It has become fashionable in recent years to accord a prominent place to Australian aboriginal beliefs and practices in school religion programs and even in Christian liturgical celebrations. The impression conveyed is that Christianity and Aboriginal religion can be more or less equated - even that Christianity should adopt Aboriginal elements in order to develop an 'Australian spirituality.'
While not denigrating Aboriginal religious beliefs, Dr Max Champion, a minister in the Uniting Church, (see also 'AD2000' September 1994, p. 6), explains the basic differences between Christianity and Aboriginal religion which make any suggestion of equating or merging of the two misguided. This article is adapted from Dr Champion's talk given at "The Galatians Group" seminar held in Melbourne last year.
Nothing in aboriginal religion compares to the magnitude of divine love for the world exemplified in Jesus Christ. The idea of a personal God who suffers and dies out of love for unworthy people is absent. The concept of forgiveness is overridden by strict adherence to tribal law. The notion of a Supreme Being beyond tribal boundaries seems to be only marginally present before the arrival of Christianity. The idea of a universal God who challenges the exclusivism of closed communities is opposed to belief in ancestral spirits who guarantee the continuity of tribal traditions.
The fundamental differences between Christianity and aboriginal religion must not be ignored because of some misplaced desire to equate all patterns of "mystery" under the general category of religious pluralism. Indeed, 74% of Aborigines (who make up about 1.5% at most of Australia's population) now list Christianity as their religion. They recognise that their ancestral religion is incapable of reshaping Australian civilisation, and any appeal to its apparently simple virtues and beliefs, against Christianity, can only result in the falsification of its strengths and the continuing denigration of Christianity.
In 1991 when the Federal Government vetoed mining at Coronation Hill, Northern Territory, the then Prime Minister, Mr Bob Hawke, justified the decision on the ground that to proceed would violate the sacred beliefs of the local Jawoyn aboriginal community. He argued that the earth's resources should not be mined because the Jawoyn are convinced that the spirit Bula is in the area and, if disturbed, would visit great sickness and upon them.
Responding to criticism of the decision, Mr Hawke said that "it was remarkable in a Christian society that Australians were contemptuous of other people's beliefs. It's an enormous presumption for us to say to about 300 people, you are irrational, fancy believing that Bula is there. I mean, where is our God? It was wrong to criticise the Jawoyn's belief that disturbing Bula would unleash destruction" (The Age, 18.6.91).
Mr Hawke did not actually give reasons for the decision, simply stating that Jawoyn religion should not be criticised because, like Christianity, "it is founded on a bundle of mysteries."
The tendency to equate aboriginal and Christian beliefs is also made in the Uniting Church's 1994 Covenanting Statement (see AD2000 September 1994) which speaks of aboriginal people being nurtured "by the mystery that surrounds us all and binds all creation together." It further states that aboriginal Dreaming, spirituality and wisdom provide insights into the nature of the divine Mystery which were ignored by missionaries.
When the concept of mystery is applied in this way to aboriginal religion and Christianity alike then critical questions about the distinctive structures of their beliefs, and the relationship between them are ignored. "Mystery" is then treated as a general religious category which incorporates every manifestation of the sacred. In a pluralistic and supposedly tolerant society this means that there are no grounds in principle on which to choose one package from another in the "bundle of mysteries."
But we must beware of such simplistic misrepresentations. Earlier harsh judgments on aboriginal religion as being non-existent, childish, superstitious or irrational in comparison to the superiority of Christianity were as misplaced as the idyllic picture often painted today, and evident in both the Covenanting Statement and in the Uniting Church Congress' response, of aboriginal sharing and caring in harmony with nature in comparison to the destructive impact of the European invaders.
Aboriginal religion and Christianity are fundamentally incompatible. The former is essentially tribal and animistic. It shares with other primal religions a belief in ever-present spirits which use natural objects as instruments to bring about good or evil. The spirit world is at work in human beings and nature alike. Particular geographical features, plants and animals are thought to have special powers to help or harm the tribe. Rituals are designed to express adoration or achieve propitiation of such mysterious and dangerous entities.
In primal religion, there is no sharp distinction between the sacred and secular, between the spirits and the essential unity of nature and humanity. The world is filled with spirit beings which can be approached and reverenced through the material objects to which they have attached themselves. Many of these spirits originate from the Dreamtime when the tribal ancestors walked the earth.
The immediate environment is thus full of signs which assure the tribe of the presence of a mystical providence, embodied in the ancestral spirits which enables it to participate in an unbroken circle of harmony with cosmic totality. Ritual actions which celebrate the significance of these signs are acts of faith through which each generation binds itself to the Dreaming.
Despite its participatory nature, aboriginal religion itself has no knowledge of a transcendent God who is the trans-tribal, personal and loving Creator restoring broken individuals and communities to communion with Himself and to one another. Indeed, because "sin" is understood only as action which harms the tribe, there is no knowledge of participating in humanity's all-inclusive fall from grace and, thus, no acknowledgement of the need for an all-inclusive act of redemption.
Mr Hawke's views notwithstanding, the mystery of aboriginal religion and the Christian mystery are incompatible. This does not justify arrogance towards aborigines who practise tribal rituals but it does mean that the gulf between the respective structures of belief must be clearly understood.
This incompatibility has been well stated by John V. Taylor, a missionary in Africa, who also acknowledges the challenges which primal religion puts to Western culture and Christianity:
"Hitherto in this encounter [with primal religions] Christianity ... has been essentially the champion and the herald of the transcendent God. Undoubtedly it was the influence of its missions, and their adoption of this or that name to designate the God of the Bible, which helped to crystallise the concept of the supreme Creator even among those who did not become Christians. Let its never underestimate the magnitude of this revelation. The Gospel adds dimensions of grace to the image of transcendence which the wit of man could never have devised. The offer is made that all who were far off can be made nigh. The Creator is revealed as Father, the Great Ancestor of a larger clan that is to embrace and supersede all lesser tribes. And in Christ, he who is above and beyond is shown to have broken into the closed circle to become one with men" (The Primal Vision, p.81).
In contrast to deep aboriginal curiosity about the beginning of things at the Dreaming, Christianity believes that creation is the unparalleled act of divine love which cannot be explained by primal or scientific concepts of causation.
In the beginning God ..." (Genesis 1:1) means that every 'beginnings' story is relativised in the name of one transcendent and immanent God whose creative power is an act of love for humanity.
For Jews and Christians, belief in the Creator performs an iconoclastic function. Israel rejected the nature gods, like the earth spirit Baal, in the name of the God who rendered them powerless and exposed them as mere projections of the human need to have personal and social satisfactions met. Thus, the transcendent Creator is free from manipulation by ritual repetition of the rhythms of nature and retains His unique 'otherness', even as the One who is present with His people.
This means that nature has a certain independence. Because there is no place for placating the gods or invoking the ancestral spirits to maintain harmony between human beings and nature, we are free to investigate the structure of the natural order which has been created miraculously by God out of nothing.
Human existence and history are also given a relative value. Because their ultimate purpose and destiny is conferred by the transcendent God, human beings are free to engage in historical, sociological and psychological studies without calling upon gods for support.
Doctrine of Creation
The Christian doctrine of creation also clashes with the myths of the Dreaming in the archetypal figure "Adam", who, because he represents humanity as a whole, relativises the importance of the tribal ancestors, and every form of social exclusivism, in two ways. First, members of a particular tribe also belong to a universal clan which transcends their localised traditions. Second, the "sins" which disrupt tribal harmony are also acts in which they participate with all people in the brokenness of humanity and the universal refusal to obey the Creator.
The Christian doctrine of creation thus undermines the 'beginnings' myths of primal religion: it insists that God transcends the gods and ancestral spirits, both by a miraculous act of creative love and by the universal scope of His power; it places members of tribal groups in the company of all other people in the matter of sharing responsibility before God for the brokenness of humanity. As such, it demonstrates the unbridgeable gulf between Christianity and totemic religion.
Where the doctrine of creation expresses the miracle of creation and the universality of sin, the Christian doctrine of redemption expresses the miracle of reconciliation and the universality of grace.
In this regard the incarnation of Jesus Christ is pivotal. Christianity acknowledges the sheer gratuity of divine mercy in His ministry and fate. The lost are found, the dead are raised to life, outcasts are welcomed and the sinful are forgiven as demonstrations of the reality of grace and signs of the universal scope of God's love for broken humanity.
Language strains to express this incomparable act. Jesus Christ is described as the "Word [of God] made flesh who lived among us, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). In the Incarnation, Christ takes upon Himself our human form to reveal the love of God for humanity. In Him the whole human race recovers the dignity of the image of God, which has been lost in "Adam." In other words, the transcendent God has become immanent in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Him the deity of God includes His humanity; the Wholly Other God is God with us and for us.
The coming of "God in human form" in Jesus Christ is not to be confused with the general idea of the gods and ancestors becoming incarnate in nature or culture. The Incarnation is not like the totemic representation of spirit beings, in either their terrifying or comforting forms. It is also opposed to ideas of "God in human form" which either project human needs and values onto God or, like the Greeks, embody human traits in the gods.
Against such natural expressions of the manipulative power of religion stands the Incarnation of Jesus Christ who is the reality of God's gratuitous and costly love for the whole human race. In The Man For Others (Bonhoeffer), we are met by the humanity of God who enters the world of sin and death, identifies with the plight of sinners, is crucified as if he were a sinner, and is raised from death as the sign of God's victory over the power of sin, evil and death.
The transformative power of the incarnation must be vigorously restated for the sake of the churches and Australian society. For Australian civilisation shows signs of exhaustion caused partly by weaknesses in the Enlightenment tradition and partly by the dismantling of the Christian tradition, both of which have played a crucial role in shaping public life. It does not help informed public debate about the basis of Australian society to extol the apparently simple virtues of aboriginal religion, against Christianity, or, mistakenly, to equate their respective concepts of mystery.