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Why thinking Indigenously is important for Australian theology



As I get around the Australian churches and their theological institutions I notice that most Christian theology remains culturally captive to a white western perspectives and means of production. Senior denominational leadership remains steadfastly white, as do the core teaching staff of theological schools. The reading material set for classes in history, philosophy, theology, biblical studies and even so-called ‘practical’ or ‘missional’ theology is produced by white people for white people.

Teacher and student on campus (Getty Images)

There are exceptions of course. I recognise, for example, that south-, east-, and south-east-Asian staff and perspectives are slowly finding their way into theology and even into the senior leadership of some churches. I welcome the growing strength of Eastern European and North African Orthodoxy in Australia, as these communities remind white Australians that Christianity was a Middle-Eastern and North African religion long before it was European. Having said that, it remains the case that theological leadership in this country is overwhelmingly white. This is so despite the citizenry of Australian churches, consisting of those who actually turn up to corporate prayer and mission, increasingly and rapidly becoming anything but white. The same is true for our theological colleges. Increasingly, students who wish to study theology or train for ordained or commissioned ministries, come from more recent migrant communities. In many colleges white students are very much in the minority.

‘What does it matter’, many persist in asking, ‘if theology is taught by white people? Isn’t theology just theology? Don’t all potential church leaders, whatever their ethnic profile, need to have a basic understanding of the theological tradition in order to guide their people through the complexities of modernity?’ While I heartily agree that every potential church leader needs to have a foundational understanding of theological tradition, I am not at all convinced that teaching a white version of that tradition is going to do the trick.

For ‘theology’ is always and everywhere perspectival. The tradition does not speak with one voice, especially if that voice is taken to be white or western. Theology is forever shaped by the places, people and cultures in which it is written or performed. That is as true of the foundational theological texts found in the bible as much as it is for every subsequent iteration. And it is as true for so-called ‘second-order’ theology (academic-sounding reflections upon theological art or narrative) as it is for the more primary, symbolic, forms such as poetry, oracle, parable, painting, sculpture, architecture, dance, sacrament or ‘liturgy’ (a term which arguably encompasses all the others). Most white western theology recognises this fact as formally true. At the same time most white, western, theology appears blind to the powerfully unconscious filters at play in its own means of production, filters which seek to reduce and simplify as well as to appropriate and colonise theological formulations that come from other places and peoples.

This seems especially true when it comes to white, colonial, engagements with Indigenous people. Here in ‘Australia’ (itself a colonial fiction) white theology has pretended for nigh on 200 years that Indigenous people do not exist. For 200 years the theology of the coloniser has worked hand-in-glove with the legal fiction of terra nulius which asserted, and still asserts in many pockets of the white church that, upon arrival, this continent was entirely without people or culture, that it was effectively a blank canvas which God had provided for the painting of an entirely white future. In this respect, white theology is, as a matter of historical record, remarkably similar to the Australian Constitution, which makes no mention at all of Indigenous peoples, either Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. White theology, like the Constitution, was habitually written in the service of an entirely white, colonial, people with white, colonial, concerns. Many modern observers, particularly those who have come to Australia later, may wonder at how theology could be as complicit in the Great Australian Silence about Indigenous people as the disciplines of history and politics even more so.But the reasons for this are obvious. In addition to that more habitual form of white filtering that accompanied, and still accompanies, the expansion of colonial empires, here in Australia theology has been silent because of a secret shame that can barely, even now, speak its own name.

It's the shame of knowing that — against every ethical principle that may be legitimately derived from the teaching of Jesus or his apostles — the churches were willing partners and agents in the attempted genocide of an entire people. The colonial churches, and/or prominent members of those churches, both enabled and enacted the massacres, the removals, the enslavement, the incarcerations, the ‘re-education’ and the wholesale destruction of Indigenous agriculture, language, kinship systems, cosmologies and spiritualities. The churches did this, but their shame at having done so has rendered them silent, especially insofar as the church speaks through its theological performance. It is far easier to speak of the sins of others than of our own sins. It is easier, to cite a prominent example, to endlessly discuss the German theology that emerged from the Holocaust in Europe, than to engage the reality of Australia’s original sin and founding act of violence. Or, indeed, its contemporary consequences across a myriad of social and spiritual indicators.


"For Indigenous people, who remain invisible to much of the white church, the possibility of pursing a sense of Christian vocation via an Indigenous-led pathway says, quite simply, 'we see you, we love you, we accept and acknowledge your world and your ways.'"


It is no coincidence that white ‘settler’ theology in this country has barely begun to engage with Indigenous people. Arguably, it has only begun to do so because the Indigenous citizens of the churches have begun to cast off the imaginative shackles made for us by our white gubbas and find our own voice. Doing so is, of course, immensely complicated for every Indigenous person in the country has been colonised, whether we are personally conscious of the fact or not. The tentacles of colonisation extend not only to the stealing of land and the destruction of culture, but also into the hearts and brains of colonised people. The colonial prohibition against talking and speaking and acting ‘like a native’ is a constant and unrelenting pressure towards adopting a white view of the world, a white social imaginary. I personally know Aboriginal people who identify themselves as evangelical Christians and/or political conservatives who, while insisting they are genuinely Aboriginal, also seem to be completely comfortable with unreconstructed, entirely white accounts of who and what they are, even to the point of baldly stating that colonisation was in fact God’s way of ‘punishing Aborigines for our supposed wickedness’. In Aboriginal English, we call such people ‘coconuts’: black on the outside, but white on the inside.

Actually, the situation is far more complicated than that in contemporary ‘Australia’. For many of our most capable and most radical spokespeople ‘look’ white on the outside, but have decidedly black hearts and brains. The paradox here, which routinely seems to bamboozle even the most intelligent coloniser, is that the strongest contemporary critique of whiteness is today coming from Indigenous people who have studied history or cultural studies at the margins of white educational institutions, those ever-fragile margins where black, or other scholars of colour, have enjoyed a measure of freedom to interrogate who they are in their own terms. Here is a particular instance of modernity’s inherent capacity for self-contradiction. By making even the smallest room for the other, even if that room is nothing more than a crack in the concrete that composes an urban footpath, in time that gap can enable a seed to grow, a seed that, in time, will transform itself into a large tree which, ultimately, may displace or even destroy the concrete slab.

The Indigenous academics who tend such seeds are doing two kinds of work simultaneously. We are seeking, first, to recover and reinterpret what can be known about our traditional, precolonial, way of life. In my own field of theology, this means that I soak up as much as I can about the cosmologies and spiritualities embedded in ‘dreaming’ stories, especially those that may be recovered from my own country. This work is frustratingly difficult, especially in the case of lutrawita/Tasmania, because the sheer ferocity of the war waged on our people in the early 1800s came very close to completely obliterating our knowledge systems. What remains, in the accounts of white colonists such as George Augustus Robinson and in a small number of articles apparently coming from the hands of my ancestors at the Wybalenna concentration camp, has to be read with a healthy dose of scepticism. Finding the authentic Indigenous voices woven between the layers of prejudicial memory and commentary is painstaking work.

But the usefulness for my people of what can be uncovered is beyond priceless. It helps us to understand how our ancestors lived out their sacred relationship with earth, waterway and sky. It also helps us to understand the ways in which our ancestors sought to share this knowledge with the invader, to translate that knowledge so that someone from another culture might begin to understand. There are clear analogies here with the work of historical-critical biblical scholars, who seek to recover and reconstruct more ancient voices and debates within the highly redacted texts we actually have.

The second way in which Indigenous scholars seek to water the seeds of a more just future is by offering a critique of the dominant paradigms, the white colonial ontologies and epistemologies by which truth is recognised and evaluated. This, too, is immensely complicated work. The first place from which such a critique might be oriented is, of course, our traditional knowledge, the weave of ritual storytelling that is now called ‘the dreaming’. But recovering the tradition from its colonial overlays is difficult. Very often the Indigenous researcher simply has to rely on their innate capacity to discern a continuing voice, the voice of the ancestors, in order to find where the truth lies. And you do not develop that innate sense unless you spend considerable time on country watching and waiting and listening to its wisdom, especially as that country is interpreted by its custodial elders.

In my theological work, country certainly comes first when it comes to constructing a model of truth and truth-telling. And that means that my critique of other forms of theology, white colonial forms most prominent amongst them, also begins with country. For it is in country, first of all, that I discern the voice and activity of the divine. Country is, if you like, an Indigenous Christ. It teaches us who we are, to whom be belong, and what our responsibility or vocation in the world might be. By listening to this voice, I can offer a critique of the white-male-human centred theology that continues to dominate both the church and the society it helped to form. I can analyse their complicity in the destruction of the biosphere as well as its gender prejudice and racism. I can re-read the biblical texts so that they work with our people and what we know, rather than against us. I can uncover, under all the violence in Scripture, the voice of a God who loves the world and its people, and longs for their flourishing, their freedom, and their peace. I can identify there a God who is like our wisest ancestor-creators. I can even speculate that, perhaps, the God of Scripture and our ancestor-creators are one and the same. Though whether this is true or not, I could never say for sure.

For Indigenous people, who remain invisible to much of the white church, the possibility of pursing a sense of Christian vocation via an Indigenous-led pathway says, quite simply, ‘we see you, we love you, we accept and acknowledge your world and your ways.’ Indigenous-led theological study will help us to raise our people from the pits of despair to which we are routinely relegated by white colonial programmes which say, in effect, ‘you and your ways are not welcome here unless you change and become like us.’ When Indigenous students can study with theologians who have trodden the same or similar paths themselves, they find that they are no longer alone and that there is, indeed, a place for them in academy and church.

But that is not all. Studying Indigenous approaches to theology can also be good news for white colonists, the kind of good news that Jesus shared with Zacchaeus in Luke’s gospel (19.1-10). For it is not clear that white ways and white knowledge have brought the world to the brink of ecological disaster and social and political implosion? The churches, with their dominantly white-male-human centred theologies, have contributed a great deal to the making of that world, a world in which even wealthy white men will find themselves the unwitting victims of their own blindness. The only way out of this bind, it seems to me, is to turn. To stop listening to the voice of empire and start listening to the people that empire enslaves. For our ways are not the ways of empire. Our ways are about honouring the earth and making sure that every creature under heaven knows their part is preserving its life. In that all people, even white people, will find their liberation and their joy.



Garry DeverellReverend Dr Garry Deverell is a trawloolway man, an Anglican cleric, and the Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow in Indigenous Theologies at the University of Divinity.

Further information about the Indigenous Studies programme at UD can be found online. The development of the University’s new Indigenous Studies Centre will rely on private donations. To contribute, please download the donation form and tick the ‘Indigenous Theology Fund’ box.

Main image: Teacher and student on campus (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Garry Deverell, theology, Aboriginal, Indigenous, colonialism



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Existing comments

Thank you Garry. I really enjoyed reading this inspiring piece and I can recognise the truth in every sentence. Plain and simple and profound theology. Please keep writing! Michele

Michele Purcell | 18 May 2021  

The love of the other is what Christ teaches - and this essay has no 'love' for white fellas (and contains a lot of highly contested information) There is no such thing as 'Aboriginal Theology' just as there is no such thing as 'Aboriginal Agriculture' ... until this is understood there can be no truth in the conversation.

Patrick McCauley | 18 May 2021  

thanks for this. I've been really challenged by a many of the writings from Indigenous theologians and teachers in the last few years. After 60 years of church life, I'm finding Indigenous perspectives a revelation and a breath of fresh air. Keep talking - you are the voices of the future of faith in "the lands we now call Australia."

Janet Dickson | 18 May 2021  

It seems to me the author has tried to support the article's premise on a raft of somewhat emotional, personal opinions, repeatedly playing the "race" card as trumps in all cases. What I don't buy into is the author's representations of how indigenous persons can be some flexible trinity of (necessarily) black, "coconuts" or "white outside but black inside" whereas his contention seems a few hundred years of white persons are stereotyped, that white thinking and government is necessarily intrinsically racist and (astoundingly) even white/Western adoption of Christianity is somehow a wrongful dispossession. What, stolen? Some readers may accept the author's inference of "secret shame" and conspiracy opinion of Great Australian Silence; all are welcome to their thoughts and feelings on the matter but this type of guilt-pleading in the article is indicative of the author's bias. Perhaps the coercive palaver of invaders, historical identity and sacred attachment to land could be considered in light of how well this type of obsessive, possessive thinking has worked for the last 70 years in the Middle East. I wish any prospective theologian well in their endeavors but think this article has missed the mark on the nature of their inclusivity.

ray | 19 May 2021  

A lot of loose couplings in the train of thought - inevitably, as after all, or through all, we live in a world of entropy which is forever mixing things up. Our task within the muddle is to find firm anthropological ground to work from in order to be humanising in the world before the Communicating One who apparently calls us to be communicants. As such we all need to be open to a “second naivete”, that mindset, for example, which allows us to read Genesis religiously without ignoring the challenges of modern science. The same mind-set is an asset which keeps reminding us that human flourishing flows first and foremost from orthopraxis: how to do the truth episodically which after all, for better or worse, is what Dreamings, Revelations, Ideologies et al have applied themselves to from the beginning. Enter the hermeneutic suspicion!

Noel McMaster | 19 May 2021  

Thank you for these reflections. The Uniting Church in South Australia now has RevDr Denise Champion as Theologian in Residence in our Theological College!

Marelle Harisun | 19 May 2021  

Thank you for sharing this piece. Indigenous theology and ontology can be freeing indeed and promotes the kind of love that Jesus commanded. Your article also reminds me of some Bible verses from Acts 17, when Paul spoke to Athenians: 'For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.'

Maria | 19 May 2021  

“White, colonial, engagements with Indigenous people” were different in every country, and other countries might disagree with the author’s arguments about “white-male-human centred theology.” “The Mustard Seed” is about the Missionaries of the Sacred Heat in Papua New Guinea. In the Introduction, Prime Minister Michael Somare writes: “Our traditional cultures contain touchstones of Christian-like beliefs. These are so strong and frequent that we have been able to fuse Christian with traditional beliefs to create a harmonious whole.” Indeed, the early French missionaries had been mindful of Vatican instructions of 1659 which had advised missionaries “not to transplant into China the world of France, Switzerland or Italy.” Those missionaries took great care “to preserve everything which might be a 'stepping-stone' for Christianity, for instance, the belief in spirits and in the immortality of the soul.” Native art was integrated into the liturgy, and Bishop de Boismenu instructed missionaries “to make a clergy equal to that of the Western World and which could replace it completely.” Sir Michael Somare helped draft PNG’s Constitution and wrote: “Our constitution is solidly based on both the wisdom of our ancestors and the Christian principles that have been brought to us from overseas.”

Ross Howard | 19 May 2021  

As someone who came here aeons ago, reluctantly and flourished late, after having been cut off from and then refound my roots, I think Australia, one of the most wonderful nations on earth, is, like Canada, which is comparable with a settler/indigenous narrative, in the process of finding itself. A friend of mine identifies herself as an indigenous Canadian and is recognised as an Elder. Another friend of mine, whose grandmother was the daughter of a Native Canadian Chief, recognises his ancestry, but, to all intents and purposes, identifies as 'white'. Mind boggling? You betcha. Many of us are probably multiracial or multiethnic, whichever term you prefer. I found the old Australian division of 'blackfella' , 'whitey' and 'yellow' (the latter connoting mixed ancestry) rather yobbo and gauche. I recently was invited to a Sri Lankan Burgher lunch. I am not a Burgher myself, but come from a community quite similar to the north. The culture was very similar. I felt at home. It was not 'religious' in the narrow sense. I found, to use the Zen phrase, I have met the Buddha and killed him and thus been enabled to move on.

Edward Fido | 20 May 2021  

Dr Deverell. Surely Aboriginal theology is completely different from Christian theology and has no necessity to parade as an inclusive or alternative Christianity and vice versa. Theology in any culture, Hindu, Buddist, Christian or whatever else man has created has bugger all to do with skin colour. It is to do with belief in God, the same God for every human being but dressed in the clothes and experience of vastly varying cultures or herds of human beings. No need for fanciful theorising. An equally genuine God may mean many different things to different peoples and the religions are simply reflections of a particular people's or culture's attempt to vocalise understanding of those unfathomable observed truths of the world around them. When they can't find the language to express those understandings they make up new words and concepts to describe them and that only they understand (the rainbow serpent or miracles for example). And that has nothing to do with skin colour - the majority of white fellas have gotten over the Eurocentric concepts of superiority derived from the amount of melanin in the skin. Not sure that the same can be said in reverse. There is an Aboriginal theology - it is not Christianity, nor Buddism, nor Hinduism, nor any other ism. There is no need to pollute it or equate it with any other theology. Such intrusion comes only from those who believe that their rationalisation of God is the one and only theology. I would suggest there is no such thing as Australian theology just as there is no such thing as Australian mathematics or physics or chemistry.

john frawley | 20 May 2021  

Thanks for challenging me to reflect on how rich our theology could become by listening to "others". One of the most inciteful experiences that I have had over many years was to work and live on a Pacific Island and see just how the local culture influenced their theology and practice. It enabled me to see just how much my own culture has influenced how we of European descent live and practice our faith. I was able to see more clearly what was culture and what was based on the teachings of Jesus. Based on my lived experience, I could not agree with the statement "that there is no such thing as Aboriginal theology nor Aboriginal agriculture". Based on the diaries of European explorers the latter is incorrect, and the former must be suspect given that our theology and practice is influenced by our culture. My Celtic ancestors have bequeathed a rich example. I commend the author for being brave, thoughtful and honest. There is certainly plenty of evidence to support how lacking in Christian love many in the church have been over the last 200 plus years. Read A VOICE IN THE WILDERNESS by the Anglican Board of Mission. We can only pray that by listening and respecting thoughtful and challenging writings such as we have here - we will all grow in understanding and respect.

Colin Cargill | 20 May 2021  

Garry, I found your commentary deeply disturbing. Christianity originated as a Middle Eastern Religion ,the scriptures reflect this origin. You are correct to write that the version brought to this continent was developed over a period some 1500 years in western Europe .By 1778 it consisted of a variety of interpretations , predominately Catholic and Protestant with Anglicanism being the semi official state Religion for at least the first century. Catholics, predominately Irish, were actively discriminated against for most of the period, right up to my childhood. The early Missionaries of all denominations did a great disservice to the Indigenous cultures and traditions ; that must be acknowledged and accepted . However this attitude has to be understood as the thinking of the time, however wrong it seems to us. My Catholic parish has had priests from Kerala, India, ministering to our congregation for several decades . I can state with certainty that they have brought much richness to our congregation. I firmly believe that indigenous ministers and priests should take their place in the ranks of the clergy . They will bring with them much richness of knowledge and interpretation to the Faith we hold so dear. The past is the past, we must acknowledge the errors of the past, but we must move forward too.

Gavin O'Brien | 21 May 2021  

The statement that Christianity was Middle Eastern and North African long before it was European is very misleading. Christianity was of Middle Eastern origin but born into the Roman Empire which was European. Indeed most of the Middle Eastern regions were Satraps of the Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires which were Greek long before they were Roman. The influence of Greek thought in the earliest Christianity was unmistakeable Greek and hence understood by Roman citizens in the immediate period following the death of Christ. St Paul was a Roman citizen and a Greek thinker even though religiously Jewish. Christianity reached North Africa and Egypt by way of them being regions within The Roman Empire. Several Roman Emperors were of North African origin and it is historical that Christianity moved from Rome to its provinces including Africa in the first century, not the other way round. The dispute between Paul and the brothers in Jerusalem is a perfect example of how quickly Christianity had moved out of the Middle East into Roman (and Greek) cities, Antioch was a Greek (Seleucid) city and was where traditionally the term Christian was born well within the generation living during Christ’s lifetime.

Peter | 21 May 2021  

I imagine you have some association with Trinity College, Gary. I remember Trinity in the Sharwood/Marshall days. There seem to be a plethora of theologians out there, all telling the rest of us what to think. Some ideas are good, others problematic. The claim to Aboriginality, and thus the right to speak, even, dare I say it, pontificate to the rest of us, is sometimes questioned by those such as the redoubtable Michael Mansell, who has runs on the board and questions the authenticity of Bruce Pascoe. Bruce is certainly a pontificator! If he is proven to be a fake it will set the cause back. I agree with John Frawley, traditional Aboriginal religion is very different to Christianity. You can enculture Christianity in an Aboriginal setting, but I don't think you can bring the different traditional Aboriginal creation myths on board into Christianity. There is much pre-Christian Celtic religion that couldn't be brought across. Aboriginal concepts of kinship and land ownership seem very similar to those of the traditional Scottish clan system. Gaelic culture still lives in parts of the Highlands and Islands, but it is hemmed in. It is dying. The bright lights of Glasgow call.

Edward Fido | 21 May 2021  

What an intriguing idea: Alaskan theology for Alaskans, Bahraini theology for Bahrainis, etc.

Marita | 25 May 2021  

LOVE THIS Garry and support what you are doing!

Anne Lanyon | 25 May 2021  

I think you confuse 'I' statements posing as Theology as Real Theology, Marita. There are hundreds of employees at various theological seminaries, here and elsewhere who are not theologians, but historians, sociologists etc. Some make very loud and contentious prognostications which are, at times, sheer tosh. I think, at some times and some places, atrocious deeds were perpetrated against ATSI people, often by people not connected with the authorities. Such was the Myall Creek Massacre. This was vigoriously prosecuted by Governor Gipps, the son of an Anglican clergyman and some of the perpetrators hanged. Descendants of both sides meet every year for a private reconciliation. To me this is the just and honorable way to do things, without pseudo-religious bosh attached.

Edward Fido | 27 May 2021  

It seems to me that a very big barrier to acceptance of aboriginal contributions to present assumptions in theology is the embarrassments of realising that forgiveness is a two way street. If the aboriginal population wishes to engage with the rest of us and are willing to do so, we necessarily must realise that we are to some extent forgiven for the crimes of our progenitors. Extending forgiveness is easily incorporated into European mind thought. Accepting it is much more difficult.

Vivian Garner | 25 July 2021  

Coming late upon this important article obviously born out of much listening, analysis and reflection. Very difficult for the so -long -mainstream -Australia to separate mainstream culture from religion. Thanks and appreciation to the author who is probably not too surprised with some of the predicable responses. Key last two sentences

Michele Madigan | 25 July 2021  

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