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Gary Bouma, Australian Soul: Religion and Spirituality in the Twenty-first Century

Launch speech by Dr John Davis
At St Peter's, Eastern Hill, Monday 11th December, 2006

Perhaps it is a genuine sign of the times which simply underscores the astute timing of the publication of this book, that the new Leader of the Opposition causing something of a current intellectual and political stir should have in the October issue of Monthly produced a substantial contribution entitled 'Faith in Politics.' Kevin Rudd's particular subject was Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The essay began with this paragraph:

Above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey are arrayed ten great statues of the martyrs of the Church. Not Peter, Stephen, James or the familiar names of the saints sacrificed during the great Roman persecution before Constantine's conversion. No: these are martyrs of the twentieth century, when the age of faith was, in the minds of many on the West, already tottering towards its collapse.

It is increasingly possible that a politician with these well-articulated interests could be our next Prime Minister. Now that is interesting.

Few sociologists have taken seriously the religious and spiritual life in Australia. The same might be said for historians.

Gary Bouma has spent his professional life trying to turn this around. This latest book Australian Soul is perhaps his most useful. He makes no pretence; this scholar is also a participant, a stakeholder. With his characteristic directness, he may from time to time confront or offend. He would be disappointed if he had not. The issues are there to be engaged.

We can start with the front cover – is this a dawn or a dusk? That is one of the issues readers are challenged to engage in this very readable book.

I was at another book launch a few weeks ago. Extremely impressive, but very definitely only for the experts. Not so this one. For anyone who seeks to understand or come to terms with the huge social changes that are afoot in this country, this is an important work.

There is the expectation that those of us who live here will readily recognise the new spiritual and religious landscape that is being described and explored in this work. Bouma himself declares this to be his goal: 'The validity of this analysis is to be found in the extent to which others can see themselves and Australian society in it.'

There is an early teasing out of the distinctions between religion and spirituality that continues throughout. Both are taken seriously, as is the quite distinctive nature of the expression of religion and spirituality in Australia. So that is also where this work comes in, as a most valuable resource for those who would look at us from the outside. They might just find themselves looking at the most accessible book on religion in Australia in a generation.

Bouma combines the detachment that his own origins and formation outside of this culture allows, with his best part of three decades of living, researching, teaching and writing based in this country. All the while he remains a most active continuing and regular participant in the world sociology of religion scene. It is this unusual combination of factors which gives a particular edge to this vigorous new examination of what remains a very much underûacknowledged aspect of a rapidly changing Australia.

If you want or need your basic statistics regarding religious identification, you will find them. But you will also find that unapologetic personal and individual assessment, alongside the careful gaze of the academic. This is so much more interesting the Hans Moll.

Bouma calls us to discern with him a new and recognisably different voice to be found in Australian religion and spirituality. A deep spiritual counterpoint to the ethos of the beach: decency, compassion, and carefulness.

But this in a society where now Buddhists outnumber Baptist and Muslims outnumber Lutherans. This is in a more nuanced society, where you need to understand the distinction between plurality and pluralism, between marginalisation and marginality, between fundamentalism and revitalisation. As someone somewhere else said: we are not in Kansas anymore. Whatever, the old heavy silence in academe about any of this religious subject matter, is simply no longer sustainable.

The message of this book is that things are happening in the area of religion and spirituality that might well be surprising to many and frightening to some. But the language of decline pure and simple is neither adequate nor accurate. For some structures, indeed yes, for some attitudes yes of course, but for the whole enterprise? Definitely not. Take on board the enormous social changes of the last three decades – obviously. Ignore religion and spirituality – how can you?

Bouma's central reminder in all this is very helpful:
'The core drivers of the future of religion and spirituality are different from the core drivers of the future of particular religious groups and organisations'.
And another helpful continuing Bouma theme is that the social observer has a real problem if it is the Australia of the 1950s that is seen to be the norm.

As continuing stakeholder in this matter myself I found this book a good read. And I enjoyed coming back to it a second time. Perhaps most of all I enjoyed the odd direct comment that just leapt out of the page at me, evoking a telltale smile of recognition. A number of times Bouma returns to the charming and gentle phrase from Manning Clark to describe an aspect of Australian-ness that many may miss, at first; "A shy hope in the heart". Increasingly, the living out of that shy hope will take on an Australian distinctiveness. It has found a worthy advocate in Gary Bouma.

In describing what is increasingly home base for so many Australians, for religious groupings of Australians and maybe even for this particular community of faith, Gary Bouma identifies this very characteristic early 21st century task: 'Stand on your own turf, declare your position and get on with it.'

Sounds good to me.

I have very much pleasure in launching this book Australian Soul.

Dr John Davis
St Peter's Eastern Hill
Melbourne.


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