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New Zealand's model for public religion



After the response to the Christchurch murders many Australians have looked more attentively to New Zealand for wisdom. Some remark on the part that the Maori religious culture plays in public life. Public events include traditional Maori blessings, in which all are expected to join. The religious dimension, which is inescapably articulated in public life, demands that people are at home in both a secular and a religious culture and familiar with the symbols and languages appropriate to each.

A Maori community leader performs a Haka near Al Noor mosque in Christchurch in March 2019. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)This contrasts with Australia where the public culture is secular, enjoying its emancipation from an earlier time when Christian faith and morality were privileged and enshrined in law.

Central to the Australian relationship between religion and public culture is wariness of any attempt to proselytise or to impose religious beliefs and moral practices. Instead public and religious language are compartmentalised, and participation in religious ritual is optional. Any exceptions to this rule are controversial and reasons always need to be given to justify them. The virtue that is sought in the relationship between public and religious culture is tolerance. It is defended by fencing the boundaries that separate them.

This framework shapes the conduct of religiously based social agencies, almost all of which employ and serve people who do not share their faith. In their work they can appeal to the religious tradition that shapes their humane values. They may also expect the people who work in them to share the values which shape their work. But they may not demand that their staff ascribe to the faith that grounds these values.

In practice, when passing on the tradition and values that inform their work they will translate the faith and stories that underlie the values into a public language accessible to all the participants and workers in their projects. The virtues they seek in their members are a commitment to humane values and an openness to the religious tradition that underlies them, with which they are free to engage or disengage.

This way of working is effective as long as the values of the agency permeate the relationships between staff and with the people they serve, and are seen to flow from the tradition of the agency. At the heart of all values and relationships is the implicit conviction that each human being is precious and may not be used as means to someone's wider ends. This conviction, of course, will be grounded in many different ways by members of staff.

The New Zealand experience, however, prompts reflection on the adequacy of this Australian settlement, particularly in the accompaniment of people who are disadvantaged. Some of these suffer from a loss of meaning in their lives and seek to find it in the face of hard challenges. They may raise questions that traditionally religions have fielded.


"The New Zealand practice of bringing together the public and the religious culture offers an opportunity to develop skill in translating from one to the other in a way that respects each."


These include: What happens to us after death? Is the world ultimately impersonal? If there is a God, how come the world in in such a mess? Is there forgiveness? Some ask such questions in response to traumatic experience. Others try to reconcile their lives with an inherited framework of belief, often enough badly understood.

To accompany people asking these existential questions, we must join with them in conversation. This does not mean giving them answers, but it does mean listening to the depth of their question without cheapening it, allowing it to touch us at the depth at which it is asked, and finding words with which to respond to it. This is an exercise in multiple translation — from and into the language of the person we accompany, from and into the language of whatever beliefs ground our own values, from and into the language of the tradition we inherit. In such translation we shall often be flying blind.

The delicacy of such accompaniment calls for practice in translation. The advantage of the New Zealand practice of bringing together the public culture and the religious culture of one of its major groups is that it offers an opportunity to develop skill in translating from one to the other in a way that respects each. The limitation of the Australian separation of religious language and symbols from those of the secular culture is that it leaves one poorly resourced for translation. The encounter of cultures is avoided in the interests of tolerance. Tolerance certainly avoids bullying and ensures not buying into fights. But it can also discourage personal engagement in others' worlds.

The key to addressing this challenge is to develop an organisational culture in which people feel encouraged to speak together about the deeper questions that faith addresses. This is countercultural, because these things are ordinarily regarded as matters private to individuals. Conversation about them demands a higher than normal level of trust between participants.

To reach this level of trust, however, is the mark of a good organisation and it prepares people to accompany vulnerable people more deeply. Open conversation also has the advantage of opening the resources of the tradition in an exploratory way. It puts the language of the religious tradition and of other sources into play, not as an authority, an expectation nor a pressure, but as a resource.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: A Maori community leader performs a Haka near Al Noor mosque in Christchurch in March 2019. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, New Zealand, Christchurch, Maori



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Existing comments

We do have things to learn from NZ, not the least of which is the integration of indigenous culture with the predominant imported culture that is modern Australia. NZ and Sth Africa are the templates we need to emulate. Both have abandoned their Eurocentric attitudes towards the indigenous peoples and achieved the integration of indigenous peoples through treaty and full inclusion, proudly echoing around the world in two of the greatest national anthems on the planet, both sung with the indigenous language in the first verse and repeated in English in the second verse. Both include religious belief in a god. We need a similar national anthem expressing these same sentiments rather than the tourism jingle that we have at the moment that seemingly is going nowhere despite the oft repeated plea to "advance Australia fair".

john frawley | 05 June 2019  

I think, in the 1960s, religion and spirituality were much more evident in education and public life generally than they are now. The excellent Queensland School Readers, if I remember correctly, had a fair deal of religiously related poetry, such as the Vision of Belshazzar by Byron, which readily related back to the Bible. Melbourne High School, whose Principal was the late Bill Woodfull, had an active and tolerant Christian Union, which was under a staff member. Mr Woodfull himself was the son of a Methodist minister and whilst tolerant probably set as much a Christian example as the Headmaster of Wesley. MHS also had many Jewish boys which also broadened the religious perspective. Australia is much more multicultural and multiracial now, so the religious and spiritual perspective has widened. My own feeling is that both Australian identity and spirituality are broadening and widening and are works in progress. I wouldn't like to try and pin either of them down like a butterfly, because, like mounting butterflies, you would kill something living. I tend to believe in a sort of living, silent witness to one's own religion/spirituality. As far as attempting to incorporate Aboriginal spirituality into the national ethos, I wonder what Aboriginal Australians would think about that? Have they been consulted? What would they want here?

Edward Fido | 05 June 2019  

From my context of retirement, a mostly now empty monastery home to four elderly men with a younger leader (Indonesian) who is pastor in an adjacent church with dwindling Sunday congregations, I see an example of potential humanising action with a Christian ingredient. An AA group meets here six times a week, there is a much under-utilised retreat house on monastery grounds, and a hectare or two of open land. The challenge: provide a kiosk to promote sharing among AA folk, look at the retreat house for emergency accommodation, use the open land for a community garden. All this in the hope of the hosts being able to engage with difference in the spirit of where (mostly) 2 or 3 gather (for coffee, for gardening); in such a context a chance to promote humanisation in the spirit of Jesus.

Noel McMaster | 06 June 2019  

It's becoming very difficult to engage in the sort of dialogue Andrew encourages when media-amplified voices regularly seek the suppression of public input from religious believers on vital moral and social issues.

John RD | 06 June 2019  

You're pretty spot on John RD: a dialogue requires two parties willing to communicate with each other. These days there are so many people involved in shouting others they disagree with down. If Jesus came up against these people I think he would just walk away because they had shut themselves off from the truth as in Ephesians 4:18 'being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is within them, because of the hardness of their heart'. Some people don't like what they consider these hard truths. Christianity, as well as many other traditional religions, does not promise an easy path to salvation, far from it. The great saints who Christianised so much of the world may have taken on some local cultural colouring but they never compromised with Christian truth. There is a time and place for dialogue and a time to stand firm. Standing firm, as so many Christians in Eastern Europe did in the dark days of Communism, often leads to the emergence of a triumphant Church as in Poland, Russia and Romania, countries far more Christian than the contemporary West.

Edward Fido | 07 June 2019  

An interesting conversation. The religious-secular divide is not just an Australian one. Anti-communism in Poland led to a triumphalist Church (both Universal and Polish) under the papacy of John Paul II. It shouldn't surprise that secularism is now as rampant in Poland as elsewhere. I sense therefore that Andy's lovely piece may be a trifle utopian. Inevitably Christians in the public sphere, and especially in the demos, must take sides - preferably on behalf of the downtrodden - and risk alienating those who disagree with them. An insistence on inhabiting the middle-of-the-road often ends up as road-kill. And justice is surely more important than a peace that offers to placate all.

Michael Furtado | 08 June 2019  

Not sure that having a public culture that is secular frees us from religious-style behaviours and imperatives. One could suggest, as Ken Inglis did, that Anzac is our secular religion. Father Paul Collins has said Anzac (and its extreme version, Anzackery) caters to a yearning for liturgy. NZ on the other hand is a bit more level-headed about Anzac. Perhaps because they get their liturgy in other ways, as described in the article? Meanwhile, in Australia, as Frank Bongiorno and others have said there is a tendency to lean on people regarding what is expected Anzac observance. Particularly children. There's more on this on the Honest History website: honesthistory.net.au.

Dr David Stephens | 08 June 2019  

Thanks for this Andrew. As a Kiwi, I value your observations about our struggles and partial success to express spirituality in the public square. However, there’s still a long way to go as you are right in saying that it is counter-cultural to speak about topics that have long been considered to be off-limits and ‘too personal’. This is exactly the problem we have faced around spirituality in health as health professionals struggle to engage in conversations of meaning lest they be too intrusive. Thanks again Andrew.

Sande Ramage | 09 June 2019  

Edward Fido's admiration for religion in the public square in Poland, Russia and Romania would be commendable were it to be true. Having just returned from Europe I can assure him that Poland suffers from the triumphalism of John-Paul II's particular brand of pious Marian spirituality accompanied by anti-communist nationalism. Communism is again resurgent there, evidenced by the voting support it gets as neoliberalism cuts its unjust swathe across the Polish economy. The right-wing parties, who include proto-fascists, are in alliance with Catholics to oppose these developments. In Russia, the Orthodox Church has expanded its quietist hold over the Russian people to similar disastrous effect. Prayers for Putin are commonly offered in Orthodox churches in uncritical ignorance of the policy crudities of this illiberal and anti-democratic former KGB thug. Romania is mired in poverty, with the dominant Orthodox Church in a similar situation to that in Russia. As to John RD's reference to 'suppression of public input from religious believers on vital moral and social issues', I saw no evidence of this there. While the Catholic Church sought to combat the inevitable and ghastly liberalisation of abortion legislation, its silence on the spread of fascism, especially in Hungary, was scandalous.

Michael Furtado | 11 June 2019  

As another Kiwi Anglican Priest, let me join Sande in thanking Andrew and others for these interesting comments from outside about the New Zealand scene. I have gradually come to a similar view as Andrew, and it is encouraging to hear how this appears from over the ditch. We most definitely have a long way to go. There is clearly a sort of schizophrenia, and no small measure of hypocrisy in how many Kiwis view spirituality. On the one hand we have just the same dynamic that Andrew and others have described in Australia, of a strong anti-religious sentiment, rooted similarly in a rejection of our colonial past. But on the other hand, there is a widespread respect for "cultural sensitivity", especially in relation to Maori. So it is very common in such "secular" contexts as the law, medicine and education to start and finish a meeting with a karakia. As long as this is offered in te reo Maori it is seen as appropriate. But if many of the attendees realised that what had been said was an explicitly Christian prayer, followed by a hymn, they would be much less comfortable.

Edward Prebble. | 18 June 2019  

And if I can be allowed a PS, i am especially intriqued by John Frawley"s opinion that "E ihowa Atua/God of nations" is "one of the greatest National Anthems on the planet". Kiwis' attitudes to our anthem exemplify the split opinion mentioned above. There is a fair amount of embarrassment about its overtly religious wording, and ongoing discussions about ways that it might be changed. Ont he other hand, the widespread acceptance of the Maori verse (whose first three words translate as "Oh Jehovah God) means that any change is probably impossible. And while many people here think the tune is a bit of a dirge, we are also growing to love it.

Edward Prebble. | 18 June 2019  

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