennials (Gen Y b. 1981-2001) tend to be optimistic, their self-esteem having been bolstered at every turn. They identify as spiritual rather than religious (earlier generations have done this surely!), seeing spirituality as growing towards happiness that is to be found in relationships. Another marked trend of course is the increased use of technology. This summary necessarily distorts and overgeneralises but it might stimulate discussion.”
Philip Endean SJ, former editor of The Way, an international journal of contemporary Christian spirituality, in his explanation of how The Way understands spirituality, said, “The study called ‘spirituality’ is asking questions about human experience and about God that conventional approaches disallow or avoid. It is concerned with realities that are elusive, nascent, easily ignored: realities that are in continuity with what is known as good and true, but in ways that are not yet apparent.”
Observing how the understanding of spirituality had changed in the 40 years up to the turn of century he said, “In 1960, ‘spirituality’ was a subject taught only in faculties and seminaries of a Catholic bent. It dealt primarily with the ways of life and prayer characteristic of various forms of consecrated life. At least in some parts of the world, this vision of spirituality has broadened. Spirituality is a human phenomenon, not confined to believers, still less to those in consecrated life or priesthood. Inclusiveness and holism are watchwords.
“The study of spirituality is thus essentially an ecumenical, inter-faith enterprise — although much Christian writing on ‘other religions’ is marred by an unconsciously colonialist naïveté. For obvious reasons, students of spirituality typically focus on forms of religious commitment or expression that conventional theology and or religious authority tend to marginalise: ‘believing without belonging’, ‘I’m spiritual but I’m not religious’. Spirituality offers a basis for conversation between Christianity and other religions; it can also make bridges with secular academic disciplines as they recognise the need for religious categories of interpretation.”
Thirty years after its formation, Eremos is still asking such questions and entering into dialogue with spiritual seekers of all backgrounds. Its conversations are broad, considering personal explorations of faith and the challenges of engaging with contemporary, social and environmental issues. It encourages people to experience the tensions between knowing and unknowing, belief and doubt, saying yes to depth, diversity, experiment and connection.