21Sep Spirituality Today: Reclaiming the Buried Life. David Tacy

An invited keynote address to the National Council of Priests of Australia, Parramatta NSW Wednesday July 14th 2010
Spirituality Today: Reclaiming the Buried Life
David Tacey, La Trobe University.

Today faith requires an inner life. – Louis Dupré1

There exists some point at which I can meet God in a real and
experimental contact with his infinite actuality.
Thomas Merton – a personal anecdote

Since the majority of those assembled here today will not know anything about me, I would like to begin with a personal anecdote. This anecdote helps to situate me in the context of religion in today’s society. In 2002 I was invited to present a keynote address to a Catholic meeting at Whitefriars College, Donvale, in the outer east of Melbourne. I found a car park in the wooded grounds, and as I gathered my notes from the seat beside me, the former Archbishop of Melbourne, Frank Little, pulled into the parking spot next to mine. We found ourselves walking together, side by side to the meeting hall. I knew who he was, but he did not know me. I asked Sir Frank if he was giving a talk at this meeting, and he said ‘No, I have come to hear David Tacey. I want to hear what he has to say for myself, as my brother George has been complaining about him and I want to see what the complaint is about’. He turned to me and asked if I were a priest. I said, ‘No, I am David Tacey, the guest speaker for today’. He apologized for not recognizing me and said I looked like a Catholic priest and could be mistaken for one. Naturally I was curious about what had been said, and so I enquired: ‘What has George been saying about me?’ He said he had been told that I was a trouble-maker in the Church who was engaged in original thinking and creative thought. I managed to hold myself back from saying, ‘Oh, we can’t have that, can we, original thinking and creativity in the Church?’ Instead, I remained silent for a while, and stayed pensive.
I knew what he was referring to, because the then Archbishop of Melbourne, George Pell, who had replaced Frank in 1996, had intervened in a previous speaking engagement of mine, preventing me from addressing a 1999 gathering of clergy to which I had been invited. I had been embarrassed by this intervention and was annoyed at being invited by the minister of priests in the archdiocese, Fr Brian Cosgriff, and then disinvited some time later by the Archbishop. I was annoyed because I had spent some time working on my address, and now it had come to naught. But this was more than just a local incident. It represented a crisis in my personal and professional identity. I had seen myself, or I had wanted to be, a Catholic intellectual, and here I was being rebuked by the Church. I had long realized that although I was a university academic, I did not fit into the academic world because I was too religious. I was an outsider in my own workplace, which was aggressively secular and resistant to anything religious. In fact the constitution of my university forbids the proclamation of any religious faith on campus, stating that any such proclamation can be reprimanded and the offending party summarily dismissed. But here I was, fast becoming an outsider in my church as well. Late one morning in December 1999, Fr Brian came personally to my house to deliver the disinvitation, and he did so reluctantly and with heavy heart. ‘Was there some reason for the disinvitation?’ I enquired. Brian said: ‘I have been told you have publicly stated your support for other religions and have said positive things about Buddhism and Hinduism’. I said yes, but that is entirely within the spirit of the Second Vatican Council and its recognition of the presence of God in other traditions.
I had tried to keep this incident quiet, but the story had already been leaked to the press, and The Age newspaper had run a page 3 sensationalist story called ‘Archbishop bans university academics from speaking to clergy’. Along with myself, Professor Max Charlesworth had also been invited and disinvited. I went to Max to discuss the problem but he regarded it with wry amusement and had not given it the significance that I had. He was older than me and more grounded in his personal identity. I had hoped that not many would read this news story, especially my own colleagues, who might bait me by saying: ‘So what are you going to do about your religious faith now?’ But naturally word gets around about such disagreements. The media seems eager to pounce on evidence of disquiet and controversy within the Church. All this had raced through my mind as Sir Frank and I walked up to the hall. Eventually I seized the moment and plucked up the courage to say: ‘Sir Frank, would you please do me a favour? Listen to what I have to say, and talk to me at the end about what you think the problem is with my work’. He said yes he would, but he hastened to add he would never want to betray or contradict the views of his brother bishop. I reassured him that I did not want him to contradict his brother, but simply to give me some insight into what he thinks the problem is about.
At the end of my talk, Sir Frank made his way toward me at the edge of the stage: ‘You have a prophetic voice’, he said, ‘and you know what we do with prophets don’t you?’ There was a kind twinkle in his eye as he said this, and he was being warm and reassuring. But I was left in a quandary, which lasted for some days; in fact, some years and even still today. I thanked him politely for his response, but realized that it was double-edged. In the nicest possible way, he was actually condoning the practice of mistreating those who dare to speak with a prophetic voice. I wanted to say, but did not say, ‘Why don’t we stop doing it then?’ I am not sure about the suggestion that I speak with a prophetic voice. For a bishop to say this about me is to be damned with faint praise and forgotten. The Church does not have to listen to a prophetic voice, even though it may accept that the prophetic voice is in its own territory and talking about the same things. I would like to be closer to formal religion than I am, but it hasn’t turned out that way.
The radical Anglican bishop John Spong once said to me that my work is best conducted outside the church, where it cannot be interfered with. I replied that that was okay for him to say, with his purple shirt, clerical collar and large crucifix around his neck: the adornments of commitment and belonging. I would like to belong, but it seems as if I cannot belong. Not that this is merely my personal fate, it seems to be part of my ancestral fate. I am a descendant of a line of Irishmen who spoke their minds about religion and who had a mystical bent. My grandfather was a mystic of deep faith, but it forced him to walk alone in much of his journey. I am a sociable person and one who believes that the Spirit brings us into fellowship with others. But sometimes, if one has to express certain things that seem true, but others do not want to hear them, one has to do so as a solitary individual and not on behalf of a tradition.
in between the times
I recognise that a rupture has taken place in our world, and it is now impossible to bring back the cultural landscape of the religious past. One of the great changes over the last five hundred years is the shift of authority from outside sources to the individual. Protestantism initially ushered in this change in the 16th century, but it seems to have affected everyone in the modern West, including the modern Catholic.3 I do not see this change being reversed, and if religion wants to dialogue with the modern spiritual condition it has to recognise that the individual is empowered today in ways that would have been unthinkable in the past. The modern Catholic is in a curious position, because although the mystical traditions of Catholicism are about the search for the spiritual authority within the individual, the official view still seems to be that the self is not to be trusted and to turn oneself into one’s own spiritual guide is foolish in the extreme. There is a great, as yet unresolved tension between the ‘Protestant’ attitude of the modern West, the official teaching of the Catholic church, and the Catholic mystical writings that are exerting an ever-increasing influence on modern seekers.
The global situation regarding spirituality and religion is full of tension, and eventually there must be some kind of resolution to this tension. Among the students I teach, personal or grassroots spirituality has been one way in which the built up tension in the secular psyche has been expressed, and many of them burrow away at their individually designed spiritual pathways. But this strikes me as merely a phase in our present culture, and eventually the spiritual will demand more than a personal expression. Eventually there will have to be a public reckoning with the sacred, because the sacred is not a personal possession or a private experience, but the centrepiece of our existence. If it is the Spirit that we contact in our interior journeys, this spirit paradoxically urges us to enter more fully into the outer world, because the spirit is incarnational, it wants more engagement with the world, and does not like to be hidden in the closet of personal introspection.
Historically speaking, we live in tense times. As the poet Matthew Arnold said: we ‘wander between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born’.4 No one yet knows the shape of the future, and I don’t have a crystal ball either. But one thing stands out for me: in the future, we won’t be doing religion in the old way. The spirit of the time has moved on, and we have to move with it, no matter how much religious people like to believe that traditional forms are eternal and never need to be changed. One way to reduce the shock and pain for religious people is to differentiate between convention and tradition: the conventions have to change, even though the tradition itself lives on. I do not work within religious conventions, but I see myself as broadly engaged in the furtherance of the tradition. And the future of religion is mystical. This is the conclusion I have reached after my 26 years of involvement with university students, many hundreds of whom have enrolled in my courses on spirituality and rites of passage. They are not interested in religion in the old ways, but they are interested in a new kind of mystical religiousness.
mysticism and the future
It was Karl Rahner who said: ‘The future Christian will be a mystic or he or she will not exist at all’.5 This seems like a tall order, and perhaps initially, an unlikely possibility. But the more I think about it the more true it becomes. The old way of knowing God, as a distant reality glimpsed occasionally in rites or symbols, needs to be replaced by a more powerful and transformative experience of God as an ongoing reality at the core of our lives. Once we sense God at these depths, we can never escape him, and ‘losing our faith’ is no longer an option, since God is synonymous with what is most true and intimate about ourselves. This does not mean that we need to experience God as a constant presence. The fact is that we sometimes experience God through absence or lack. That is why longing becomes so intense, because we want to connect with what feels far away, and we want to bring it close. What makes the Christian mystics so appealing to modern taste is that they experience God as the beloved and they begin, as we begin today, with a sense of emptiness. They went in search of God because their distance from God was unbearable. Here Louis Dupré is illuminating:
Precisely this sense of emptiness accounts for the strange attraction mystical literature holds for our contemporaries. For most mystical writers have at one time or another expressed the emptiness that in some way corresponds to the sense of religious absence that so many feel today. The modern person is justified in turning to the masters of spiritual life by the fact that in his emptiness he has nowhere to turn but inwardly. The contemporary person is forced to start the spiritual journey from within, even though that is the place where he/she most grievously encounters a void as silent as the secular world that has ceased to speak in sacred tongues.6
It seems to me that contemplative living will be the basis of religion in the future. Religious traditions need to get out all the dusty tomes on the spiritual life that sit buried in theological libraries. People today are passionately interested in the experience of the ‘God within’, and the mystical writers knew a great deal about that experience. This is ironic, because the Churches are often ambivalent about their mystics, who are treated with the same disdain as prophets. But it seems that old style religion, involving congregational worship, large parishes, orthodox rituals and ceremonies, are attracting very few young people, and may not survive into the future. What attracts people today are small study groups, or meditation and prayer circles, which Cardinal Martini calls ‘cells of evangelisation’. The new interest in religion and faith is personal rather than collective, existential rather than devotional, experiential rather than instructional, and passionate rather than moralistic. It is concerned with encountering God in this life, rather than preparing to meet him in the next, which is the more traditional approach. It is ironic in some ways that the apparently nonreligious youth of today, who do not conform to religious norms, seem to be more religious than their forebears who are upset by their apparent refusal to toe the line. Religion is in a new key today, and the sooner religious organisations can understand this the better off everyone will be.
The unexpected irony of recent times is that modernity is bringing on a turn to the mystical. Modernity had not intended this, and yet its secular conditions have alienated people so radically from traditional forms of faith that the spirit has risen up in protest. It is starving in today’s conditions, and it is so undernourished that it is demanding a new kind of diet. The reaction against modernity, which to some extent is found in postmodernity, is no longer content with traditional forms, but is asking for something more radical. It is not content with talk about God, but it wants an experience of God. This is a genuine hunger, and yet the religious traditions are at odds with it. They say: why can’t people be content with traditional forms, and why does everyone want an experience of God? From our point of view, experiences of God are reserved for mystics or saints, and they cannot be had by everyone. Besides, such experiences do not come on demand, but if they come at all, they come by the grace of God. Tradition senses something ‘unholy’ in the fierce hunger for God. It could be that the phrase ‘experience of God’ is causing some confusion. The idea of ‘religious experience’ can sound too grand and exalted for what people actually want. People do not expect the heavens to open up to them, nor do they expect angels to call their names. They do not ask for a miracle but for an ordinary experience of the mystery at the core of their lives. They simply want a compelling intuition, a movement in the soul, a sense that there is something ‘there’. They want an intimation of another reality. T. S. Eliot captured this when he wrote: ‘I have had a tremor of bliss, a wink of heaven, a whisper’.7 Upon such modest experiences, people can build a true faith, but faith can no longer be based on a ‘passed on’ set of beliefs. In calling for such experiences people are not making impossible demands, but they are saying that the standard fare of religion is not enough.
People today like to mix religion with the notion of a therapeutic personal journey, and the emphasis is on linking personal growth with faith development. This is new, because in the past one was simply handed faith in a less complicated way. I cannot recall my parents ever talking about faith as a ‘journey’ – they were simply handed it by the church and their parents, and they stuck with it through thick and thin. But the problem with this is that there was little or no emphasis on the stages of faith, on outgrowing one stage and entering another, and little opportunity to ritualise movement between the stages, or even to admit than an earlier understanding of God, for instance, had been outgrown. Faith seemed to have only one form, and there was no subtle gradations or nuances. But today there is no such thing as a package deal or a one-size fits all approach. Everyone likes to explore faith in his or her own way, and at their own pace, according to their stage in the journey. What we are seeing is more individuality, variation and difference in the experience of faith, an attitude which is berated by the old fashioned as a ‘pick and mix’ approach. Each of the features of the new style of faith is subjected to criticism and denigration by the old brigade. However, this ritual humiliation will have to stop if religion wants a future. The personally tailored approach to faith is the way ahead, and I see spiritual direction and counselling becoming ever more important in the future.
the buried life
In recent times, with the onset of secularisation and the rise of materialism, the spiritual part of the person has been pushed down into the unconscious. Faith has evaporated on the surface and is often nowhere to be seen, but in the darker regions of mind, the mechanisms of faith and the longing for God can still be discerned. This has to be drawn out from people, however, and it does not come freely of its own accord. The modern ego is too strong and easily eclipses the needs and desires of the soul. The soul and its religious longing has to be coaxed out of people in a new way. This means that religion has to be set up in new ways. It cannot assume anymore that the dynamics of faith are clear and intelligible to the majority of people. Churches, rather, should assume that faith is unclear, faltering or failing and people are sceptical about God, the word and scripture. Religious services can no longer assume that people seek to gather together to affirm and celebrate a faith that it widely shared and affirmed.
These are spiritual dark ages, and a new style of religion has to be found. The task of religion is far more difficult today: it has to lead people within themselves, into their heart lives, to find that part of them that is capable of developing faith. The head or intellect has pushed faith away, with its belief that it can get on well without it. The role of religion in dark times is to draw faith out from people, and not instil it into them, from above. This involves us in the art or science of spiritual education, noting that ‘education’ derives from the Latin educare, meaning to lead out or draw forth. This is how religion needs to be conducted today, if it is to make sense and to gain existential purchase on people’s lives. the light of the divine is lost in the darkness of the human interior, and we have to be prepared to go in there, make contact with it, and lead it out. Religion that operates in the old-style, imposing itself from above, will no longer work, and if we persist in that style, the religious traditions are doomed. Opening up to the interior person is the future of religion and the tradition that can achieve this first is the one that will be assured of a strong and noble future. Reappropriating the mystical traditions, monastic techniques and styles, and pathways of interiority and contemplation, is the way ahead.
an experiment with spirituality in a secular university
In the time I have left, I want to describe the kind of spiritual education that I have been practising at La Trobe University over the last ten years. Students often begin their studies with me in a state that is antagonistic to religion. Many see it as stifling and destructive, a system designed to alienate them from God. But once they are introduced to spirituality, and the experience of the sacred impulses in their hearts, they soften their antagonism and open to the possibility of finding truth in religion. Some students go on to dedicate their lives to religious faith, and a few of mine have become ordained as priests or ministers, whereas at the start they were opposed to religion and could not see its relevance. In my courses, I do not preach a gospel or encourage them into a traditional pathway. I leave that up to them; it is not my role to proselytise. I see what I do as a form of what the Second Vatican Council called pre-evangelisation; that is, sensitising individuals to the interior life and urging them to see the value of adjusting themselves to a higher will.
I try not to use overtly religious language, but confine myself to literature (especially poetry), philosophy and the psychology of religious experience. I do not encourage them to meditate or pray, but I create a ‘climate of validity’ in which they can experience the non-rational aspects of their lives. I use religious poetry to this effect, as well as inspirational writings from various traditions, including Christian, Jewish, Islamic and Aboriginal. I attract students from a variety of backgrounds: most are secular, humanist and atheist, but a few come from Jewish, Islamic or Christian families. I have to ensure that my discourse is open and inclusive so as not to offend students from any traditional or cultural background. This is difficult to achieve, but with the writings of Thomas Moore, John O’Donohue, David Mowaljarlai, Margaret Atwood and Mary Oliver it is a distinct possibility. I encourage students to review their personal experience, and write about moments of healing or grace in which they have felt the presence of something greater than themselves. I encourage them into an experience of the intimacy of God, but I refer to God as ‘the sacred’ in case I offend atheists or others who are allergic to God language. The task for me is to get underneath the social persona that professes to be atheist or agnostic, and touch the inner life which I believe is open to the presence of God. One of the mottos of my work is the Latin maxim: ‘Called or not called, God is present’.
Knowing that students would refute a position of faith if I engage them in a rational discussion, I do not bother with this form of education. I have come to be suspicious of the rational intellect, and believe that it subverts our native potential for an encounter with the sacred. This might sound odd coming from a university professor, but it is how I feel. I try to engage them in a different way, not in adversarial discussion, and not as one seeking to convert them to a belief system, but as a fellow human being who is genuinely interested in their spiritual wellbeing. Students, like people everywhere, are only secular on the surface. As the philosopher Jacques Derrida has said: ‘Secularisation is only a manner of speaking’.8Beneath their socialised selves, there is a fertile field for religious development. As one of my students wrote:
Underneath their hardened secular shells, people still need to believe that there is more to their existence than just one fragile life, that, in the sweep of time, is over in a blink of the eye. The majority of people still have faith, or rapidly try to recover faith in the critical and urgent moments of their lives. This is today’s reality, which is confounding to me: why dowe wait for adverse circumstances to occur before we reach out to touch the face of God and be embraced by the holy?– Carolyn 2004
Secularism is an illusion that we live by, or a fiction we tell about ourselves. It is the mask worn by society, and it is a mask that has proved useful in some respects, because it has helped to distance us from the heated and potentially destructive and divisive nature of religious passions. Beneath our secular mask, which has been slipping in recent years, there are strong currents of religious and spiritual life which demand expression.
the encounter with homo religiosus
In my view, we cannot hide our religiousness for long – not because ‘we’ are religious – but because something inside us is religious. There is an inner life within the personality which is energised by sacred forces and we will have to come to terms with this other life. Some people choose not to see the other life and regard our interiority as composed entirely of ego and personal will. Mircea Eliade gets it right when he refers to the inner man or woman as homo religiosus, that is, an innately religious presence which is as religious today it ever was. Presently we are running from the recognition of this ancient religious longing. We have been running from itfor a long time, and perhaps for some time to come. The life within has different requirements to us, and it is because we are not connected to the inner person that we are neurotic and unhappy.
Hundreds of students have entered my course on spirituality from an atheist or secular starting point. Why do they enter it at all? They enrol to discover what they have hidden or denied in themselves. The course is not essential for any degree program, it is an elective which students choose of their own free will. When I confronted a vocal atheist about why he had enrolled, he waved his hand about the room and said: ‘I enrolled to find out what youse believe’. I read this psychologically: he entered to find out what his inner self believed, with which he was out of touch and hence projected onto those around him. It was ironic that he gestured to everyone in the class, as most were not believers. They were, like him, sceptical about religion but, unlike him, prepared to bite their tongue about this and allow the other side of life to make its claim upon them.
Some students go through considerable emotional turmoil in my course when they allow the other self to speak. Sensitive students can be disturbed by the recognition that they are more complex than they had thought. I have published several accounts of this disturbance and the readjustments that have taken place subsequently.9 The recognition of a buried religious life, of what Eliade calls the homo religiosus within us, upsets their social identity and understanding of themselves. Those who go through rocky times are allowed to write about the turbulence and share it with others in the class. The same student who denied religious faith at the start, wrote this at the end of the course:
It is hard to sway a convinced materialist like myself from his constant scepticism about religious matters, at least I thought it was before this course. But it is terribly hard to continue to oppose the idea of ‘spirit’ when it is presented in poetry and inspirational writings. Before the course, I blocked out religion as irrelevant to my life, it made no sense to me at all in its conventional, archaic and drab form. But when spirituality is expressed in poetry, passion, and subjectivity, I have to take another look, as these expressions are inspirational and move me in an unexpected way. I now see that emotion and spirit can be included in my world, and I can have such elements without straying from reality. – Steven 2001
When a secular person is ‘moved’ in an ‘unexpected way’, he is able to change his views of religion and discover that it is speaking directly to him. I often notice that young men are concerned about the problem of reality and how best to adjust to it. Steven says he is pleased he can have spirit ‘without straying from reality’. Secularism has conditioned our notion of reality, defining it in its own narrow terms and excluding spirit from the real. People dare not affirm spirit in case they become ‘unreal’ to themselves and thus disloyal to their concept of reality. However once spirit has been presented to them as a reality accessible to their subjectivity, they are prepared to turn around. What this tells me is that religious education needs to focus on subjectivity and not confine itself to the outside world. Bernard Lonergan puts this memorably in a simple formulation:
The fruit of the truth must grow and mature on the tree of the subject, before it can be plucked and placed in the absolute realm.10 (1968: 3) Too often, religion expects us to admire the fruit of truth in the absolute realm, but today it must be grown on the tree of the subject, and experienced as a content of the heart. The tradition that learns how to do this first will be the one that thrives. My second example comes from a young woman. She had made the typical distinction between personal spirituality and organised religion. She did not share Steven’s materialism or disbelief, for she could sense, like so many women, the presence of spirit in her life. But she could not find much purpose or ‘living reality’ in religious traditions. By the end of the course, she admits that she can now see religion in different terms:
Before I started this subject, I was confident in ‘bagging’ Christianity for the way in which it had failed me. Empty rituals, outmoded morality, and corrupt institutions, etc. Yet as the weeks have passed, I have come to realize that a more sophisticated dialogue is at my disposal. I have discovered that my childish repudiation of the Christian Church revealed a lack of knowledge into the nature, depth and multi-layered appearance of spirituality within religion. I come away with greater respect for my religion of origin, and for the presence of spirituality in what I had thought was a dead and moribund institution. – Jenny 2002
I must emphasize that I have not taught formal ‘religion’ at all in this course. Any reflection about the status of religion is coming entirely from the students. I do not promote or criticise religion, but only attend to the personal or subjective experience of the spirit. For many students, religion is seen as irrelevant, and most students write in the first weeks of the course that religion is an obstacle to their spirituality. By the end of the course, they begin to shift their perspective: religion gets a second viewing, no longer an obstacle, it can become a resource for spirituality.
What delights me about my course is that I am seeing similar processes operating in different faith traditions. For instance, a Jewish student Malke said she had been in Jewish schools in Melbourne as a child, and in adolescence she went to live in Israel, where she attended specialist institutions. But the spirituality course with me had been more powerful, she said, in linking her with her native Judaism. Although my course was not ‘about’ Judaism, or any other religion, she said it had done most to connect her with her religious heritage. I found this astonishing and she wrote two autobiographical essays on this theme.
Islamic students have said similar things: ‘my Islamic teachers taught me about religion, but not about spirituality’, wrote Fatima in 2003, an Australian student born in Turkey. ‘In this course, I have seen how Allah speaks to me from within, and he is not confined to the outside religion or even to the Koran’. Whether this is heretical or not in the Islamic tradition, I don’t know. It would not appear heretical to Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam. Sometimes it worries me that I am not sufficiently aware of the ramifications of this kind of teaching, where pre-evangelisation empowers students to get in touch with the tradition of their choice. But I have had a lot of positive feedback from students – some of whom have come back to my office years later dressed in the formal attire of the traditions into which they have been ordained. Buddhist nuns, Anglican priests, and Uniting Church ministers have appeared at my door and said I was responsible for their conversions. My line is generally: ‘Please don’t blame me!’ I was preparing the ground for spiritual renewal, but I was not advocating any specific pathway for this renewal. I am defending faith from the onslaught of the critical intellect, and leaving it up to the students to choose their preferred form of expression.
the controversial nature of pre-evangelisation
The spirituality course creates a climate in which various faith positions can be re-experienced and re-affirmed. This process, if sensitively handled, can operate in a multi-faith and multi-racial context. If I had come across as more overtly religious, using fully articulated Christian language, for instance, then much less spiritual development would have taken place. I would have offended or insulted the majority of my students. The Islamic students would have walked out, and the Jews, whether practising or not, would have followed suit. The lapsed Christians, the secular, and the atheists would have protested, and we would have been embroiled in political wrangling and intellectual warfare. By refusing to preach, by looking for a ‘generic’ language of the spirit, peace and harmony reign in the multi-cultural classroom, and each individual is free to affirm whatever faith position is pleasing to their soul. One of my mottos for this course has been ‘Less is More’. The less evangelical I am, the more the religious life seems able to spring forth in students’ lives.
Despite this positive experience with my students, I have received a fair amount of negative feedback from both secular and religious authorities. Some religious people have told me that my course is too soft, open and ill-defined. It seems to them that I am validating every type of faith experience, and as a result I have been branded a polytheist. I am not a polytheist, but from a narrow minded perspective, I can see that it may look that way. I have a specific faith of my own, but in my public work I see myself engaged in a form of teaching that encourages diversity and plurality. After all, our community is diverse, and it would be most unfortunate to deny this fact and operate in a one-track mode. Various evangelical media organizations visited me while the course was running, and most were puzzled by my motivations and interests. They did not understand what I was doing and were worried by the plurality of it all. Clearly, pre-evangelising was not something they endorsed.
But secular authorities did not like my teaching either, for opposite reasons. It was too religious for their liking, and it seemed to them as if I was staging a religious revival on campus. I have been speaking about this course in the present tense, and now I have to admit that it was axed in 2009, when it was said by the Dean of my faculty to be surplus to requirements. When I announced this to the students there was almost a riot of protest on campus. I had to restrain them from taking protest action on my behalf, and many threatened violence and abuse to the academics and administrators who had shut down the course. So this is a chapter of my career which has now closed, leaving me with a sense of unfinished business. In a sense, I was lucky to get away with it at all. For ten years I taught this course, and it may have been the public and media attention that it received that gave it the kiss of death, for up until then I was trying to keep it under wraps. The artist Michael Leunig spoke to me about my teaching and said that I had been working behind enemy lines. He said this must have been exhausting. He was right, but it was also exhilarating, to be part of this experience, and to realise that ‘secularisation is merely a manner of speaking’.
But I am left with many good memories of this course. I will reflect on one of them. During an Open Day at the university, when the public is invited to come to the campus and see what is taking place, I was approached by a concerned father who was a graduate of my university. He had studied at La Trobe University in the 1970s, when it was a hot-bed of radical Marxism and feminism. He said he had imbibed the Marxist and feminist doctrines, and had brought his children up to be what he called ‘good atheists’. But in their high school years, they had begun to develop an interest in what they called ‘spirituality’, and he added, ‘whatever that means’. His son, he explained, had taken up meditation and reading the Bible, and his daughter had studied mysticism. Both wanted to enrol in my course. He said: ‘I brought them up to be good atheists – where did I go wrong?’ I said it is the prerogative of children to rebel against the attitudes of their parents. He pointed out that he had, in his day, rebelled against his parents’ Christianity, and my university had helped him to achieve this state of ‘liberation’, as he called it. ‘But liberation for what?’ I countered. I said the best kind of liberation is knowing that we are responsible to a higher authority. He looked at me curiously and said: ‘Are you suggesting that God is returning? I thought he was dead and buried’.
Then he asked: ‘What do your colleagues think about what you are doing? Surely they don’t agree with a course that assumes the existence of God?’ I said he was right on this point, and most of my colleagues were indeed atheists, but I was not too concerned about their opinions. As Donald Cozzens put it in his opening address to this conference: I got over wanting to be held in favour.
NOTE: This paper is partly based on a number of conversations I have had over the last 15 to 20 years, and I would like to acknowledge conversations with Louis Dupré, Michael Whelan, David Ranson, John Spong, Richard Rohr, and Frank O’Loughlin.
1 Louis Dupré, ‘Spiritual Life and the Survival of Christianity: Reflections at the End of the Millennium’, in CrossCurrents, New York, 48:3 (1998), p. 4. http://www.crosscurrents.org/dupre.htm
2 Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (1961, New York: New Directions, 1972), p. 37.
3 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons, (1905, London: Unwin Hyman, 1989).
4 Matthew Arnold, ‘Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse’ (1855), in Humphrey Milford editor, The Poetical Works of Matthew Arnold (London: Oxford University Press, 1945), p. 224.
5 Karl Rahner, ‘The Spirituality of the Future’, in K. Lehmann and A. Raffelt editors, The Practice of the Faith: A Handbook of Contemporary Spirituality (New York: Crossroad, 1986),
6 Dupré, ibid, p. 8.
7 T. S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral 1(935, London: Faber, 1968), p. 76.
8 Derrida, ‘Epoché and Faith: An Interview with Jacques Derrida’ (2000), in Yvonne Sherwood and Kevin Hart eds., Derrida and Religion: Other Testaments (New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 32.
9 David Tacey, ‘Losing My Religion, Recovering the Sacred’, in The Spirituality Revolution: The Emergence of Contemporary Spirituality (Sydney: Harper Collins, 2003; London and New York: Routledge, 2004).
10 Bernard J. F. Lonergan, The Subject (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1968), p. 3

6 Responses

  1. Eileen

    Thank you, David, for this article – and for being prophetic! There is so much in it, I cannot adequately respond but I’ll comment anyway. The observance of organised religion has, all too often, prevented people from exploring the depths of their individual spirituality – ‘panning for gold’ (Ruffing 2000) and finding the treasure within. I also like how Mary Oliver and John O’Donoghue poetically express the ‘ordinary’ in an extraordinary way. The classes you had were an ideal forum for exploring the sacred because everyone’s contribution was respected and , crucially, there was no dogma or religious agenda. You elicited from people their own wisdom. Come to think of it, wasn’t that what Jesus did?

  2. Eddie Finnegan

    “I also like how Mary Oliver and John O’Dono(g)hue poetically express the ‘ordinary’ in an extraordinary way.”

    Me too, Eileen. Except, as John’s mother might have told him, when it comes to the ordinary, like making your will, expressing it in an extraordinary or poetic way can leave your hearers flummoxed – or your beneficiaries out of pocket.

  3. Mason Peltzer

    There are certain articles of religion that are a bit more relevant than others in the 21st Century.

  4. Jo O'Sullivan

    Having only come to this forum a few months ago, I hadn’t read this article by David Treacy. I had never heard of him but I’m now eager to hear more of what he has to say.

    On a much smaller scale than David, I seem to inhabit that lonely place where the people who form my two most precious set of relationships feel I am misguided (to put it in its kindliest form) or just plain WRONG!

    My beloved family and my closest friends have abandoned any form of organised religion – seeing it as irrelevant or a destructive force in the world, and what appears to be a sizeable element of my Catholic brothers and sisters seem to wish I would leave the church as I am a heretical trouble-maker for challenging some of the current structures and teachings of our church.

    This is an article I can share with my ‘atheist’ sons and my anti-formal-religion friends.

    I’m not too sure those from within my church who want to banish me would care to reflect of David Treacy’s words though!

  5. breeda geary

    Thank you Jo for that. I am with you on that. I would go further and say that this “do as I say not as I do ” by the Vatican has attacked the very basics of Christian living. Children say to their parents “it’s not the deed (bad) that’s wrong, it’s being found out that’s wrong.” Kindness and tolerance are regarded as idiotic, I know that there are lots of caring people about, but they seem to be no longer relevant. Please All people of Ireland, cop on especially those good priests out there . Stand up and be counted. Breeda

  6. Jo O'Sullivan

    Oops! My apologies for the getting the surname wrong. It was his bit about his Irish ancestry that cause me to change the Tacey to Treacy!

    No wonder I couldn’t find him when I googled the name. I have found out there’s a Dublin hurler of that name though.