Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Australia's Crumbling Pillars

This post continues the discussion I began in Was Australia a Christian country - and what comes now.

In what now seems a very distant past, I used to think of Australia as supported by four main pillars.

The first was our constitutional system. Centred on Parliament, the Westminster System and constitutional monarchy, the Australian constitutional system was based on principles developed through war and fire in England, granted freely to Australia through representative government. This system also gave us our legal system and the common law, still the main bulwark between individual freedom and state coercion.

Our particular form of the British constitutional system was a federation, intended to provide a balance between central and regional interests.

The second pillar was Christianity. Regardless as to whether or not Australia was a Christian country, Christian values were built into our system. Further, our shared Christian heritage provided a link back to our European past, including its sectarian conflicts.

This linked to our third shared pillar, our place in British and European history, a tradition going back several thousand years.

The last pillar was our own secular and very Australian tradition, the way we interpreted and transformed our experiences into a new variant of European civilisation.

Now I accept that all this can be argued. Still, as I see it, over the last forty years we have been systematically chipping away at all these core pillars. My point in saying this is, and my link to the previous post, is that it is now quite unclear to me just what will take their place. I also suspect that we may be poorly equipped to manage future changes.

All groups need shared things, generally expressed in symbols. In the Australian case, Australian popular culture has proved remarkably robust. Beyond that, the only symbols on which we appear to agree are war and sport, both linked together by a consciously promoted Australian nationalism.

This type of thing may well be necessary, since along other dimensions Australian society may be fragmenting. Now I might be wrong here, but let me give you an example.

Our public school system has been central to Australian life. We saw in the past how the Irish influence in the Roman Catholic Church combined with the Catholic school system to extend the life of sectarian divides. Now the public school system is in decline as people vote with their feet, withdrawing their kids.

In all this, forget the middle class parents who opt for a private school education because they think that it is in some way better, some of whom actually object that their chosen school has the temerity to actually be Christian! Focus instead on those opting for particular cultural or religious education because of culture or religion.

I am not sure how big this group is, but it is clearly growing. Track forward twenty years. What proportion of the Australian population will it be? And what will be the attitudes of this growing group including the young as they begin to vote?

I really have no idea. I just know that it will be different.

I have been writing this post with multiple interruptions, making it hard to maintain coherence. So time to stop.

Next morning

Rereading, one of the difficulties in this and the previous post for the reader, and perhaps for me too, is that there are to many different threads so that the argument gets lost. I really need to disentangle some of them. I also need in some cases to make my own biases clear. While these may seem self-evident, that is not necessarily the case.

Last night proved to be a bit of a time waster because my wife's plane was delayed by more than an hour so that by the time I had cooked and served dinner it was really to late to do anything. Then this morning I have to be at work early, in part to do something that I did not have time to do last night. So I have no time beyond responding to a few comments.

Perhaps the best thing is to continue the discussion by pulling out some of the elements and looking at them in a stand-alone fashion independent of the previous context.


ninglun said...

I do find it troubling if I attempt to imagine our society minus such things as the Brotherhood of St Laurence, St Vincent de Paul, Uniting Care, and so on. However, a really deep issue is whether people remain convinced in the future that Christianity (indeed theism more generally) is actually true; that has been a long developing phenomenon, with a more aggressive atheism clearly working hard at this time. Without that core of believers the institutions will die, as surely as we no longer see many temples of Jupiter or Venus. We can't just have institutions because they used to be there if they are evacuated of all real meaning. Politics, left or right, would be impotent to sustain such institutions if they ever become hollow shells, no matter what good they may once have done.

On the other hand I don't think at the end of the day this worst case scenario is going to happen. We will no doubt have a greater variety of faith communities, and I suspect more ecumenism among them. I even saw that at the Hospice in the past year, and no-one at our Uniting Church would ask difficult theological questions of anyone willing to lend a hand.

Just a thought.

Jim Belshaw said...

I would agree with your points, here, Neil, although I think that you are misreading my arguments a little. That's not surprising actually, because I am mixing too many things together.

I think that there are some worthwhile points in what I have said, but I need to disentangle them a little.

Sundarraj Jayaraj said...
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