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Towards a Contemporary Australian Spirituality

ISS Reports


Rufus Black,
Theologian and ethicist [1]

Saturday 12 June 2004, at St Peter's, Eastern Hill.

The great river of Australian life is running into a secular desert and the life of the river is dying. The young fish are floundering in the dry river. The youth suicide rate in Australia has risen to historically unprecedented levels and is now amongst the highest in the world. Having exercised most of my ministry amongst people in the 18-35 year age range, I see the primary cause as the draining of meaning from life, like the loss of blood from the body. We have a society with spiritual haemophilia. Once the wounds are opened there is little to stem the flow.

Given the need for a contemporary Australian Spirituality, from where will it come? Ideally, a new spring would well up from the great reservoir of theological reflection. I say 'ideally' because the great strength of theology is its commitment to thinking systematically about how beliefs interrelate; the greatest danger of radical movements of Spiritual renewal is precisely their lack of system. Without a system, there is the ever present risk of a distorting and sometimes harmful emphasis on one dimension of the Spiritual over another, or to an incoherent eclecticism whose governing idea, in the end, becomes the self rather than the Other. We know the first of these dangers in some of the literally self-flagellating practices of medieval monasticism; the latter in many of today's new age movements.

Sadly, this renewal is unlikely to come from mainstream theological reflection. Some of the chief architects of Western Christian theology committed three serious design errors that make the Spiritual structures they erected unlikely homes for the modern sojourner of this life. The renewal is more likely to come from the other disciplines and arts which are less affected by these errors, and which have an interest in constructing shelters – or some, more grandly, observations towers – from which people can look more purposefully out into reality. I will explore a few of these sources in Australia: transpersonal psychology, science, and contemporary poetry, music and art. Hopefully, over time theologians will build new structures that incorporate the great design improvements found in these sources, and hence construct new Cathedrals of the soul. I should note that these contemporary theologians will not be without sound design advice and inspiration from the Christian tradition. Theologians of Orthodox Christianity, like St Maximus the Confessor who will emerge as a hero of the story, have followed different design principles to much greater effect. Precisely because of their work, modern thinkers can have confidence that they are not constructing a baptistery for some new life-denying beliefs of the sort that the Church calls heresy.

Not all is lost. There are some signs of hope as a handful of Australian theologians and religious scholars engage these sources. However, they do so largely without engaging in the fundamental redesign of Western, especially protestant, theology that is required. Until that occurs – and, of course, it may not because of the state of the Church and theology in Australia – contemporary Australian Spirituality will be an eclectic exercise built from a conversation with poets, artists, scientists and the psychologically literate. Perhaps that is as it should be and it is these conversations will turn out to be the true wellspring of a future Australian spirituality.



Before developing the thought that it is from conversation across and beyond the boundaries of mainstream theology that the renewal of Spirituality will come; what do I mean by Spirituality? As a working idea, I will suggest that Spirituality is the quest for meaning through reflective practice and practical action that seeks the depths behind reality. To be successful, this quest needs to meet four challenges:

  • Negotiate the life-pain that threatens meaning;
  • Nurture the full breadth of our humanity;
  • See the depths of existence – which, centrally, is the ability to see the particular so deeply that the universal can be glimpsed in it;
  • Conceive of the depth of reality, which some people call God or the Divine, in a way that is consistent with its surface manifestations.

Unfortunately, three fundamental design errors in the architecture of Western Christian theology make it difficult to meet these challenges. I will briefly outline these errors and the problems they create, before unpacking them in some detail and exploring how they can be met from other sources.

  • The first design error is to see the cause of most human suffering as sinfulness. I will argue that this is factually wrong, and that as a result there are vast tracts of human suffering – or life-pain – which threaten meaning, and which Christian spirituality has not developed adequate resources to address.
  • The second design error is to see ultimate human fulfilment as a vision of God. The consequence of this belief is that all the other types of human fulfilment are relativised or even, as in the case of the fulfilment that comes with the joys of bodily life, deprecated. The result is that resources of Christian spirituality have been too narrowly focused on the quest for God rather than on the quest for a fulfilled human life, of which the quest for God is only one part. Thus there have been too few resources created to help people see the depths of reality in all the particularity of everyday life.
  • The third design error, which is much more prevalent in protestant than Catholic theology, although it is still present there, is to prioritise God's will over God's being. By focusing on God's will, Western Christian theology has constructed a Spirituality that is focused on God's doing. It constantly asks or expects God to do things. A modern scientific view of the world makes it very difficult to sustain the idea of a doing will as the basis of God's relationship to the world. The more ancient priority given to God's being, and to our participation in it, fits far more coherently with the modern scientific account of reality.

Although I don't want to explore it here, an implication of my argument is that the ultimate source of the decline of the formal Spiritual practices of religion in Australia today may be as much theological as it is sociological.

Given that these flaws have resulted in few resources to meet the four great Spiritual challenges, I will tentatively suggest that there are four concepts that, with their associated practices, will help to meet these challenges and that will, as a result, shape an Australian Spirituality:

  • Apatheia – passionlessness, an Eastern Christian Orthodox concept I will explore shortly;
  • Balance, an Aristotelian idea undergoing popular rival;
  • Mindfulness, a Buddhist concept that can reinterpreted through Australian art and poetry;
  • Interconnectedness.



Life-pain is a central feature of human existence, and managing it is one of the core tasks in the journey of reconciliation with existence. Life-pain is the suffering caused by evil, tragedy or human finitude. These three sources of life-pain need to be carefully distinguished because each type of pain requires a different spiritual response.

  • Evil: the life-pain of evil is the suffering caused by intentional wrongdoing – it is when someone knows what they are doing (or failing to do) is wrong and they do it anyway.
  • Tragedy: the life-pain of tragedy is the suffering that arises from the unintended bad consequences of good choices. The Greeks knew a great deal about this sort of suffering. All parents know this pain when they discover that what they thought was the loving care of their children is the cause of their children's suffering later in life.
  • Material finitude: the life-pain of material finitude is the suffering caused by the finite nature of material existence. There is limited time and energy in the universe and the second law of thermodynamics means that order decays. Together, they make it difficult to create a meaning built on growth and achievement. We all know the challenge of simply getting the basics done in life, and the pain that comes as bodies slow down and break down. As an aside, I would note that much evil is a result of the attempt to defeat the suffering of human finitude.

Each type of life-pain requires a different response. Finding meaning when life has been overwhelmed by tragedy, or assaulted by evil, requires a different response to that of creating a wholemaking purpose in the mundane toil of daily tasks.

Problematically, Christian theology has a constant tendency to see all life-pain through the lenses of sin and evil. It is a problem that begins with the misshapen doctrine of the Fall; a doctrine that sees the material dimensions of human finitude – the need to toil, pain like that of childbirth, and that most fundamental form of finitude, death – as a result of a foundational act of human sin. No theological or metaphysical contortions can finally sustain this position. The life-pain of material finitude is part of the nature of the Universe: it is part of the original design. Spirituality, therefore, needs to begin from an acceptance that material finitude is part of the nature of reality, rather than a distortion of it for which humans have some collective responsibility, and which must, in some way, be fought against.

If Christianity greatly marginalises the spiritual challenge of material finitude, it also deals very poorly with tragedy because, again, sinfulness or evil is constantly looked to as the explanation. Finding meaning is a very different challenge to that posed by dealing with harm caused intentionally. Where harm is caused intentionally, it is possible to set it in the context of a conflict between good and evil. There are concepts of struggle and the quest for justice that provide ways of dealing with this. When faced with tragedy, the problem is to come to terms with the fact that the design of reality contains within it the inevitability of grave suffering that is not the result of wrongdoing.

In the face of limited or inadequate resources to deal with the life-pain of human finitude and tragedy, where does one turn to construct a contemporary spirituality? One answer comes from transpersonal psychology, and the Buddhist traditions upon which it draws.

For those unfamiliar with transpersonal psychology – and it is certainly not mainstream – it is a psychological tradition that took form in the 1960s and 70s and focuses on the development of the whole person. It is founded on the premise that humans have drives to meet both basic needs, like sex and hunger, and also higher needs, like creative expression and connecting with, and experiencing, the divine. It takes it name from a phrase first used by Carl Jung when talking about the collective unconscious, überpersonlich. The foundations of transpersonal psychology drew heavily on the work of Maslow, and the ideas were developed by theorists like Roger Walsh and Ken Wilber.

Two Buddhist concepts that this tradition draws on to help deal with the life-pain of human finitude are the concepts of equanimity and non-attachment. I found these ideas elegantly and practically explained in a book by Sarah Napthali – given to us shortly after the birth of twins – entitled, 'Buddhism for Mothers'.[2] The point of referring to this source rather than some more august academic tome is that it provides a good example of the ability of another tradition to provide practical spiritual wisdom to help parents find meaning when they deal with one of the (almost inevitable) major confrontations with the finitude of life.

So what are these concepts? Equanimity is 'the ability to perceive all aspects of our lives with acceptance and patience rather than our usual extreme reactions.'[3] Vietnamese monk, Tich Nhat Hanh teaches that equanimity is 'inclusiveness, even-mindedness, non-attachment, non-discrimination, balance, freedom from extremes, letting go.'[4] It is also a concept that embraces the ideas of 'accepting imperfection' and 'a sense of the absurd and the humourous'.

The value Sarah Napthali points out is that 'When something normally considered 'bad' happens, you can handle it – it is doesn't derail you. Likewise, if something 'good' happens, you feel your joy without feeling dependent on or attached to the event.'[5] Life is full of events that are bad but which are not caused by evil. When you are at the end of your tether with sleeplessness and one baby projectile poos so that it hits the recently painted wall of the nursery, while the other cries for food, and you feel like you are about to lose it with them both, nothing sinful or evil has caused this – just a lot of human finitude. Spiritual practices that enable you to have equanimity in such circumstances are the key to not being overwhelmed.

Similarly, in a materially obsessed consumer world, a concept of non-attachment certainly has a role to play. Non-attachment is about not being dependent on material things or other people so that we are free to love them without our own neediness impairing the genuineness of that love.

In Australia, through the influence of transpersonal psychology, these concepts of equanimity and non-attachment are increasingly widely used in self-development programs, coaching, and even in the organisational development programs that are to be found in large corporations.

A valuable part of identifying the use of these Buddhist resources is that they encourage one to search the Christian tradition for anything analogous. Often it is in conversation with others, or in other traditions, that you see the unseen, or remember the forgotten, in your history. Interestingly, in the Eastern Orthodox tradition – which has always had a less extreme doctrine of the Fall – concepts analogous to the Buddhist doctrine of equanimity and non-attachment exist, largely forgotten by the West. In that tradition there is rich teaching about apatheia – passionlessness, dispassion or serenity – as a central task of the Spiritual life. It is a tradition with its origins in the writings of the 4th century Egyptian monk Evagrius Ponticus (c.345-99), but probably its most balanced exponent is Maximus the Confessor (580-662).

'For Evagrius, apatheia meant the destruction of the passions.'[6] However, Maximus seems rather to envisage their transformation. Maximus discusses the danger of merely negative attitudes to passions: in itself it leads to a state of indifference, in which one is 'drawn neither to human things, nor to divine.'[7] Here, in the warning against indifference, is the importance of bringing systematic Christian theology into the conversation about contemporary Spirituality. What Christian theology ultimately affirms is the goodness of the material, which means that the Spirituality of coming to terms with human finitude and tragedy cannot finally be based on detachment from the material world. For a Spirituality that is seeking to see the luminosity of world, this is an important idea to maintain.

Both the Buddhist and Eastern Christian traditions also agree that to develop equanimity, or apatheia, meditative practices to develop an inner stillness are needed. It is reasonable, therefore, to think that an Australian spirituality will need to incorporate such practices. There is certainly evidence that this is already occurring, as meditative practices become mainstream. Indeed, in the basement of the ANZ's headquarters here in Melbourne there is a beautiful room set aside for employees to engage in such practices. Far beyond that basement, the practices are taking hold in the Church with the growth of movements such as Christian meditation groups.



We turn now from the question of life-pain to the second challenge of the Spiritual life – nurturing the breadth of humanity.

One feature of being able to use practices to develop equanimity or apatheia in the face of the countless little upsets of life is that you can more easily find fulfilment in the breadth of what it is to be human. If you can maintain equanimity rather than being overwhelmed, you can enjoy the beauty in the patterns and sounds of daily life. Christianity has provided all too few resources for that task. There are clearly some exceptions, perhaps notably in some Celtic practices that pay more attention to dailyness and to creation. More broadly, however, Christian spirituality has not focused on fostering the fullness of the human person. There is, perhaps, a little spirituality of friendship and artistic expression but, on the other hand, no positive spirituality of the other fulfilling dimensions of human life, such as work, play or sex. If you want a barometer of the Christian failure in this regard, it is worth considering the history of the interpretation of the Song of Songs. What could have laid the foundation for a Spirituality of sex as alive as the karma sutra or various tantric practices has, instead, been allegorised out of the bedroom.

The explanation for this state of affairs lies in the second serious design flaw in the architecture of Western theology, the error that sees human fulfilment primarily in terms of the vision of God. It is this design flaw that means there are too few Christian Spiritual resources to nurture the breadth of humanity and to see the depths of existence. For these resources, a contemporary spirituality will need to look elsewhere.

It is worth taking a moment to understand how this design flaw came about, because it is a strange flaw for a religion whose sacred creation myth begins with the divine affirmation that each aspect of creation 'was good'. It is perhaps stranger still for a religion that, in theory, has the extraordinary story of the resurrection at its centre. For what the resurrection affirms is that the answer to the question of death is not salvation from creation – as though some hidden soul were to grow wings and ascend to another higher and better realm – but the redemption or renewal of creation. It is life itself that is to be saved rather than us being saved from life.

The story of how Christianity went from a Gospel like St John's – where the writer sums up Jesus' message in the words 'I came that you might have life, life in all its fullness'(Jn 10:10) – to a religion that peddled indulgences to help people get into heaven, is a complicated and unhappy one; which might well be as much about the psychopathology of its theologians as it is about the misappropriation of Greek philosophy.

The story does not get off to an entirely secure start with St Paul. Unfortunately, the subtlety of his position left him wide open to misinterpretation. St Paul, especially in his early writings, was strongly influenced by the expectation that the apocalypse – the decisive divine ending of history – was close at hand. Rather than heaven being some otherworldly place we had to work to get into, for St Paul we had to be prepared for the imminent moment when heaven would descend to earth. This is perhaps nowhere clearer than in his teachings about marriage. In his first letter to the Corinthians he writes concerning virgins 'I think that, in view of the impending crisis it is well for you to remain as you are'(1 Cor. 7:26) and to married men, 'brothers, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none' (1 Cor. 7:29). St Paul explains his reasoning in these terms:

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife \dots I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord. (1 Cor. 7:32, 35)

St Paul was not promoting an otherworldliness but emphasising the need for preparation for the coming of God. How easy it would be, however, when it was clear that the coming of God was not imminent, for later readers to generalise this attitude, and refocus attention on the heaven in the air rather than on the renewal of the earth.

Marriage reveals a more problematic aspect of St Paul. When he says to the unmarried and widows that it is better that they stay unmarried, he then adds the qualification: 'But if they are not practising self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.'(1 Cor. 7:9) In this qualification we hear the passions of the body identified as a seat of temptation – desires that the righteous need to struggle against if they are to be prepared for the coming of heaven. How little would it take to move from St Paul's overstated case for the diverting influence of feelings to equating the tempting feelings with the bodiliness in which they arose. And from such a step, it is only a short slide to setting the soul against 'the world (the paradigmatic expression of which is the body), the flesh and the devil'.

This slide occurred easily in the spring tide of Neoplatonic Greek philosophy that washed the shores of the Mediterranean in the days of the early Church. This tide carried with it the notion that our knowledge of the world was nothing more than a knowledge of the shadows cast by a greater reality. That greater reality was a world of 'forms', the true nature of which could only been grasped once the soul had left the body. Here the soul was set against the body; and the emotions, which were associated with the body, were set against reason.

The high-water mark of this tide is to be found in the writings of St Augustine. It is a matter of more than incidental biography that Augustine had an illegitimate child, and belonged to a Gnostic sect, before he converted to Christianity. The Gnostics were religious sects focused upon gaining access to knowledge (gnosis) that would enable the souls of adherents to be freed from their bodies and ascend from this evil world of matter to be reunited in a good realm of pure spirit. It must be an open question as to how thorough Augustine's conversion to Christianity – with its affirmation of the goodness of the material, bodily world – was. Although Augustine's theology, like St Paul's, is far subtler than most critics allow, he does reduce what is worthwhile in human life to a single goal, and then catapults it beyond this life. That goal, the vision of God, is really a Christian analogy for the Neoplatonic idea of apprehending the forms. The value of this life was further undermined by his development of an extreme doctrine of original sin, which viewed people's natures as deeply corrupted. To this insult to life, he added injury by assaulting the body and sexuality, arguing that it was by means of intercourse that original sin was transmitted.

Christianity, especially in the West, has been deeply disfigured by the vision Augustine articulated, and so many others have perpetuated. By placing what is worthwhile in the next life, Christianity has been made into the answer to the question of death rather than the answer to the question of life. And, in the end, it is a rather unappealing answer. While a vision of God is doubtless a wonderful experience, it is a limited experience. It is an experience that might appeal to philosophers who find satisfaction in seeking and contemplating great truths, or maybe even to art lovers. For most people, however, it is likely to seem frankly boring. What is more, it is a denial of much of our humanity. Even the most pious do not spend all their time in Church, and presumably they find some of the things they do outside Church to be of value. Where in this vision of God is the knowledge we have laboured to discover, the expression of our creativity in our work and play, the skills we have acquired in sport, the friends we have made, the joy of sex, the justice we have fought for? Where is the rest of creation? Where, in other words, is our life in the life to come? Not only is life denied but, as the thinkers of the Left have long pointed out, projecting the good into the next life is a counsel of resignation in the face of injustices that should be fought against. One cannot overstate the extent to which this deprecation of the good of this life has harmed Christian theology, spirituality, prayer and ethics.

Fortunately, there is recognition of this flaw, and work is underway in both the theological and secular worlds to address it. Central to that work has been the recovery of Aristotle, with his focus on the question of what it is to live a fulfilled life, and his answer that the key lies in finding the mean.

In terms of Australian practice, that practical wisdom is expressing itself in what we might call the Seachange spirituality. The ABC's religious affairs program Compass astutely picked up on this new dimension of Spirituality when it devoted a show to exploring the choices of the significant percentage of Australians who are downshifting. The quest to restore balance as guiding principle of life is really the expression of the fact that Spirituality is a practical, not just a reflective matter.



The failure to pay attention to, and nurture the breadth of human life has also limited the ability to see the depths of existence. This is the third great spiritual challenge because it has limited our attention to depth in the dailyness of life. A cartoon by Michael Leunig provides a good test of this point. He has a beautiful cartoon entitled 'aroma therapy' which contains pictures under captions including the smell of coffee, the smell of freshly baked bread, the smell of autumn leaves and the smell of wet dog. How often do we stop and delight in the rich smells that are part of life? When did you last hear a prayer of thanks for the wonderful scents of the past week? Such living and prayer requires practices of active contemplation that are not well nurtured by Christianity.

To see what is missing, Buddhist practice is again illuminating; especially in its concept of mindfulness – of 'knowing what is happening at the time it is happening.'[8] It is not only a practice for the monastery: as Sarah Nathapli observes, it is can also be practiced by the time poor. She quotes Tenzin Palmo, an English Buddhist nun: 'You can meditate walking down the corridor, waiting for the computer to change, at the traffic light, standing in the queue, going to the bathroom, combing your hair. Just be there in the present, without mental commentary.'[9]

What is particularly important about mindfulness is that not only do we become more aware of the breadth of what it is to be human, but also we start to see the depths of existence – precisely because we start to see the world freshly. When you visit a new place or country for the first time, the initial minutes, hours, or even days in that place have a memorable intensity about them. It is as though life is more real. It is part of why people enjoy travel and find it restorative; it is literally as though they have a bigger life experience. In that intensity we see more of the depth of life. Mindfulness is about learning to see that everyday. Those who have engaged in practices that create greater mindfulness will tell you that when you are in that state, it is as though there is more light in the world; even as though there is white light shining out of things.

One of the best practices for seeing the world we know freshly, as though we are travelling to a new place in our own daily lives, is to learn to see the world with the eyes of artists and poets, and to hear the world with the ears of composers.

In Australia we are very fortunate in the artists we have to help us develop an Australian mindfulness. What they offer us is the opportunity to see reality from an angle from which we don't usually view it, so that we see the depths of the daily. We could dwell on all the different ways that they help us to do that, but that is probably best left to a conversation with them. For now, I would like to share two shifts of perspective that I regularly see them make that are of considerable spiritual significance.

The first shift of perspective is that of seeing the wholeness of reality from above. Fred Williams' landscape paintings are great examples of whole seeing because they shift the viewers' perspective so that you view the landscape from above and can see its interconnections and patterns – the things that weave one place to another. In this mapping of patterns there is a way of seeing not just space, but also time.

The second shift of perspective is the ability to contemplate the wholeness of reality, including time, from within the particular. Kevin Hart's poem, The Stone's Prayer, serves as a great example. It is not long so I will read it as an illustrative interlude:

Father I praise you
For the wideness of this your Earth, and for the sky
Arched forever over me,
For the sharp rain and the scraping wind
That have carved me from the mountain
And made me smooth as a child's face.

Accept my praise
For my colour, a starless night,
That my width is that between the first two stars of evening
Reflected in the water,
That my quartz flashes like lightning
And reflects the glory of your Creation,

That you have seen fit
To place me a near a stream and thus to contemplate
The passing of time;

For all that is around me I sing your praise,
For the fierce concentration of ants, their laws,
For all that they tell me about you.

Keep me, I pray whole,
Unlike the terrible dust and pieces of bone
Cast about in the wind's great breath, unlike men
Who must suffer change,
Their endless footprints deep as graves;

Keep me in truth, in solitude
Until the day when you will burst into my heavy soul
And I will shout your name.[10]



We have started to explore the concept of the depth of reality and of seeing below the surface manifestations of life. Spirituality is about more than sensing these depths, it is about entering relationship with them. That relationship will be far richer if it has a satisfactory account of how the depth of reality, which some people call God, and its surface manifestation in the world of the material, are related. It is important because the nature of that relationship profoundly shapes the nature of Spiritual practices. If, for example, you believe that the Divine intervenes in the workings of material reality, then intercessory prayer is likely to be an important part of your spirituality. On the other hand, if you don't believe that this is the way God relates to the material world, then intercessory prayer will either take a very different form, or be a much smaller part of your Spiritual practices.

At present, I think the prevailing accounts of the depths of reality, especially in Protestant theology, provide an unsatisfactory foundation for Spirituality because they are inconsistent with the surface realities that science observes. The reason for this inconsistency is that the very theology that gave rise to modern science also gave rise to an understanding of God that is incompatible with the material world that science discovers. Here we come to the third design error in Western theology – the prioritisation of divine will over divine being.

This is a story some have probably heard me rehearse, as indeed others have done before, so I will be brief. It is a story that begins with the two great theologians, John Duns Scotus (1266-1308) and William of Ockham (1285-1349), both Franciscan friars who, a generation apart, were educated and taught in Oxford in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. For simplicity, I will contrast their thought with that of Thomas Aquinas, whose thought they vigorously opposed.

The first of the changes they introduced concerns the way in which we use language. The place of prime contention was the way we speak about God. There is a very substantial tradition of reflection about the Divine that maintains we can only speak equivocally of God, because the reality of God is so much broader and deeper than the categories of creation that we might use to try and speak of Him. We cannot overstate how important it was in Christian thought prior to Scotus to be able to say, as Aquinas did, that 'we cannot know what God is' (ST Ia.I2.4).

Scotus took up arms against this equivocal way of speaking and its theology of negation. Language was now a tool of inquiry with which the world can be probed in search of a certain description of things. The irony, of course, is that this clear separation of language and reality also laid the foundations for the deep skepticism, which has afflicted the humanities, as to whether language could ever accurately describe reality. For the world of science, however, Duns Scotus' move was a great gain. The world could now be reduced to precise descriptions, which could subsequently be tested by examining the world to which they referred.

The trajectory that lead from Duns Scotus to science left behind the idea that no feature of reality could, finally, be fully described because all reality, ultimately, participated in the indescribable Being of God. From a Spiritual perspective, the radical separation of God and creation had begun.

The understanding of reality essentially escaped from any intimate and integral relationship with God when Scotus dramatically reversed the priority of knowledge and will. Aquinas had understood God's will to be shaped by what God knew. God knew what the range of good possibilities was, and would will to bring one rather than another about. Scotus argued that the will alone is the cause of choice; it is not shaped or determined by anything. Where Aquinas said that God would only will those things which God knew were good, Scotus argued that it was God's willing that made something good. We call this shift to making will the primary category, voluntarism.

This shift to a voluntarist perspective significantly changed the way in which creation was understood. Under Aquinas' scheme, creation expressed something of the Being of God – the two were integrally related. Certainly, God did not have to bring creation about, but when God did so, what she did expressed things about who she was. For Scotus, the connection was essentially contingent. God willed this creation into being, and his willing it makes it good, but God could equally have willed a quite contrary creation into being and it would be have been good too, simply because God willed it to be.

In freeing reality from its integral relation to God, Scotus gave it an independence and integrity of its own. It was now possible to inquire into reality without asking questions about God. The field was clear for an independent mode of inquiry to investigate the autonomous physical world. Ockham would complete that change of perspective when he moved away from the idea that things in the world had common natures to the view that universals were nothing more than common descriptions.

For science, all of this was progress because the only way in which knowledge of resemblances and relationships could be determined was by observational and experimental inquiry. After Scotus and Ockham, the world had merely to wait for the arrival of modern experimental science.

If Scotus and Ockham prepared the way for science, they also prepared the way for the discrediting of a substantive account of God. The central difficulty arises from their setting a course that has separated God from creation. They have made creation an object apart from God, with its own autonomous integrity – a notion carried to completion when Newton reduced the universe to a machine. The perspective for understanding the relationship between God and creation is no longer participation, in which creation participates in the Being of God, but will. The result, inevitably, is that the two primary modes of God's relating to creation, providence and revelation, will be understood as intervention.

This understanding of intervention, and the Spirituality that it is based upon, is scientifically, metaphysically and morally problematic.

Scientifically it is a problem because the evidence for apparent divine interventions that contradict the physical laws of the universe always seems to collapse in the light of serious scrutiny. This is not to rule out the miraculous, just to suggest that this type of intervention isn't a satisfactory account of a miracle.

Metaphysically it is a problem because if God designed the universe, it seems inexplicable that he should need to be constantly making running repairs.

Morally it is a problem because if God intervenes to help sometimes, why not others? To this charge those who have inherited the theological tradition of Scotus and Ockham simply reply that it is the will of God which determines what is right and wrong, and that God's will is beyond human understanding. At this point, such theologians have created a despot, more demonic than divine – a being capable of arbitrary choice, whose actions no standard of fairness can comprehend; with a will that is beyond scrutiny.

For all of these reasons we need to abandon notions of divine intervention, and question all the Spiritual practices built upon them. We need a Spirituality that is consistent with the reality that science is disclosing to us.

The picture of that world that I find most compelling is that presented in the work of the brilliant Harvard paleontologist, Stephen J. Gould.[11] Against the still prevalent view that evolution drives towards complexity and the development of higher-order creatures, Gould argues that the evidence points overwhelmingly to diversity as the engine of evolution. Higher order creatures, like humans, are not the result of a glorious ascent to the top of a pyramid but, rather, are a random event on the right tail of the bell-curve of life. There is not even any necessity that, at this right tail of complexity, consciousness would emerge as part of one of the complex life forms.

Gould's picture means that God has not designed a universe programmed for progress or consciousness but, rather, one inherently directed towards diversity. This raises the question of how we are to understand the nature of divine involvement with such a universe. I used to tend to Keith Ward's answer – that God, while respecting the laws of probability in the universe, resolves some of the randomness to allow for the emergence of consciousness.[12] This is certainly a position we cannot rule out in a universe where the emergence of consciousness is not intrinsically probable. However, the picture that I think fits better with a universe tending to diversity, and an understanding of the nature of the good as the play of difference, is of a God whose primary mode of relating to the universe is presence rather than power. It is the image of a God who, as a result of giving the universe a vital measure of freedom (in the form of bounded randomness) to unfold itself, delights in new instantiations of beauty, life and goodness, and who sorrows at the tragedy and evil which necessarily come with the very freedom that made the good possible. We need to recognise that with an infinite array of instances of the good that it would be worth the divine realising, God has reason to create an indefinite number of universes. If this is the case, then God has no particular reason to determine that this universe, rather than some other, should be the universe in which some particular form of conscious life evolves.

This account of the divine mode of relating does not undermine the value of conscious life. Certainly, it has the value of scarcity: it is rare, perhaps unique, in a single universe, and it may well be that our universe is unusual in having it at all. More importantly, with consciousness comes the possibility of beings who can share in the delight and the sorrow of the universe and, more extraordinarily, beings who can act to realise further new and often complex forms of goodness – creatures, in other words, who are capable of participating in the divine process of creation, perhaps even in ways that we do not yet fully understand. For example, the focus of human consciousness on particular good outcomes may shape those situations where there is material indeterminacy. If that is true, then some kind of intercessory prayer may have a place as participation in the divine process of creation.

The theological vision of an engagement with science will require fresh images if it is to exercise a hold on the religious imagination. We are particularly fortunate in this regard in Australia because our cultural circumstances have yielded a rich contemporary religious poetry.[13] The natural resources of Australian poets – a vast, awesome, yet comforting, landscape; the dreams of aboriginal people; the endless oceans that surround us; our sense of the unrevealedness of things; the nearness of death in the outback – parallel the very theological ideas that are in search of such images. There is a strong sense in which, for the future of faith, science and poetry will need to journey together.

Natural resources alone won't be enough because in an account where the universe develops its own laws and unfolds itself, seeing into the depths of existence is like looking for the great depths of the Ocean on a stormy night far out at sea. To know anything of the nature of those depths will require a different path. It is here that a spirituality of the iconic person – in the Christian tradition, a Jesus spirituality – is required. Behind such spirituality is the thought that the being of that person and the being of God are so aligned that the being of that person discloses the inner nature of the being of God. In such a Spirituality, meditative identification with that person and a path of practical followership become means of entering into that way of being.



Negotiating the four great spirituality challenges of life is a conversational and communal task. The task is conversational because, as I hope we have seen in this paper, no time or tradition within Christianity, or within any other religion, has all the resources needed to meet these challenges; some of these resources live in disciplines well beyond the religious. Conversations across these many lines will often not be easy. They are likely to be clouded by pasts of mutual suspicion or hostility, and the ears of ideological enforcers are always cocked for such unsettling conversations.

If the task is conversational, it is also communal. The value of it being communal is that it helps to retain humility and a focus beyond the self at the heart of the conversation – qualities that are essential for a transformative spiritual inquiry. Humility, because if we stand in the tradition of a community, we quickly appreciate that for all the wrong turns and blind allies, the struggling of others with the challenges of life has yielded much wisdom that repays our attention. By having our conversation, not just with people we are learning from, but also with those we are learning with, we help to make sure that our quest remains other-regarding, not just self-regarding.

Hopefully, if such communal conversations begin, they will become over time new well-springs that may once again water the parched earth of our secular land.


  1. I would like express my considerable thanks to Bruce Kellett for all his work in editing this paper. It began life as text for a lecture at the Institute of Spiritual Studies, written rapidly in spare moments between caring for our under 1 year old twins, with no anticipation that the text would see the light of day. Bruce kindly took this text and edited it into the readable form that it has here.
  2. Sarah Napthali, Buddhism for Mothers (Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2003).
  3. Ibid, p.49
  4. Ibid, p.50.
  5. Ibid. p.49.
  6. Andrew Louth, 'Maximus the Confessor' in Jones, C., Wainwright, G., and Yarnold, E., The Study of Spirituality (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1986), p.193.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Nathapli, p.18.
  9. Ibid, p.30.
  10. Kevin Hart, 'A Stone's Prayer', The Oxford Book of Australian Religious Verse (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp.89-90
  11. Stephen Jay Gould, Life's Grandeur (London: Jonathan Cape, 1997).
  12. Keith Ward, Divine Action (London: Collins, 1990), 103-153.
  13. See, for example, Kevin Hart (ed.), The Oxford Book of Australian Religious Verse and Les Murray (ed.), Anthology of Australian Religious Poetry (Melbourne: Collins Dove, 1986).

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