A 'silly book' from ACU professor of theology

A 'silly book' from ACU professor of theology

Frank Mobbs

Problems associated with theology teaching at Australian Catholic University are highlighted in the latest book - 'Australian Theologies' - by Dr Gideon Goosen, a professor of theology at ACU. The reviewer, Dr Frank Mobbs, a lecturer in philosophy and theology, analyses the book from an academic perspective.

I can only hope this silly book will not be thrust upon the hapless students of Australian Catholic University.

In his latest work, Australian Theologies, Dr Gideon Goosen, Associate Professor of Theology at ACU, makes certain theological claims, supporting them by reference to hundreds of theological writings by Australians over the past 20 years.

If anything is to count as theology, it will consist of claims to know something of theos (God). Yet Dr Goosen talks about "theologies", which is as odd as talking about "biologies".

He does so for a special purpose. He thinks the geographical surroundings or context make an important difference to what we can know about God (p. 27) and, because there are many contexts within Australia, there are many theologies (p. 123). If so, one wonders why he has not argued for a Tasmanian, a Pilbara or Pitt Street "theology".

Dr Goosen seems to think there are facts about God which are only available to inhabitants of Australia. Admittedly, some features of Australia (human or non-human) might raise a question about God which has not been raised elsewhere - all sorts of things trigger questions, and theology develops in attempts to answer them. So the author thinks the geography of Australia and culture of its inhabitants give its theologians special resources for answering the questions.

He is mistaken. The reason for this is simple: nearly all that we know of God consists of that which God has chosen to reveal to us in the deeds and words of His Son, Jesus Christ. That being so, the object of a Christian theologian's enquiries is the content of Revelation, most of which is contained in Scripture and the Tradition "which comes to us from the apostles". This content was imported into Australia with the arrival of Christians.

In Dr Goosen's estimate this would mean that Australian theology was "derivative" (a 'put-down'), not really Australian at all. This explains why he spends 14% of his book's text on aboriginal religion - this being the home-grown stuff, with "Made in Australia" stamped all over it.

Yet, if his thesis is correct, the teaching of the Lord Jesus is just Palestinian theology - useful, no doubt, but "time-conditioned" and limited by its context, because all theology is so limited (p. 21).

What, according to Goosen, are Australian theologies?

He offers three criteria: they must (1) be written in Australia; (2) show they have taken Australian culture into consideration; (3) use "the idiom of the language" of the probable readers (p. 30).

But what has happened to the subject matter, viz., God ("God is the object of this science", says St Thomas Aquinas, ST I, 1, 7)?

Having set down his criteria, the author proceeds to report the views of hundreds of Australian theologians.

One can only be amazed to discover that most of them do not satisfy Goosen's own criteria. He himself often mentions they do not refer to Australia - or do so only casually - and hardly any employ speech which is peculiar to Australians, any more than Goosen does. In short, most of the book is 'padding', irrelevant to Goosen's own purposes.

In fact, the book is a piece of advocacy for certain theological views, which he sets down in the opening chapters, structuring the book so as to confirm them in chapters on: aboriginal religion, works dealing directly with God, everyday topics (e.g., land, mateship), the environment, feminism, and economic matters.

I have space to deal with only three of these topics: aboriginal religion, feminism and the environment.

In what ways does knowledge of aboriginal religion add to our knowledge of God? Dr Goosen thinks they have a better concept of God than we imported Christians have. Yet, according to Goosen, they commonly believe that lands, hills, etc, are formed by, and occupied by, the spirits of ancestors. Further, he says it is doubtful whether they believe in "the Creator of heaven and earth" of the Creed.

Aboriginal religion is "sacramental", i.e., it is full of signs (p. 113). Just as Mount Sinai and Jerusalem are sacred sites, so is Uluru. Our author seems to have overlooked the fact God revealed some of the most important truths about Himself and His will in those places, whereas He revealed nothing at Uluru - nor at the Grand Canyon nor even on Mount Everest.

Feminist theology

Dr Goosen thinks feminist theology "has opened up the theological agenda magnificently" (p. 248). It is based on women's experiences, such as that of a young woman falling in love with a member of a religious order, and the rape of a nun (p. 231). Note that these are "theological" sources, equal to Scripture and the teaching of the magisterium.

Further, feminists have given us female images of God to balance the dominant male image of God, which has been used to keep women "outside the sphere of the divine" (p. 247).

The ploy was not very successful, because, from the beginning of Christianity, women were admitted to all the sacraments, except one, and honoured and celebrated as saints who had gone to that ultimate "sphere of the divine", Heaven, and been named alongside males in the Divine Liturgy of the Eucharist - "Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes ...".

Sure enough, there has to be a "green" theology - Australian "green". Goosen thinks God has laid on us the duty to care for things which have no effect on human happiness. Worse, in concert with many of the authors he cites, Goosen urges that God requires us to care not only for Earth but also for the cosmos. The cosmos? I suppose it to be everything, other than God, most of it light-years from Earth. It seems a tall order for God to demand we look after it.

There is some value in the book. Goosen has summarised hundreds of publications, listing them in 28 pages of bibliography. If you thought nothing much has been written by Australian theologians, this book will correct you. From it you will learn something about theologians, but if you prefer to learn about God, go elsewhere.

Australian Theologies: Themes and Methodologies into the Third Millennium (St Pauls's Publications, 2000, 330pp, RRP $27.50)

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