25th November 2009
Our Retreat Booklet said, "A pristine desert dune at dawn is a beautiful place to feel immersed in the mystery of creation". It was a fine description of the early morning experience that morning on the "Wall's of China". We rose at 5 for a 6.15am sunrise. The cold breeze was chilling to the bone but walking was easy on the still drying dunes. Finding a high point, the muttering and small talk stopped and we stood like frozen statues facing the dim horizon. We were united into a deep listening silence and an attentiveness of our surroundings.
The dim glow on the horizon left enough darkness to envelope us so that it was not hard to feel a sort of partial merging with the cosmos above and around us. In fact the silence was deafening. We waited and waited until the gentle touch of the sun caressed our faces and the pastel shades of the sand dunes emerged across the landscape unveiling the world around us. The place was pristine and as the sun rose the wind patterns in the dunes became obvious. The clay dust had washed into the soft white sand to form encrustations while other particles had blown into corrugations crafted by the wind and nature itself. It was almost too beautiful to walk on.
We gathered in a circle, a spiral drawn in the sand with a cross in the centre. We sang and danced a gentle dance of creation.
The earth is the Lord's and every thing in it,
And all creation blesses God's name
To any kangaroo looking on we probably would have appeared to be a poor substitute for the ancient people who roamed the dunes but we had every good reason to celebrate God's wonderful world, to respect the antiquity of our aboriginal brothers and sisters and to affirm that we were all custodians, stewards of God's grace and landscape. Robin our leader asked the question, "To whom do you turn?" From looking into the circle we turned outward to claim the Son (sun).It was a powerful moment symbolizing how the full glare of God's glory shines upon us to open our eyes, ears and senses to the pristine dawning of new life.
By now it was clear that no culture of itself had the right to stand in judgement on another. The brutality of the British colonial penal system was no more enlightened by grace and mercy than the harsher aspects of aboriginal law.
The mandate to progressive cultural growth in Genesis to subdue the earth was a positive gift, a little like the gift of dawn at the beginning of the day but the popular theory that all values are entirely cultural, all a product of social change and refinement now seemed to lead nowhere. In fact the view that elevates culture and seeks to preserve the dignity inherent in every law, ritual and religious ceremony can lead to us believing that we are the ultimate judge of all cultures. (Again I reluctantly thought of my attitude to people of the Middle East and Indigenous people.) On the other hand, elevating ones culture, particularly if it's a minority group, can also lead to feelings of deep rejection, protest and an over reaction that quickly assumes that prized traditional values have been abused or trampled on.
The following questions may sound rather clinical but they need to be asked!
May the good intentions to modify our Anglo- European Christian traditions in order to be a more authentic "Australian" Christian Church end up being more "Australian" than Christian? Are members of the Uniting Church aware of the subtle deviations to the historic Christian faith that have occurred in the past and that we could fall into repeating if we are more intent on changing the power dynamic between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people than we are on basing all change on a sound theology.
Having come with an open attitude of heart and mind heart I had enjoyed listening to the general revelation of the Book of Creation. I seemed to have gained some intuitive insights yet I felt that when it came to the bottom line I had been led to cultural relativism eg, all values are important and deserve respect but they depend on something else and are always as valuable as anything else)
Now the question came, "Was the Creator Spirit also the Holy Spirit who spoke through the prophets "in many and various ways" to the ancestors of the ancient Hebrew people?"(Hebrews 1.1) We are told that the prophets, led by the Spirit of Christ searched for details concerning the salvation that was to come so that it was not new for Christians to recognise that the inspired intuition of their spiritual forebears was in tune with Christ before they had been taught by him. (1Peter1:10).
Rev John Hudson has pointed out that the very attempt to link Indigenous spirituality with the Trinitarian faith can itself be a form of theological imperialism. Prior to European settlement Indigenous culture, law customs and ceremony stood in its own right as an authentic expression of Aboriginal life and it could be said that most cultures can lay claim to a god (God) that initiated and sustained creation. (Crosslight Paper June 09) This is not to diminish the significance God's guiding hand through cultural practise or to question the veracity of Aboriginal people who claim to have encountered the Triune God. Rather, it's recognising that the Christian Gospel entrusted to the Church through the ages is clear that any general revelation of cultural practise must also embrace the Christ who is the way, truth and life and through whom we personally access a relationship with God.
By now to my mind it was becoming clearer that if we interpret Aboriginal culture with a "cultural based theology", then we impose something. If we offer a revelation beyond ourselves and our inadequate attempts to express it, Aboriginal people are offered something unique to which they can choose to respond.
With Rev Dr Macnab proposing a contemporary New Faith for the 21st centuary and Rev Dr Bodycomb predicting inevitable schism due to differences of belief it is clear that the issues facing the Church are not just about culture, race or social justice they are also about two types of theology. "Cultural or Revealed" theology.
The National Assemblies failure to uphold the faith of the church in relation to sexuality and leadership was more related to social-cultural trends and being politically correct than it was to the wisdom of a revealed theology. Here again with its well intentioned commitment to reconciliation, to "tell the truth" about the church's relationship to Aboriginal Australians and to give teeth to the established covenant relationship between the Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress and the Uniting Church we have a very sensitive, important social-political agenda before we have an adequate, well grounded biblical theology to address it.
If the same Living God had spoken through history and finally in the person of Christ then it was time to turn to the revelation of the Sacred Book that itself claims to be inspired by the Christ
The New Testament describes Israel as "called out of darkness" to be a priest-hood, a primary receptor culture but always with view to reaching out in an inclusive way to all nations. With the Parliament of World Religions due to meet in Melbourne in 2009 the question of Aboriginal spirituality was now extending to a broader inter-faith quest and the issue of syncretism. (The attempt through the ages to synthesize or integrate the biblical faith with the totality of cosmic and natural order.)
In today's context does this mean that Christianity needs to be enlightened to encompass a multi-faith agenda.? No, it appears that Judaism in both the Old and New Testament represented a variety of cultures very different than our own so in the broadest sense there has never been a sole custodian of the Christian heritage. There is however a particularity in the history of Israel that made them a "holy nation" and that leads specifically to the Messiah, the person of Christ.
Inter-faith dialogue has often been cast in a negative mould because it focuses on the assumption that the priority must be that of finding universal agreement but as it has been said, inter-faith dialogue provides a wonderful opportunity to exercise real tolerance.
It is an opportunity for Christians to exhibit the noble ability to profoundly disagree and to exercise profound love and respect.
If the Creator Spirit is also the Biblical Spirit of Truth it is logical that in the essentials the Book of Creation should show some consistency with the testimony of the prophets and apostles.
Rev Dr Robin Pryor reminds us that there are "cultural accretions" in the traditions of both western Christianity and Aboriginal spirituality. In fact we can't expect to find a perfect match because as I had already concluded all cultures are finite, limited and in need of redemption. There will always be aspects that must be clearly rejected yet it is worth noting that there are many primitive legends in Aboriginal spirituality similar to biblical stories and themes including creation, the introduction of sin, stories of a great flood and beliefs about death, judgement and heaven.
However the Spirit who guides us to the truth does not ignore our minds or human intelligence to leave us with confused abstractions or just intuitive feelings. The Holy Spirit leads us to Christ. The story of the Sacred Book and the Living Christ then becomes the bench- mark, the way to test authentic revelation.
The arrangement with the Park Rangers eventually came to flower that morning and we were led on a Discovery Tour of the eroding dunes of the Wall's of China. The Rangers had placed sticks on the sand where relics of the past had be identified What appeared to we white "Goonyas" to be a few scattered stones on the sand were in fact the remains of a camp oven site thousands of years old. At another site small exposed dark chips had been uncovered by the wind to reveal an eating place where women and children had regularly enjoyed emu eggs thousands of years ago Full excavation of the sites were yet to be undertaken but the evidence was there preserved in the sands of time.
On our arrival Lake Mungo looked as barren as those camp ovens on the dunes, a superficial glance had been deceptive. The question we were to ask ourselves was simply, "What is God's emerging call to me at this time of my life?" The dunes were not there to simply delight us but to refine us and just as there were shell-middens hidden beneath the sands so there was hidden in my inner desert some rich treasures, insights and principles for living that were starting to emerge.
Ted Curnow Lake Mungo Retreat September 2009