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Australia has been portrayed as a decidedly secular country, begun by convicts rather than by Pilgrims looking for a new world. It has also been portrayed as a Christian country with the preamble of its constitution declaring that all was done “humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God”. Look at clouds long enough, and one can make out almost anything.

In reality, it has been something of a mixture, as are most of the countries of the world with a professedly Christian background. The unbelieving novelist, Marcus Clarke (author of For the Term of His Natural Life), predicted in 1877 of the Australian of the future: “His religion will be a form of Presbyterianism; his national policy a democracy tempered by the rate of exchange.” Had he been an ancient Hebrew, he might have been in some danger of being stoned (Deut.13:1-5; 18:20-22).

Until volume 3 of his six-volume work on the History of Australia, Manning Clark saw three philosophies as having competed for the soul of Australia, namely Roman Catholicism, the Enlightenment, and Protestantism. Clark spent his life half in love with Christ and half in love with Karl Marx, and never quite knew how to bring the two together.

I was present at one lecture when he spoke of Henry Lawson’s death in terms of a Mozart requiem, and gleaned insights from Marx, Dostoevsky and John Henry Newman. The result was, in the end, elegantly written but in terms of content resembled the American Cherpumple pie, which consists of apple, cherry, and pumpkin baked inside a giant spice cake. Since the days of Clark, that cake seems to contain even more ingredients.

What defines us? Distance? The outback? Swagmen and bush workers? Footballers? Canberra bureaucrats? Are we larrikins or conformists, or are they all too often one and the same? In the end, there are our cultural idols and there is the living God. Late in life, Clark saw a bored generation living in “the kingdom of Nothingness”. But nature is not the only thing that abhors a vacuum, and increasingly, something more akin to the old Soviet League of the Militant Godless has arisen. Yet in all things, fear not, little flock, for the kingdom still advances in Australia (Luke 12:32).

Peter Barnes

Peter Barnes

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