LETTER FROM AUSTRALIA

PAPUAN PROUST VS AUSTRALIAN SHAKESPEARE

AUSTRALIA ENTERED 1997 in the midst of a debate about immigration, and multi-culturalism. The issue has been stirred up by Pauline Hanson, a single mother and the proprietor of a Fish and Chip shop, who is an independent MP. Ms. Hanson claims that Australia is much too generous in its treatment of Aboriginal people and too ready to admit migrants from Asia.

Clearly she does not share the view of Australia identity attributed to the former Keating government by a Harvard academic, Samuel P. Huntingdon. In his new book, The Clash of Civilizations, Huntingdon sees a world increasingly divided by conflicts between different cultures and claims that Australia is trying to defect from its traditional Western allegiance and become an Asian nation.

Small wonder that The Economist devoted a long article in December 1996 to discussing what it termed Australia identity crisis although it concluded that the country does in fact have its own distinctive culture and quite an attractive one at that robust, outspoken, instinctively egalitarian and mildly hedonistic.

Church leaders have been united in condemning racialism but there is a growing realisation that multi-culturalism is a complex issue requiring careful attention. It lies behind post-modernism and the growth of relativism in contemporary thought.

According to Genesis, God divided the people of the world into different language-groups and cultures as a punishment for their pride in trying to erect the Tower of Babel. Human beings were made to live alongside people who are different in order to appreciate diversity and learn humility.

Pentecost did not, as is often asserted, cancel out the divisions introduced at Babel; the people from different nations gathered together on that occasion could understand each other but they continued to speak in their own languages. Pentecost does not represent the end of cultural diversity; it is both a sign of Gods intention that diversity should exist within a wider framework of unity and also a promise that the mission of the church will be directed to every nation and language group.

All of which suggests that Christians should have a basically positive attitude to multi-culturalism as part of Gods plan for the human family. To scorn and despise a culture because it is unlike our own is to fall into the sin of pride. We should approach other cultures with a presumption in favour of their value and we should hope to see the gospel expressed in terms of their world views and patterns of thinking.

None of this means that we must refuse to discriminate and make judgements about customs and beliefs. It is a warning to us that in making such judgements we have to be careful not to apply standards that are derived exclusively from our own culture. This is a common failing of people in the West.

Saul Bellow, for example, is supposed to have commented "Show me a Papuan Proust and I will read him".

There is no Papuan Proust but there is a wonderfully diverse Papuan culture with spectacular dances that probably cannot be equalled anywhere else in the world and a rich oral tradition of folk tales. The tragedy is that we will never appreciate Papuan culture or any other culture of the Third World if we insist on viewing it through the lens of Western ideology, whether that ideology be Feminism or Capitalism.

Multi-culturalism has played a big role in making post-modernism with its claim that there are no objective standards of truth and no meta-narratives so attractive at the present time. Some Christians have flirted with post-modernism but its long-term impact is bound to be destructive of human community. It there are no standards of truth or rules to govern debate, then it is impossible for us to decide differences of opinion in a harmonious manner. Human society fragments as different sections and groups go their own way.

In promoting a sane and balanced multi-culturalism, Christians can strike a blow against relativism and cynical attempts to undermine reason and rationality. Cultures deserve respect; cultural diversity should be welcomed and celebrate: but all cultures have aspects that are imperfect and need to be transformed by the gospel message.

Conditions change and cultures must change with them if they are to meet human needs. Customs that are suited to one type of society do not always work in another. We admire Roman law and Roman roads but we can be thankful that we no longer use Roman numerals. It is absurd to banish Dickens or Dante from university courses because they are dead white European Males. How much wiser was novelist David Malouf (of part-Lebanese, part-Jewish ancestry) when he told his fellow Australians that their greatest writer is William Shakespeare.

Australia is probably one of the worlds most successful multi-cultural societies and I do not think that Pauline Hanson will be able to change that. Yet Australia is still struggling to find the right balance between allowing ethnic groups freedom to enjoy and promote their own cultures and evolving common symbols and values that will enable Australians to exist side by side as one nation.

How do we permit pluralism and yet preserve community? It is a question a great many societies face at the end of the twentieth century, not least the Anglican Church. In fact, this seems to me to be the main reason why those of us who are termed traditionalists have a duty to think very carefully before we take leave of our old home. The church needs our presence to help it remember the lesson of Babel and we need to stay to remember the same lesson. In his wisdom, God has arranged matters so that we only get to heaven in company with people who are different. There are limits to pluralism but those limits are not as narrow as the fundamentalists or the slaves to political correctness often imagine.

Paul Richardson is Bishop of Wangaratta in Australia

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