This is the long version of the review that appeared in the June Anglican Messenger
Reviewed by Ted Witham
Jews and Christians first found out about God in the harsh environment of the desert: God’s generous provision of water and bread, meat and safety, all flowing out in abundance when scarcity was all around, and an unbreakable commitment to God’s people.
We look back to the long 40-year learning about God in the Exodus and to the bedrock of teaching surrounding that motif of Israel’s history: our God is first a desert God.
The Rev. Dr Ian Robinson, currently the Uniting Church’s chaplain to The University of WA, has been journeying through the Australian deserts for decades listening for resonances of our desert God. His latest book, If Anyone Thirsts: Biblical spirituality from the desert, systematically explores the theme of desert in the Old and New Testaments, and in the Desert Fathers and Mothers. He introduces readers to Desert movements today trying to reclaim the centrality of desert spirituality in their Christian faith.
Dr Robinson claims that we have missed the emphasis on desert spirituality in the life of Jesus and in the centrality of the Feast of Booths (Sukkot), which is an annual renewal of the learnings from the desert. Not only did Jesus retreat to ‘desert places’ to pray, in John 7 – 8 he went up to the Temple for the days of Sukkot and disrupted the high points of the festival to make his claims that he was the manna from heaven, that living water would flow from him, and that he was sent by God to be like Moses and greater than him.
Ian puzzles as to why we Christians have picked up the Jewish Feasts of Passover at Easter, of Weeks at Pentecost, but not Shavuot. He hints that October would be a good time to add a major feast to our calendar to renew our foundations in desert spirituality. Perhaps this feast could take the form of camping out in a desert place, symbolic or real.
There have been a few attempts to develop a specifically Australian Christian spirituality. From the Anglican Community of St Clare, Sister Angela’s Gumnut Spirituality was promising, but probably only in the areas of aesthetics and environmentalism. The Rainbow Spirit elders in an Indigenous context have focused more on finding the parallels between Christian theology and Indigenous Dreaming.
Dr Robinson concludes from the Desert Fathers and Mothers that the key is not so much to develop an intellectual framework for desert spirituality, but to do it. In the Diocese of Perth, Anna Killigrew and Peter Harrison at Koora Retreat are themselves putting desert spirituality into practice and inviting others to experience with them God in the desert.
Each chapter of Ian’s book, Exodus, Elijah, Ezra, Jesus, etc. begins with a story engaging our imagination, for this is the huge task of desert spirituality: to reshape our imagination. Our pictures of faith are often northern European (snow upon snow at Bethlehem, rolling green pastures in Galilee!) and so tend to sentimentalise our experience of God. But Australia resonates with Palestine’s deserts, and Ian’s book takes us to the desert and excites us about the sturdy God who finds us there.
If Anyone Thirsts would make an excellent gift for your pastor or for any Christian looking to deepen their faith in the Australian context.
First published on the Starts at 60 website.
Kids join Islamic State (ISIS) because they are hungry for a passion. In the grey world created for them by their adults, they want something exciting to believe in, some dramatic good they can achieve, something great they can create, a cause to give their whole life to. Of course they do. They are adolescents.
And they are also ignorant.
Teenagers these days know so many things, and they can Google what they don’t know, but we have failed them dismally in teaching them about religion and about the religions expressed in cultures around the world. For various reasons, we have been afraid to have any religion taught in schools, and yet this is the very learning area that would prevent the radicalisation of young people.
I mean, of course, religion taught well, and taught by competent teachers. This is so urgent as to be the fourth ‘R’ of the 21st Century: young people need to know about religion alongside reading, writing and ‘rithmetic.
They need to know why billions have embraced religion and found that religion provides wisdom, comfort and direction for their lives. They need to know what motivated Mother Theresa of Calcutta, and what produced the luscious religious art of the Renaissance. In a word, they need to know something of the passion, commitment and engagement in life that religion brings to many people.
They also need to know why millions reject religion. Religion is not just passion. It’s not just a response of the heart. It requires thought and discernment as well. Agnostics have reasons for questioning, and atheists have reasons for believing that religions have got it wrong, and students need to grapple with those reasons and see if they too are convinced.
It’s our fault that our young people don’t know about religion, don’t know its complexities, don’t know how rule of law, democracy, and science all came about through the work of devout Jews, Christians and Muslims, and how the modern world could not have come into existence without religion.
They have not been introduced to the proposition that morality, morality like reverence for life, arises from the pages of the scriptures of the great religions.
It’s our fault as a community. Rectifying that error will not be easy. When he was Minister for Education forty years ago, Kim Beazley Senior proposed a National Curriculum with nine Learning Areas, one of which was Religion. He foresaw that Religion needs firstly to be taken seriously as a curriculum area.
Countries such as Denmark that seem to be doing better in embracing minorities, including Muslims, are currently strengthening their ‘identity-carrying subjects’ such as history and Christian studies. Australia will get a similar result through serious teaching about all religions.
Politicians, principals and academics should publicly champion the teaching of Religion Studies as a national priority.
The Year 11 and 12 courses that now exist like ‘Religion and Life’ in WA need boosting into greater visibility in order to create a bigger demand.
We need to identify competent teachers to mentor other teachers who, though highly trained in other areas, feel inadequate to teach religion. There are such master teachers, particularly in church schools and in professional associations like the Australian Association for Religious Education.
Universities should review teacher training programs to make sure that they prepare teachers thoroughly to teach Religion. Sadly, the Universities I know have dropped successful courses because administrators have been indifferent. That should change!
The aim should be to make the teaching and learning of Religion as engaging and fascinating as religion – and the debates about it – are.
Schools need to make sure that there is sensible space in the time-table for Religion. Students cannot take seriously a subject that is allowed only 45 minutes a week. Imagine if Science or Maths had only one period in a week! ISIS has had runaway success in meeting its educational aims. As a community we can do better than ISIS.
In other words, our community needs a plan to end the ignorance by creating and nurturing a new, a ninth, Learning Area. Every student who sees through the extremism of ISIS because she learns that Islam is something different altogether is a treasure saved for Australia.
Ted Witham is Immediate Past President of the Australian Association for Religious Education and a retired Religious Educator.
I have just discovered this article of mine was picked up by the Curriculum and Leadership Journal as a leader in 2005! Some of the details, therefore, maybe a little out of date, but the thrust of the article still stands.
Religion and the curriculum Curriculum & Leadership Journal, Volume 3, Issue 7, Front page, 24 March 2005
Ted Witham [Then] President, Australian Association for Religious Education Inc. (AARE)
In each of the States of Australia, the school curriculum rests on a list of eight learning areas. These lists are remarkably similar, with only a few phrases separating one from another. That they are so similar is no coincidence: they all derive from the list set forward in the mid-eighties as the basis of the hoped-for National Curriculum. They are similar, but there is no doubt that they are arbitrary. The number is arbitrary: why not five? Why not sixteen as proposed by the liberal theorist Philip Phenix in the sixties? Why not three? Reading, writing and ‘rithmetic? Why eight? Why these particular eight? There seems to be no common criterion for inclusion.
Take the case of English, for example. What is this learning area: literature or linguistics? English as a subject has been at different times everything from grammar to history, from textual studies to character education. (Reid 1996) No one doubts that English will remain in some form on the school curriculum. At the very least, business and universities stipulate that students coming to them are able to read and write well enough for commerce and to produce intelligible university essays. But English is hardly a coherent discipline. Students who have enjoyed English or English literature as a Year 12 subject will be unable to find English listed as a course offering at most universities. They will have to make do with Textual Studies or Communication.
Equally puzzling to some is the exclusion of Religion from this list. I am referring to the critical study of religion as a way of knowing the world, rather than the confessional religious education taught in all States (except South Australia) by visiting representatives of faith communities. It’s not difficult to justify religion’s inclusion in a rounded education, especially in a post 9/11 world in which it has become clearer how vital it is to understand the faith and motivations of people next door or around the globe.
To exclude the study of religion is in fact to censor a child’s education: how can they otherwise understand Australia’s Muslim neighbours in Indonesia, or come to grips with mediaeval theocracies in Europe from which modern democracies derive? What sense can they make of condemned bombers who are overjoyed because of their zeal for God?
The study of religion is a powerful instrument for exploring one’s own developing values and beliefs. When taught well, religion places at the student’s disposal the amazing wisdom of Taoist sages, Zen Buddhists, Jewish ethicists, Christian and Muslim mystics, scholars and theologians of all faiths and none.
In addition, a pragmatic justification for including religion arises from the teaching of values. The curriculum of each State, in a variety of ways, mandates the inclusion of values in both the content of the classroom and the processes of school administration. Many educators, including Professor Brian Hill*, argue strongly that values make no sense to students without a critical exploration of their origins. Students may learn that the taboo against sex before marriage is a value held by their elders. But unless they see the original purpose of the taboo as promoting the positive benefits of marriage, the value is simply a nonsense, and unlikely to affect their choices and behaviour. The result is apparent.
In a more general way, the values promoted by state curriculum documents derive from the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It is dishonest not to hold up the Christian and Jewish contexts in which the values originated, so that students can evaluate them for themselves, and then make informed choices in their lives.
Religion’s place in the curriculum
You may concede that religion needs to be included in a full education, because of its pervasiveness in human society and its role in creating the values of a fair and open democratic society, and yet see no need to add a ninth learning area to the curriculum. Can’t all these things be covered in Society and the Environment? Those promoting a greater inclusion of religion in the school curriculum need to convince the community both that religion has a place in a public school curriculum, and also that it should be a separate learning area. (The argument has obviously been won in most faith-based schools.)
With the liberal theorists of the sixties, I would argue that religion is a distinct way of describing the world, a distinct field of knowledge. Its use of symbol and myth to give meaning to individuals’ and communities’ lives, and its use of ritual to help people interact with fundamental realities are unlike any other discipline. The coalition government’s policies are blurring the boundaries between public and private schools and thus between those who have and those who have not included religion as a learning area. Its search for national standards will create pressure to kick-start again the idea of a national curriculum as it makes little sense to require assessment national tests separate from the full educational cycle of outcomes, pedagogy and assessment. This blurring of school types and federal and state responsibilities provides a moment of opportunity to re-examine the completeness of the education we offer to Australia’s school students, and the place of religion studies in it.
* For example in papers presented in 2004 to the Conferences of the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), and the Australian Curriculum Studies Association.
Hill, Brian V. (1991), Values education in Australian schools, Hawthorn, Vic: ACER.
Hill, Brian, V. (2004), Exploring Religion in School: a national priority, Adelaide, SA: Open Book.
Nord, Warren and Haynes, Charles (1998), Taking religion seriously across the curriculum, Nashville: First Amendment Center.
Phenix, Philip H. (1964) Realms of Meaning, New York: McGraw-Hill.
Reid, Ian (1996), ‘Whatever Happened to English?’, Chapter 6 in Higher Education or Education for Hire? Language and Values in Australian Universities, Rockhampton: Central Queensland University Press, pp 97–112.
To honour Thomas Aquinas, I re-post my attempt at paraphrasing one of Thomas’s great Eucharistic hymns:
Lord, we do adore you; deep in love we’re falling.
You in bread, in wine, are hiding, heat as in the flame.
Lord, you feed us wholly, for our hearts you’re calling;
But, Lord, we’re nothing, nothing can we claim.
Taste and touch are failing; seeing is deceiving,
Only in the sense of hearing do we know it’s you.
I believe our God’s Word, memory retrieving
Truth from the Scriptures, Jesus tells it true.
On the cross you’re hiding, God as human here,
You are God and human, and both death and life exist.
I believe, and trusting that my faith is clear;
I pray the prayer of the terrorist*.
Thomas touched your woundings; those I cannot warrant.
My faith depends on trusting in the here and now.
Help me then to know you with a heart transparent,
Seek hope: I love you more in every hour.
Bread ignites our memory of our Maker dying.
Bread and wine are living, and burn with His life afire.
Help me journey forward on our God relying
And find the sweetness people all desire.
*The two bandits crucified with Jesus were probably armed rebels, in today’s word, terrorists.
Paraphrase of Thomas Aquinas Adoro Te Devoto.
Metre: 184.108.40.206 Tune: Nicæa TiS 132
Originally posted in 2012 at https://franciscanhymns.wordpress.com/2012/08/29/hidden-god/
The [North American] Religious Education Association took for the theme of its 2013 Conference, “Coming Out Religiously”: Religion, the Public Sphere, and Religious Identity Formation. As a member, I received my invitation, but the cost of travel from Australia, both financial and physical, was too great. So I am grateful to read some of the papers from the Conference in the current issue of the Association’s journal.
There was evidently a rich exchange between Diane Moore and Charles Foster; Diane Moore from the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School is acutely conscious of the need for citizens to become religiously literate. She takes as an aspirational point the American Academy of Religion’s definition:
… a religiously literate person will possess 1) a basic understanding of the history, central texts (where applicable), beliefs,
practices and contemporary manifestations of several of the world’s religious traditions as they arose out of and continue to be shaped by particular social, historical and cultural contexts; and 2) the ability to discern and explore the religious dimensions of political, social and cultural expressions across time and place.
The more global citizens who can understand the cultural context of the world’s religions, she argues, the more violence – direct, structural and cultural – can be reduced.
- Quoted in Diane L. Moore, ‘Overcoming Religious Illiteracy’, Religious Education, 109(4) July-September 2014, 380
Charles Foster was keen to add to Dr Moore’s analysis. Not only do we need to learn from religions, we also need to be changed by our encounter with the sacred. As participants in religious traditions, we can live at greater depth, and we can be informed by the wisdom of our own and others’ religious traditions.
The ability to identify and compare religious traditions in other words, is not the same thing as recognizing in depth – or being confronted by – the sacred dimension of the mystery embedded in their practices. …
Religious education in this instance emphasizes the learning integral “to becoming” practicing participants in a religion’s traditions. Others among us are engaged in what might be called a religious education to draw on the wisdom and practices of their own religious traditions to participate competently in the mutuality of dialogue and critique with those of another religious education tradition. Still others among us join Diane Moore in a religious education in the public square to cultivate in persons capacities for discerning and analysing the role and place of religion in society.
- Charles R. Foster, ‘An Abbreviated Response to Diane Moore,’ Religious Education, 109(4) July- September 2014, 391 and 392.
Both Professor Foster and Dr Moore encourage me in my vocation as a religious educator. Just because I am technically retired does not give me a leave pass to stop teaching, or to cease writing. These issues are too important to leave alone.
It has just been announced that Australia writer Richard Flanagan has won the Man Booker prize for his novel Narrow Road to the Deep North. The chairman of the judging panel, Professor A.C. Grayling called Flanagan’s novel a ‘masterpiece’: high praise indeed.
While the story has universal appeal, it is also deeply Australian, asking – and answering – the profoundest of questions: what does it mean to love one another?
The novel takes us to events of World War II when prisoners of the Japanese were coerced to build a railway through the Thai jungle to Burma. Though explicitly fiction, it describes the events fully and exploits what novels do best: it humanises the characters. Flanagan’s main character Dorrigo Evans is a doctor who ends up as Officer Commanding the prisoners building the Thai-Burma railway. This is dangerous ground. Australians have made ‘Weary’ Dunlop into a hero and this character is too like the legend of ‘Weary’. But Dorrie Evans believes he is no hero. He is a man just managing to hold himself together in the extreme conditions.
Flanagan shifts the time backwards and forwards between the doctor’s pre-war infatuation with his uncle’s young wife, and his serial womanising after the war. This is not love.
Dorrie Evans’ one real act of heroism may be some years after the war when he saves his society wife and children from a Tasmania bushfire. This is love of a sort, but not a compelling love.
However on his death-bed, he has a kind of vision of his heroism on the railway. He remembers when the Japanese guards force him to select 200 men to march to another camp. The men are sick and dying, and he must make selections knowing that he is sending the men to a certain death, others he is saving. Yet he moves through the parade, putting his hand affectionately on the shoulder and naming each man chosen. He gets up early next morning, feeling the heavy responsibility for his choices. In his dream, each man comes up to him, shakes his hand or salutes him with a cheery ‘Thank you, Sir,’ or ‘All the best to you, Sir.’ Somehow the little he does, even the mistakes he makes, are seen as heroism, and Flanagan shows us how hollow he feels, almost as though he is a fake, or has been mistaken for someone else. This caring about mates, however flawed, approaches love.
At the heart of the novel is Flanagan’s depiction of loyalty between the ordinary men. Just trying to stay alive in a hellish world, they both helped each other and sometimes failed to help each other. The profound cruelty inflicted on these men created something of beauty, a tiny bloom in the dark jungle. We all know and feel the barrier to giving this bond of mateship its real name. Flanagan dares in the novel to call it love.
Richard Flanagan has stated in interviews that he wanted The Narrow Road to the Deep North to be a love story. The novel is a multi-layered exploration of what it means to be human, with the central layer being the layer of love, brutal, surprising, passionate and real.
Jeffrey W, Driver, A Polity of Persuasion: Gift and grief of Anglicanism,
Cascade Books 2014 (paperback 184 pages) (from $AUD 22 online, or available at St John’s Books. Fremantle.)
Reviewed by Ted Witham
Published in Anglican Messenger, September 2014
I was born an Anglican. My first memories are of Saint Mary’s in Tambellup, now sadly de-consecrated, with its emphasis on Percy Dearmer – necessarily stripped down to suit the bush environment. I thought, of course, that this simple Anglo-Catholicism was the norm. That’s what all Anglicans were like.
At boarding school, I soon realised that the robed choir and six-altar-servers-on-Sunday at Christ Church, Claremont was the norm. Only on the very eve of leaving Perth to study theology in Melbourne I discovered that there were different types of Anglicans, and they were called ‘evangelicals’. In outlining the differences for me the late Canon Brian Albany expressed great sorrow because he knew he was ending my innocence!
Four decades on, my understanding of the Anglican Communion is a little more nuanced than in 1972. I know that there are shades of grey; and I also know that there are grave differences between Anglicans. It is no longer a matter of simply accepting that we have cousins in Sydney or wherever who though a bit different to us are still family. The divergent opinions thrown up first by the ordination of women and then by homosexuality in the short term are irreconcilable.
Jeffrey Driver, Archbishop of Adelaide, sets out in A Polity of Persuasion to ask whether the attempts of the Anglican Communion to heal these rifts have been appropriate and whether they are likely to bring success. He gives helpful summaries highlighting the principles and theology of each of the reports commissioned by the Communion and leading up to the Anglican Covenant.
He uses the 18-year (or more) process to the ordination of women in the Australian Church as a case study illustrating how big changes need a great deal of time; a preparedness to let go of our agendas and expect new outcomes; effort to be made both through the legal processes; but also, and much more importantly, through informal ongoing contacts where trusting relationships can be built and partners can be persuaded of the rightness of a change.
Driver calls this cluster of elements ‘a polity of persuasion’, and his term has been taken up more broadly than in our national Church.
He insists that differences must be addressed. He notes that the Vatican did not accept the first report from ARCIC (Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission) because ARCIC’s aim of finding common ground meant that Rome couldn’t see where Anglican belief was clearly articulated.
Archbishop Jeffrey has been a bishop since 2001 involved in the work on the Anglican Covenant. He proposed enabling legislation in 2004 for the ordination of women to the episcopate. I was not surprised to learn of his background in journalism from the way he demystifies complex debates and principles. His snapshot story of the ordination of Seabury to be the first bishop in the American church illustrates not only the flexibility of Anglicanism, but also Driver’s gift for narrative and humour.
A Polity of Persuasion clearly draws on Driver’s Ph.D. thesis, but it is not dry academia. He outlines the history of our differences over the past generation with clarity, always keeping an eye on the principles and personalities involved. He gives good reasons for the church to be patient and to wait on the Holy Spirit. He calls on Anglicans to treat one another non-violently and respectfully.
This book will encourage those who are directly engaged in the work of the Anglican Covenant and in General Synod, and will inform those who stand on the sidelines of this institutional work but still love the Anglican Church and want it to continue to prosper. Reading it burrows out of you any idea that your Anglicanism is the norm and allows time for the Holy Spirit to lead all of us to the new place.
Susan R. Pitchford tssf, The Sacred Gaze: Contemplation and the healing of the self, Liturgical Press 2014, (Paperback 168 pages)
Available from $16 approx. online.
Reviewed by Ted Witham tssf
Gaze: to look with love into the face of another. Gazing requires attention over time; and gazing brings the one who gazes closer to the other whose face is beheld.
Susan Pitchford, as a member of the Third Order, Society of Saint Francis, is the right person to introduce readers to gazing as “Contemplation and the Healing of the Self”, as she describes gazing in the sub-title of this accessible and helpful book. Pitchford uses Saint Clare of Assisi as her springboard for the idea of gazing as prayer, in particular, Saint Clare’s letter to Saint Agnes of Prague, where St Clare invites Agnes to gaze on Christ as a mirror.
Susan Pitchford first places this idea in her academic field of sociology to understand how a loving gaze can lead to the healing of self by correcting the images we have of ourselves.
We begin the journey by acknowledging that we are gazed at: God looks with love on our face. What God sees there, because God is love, is the self that is made whole, not the wounded and sinful self of which we are so conscious. When we discover this true self, we are set free to pray in true freedom. We then can gaze on the face of God.
Pitchford is conscious that this way of talking about prayer can easily be empty words. A useful chapter describes how different personalities can use their imaginations to engage in gazing: for some, this will be visual or verbal, for others auditory or kinaesthetic. All are ways to behold the face of God, to bring our attention to focus on God present with us. How to gaze with words or scenes from scripture or with clay or music attractively detailed. These practical suggestions are a strength of The Sacred Gaze.
Like Sister Ilia Delio in her books on Franciscan prayer, Susan Pitchford traces a threefold movement of prayer: from attention to gazing to transformative action. As Pitchford writes, ‘If our gazing at Christ doesn’t cause us to turn a compassionate gaze at the world, and motivate us to compassionate action, then we need to check on whether it’s really Christ we’ve been gazing at. If we know nothing else about Jesus, we can be certain at least of this; staying aloof from the needs of the world is not his style.’ (page 138)
The Sacred Gaze begins in Franciscan prayer and sociological insight, but roams widely and useful across much of the literature of contemplative prayer. I enjoyed the insistence with which Pitchford connects this material with ordinary life. It is encouraging that ordinary people like me and you can set out on the journey of the sacred gaze, being held in love, discovering the true self, and acting in freedom with compassion for the world.
Christ … withdraws at the very point where he could dominate. We in turn are thus required to experience the peril of the absence of God, the modern experience par excellence. … To imitate Christ is to refuse to impose oneself as a model and to always efface oneself before others. To imitate Christ is to do everything to avoid being imitated. … The death of the gods, which so frightened Nietzsche, is simply the same thing as an essential withdrawal in which Christ asks us to see the new face of the divine.
– René Girard, Battling to the End, Conversations with Benoît Chantre, Michigan State University Press 2010, page 125, Quoted in Scott Cowdell, Rene Girard and Secular Modernity: Christ, Culture, and Crisis, University of Notre Dame Press 2013.
The Reed and the Spring
On the cape the worlds of this kingdom disappear,
Invisible vessels that towards Him you steer,
When will we see your light-house flood the space with light
And banish before it the sombre squadron of night?
What celestial map showing how to take the promontory
Are you carrying with you as you race around eternity?
And when will you reach the stopover of prayer
to pick up the Eternal One if the harbours won’t let you there?
When on the sheltered docks of love and unreason
Did you load onto the admiral’s nave
Some fugitive demon a dream on the run from prison,
The chief of stars, pilot in the starry wave?
In heaven’s calm expanses disappear
The ephemeral wakes of vessels of prayer.
Has the ship’s astrologer hoisted the beacon of humanity
Far from earth on the Holy Spirit’s firmity?
Translation into English by Ted Witham 2014
Le cap sur ce royaume ou les mondes s’effacent,
Invisibles vaisseaux qui gouvernez vers Lui,
Quand verrons-nous vos feux illuminer l’espace
Et chasser devant eux l’escadre de la nuit ?
Pour affronter le cap quelle carte céleste
Avez-vous emportée en vous courses du Ciel ?
Et quand toucherez-vous, si nul port ne vous reste,
L’escale de prière où l’on prend l’Éternel ?
Avez-vous embarqué sur la nef amirale
Aux darses de l’amour et de la déraison
Quelque démon du songe évadé de prison,
Chef d’étoiles, pilote en la mer sidérale ?
Dans les grands calmes du ciel où s’évanouit
Le sillage évasif des vaisseaux de prière
L’astrologue du bord a-t-il loin de la terre
Hissé le feu de l’homme au mât du Saint-Esprit ?
H. Bosco, ‘Le Roseau et la source’, Poèmes,
Paris : Gallimard, 1949, pp. 266-267