The Unknown Nation: Australia After Empire by James Curran & Stuart Ward

(Melbourne; Melbourne University Press, 2010)

As I have pondered questions of Australian spirituality through-out the year, I have increasingly wondered whether the ambivalence Australians express towards religion and spirituality may well be more about the disassociation we feel regarding our national identity than our feelings about God or the mystery of the Universe however loosely defined.  In other words, maybe our spiritual shyness is a symptom of the ambiguous relationship we have with this land on which we live, the social construct of which we call ‘Australia.’

Curran and Ward argue that Australia is yet to establish a post-British identity, beyond the simplistic association of ‘no longer British’! Perhaps it is because we kind of slid into post-Empire through a number of different interlocking processes, with no such defining moment of independence as happened in places like India. To make their case, Curran and Ward focus on the ‘new nationalism’ discussions of the 1960s and 70s and reflect insightfully about several opportunities for nation-making landmarks which failed to provide a more positive affirmation of what it is to be Australian. The ongoing question of our ‘national day’ is an obvious one.

A great quotable quote is recalled from 1981. When reviewing the fifth volume of Manning Clarke’s A History of Australia, “Gough Whitlam confessed that his generation ‘was not equipped at school to understand Australia or the world as it has developed during our working lives’” (p.58). Well I started high school in 1983 and I don’t think my schooling did much better, however my children’s citizenship syllabus is remarkably different.

I think that Curran and Ward are right. I think that Australians know we are ‘no longer British’ but the question remains, what the f*#k does that actually mean? (Pardon the language but I think that’s how most Aussies would phrase it!)  This has been uppermost in my own mind with regard to Australian Anglicanism – what on earth makes it distinctive and authentic in a way which draws our souls towards God in an outpouring of prayer?

I also think Curran and Ward have no idea how to rectify the situation.  They lamely offer some paragraphs on the notion of ‘commonwealth’ at the end of the conclusion, and assert that our ‘guiding story’ has to embrace all people in our history: the ancient indigenous peoples; the first penal settlements and colonisation; and twentieth century global migration movements which have brought many cultures to our shores. They do however note that we seem to be doing quite well without a unified national story and I wonder here at the possibilities of understanding corporate identity with a more postmodern conception of fragments of stories making up some kind of decentralised organic whole.

What do I think? I keep coming back to Land.

Every people who have Landed here have encountered a strange and surprising hospitality. Much of our Land looks inhospitable – yet it has nurtured us into a tentative kind of adulthood. Indeed, it sustained a vibrant culture who treated it with respect and grace for several millennia! The circumstances of the first European settlements were less than salubrious, and yet look at the life they made for themselves. Even in recent decades as we appalling ‘debate’ the arrival of desperate strangers and aliens who need our land’s hospitality, the Australian economy has somehow survived the GFC and remained generous to those of us lucky enough to live here.  Is there not a theme here? In the history of Australia our Land has offered us constant, undeserved hospitality though we arrive in desperate straights. I wonder too about our future when Australia’s climate is particularly affected by the heating up of the globe.

Maybe these are musings prompted by the gorgeous sunny day here in Melbourne.  I certainly feel blessed to be living here in the ‘lucky country’ and would be thrilled to be part of a nation that had grace, generosity and hospitality as core values.







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