Back in 1999 Australian psychologist, social researcher and writer Hugh Mackay suggested that given the uncertainties at the end of the millennium, the time seemed right for a revival of religious faith. But he then went on to predict that it wouldn’t happen, and he was right. Even so there continues to be growing interest in spirituality in Australia where two-thirds of us claim that a spiritual life is important.
You may find it surprising to know that most Australians believe in God or a spirit, higher power or life-force (74%) with nearly half (42%) believing Jesus was divine. So despite the fact that only 15% of Australians attend church regularly, there are many non-church going Australians who are still intrigued with Jesus. One such person was R. M. Williams the Australian bushman and entrepreneur who rose from being a swagman to become a millionaire on the back of his unique Australian style of bushwear.
Born in 1908, Reginald Murray Williams was given a state funeral in Queensland in 2003. Premier Peter Beattie, said at the time, “When you pull on a pair of R. M. Williams boots everyone knows you walk taller. It’s not just the size of the heel, it’s the spirit of the man who made them in the first place.” The spirit of this man was a recognisably Australian spirit. It could be argued that they don’t come more Australian than R. M. Williams.
Being an Australian obsessed the imagination of Williams, and Jesus was part of that obsession. In his autobiography, Williams reveals a man deeply concerned over religious issues. He knew his Bible, and he knew the words of Jesus.
His private life did not always run smoothly. Williams suffered the physical and material deprivation of the Great Depression, and the mental pain of a spiritual depression that seems to have never left him. As one of the few white men who could not only survive, but actually thrive, in the outback, Williams was invited to help a number of missionaries in their work amongst the most isolated of Aboriginal tribes.
Throughout his life Williams would not or could not give up on Jesus. He wrote, “Although I can never claim to have standing with either rich or poor, still I believe that the Man who flogged the money-changers from the temple still calls all men to the heights of moral courage and spiritual peace. I should like to feel that there lies my allegiance.”
Williams was also a capitalist, and doubted if Jesus approved. After making lots of money, he wrote: “When I had done this, my conscience bothered me. ‘What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?’ ‘How hard it is for them that trust in riches to enter into the Kingdom of God.’”
Such deep exploration of spiritual and biblical themes may seem striking to many Christians. However, I believe that there are many other Australians who think and feel in similar ways to Williams. They may not connect with the church, but they find a connection in Jesus. Perhaps this is because the practices and symbols of Australian churches grew in other cultures at other times and are not particularly suited to the Australian landscape or psyche. Although they shape the expression of Christian faith, they don’t seem to penetrate the core of everyday Australians.
Maybe this explains why MacKay says a revival won’t happen. The Australian church has yet to find expressions of faith that connect with the reality of Australian life and culture. Yet, if we are attentive to the spiritual search of people like Williams, and listen to their questions, then maybe we will begin to discover the traces of an answer.
The Australian church has yet to find expressions of faith that connect with the reality of
Australian life and culture.
At the end of his autobiography, Williams asks:
“… if the Man Jesus were to step inside my door or come knocking, would I know Him? … Would I welcome Him? I might. What would He say to me, looking through my façade of respectability into my soul? … I am torn by the tragedy of it all. How do I follow Him? How would I know God if I saw Him? I shall look for Him among the uncouth, the sorrowful, the have-nots. Maybe He will be there. And will He know me?”
What do you think? I would value knowing what your experience of the Aussie church is.
Stephen L Baxter