Daniel Gullotta in today's commentary explores the challenges involved in inculturing, or enculterating, Christian theology into Australian indigenous cultures and spirituality. This essay was originally written as part of his theology studies at ACU.
Australian Aboriginal theology…
When the first European missionaries arrived in Australia the Aboriginal people found it extremely difficult to accept the claims of many missionaries that all or most of the Aboriginal culture was wrong. The missionaries were convinced of the vital importance of the Christian faith and sought to convert the indigenous people to their beliefs and practices. For the majority, the Aboriginal way of life was seen as barbaric and primitive, and their religious ceremonies as pagan and evil. It was the task of the missionaries to replace the primitive with the civilised. However, in recent times many of the Aboriginal people have come to realise that there are clear similarities from the lessons learned in the Scriptures and the ones taught by their culture. What are these connections and similarities? How do they relate to the Aboriginal culture and the Christian faith? This essay will explore the reasoning and importance for an Australian Aboriginal theology.
When it came to foreign mission it was the duty of the Church to attack the culture of the nation being evangelised. In Papua New Guinea, the early missionaries burned down the spirit houses of the Aboriginals as pagan places of worship. In Australia, the missionaries forbade the use of a person’s native language in any form in the schools and institutions for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders. In this understanding, all traditional beliefs were seen as pagan and all traditional practices as sinful rituals that must be stamped out. The missionaries brought the Christian Faith to Indigenous Australia as a complete package. This point of view sees no positive links between Christian Faith and Culture. To become a Christian, a person must renounce their Culture entirely. As one of the Rainbow Spirit Elders explains, "white German missionaries brought us a white German Jesus..."
However, while many wounds have been left because of these views and practices, healing is taking place and much of has changed in the relationship and understanding between the Church and culture.
Christ and Culture…
The first dilemma to face is one of culture and the way one understands culture, both in a Christian and non-Christian context. For the last century the Catholic Church has been focused on supporting, influencing and heralding the Western culture however since the efforts of Vatican II and particularly the ministry of Pope John Paul II the Catholic Church has reclaimed what it means to be 'catholic', the understanding of a universal church. Since the Papal affirmation of cultural diversity much has changed in attitude and views concerning the mission of the Church and the Aboriginal people but a concern for many is to become Christian is to give up their Aboriginality.
Noel Loos however offers comfort and understanding to these concerns, "The white Australian Christian confronting Aboriginal Christianity often asks: 'What is acceptable to the Christian faith in Aboriginal beliefs and practices and what is not?' By this the white Christian means 'acceptable to my understanding of western Christian faith and practice'" … He goes onto explain that Aboriginal Christians all through Australia are incorporating many aspects of their ways and traditions within Aboriginal spirituality as a response to the Christian gospel. In doing so, they are rejecting the defect model of Christianity as offered by the European missionaries and forming their own Christian Theology.
However it is important to note that this development of Australian Aboriginal Christian theology is not the construction of a new 'church', 'denomination' or even 'creed' but is exactly what it claims to be: 'Australian Aboriginal Christian theology'.
People, Land and Spirit…
The religious and spiritual beliefs and practices of the ancient Aboriginal people are difficult to define as a 'religion'. Their origin within the Australia island is a matter of much debate however it is clear that they were a people of much similarity and yet at the same time diversity. The Aboriginal people viewed the land in a special way, developing a model of the world in which everything was interconnected. Bodies, the earth and the entire cosmos were understood to be formed of one continuous substance in which they were connected physically, socially and morally. The living cosmos was also imbued with an energising power which circulated through all life-forms. Through a common mistake, the land was not worshipped by Aboriginals but it was cared for, in the same sense it cared, provided and nurtured them. To quote Heather McDonald, "All life was interconnected and interdependent."
However, the Aboriginal tradition was absent of understanding of a deity or deities or even the worship of such authorities and supernatural being/s. For Aboriginal Christians 'God' has been depicted and understood in several different ways, however the common theme is the beliefs in the interdependence between God and humans. Much of their ideas and beliefs about God have been adopted from their understanding and traditions about the land and the spirits. The Halls Creek Aboriginal Christians understand God as a ‘boss’ who ‘looks after’ and protects his people, he descried as being deeply emotional, active and expressive.
With these perspectives in mind, many contemporary artists, Aboriginal and otherwise, have implemented this in various art forms, Biblical translations and liturgical practice. Contemporary artists have used the ancient style of Aboriginal cave painting in the same way the Greek Orthodox Church uses icons. Other works of art include Jesus and the apostles being depicted as Aboriginal men and women surrounded in the Australian environment. In 1985, Bishop Hall-Matthews encouraged Aborigines to use damper as the host in the communion ceremony which has been previously 'speared' as part of a traditional initiation ceremony.
As it was best put by Pope John Paul II, "The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ speaks all languages. It esteems and embraces all cultures. It supports them in everything human and, when necessary, it purifies them. Always and everywhere the Gospel uplifts and enriches cultures with the revealed message of a loving and merciful God. That Gospel now invites you to become, through and through, Aboriginal Christians. It meets your deepest desires. You do not have to be people divided into two parts, as though an Aboriginal had to borrow the faith and life of Christianity, like a hat or a pair of shoes, from someone else who owns them. Jesus calls you to accept his words and his values into your own culture. To develop in this way will make you more than ever truly aboriginal."
Following the Way…
It is clear that there is much progress within the Christian Church in its longing and achievements of developing culture diversity. It is one of the greatest joys of the New Testament that the people of all nations, all cultures, all traditions and all languages is being called and claimed by the God who is the creator of the whole world. It was one of the great blessings and achievements of the Reformation that the Gospel would be practiced and preached in one’s own language. However, there is a danger with this that lies under the surface of all cultural forms of Christianity and that is that can only or must only worship in our own cultural circles and groups.
All the Church Together…
But the whole message of the Church’s universal Gospel is to bring all of humanity together and to be united in their faith in Jesus Christ. One might suggest that Aboriginal theology is important; culture is of course important to the cultural, but this is not an invitation to an Aboriginal Christianity. Theology is perspective and discourse on religious issues concerning Christianity, but it is not the measuring stick in which how one 'should' or 'must' believe and who they can do such things with. While the Gospel speaks all languages, it does so that the Gospel unites people, not divides them. This type of theology run the risk of twisting Christianity or the culture so much that it is forced to fit with one another. As with the Jews and the Greeks, so the Westerns and the Aboriginal people, "All of you are children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. All of you, who have been baptized in Christ, have clothed yourselves in Christ. Thus there is no longer Jew nor Greek, free nor slave, male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus". (Gal 3:27-28)
In conclusion, while there is a need for an Australian Aboriginal theology to make the Gospel relevant and relatable as well as to heal the years of pain and suffering inflicted on the Aboriginal people. As to preaching the Gospel to Aboriginals, many avenues have been tried by its leaders in forms of art, dance, liturgical practice and Biblical translation as well interpretation, a move that as been embraced by many of the leaders of the Church as well as Pope John II. One should commend the efforts being made to reconcile and reform the relationship Christianity to Aboriginal Australia. It is clear that the Spirit is moving within the first sons and daughters of this Great Southern Land.
What are your thoughts on this commentary?