Learning from Joseph Furphy’s Spirituality

Joseph Furphy

Learning from Joseph Furphy's Spirituality was the topic of Guest Speaker Pat Crudden, at the Annual General Meeting of the Shepparton Interfaith Network.

Learning from Joe Furphy's Spirituality

Noted speaker on studies and writings of Joseph Furphy, Pat Crudden commenced his talk with an overview of Joseph Furphy's Life and Works. You may read this overview here.

Joeseh Furphy, a bullock driver, a mechanic and the author of the quintessential Australian novel Such is Life, lived in Shepparton for twenty two years from 1883 to 1905.

Joe Furphy believed firmly that the life of every human being has a divine purpose.

He called this divine purpose the right order of things or, just as comfortably, the will of God. He wrote in a letter to a young station hand from Moulamein, ' ... beyond the material elements of life, beyond the minerals plants and animals, beyond the changing seasons and so forth there lies a purpose. We don't know definitely what this purpose may be; but I don't think it is fulfilled by plethoric banking accounts. Same time I believe it is fulfilled by the production of men and women of high moral standards, calm courage and superior intellect." If writing today he may have said, 'I don't think the right order of things is fulfilled by the economic bottom line'.

A Secular Vision

Now I'd like to say something about his essential secular vision. He believed firmly in Australia and dedicated his novel, which turned out to be his destiny, simply to Australia. His vision for the future of Australia was of a democracy such as the world had never seen, populated by strong and healthy white people, characterised by their high moral standards, calm courage and superior intellect. His idea of success for individuals and the community as a whole was probing beyond the superficial for real insight into the right order of things. That is what he meant by 'superior intellect'. Sadly 'superior intellect' eluded his compatriots and himself in probing the White Australia Policy. They concluded in the lead up to Federation that the superiority of the white races was a scientific fact as well as a political expedient.

Such is Life

I would now like to share my two favourite passages from his novel Such is Life In that novel he writes about life in the Riverina just as he experienced it as a bullock driver. It purports to be seven extracts from the diary of a know-all named Tom Collins.

Warrigal Alf.

Tom Collins is camped by the Lachlan River. The narrative continues, "Ha-a-ay!" Somebody calling from the other side of the river; probably some forlorn and shipwreck'd brother, looking for his mates - The cognate reflection, namely, that nothing withdraws but that it leaves way for its successor, this favoured by a Providence which has kindly supervised the fall of the antecedent sparrow ... " Apart from the biblical references in that brief extract the phrase "the forlorn and shipwreck'd brother" directs us to Longfellow's Psalm of Life:

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;-
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o'er life's solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

That verse illustrates the way Furphy constantly uses literary references in his writing. Eventually Collins answers the call from somebody who wants to draw his attention to a wagon over the river in which Warrigal Alf, a misanthropic bullocky, is lying terribly ill. He does his best to make Alf comfortable and goes off to rescue his bullocks. When he get back Alf tells him about a vision he had in his delirium.

Alf had been married to a wife named Mollie who had been a wonderful singer but they separated and she died three years later. Although that was ten years ago, she came to him in his delirium and sang to him.

"It was no dream, Collins; I saw everything as I see it now, but I heard her glorious voice as I used to hear it in our happy days; and I felt that her spirit was bringing forgiveness at last. I'm not a religious man, Collins, I don't know what will become of me after death; but God does; and that's sufficient for me. I never believed on him so devoutly as I do now that he has vindicated his justice upon me. I praise him for avenging an act of the blindest folly and heartlessness; and I thank him that my punishment is over at last. There! Listen! No, it's nothing. But it was a favourite song of hers; and while you were away I heard her sing it, with new meaning in every syllable. My poor love!"

That passage represents the outlook of the people whose friendship meant so much to Furphy during his time in the Riverina. It unpretentious, unsophisticated but comes from the heart.

The Swaggie Collins is boiling a billy and making a damper by the banks of the Murray River upstream from Echuca on the New South Wales side when he sees a swaggie whom he knows coming in the distance. As he waits for him to come and share a damper and a billy of tea, he muses with the help of his large meerschaum pipe:

"Heaven help him! That nameless flotsam of humanity! (mused the pipe). Few and feeble are his friends on earth; and the One, who, like him was wearied by his journey and, like him, had not where to lay his head, is gone, according to his own parable, into a far country. The swagman we have always with us - and comfortable Ecclesiasticism marks a full stop there, blasphemously evading tire completion of a sentence charged with the grave truth, that the Light of the World, the God-in-Man, the only God we can ever know, is by his own authority represented for all time by the poorest of the poor."

That sentence is actually Furphy's Credo.

Joe Furphy's Dilemma

Joe was respectful of his mother Judith's commitment to her Methodist faith. In his letters to her he often apologized for writing on the Sabbath, something she would never have dreamt of doing; but he made fun of his brother John's religious views even though they were identical with his mothers. He often referred to John as "my right reverend elder brother" and once as "a well-to-do and correspondingly right thinking relative." He himself tried the Church of Christ which was new to the area and the Australian Church founded by Dr Strong. Although his faith consisted of belief in the providence of God, in the divinity of Jesus and in a conviction, as he put it, "that the bloke who has two coats ought to give one to the bloke who has none" he could not fit the mould of any organised religion.

His dilemma was that his reading of Shakespeare, the Bible, the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus and social theory of the day led him beyond materialism in any shape or form and beyond affiliation with any institutionalised religion. His dilemma may be the dilemma of the modern world so I'd like to end by speaking about that.

Beyond the Economic Bottom Line

We expect the institutions of church and state to be unifying forces; but often closed, exclusive and extreme thinking leads to conflict, even very bitter conflict, both within the institutions and between them. Yet those institutions have the essential function of preserving the integrity of the belief systems that are the source of our faith through the dramas and cultural upheavals of our ever changing history.

We also expect the institutions of which we are part to be always there for us to meet our personal need for stability, security and contentment.; but, as we look around the world we observe massive demographic changes that have lead to a vast population of our planet being structurally disadvantaged by the global economy just when they are working through devastating processes of self-determination. Joe Furphy's secular vision falls far short of dealing with the traumas being faced by the majority of the world's population today.

His spiritual vision is more helpful because he insists that we must keep probing a right order of things that transcends a materialistic world view. To achieve this we need the institutions of church and state, as he put it, 'to produce people of high moral standards, calm courage and superior intellect.' What we learn from Joe Furphy's spirituality is that reconciliation, dialogue, shared prayer and collaborative action are the way of the future for us human beings and for our institutions.
Pat Crudden, Feb 6, 2013

Joe Furphy

Joe Furphy, author of Such is Life

Source: Pat Crudden, 2013

Photo Credit: Shepparton Library


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