Frank Fletcher MSC, Jesus and the Dreaming: Discovering an Australian Spirituality Through Aboriginal-Christian Dialogue (Strathfield: St Pauls Publications, 2013), 344 pp, edited by Fabian Byers. $24.95.
Reviewed by John D’Arcy May
As someone who regarded Frank Fletcher as a friend and mentor, I welcome this summa of his decades of engagement with the Koories of south-eastern Australia, and I am grateful that he was able to see it before he died in November 2013. The book collects numerous articles he wrote for journals such as Nelen Yubu, Compass, and Pacifica, a format which inevitably involves a fair amount of repetition.
The important points made, however, certainly bear repeating. The material has been organised with the help of the editor into a record of progressively deepening reflection in the framework of Bernard Lonergan’s eight functional specialties. The Lonerganian element and its development by Robert Doran are ever-present but not intrusive.
The substance of the book is Frank’s personal journey of understanding; indeed, ‘conversion’ is not too strong a word for his process of inner detachment from the poverty of the common-sense Euro-Australian disregard of Aboriginal religion, and his entry into “what might be called the interior, symbolic, or poetic mode of consciousness”. The book’s intent is to prepare Australian ‘moderns’, not least among them Christians, for dialogue with Aboriginal religion by enabling them to learn to appreciate a way of understanding the world that is so alien to the prevailing “externally-directed and rationalistic” western consciousness (57).
In laying the groundwork for this conversion, Fletcher makes a powerful contribution to resolving the most fundamental issue of social justice facing Australians. If the moral debate among early colonists about the treatment of Aborigines was “perhaps the most enduring and most important debate in Australian history” (236), then the realisation that it is far from over is a rebuke to Australian Christians. Fletcher’s challenge to the tone deafness of Australians to the weeping land, which ‘remembers’ the abiding events of the Ancestors and is therefore sacred, is to develop a “critical spirituality” (29).
Much of the latter part of the book is devoted to the elaboration of a language in which Europeans can approximate to an understanding of the meaning of the cosmic dimension of spirit to Aboriginal people and a way of participating in it. Fletcher is alert to the danger to clear thinking and theological orthodoxy posed by Heidegger’s “primordial thinking” (218) and the unfettered use of imagination. He insists, however, that the typical Australian “withholding of genuine passion” in matters spiritual is an even greater threat than this to the search for “a contemporary constitutive meaning” (258). He reminds Christians that there is a residue of primal religion in such orthodox doctrines as the theology of the Eucharist and the divine motherhood of Mary. Indeed, Christians need to be converted to their own religion if they are to take the measure of the deep spirituality concealed in Aboriginal myth and ritual, a hint of which was given in Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Bauman’s explanation of dadirri.
Some Christians will be troubled by the apparent incompatibility of a spirituality that regards the land and all its features and creatures as sacred with a faith that affirms the absolute transcendence of God and the divinity of Christ. On this Fletcher has some incisive comments. The theological tradition itself warns us about conceiving of God as an object rather than as the correlative of an experience of Mystery. Relative to this, the religions are man-made superstructures, and there is “no one ultimate embodiment” (139) of Mystery. It is not immediately clear whether this applies to the revelation of the Christ Mystery in the mystery of the historical person of Jesus (289); if it does, it amounts to an affirmation of the possibility of religious pluralism. In any case it is equally true that the primordial revelation is creation itself (189).
The further step, towards which Aboriginal religion can be a powerful incentive, is to learn that the Creator Spirit is in, not just above the land (84). In taking this step so boldly, Frank Fletcher has contributed not only to the theology of inter-religious dialogue, but also to the foundations of social justice thinking in Australia.
The book, especially the long sections on the complementarity of cognitive and symbolic modes of knowing and the mediation of body and spirit by soul, makes considerable demands on the reader unacquainted with the terminology of mysticism. But I can only encourage anyone who is seriously concerned about the immense injustice done to this land’s original inhabitants and the spiritual renewal of secular Australia to grapple with it. It is the testament to a life lived in generous dedication to both.