'Silly impulses' of religion

On a bright autumn day, Royal Parade in Parkville, Melbourne, is a delight to walk along. A golden-brown canopy covers its broad expanse and the Victorian terraces stretch gracefully onward. The sounds of birds, trams and university students mingle with the noise of construction from the new neuroscience facility across the road. Runners and bikes whiz along the footpaths and the sounds of instruments find their way through the open doors of the Conservatorium. With the sun shining the atmosphere is full of colour and prospects for the future.

Near the busy road and alongside a church is a patch of green. In the middle of the green stands the white marble figure of a soldier, a monument dedicated to the men of the district who died in the Great War. Underneath the soldier in his slouch hat are engraved the names of the fallen. It is a plain memorial, easily missed in the splendour of the autumn scene. This is a pity, because it bears an inscription engraved for a sunlit day. At the bottom of a long list, its letters fading, is a line of writing: 'We died for country, live ye for it.'

These words lift up the heart, especially so in the light of a beautiful afternoon. They make an exhortation that seems to say so much more than does the conventional memorial. They urge the passer-by, so often a student, to be full of life and to give thought to the years ahead rather than to the past alone. It is impossible to read them in a banal way, as simply urging 'duty' to country, flag and 'tradition.' Their call is to walk forward, surely, past the division and conflict at home and abroad of those Great War years to something new and as yet unimagined. 'Live ye for it' — within these words is the view of a wide horizon.

Who among us now directs us towards this wide horizon? That is the puzzle.

One cold day last year, a long way from Parkville, the old mining town of Sovereign Hill, with its shafts, tents and huts, became the backdrop for a scene that the soldiers of the Great War could never have imagined. Outside the saloon where beer flows and the bawdy atmosphere of long lost days is recreated, a group of veiled Somali women spread their prayer mats. Their children who had dined on halal food in the Saloon had gone to worship different gods in the boiled lolly shop across the road.

Around the women visitors bustled, the horse and carriage rattled up the hill towards the old mine and men dressed as constables strode down the muddy street. In their billowing robes, the women prostrated themselves, foreheads touching the ground, their bodies expressing prayer with every movement. They made an extraordinary image of vulnerability and yet power. Their power was in the freedom of their gesture.

I often think of the prostrated Somali women during days at university, in lectures or conversations over lunch. In the packed theatre, a lecturer makes a joke that rings with humorous disdain at the 'silly' impulses of religion and is met with a wave of appreciative laughter. The tone of the laughter is that of an inside joke, conveying a message that among these students and teachers, 'faith' is the court jester.

The joke may be discomfiting for many students, but to speak of that discomfiture seems impossible. Momentarily, the lecture theatre becomes a place of limitation, a narrow space. Difference, at least of a religious kind, does not fit. I remember the sureness of the Somali women in Sovereign Hill. And I am reminded of the injunction on the memorial across the road from the university.

In our different ways, many of us tend to inhabit narrow spaces. There is nothing unusual about the lecture theatre laughter or conversational quips about religious identity or expression. Judging from the media and especially from the blogosphere, many of us are puzzled or even offended by the very idea of a religious commitment. We are especially wary of religion when it rears its head in public. It seems that at the root of these responses is suspicion, born out of unfamiliarity or lack of contact or just prejudice.

And suspicion is mutual. People of faith sometimes give the impression that to be religious is to live within fortress faith, when, in the Christian case, a gospel of freedom urges Christians out to encounter everyone in 'the tempest of living'. So the question is raised, how free is our community if we suspect each other? If we have to laugh along in order to avoid suspicion? Freedom does not sit easily with distrust and disdain.

Those survivors of the Great War who erected the Parkville memorial were powerfully gripped by the future and the possibility it held. So much so, it seems evident that when they carved the words 'live ye for it' into a marble bloc they were not prescribing a future but inviting all of us to imagine and create one. That is what gives these words their tremendous fearlessness. The call on our imagination is great if we are to be as fearless as those words on the stone demand.

What can we draw upon in this task of imagination? Thomas Merton wrote that our conscience is enlightened when we look out upon a vastly widened horizon. Certainly, as Australians, we look out now on a vast horizon, widened by immigration, inescapable engagement with the world and all the various outcomes of globalisation.

Merton went on to say that 'conscience is the soul of freedom', which must mean that if we value freedom we need to acknowledge and respect the many ways — religious and non-religious — through which people look for truth and live by conscience. In dismissing faith, we dismiss people for whom faith is central to the search for truth. We exclude them from that task of imagination and creation.

When the Somali women knelt in the muddy street of Sovereign Hill, they made a gesture of great freedom. Curiously, it happened in a place which, despite its current tourist-driven folksy character, is one of the few places where in Australian history an overt claim to freedom was made. There, at the Eureka Stockade, an eclectic group of people were able to find a language and an impulse to come together in solidarity, despite their differences. There are limitations to the Eureka story, but it remains a statement of nascent possibility.

In the early 20th century the Australians who erected the monument to the fallen did so with hope and openness to the future. At the outset of the 21st century, in the lecture theatre, the media or even in lunchtime conversation, we look to the horizon and see difficult differences. But there are signs and exhortations in our midst: the Stockade, the hopeful monument and people who pray in the street. They urge us to be enlivened, to find ways of creating together that inclusive space where freedom flourishes.

'We died for country, live ye for it.'

Ben ColeridgeIn 2007 Ben Coleridge worked as a language assistant in Russia. He spent September 2008 in Israel and Palestine and is currently studying Arts at the University of Melbourne. This esssay was awarded Second Prize in the 2009 Margaret Dooley Awards for young writers.

Topic tags: ben coleridge, Margaret Dooley Awards, royal parade, sovereign hill, somali women, eureka stockade



submit a comment


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up