A small group came together in the comfort and warmth of the Third Age Club at Euroa on the evening of Tuesday June 6 for what turned into an engaging interfaith meet with many questions. Theologian and scholar Dr Frank Purcell gave one talk on Christianity and Australian Society.
Representatives of several faiths participated in the Euroa meeting. From the Islamic faith, we had former President of the Albanian Mosque in Shepparton, Mr Riddy Ahmet, who spoke on various aspects of Islam, and made clear distinctions between the Word of God (in the Qu’ran) and the word of Man (in what others had to say). Representing Reformed Judaism was scholar and speaker Dr Elisabeth Holdsworth, who spoke on religion and identity – a critical issue for religion in our times. The Magen David (shield of David, or as it is more commonly known, the Star of David) is also closely aligned to identity. Dr Holdsworth also spoke of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, and recited the Shema and gave one explanation of its meaning. Dr Holdsworth also addressed the role of women in Reformed Judaism, and the role of women authoring several of the historical and prophetic books in what is called the Hebrew Bible.
Rev Chris Parnell spoke about the manifold meanings of Interfaith and how this means something different to everyone who uses the term. There is grass-roots interfaith, there is interfaith dialogue, interfaith prayers, and there is the more formal inter-religious dialogues between the heads of faith of the world’s religions. In addressing Buddhism, Rev. Parnell also spoke of the three refuges of Buddhism (I surrender to the Buddha, I surrender to the Dhamma [the code of right practice] and I surrender to the Sangha [the community of practitioners]) and how Buddhists deal with suffering through skilful behaviour as given in the noble 8fold path.
Dr Frank Purcell gave one talk on Christianity and Australian Society. In addressing the topic Christianity in Australian Society: its highs and lows, Dr Purcell sought to delineate Religion’s role in the development of Australian society. His aim was to identify the challenges which religion faces in a secular democratic society. Above all, Dr Purcell was underlining a glaring defect: Don’t forget the elephant in the room.
Christianity and Australian Society
Religion is having a rough time in Australia at present. The Catholic Church to which I belong as an active member, has been disgraced by its failure to protect young children from paedophile priests. Muslims are aghast at the way some of their young people are being misled into suicidal attacks on fellow citizens including some of their own members. (One third of the victims of the bus slaughter in Nice were in fact Muslims.) Buddhists in Burma are attacking and expelling Muslims from that country.
That is not the first time religion has let down its own followers. Jesus’s own disciples fled from Him hanging on the cross, leaving the youngest apostle John and a group of women including Jesus’ mother Mary to stay with Him until he died. Religions have great ideals, but their members don’t always live up to them.
Tonight however, I want to talk a bit about the more positive historical role of Christianity in the development of Australian society and the challenges religion faces in a secular democracy.
The great religious traditions in the world today emerged after human beings abandoned their hunter-gatherer life-style and took on a settled agrarian way of life. Certain holy places began to attract people from the settler communities around them and the holy men of traditional hunter-gatherer societies presumably took up a settled role as priests of the holy places. Such centres began to attract commerce – market places, the need for law and order. The High priests of such places took on the role we now call that of “Kings”. And as Priest Kings, they sought to protect themselves and their communities. And what better way than to take control of neighbouring centres of pilgrimage and bring them under their control and protection. Loyalty of the subject people was ensured by all adopting the religion of the king. That tradition lasted up till the 17th Century. Since then, secular democratic societies have begun to emerge, and one of them, our own Australia, has been a fairly successful example.
One of the key elements of a secular democratic society is that its citizens are free to practice the religion of their own choice as long as that religion accepts the right of others to be different. It also separates Religion and the State. The head of Government is not simultaneously the head of an Established Church. It was our convict first settlers who gave us that. Catholic and Presbyterian convicts combined to ensure that the Church of England was not made the Established Church as in England.
Most of the convicts I’m sure had no idea of the historical debt they owed to Judaism for that insight. The Priest-King model of authority was challenged by the story of King David and his action in having a general killed in battle so that David could have his wife. One of the Prophets took David to task and reminded him that he was subject to a higher authority. That is the origin of the concept of human rights which no government has the right to overrule.
Jesus added to that. He made it clear that there are two legitimate authorities in society: Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. (Matt: 22:20-22.)
When the Roman Emperor shifted his capital to Constantinople (Istanbul), the empire in the west fell to the invading tribes of Huns, Vandals and Goths. The Papacy became the one source of law left standing and from its efforts over a 4 hundred year period, the basic principles of our modern legal systems in the west were developed. They owed much to the monasteries set up across Europe. Their monastic schools founded by the Irish missionaries who set out to reconvert Europe, became the great universities across Europe today.
In spite of the power of the papacy at that time, it was unable to reject the God –given right of kings to exercise authority. Unlike Eastern Christianity which remained under the control of the Eastern Emperor (and possibly under Putin in Russia today), the authenticity of secular power was acknowledged by the Popes.
Another important contribution from Catholicism at that time was its recognition that reason has a legitimate role in seeking truth and in interpreting the meaning of Scripture. This has made it possible for modern Christians to re-interpret the deeper meaning of the Biblical scriptures on which most Christians base their spirituality. That was a predominantly Protestant contribution to our society, one which the Catholic Church has only fully accepted in the last 50 years.
The other groundbreaking development within Catholicism has been the acknowledgement by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s that the Spirit of God breathes where S/He wills. This has opened Catholicism to not just ecumenical participation, but to engaging in Interfaith dialogue such as we are attempting at this meeting. We accept that God’s love and gifts are also given to members of other faiths.
© Shepparton Interfaith Network
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