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Black fella, white fella

Aboriginal religions have been in 'business' some 40,000 years before Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism. Perhaps this Sorry Day, Catholics should commit to serious ecumenical dialogue with the first Australians.

by Max Charlesworth

John Mulvaney, the eminent archaeologist and pre-historian, was one of the first to establish the extraordinary antiquity of the indigenous peoples of Australia. Using carbon-dating techniques, Mulvaney and his colleagues at the Australian National University have pushed back the dates of the first Australians to 40,000-50,000 BC when the earliest human cremation (of a female) and another burial site of a male covered with ochre, were discovered. Both the cremation and the burial were clearly religious in character. If we allow 25 years for a generation, some 2000 generations have come and gone since the time of those mortuary events. As Mulvaney has put it, this compares with nine generations for Governor Phillip and the founding of white Australia and 140 generations for Egypt's Tutunkhamen. And, of course, it means that Australian Aboriginal religions were in business, so to speak, some 38,000 years before Hinduism and Buddhism and almost 40,000 years before the advent of Christianity. (We need to speak of Aboriginal religions in the plural since, although there is a family resemblance between them, there are also important differences.)

Aboriginal religions have, of course, undergone many changes and creative developments in their long history. But, being largely cut off from outside influences, they have, so far as we know, maintained their identities. And that means in turn that, if we suppose that those original religious systems had roughly the same features as those of contemporary Aboriginal groups, we can reasonably infer that they were more or less of the same complexity and sophistication as the beliefs and practices of the contemporary Yolngu, or Pintubi, or Kimberley peoples. In other words, they were not 'primitive' religions, as they were characterised by 19th century anthropologists, with naive and infantile and 'magical' beliefs about the world and the human condition. European observers in the 19th and early 20th centuries were misled by the fact that the indigenous peoples of Australia had the simplest forms of technology and they assumed that they must therefore have the simplest and most 'elementary' (to use Emile Durkheim's term) religions. In fact, W.E.H. Stanner and other anthropologists such as T.G.H. Strehlow and Ronald and Catherine Berndt have shown that indigenous religions are what one might call serious systems of belief and practice which can be compared with the great 'world religions, though they are profoundly different from any of the latter. After all, they have withstood the test of time with a vengeance!

Many white Australians would laugh at this claim, but that is because they are simply ignorant about the scholarly research about our indigenous peoples over the last fifty years. We need to remember that up until the 1970s our most eminent judicial authorities held that Aborigines had no real concept of land ownership, and that it was only with the Mabo case in 1992 that that piece of culpable ignorance was rectified. The same is true of our ignorance about indigenous religions , and we have to recognise that they are in reality sophisticated belief systems. And, as Christians, we need to learn that Christianity has to establish a genuinely ecumenical dialogue with them.

Genuine ecumenism is a two-way business in which each party has to admit that it can learn something from the other. But in Christian-Aboriginal ecumenism this hasn't really happened. Instead, we presented the 'good news' of Christianity to the Aborigines and refused to admit that they might have some good news for us that would enrich our spiritual lives. One cannot, of course, deny the immense good will of most of the early Christian missionaries towards the indigenous peoples, but in general the missionary venture has been a tragedy of mutual incomprehension. As an historian of the Australian missions has put it: 'While the dedication and faith of the missionaries is not in doubt, their understanding of Aboriginal culture and spirituality was almost non-existent. Mainly of humble origins themselves, the missionaries lacked the educational background which might have enabled them to appreciate and understand a culture so different from their own. Not understanding, they condemned; and were unable to comprehend the Aborigines' rejection of them and their religion.' (Jean Woolmington, Writing on the sand: the first mission to the Aborigines in Eastern Australia, in T. Swain and D.B. Rose (eds) Aboriginal Australians and Christian Missions, Adelaide, 1988, p 89) A poignant example here is the tragic and fruitless career of the Lutheran Pastor Carl Strehlow at the Hermannsburg Mission, the father of the famous T.G.H. Strehlow. (See Barry Hill's superb book, Broken Song T.G.H. Strehlow and Aboriginal Possession, Sydney, 2002.)

In ecumenical ventures between the various Christian churches the various parties have had to admit, tacitly, that it is a quid pro quo process. You win something, but you must also give up something. This is what has happened, for example, with the dialogue between Lutherans and Catholics about the nature of faith, or with the discussions between some of the reformed churches which resulted in the setting up of the Uniting Church, or with the continuing (if fitful) discussions of what the new pope calls 'the petrine ministry' between the Catholic church and the Orthodox and Anglican churches. The same is true of what I have called the wider ecumenical ventures between the Christian churches and other non-Christian religions. Dialogue will be successful only if there is a quid pro quo approach.

Unhappily, genuine and informed dialogue with Australian Aboriginal religions has been almost non-existent from the Catholic side. Apart from Bishop Hilton Deakin, Eugene Stockton, Sr Rosemary Crumlin, Martin Wilson and Frank Brennan, and some others, there have been few theologically aware Catholics to do for Australia's indigenous religions what Jacques Dupuis, Dom Bede Griffith and Tissa Balasuriya have done for Asian religions.

In my view, Australian Catholics have a special obligation to engage in ecumenical dialogue with our indigenous religions, and that involves a patient and sympathetic study of those religions and a willingness to learn from them. It is not a matter of merely remarking affinities between Christian and Aboriginal religious concepts, but of entering imaginatively into the totally unfamiliar Aboriginal life-world and seeing how it all hangs together, and above all learning something from this for one's own spiritual life. (It is also important to avoid any kind of romanticism in this.) This is a difficult task but fortunately there are now a number of helpful texts available. The best introduction is the 750 page Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture (Oxford University Press, 2000), which can be consulted in most libraries. And, if I may give my own brain children a free advertisement, Religious Business: Essays on Australian Aboriginal Spirituality, (Cambridge University Press, 1998) and Aboriginal Religions in Australia (Ashgate Publishing, UK, edited by Max Charlesworth, Francoise Dussart and Howard Morphy).

Max Charlesworth was professor of philosophy at Deakin University and has written extensively on bioethical issues and on Australian Aboriginal religions.

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