I have been reading with great pleasure Don Watson's latest collection of essays and speeches (Watsonia). There is one essay written for the Quarterly 2001 in which he discusses the character of Rabbit Angstrom in Updike's Rabbit series of novels. He suggests that the "vacancy for which Rabbit stands was the one left by the death of God and the inadequacy of all replacements." Rabbit does not stand alone in the literature of the last century, indeed the novels that deal with the spiritual vacuum of the West are legion. When Watson looks at our society and finds the lack of imagination, the avarice, the shallow men who lead our politics and the near death of our universities, he outlines this vacuum. He follows in the path of Nietzsche who, despite his atheism, lamented the death of God as a momentous event that untethered us.
What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? The Parable of the Mad Man.
After so many of us have shrugged off the existence of God because it is impossible that He exists under our materialist terms and because He is an affront to our freedom, there remains a nostalgia for God, a longing to be at one with our neighbour and the world and perhaps even to stand in the midst of a congregation and be overcome by awe. Like the prodigal, we feel unmoored, and our newfound freedom has the taste of desperation.
How do we find our way back to God? The path to the Church is littered with obstacles of our and the church's making. The Reformation and the long fall of Christendom has left us with a confusion of denominations many of whom have sold out to the spirit of the times, many of whom are stuck in the past, many of whom have forsaken the Nicene rigour on which Church was built. The obstacles we have placed in the path are to do with a reliance on radical scepticism and hence the refusal to take anything on faith. We are spiritually risk averse.
Watson knows that something is missing, and he knows it is about God, but he does not elucidate. He uses biblical metaphor and talks about the Australian torpor as a spiritual disease, but he does not lead us to the door of the Church. Watson bemoans the facile aspects of Australian society and points to a lack guiding spirit. Gallipoli, Don Bradman, mateship and country grit will not support a view of the future. In losing God, we have lost ourselves.
Our politicians have no vision apart from the economy and what Howard trumpeted as "our national interest" a cover for any cruelty, mischief and injustice. Watson quotes Dwight Eisenhower:
Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply held religious faith, and I don't care what it is.
We may agree with trepidation on the first proposition but are staggered by the second. Surely religion is a major problem. America suffers from the sacralization of the state, a distortion so prolix as to create mass blindness. The failure to discern the spirits by baptising anything that poses as religion is dangerous. Would we welcome the Taliban? Australia has never been tempted to sacralise the state because it has not had to fight a war to separate itself from England. Our head of state is safely on the other side of the world and does not evoke worship.
Surely, it is now time to get serious about our religious heritage so that a future that does not rely on Australian values or lifestyle or blind pragmatism can be imagined. This will require theological work, a stranger to most of us considering theology has never had full access to academe in Australia and the churches have proved such poor educators of the faith. Our ability to do this work is fading fast, even in the churches. It is not that such thinking has not been done, internationally and here, it is that few have imbibed it. The public square is still occupied by the likes of Philip Adams who huffs and puffs about his atheism, not aware of how dated and irrelevant his passion is. Atheism is the default position of academics and public intellectuals. It is profoundly wrongheaded because it mistakes God as being a part of creation whose exitance can be disproved. If we want a spirit that transcends and guides the concerns of the world and hence leads us to a newly imagined future, we will have to re-examine our understanding of the tradition that we have received about God. Such an examination will reveal not a superstitious relic from the past but a complete and accurate description of the human condition from which a sturdy politics may grow.
Christianity, and Judaism before it has always been about the future. Time is understood as being linear and directed towards the establishment of the kingdom of heaven/God on earth. That future reality, even now breaking into time, is a reality of justice, peace and plenty for the whole world. It exists in the domain of politics as well as that of the individual. Christian Socialism has been influential in the politics of the labour movements in the UK and in Australia and has been a dominant force in Germany and other European countries. We may count Angela Merkle and Joe Biden as politicians whose lives are grounded in the Christian tradition. We Australians protest that politicians should not import their private religious beliefs into politics. They should instead rely on the "view from nowhere" to lead the nation. Hence the shallowness of our politics.
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