An address by Rabbi Raymond Apple at the Australian Centre for Sufism, Sydney, on 4 November, 2001.Australia is home to over 500 religions. Numerically the largest is Christianity in all its versions. The longest established non-Christian tradition is Aboriginal Spirituality, but in the era that began in 1788 the earliest non-Christian group to arrive was Judaism – 16 or so of the First Fleet convicts were Jewish – and in due course there came Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and of course others. There has thus been religious variety in Australia for well over 200 years.
One would like to be able to say that the various religions always got on well, but this was not the case. There have been times of tension between religions, but these usually involved only the Christians. The sectarian warfare between Catholics and Protestants continued for many decades and had its impact on many areas of national life. On occasion there was some uncertainty as to whether non-Christian faiths could be accorded legitimacy in what was claimed to be a Christian country, though the legal situation is that neither Christianity nor any other faith was ever established as the official religion of Australia, and section 116 of the Commonwealth Constitution put this beyond doubt.
What is the current relationship between the religions of Australia? There is more peace than ever before between the Christians and there are various ecumenical Christian organisations, but as far as I know the only structured relationship extending to non-Christians is the Council of Christians and Jews, though there are also various broad-based military and civil chaplaincy bodies. It could well be that the sudden crisis of September 2001 may lead to some form of all-embracing inter-religious structure, but in the meantime all we can say is that when representatives of the various traditions meet, usually on an ad-hoc basis to address shared concerns, to hear leading overseas visitors, or to mark national, civic or cultural occasions, it is invariably in a spirit of friendship and congeniality. If today’s gathering makes a contribution towards something more lasting, it will be a blessing. After all, even with the differences that divide us, we all stand for the same overarching principle – that a spiritual outlook and moral standards are indispensable if society is to flourish and civilisation is to survive and be safe.
But do the non-believers agree with us that it is religion which is the key to the future? There is an instructive parallel in the Hebrew Bible in the exciting story of the prophet Jonah. Unfortunately there is a popular view that the Book of Jonah is an ancient “Moby Dick”, a tale of a whale. But the big fish in the story was not a whale, and the Bible had a higher purpose in canonising this book.
How does the story begin? Jonah is on the way to Tarshish. He boards a ship and goes down to sleep in his cabin. The ship begins to founder. Fear, uncertainty and agitation grip the mariners, but Jonah succeeds in staying asleep. The sailors find Jonah strange and think the tempest must be his fault. They confront him and want to know who he is, his occupation, his origin, his country and his people. He answers only one of their questions, the last one, and tells them, “I am a Hebrew, and I worship the God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land.”
The truth is that each of the mariners’ questions is fair and valid. When crises erupt, when storms blow, when civilisation is foundering, we tend to seek answers and guidance from the range of experts and isms that proliferate around us. Is salvation to be found in economics, politics, science, law, even in sport? There are those who advocate these options, but in the end it is Jonah who is right. Who your God is and what your values are are more likely to offer the key to survival.
The point was tellingly made in Viktor Frankl’s research about the Holocaust. Life then was frightening, but those with values and beliefs were more likely to survive – or at least to survive longer. His philosophy is logotherapy, and in more sophisticated form it is the prophet Jonah all over again.
What religion has to offer is beliefs, values, standards. But which religion? Religions agree on many things. As Arnold Toynbee said, they are all seeking to respond to universal spiritual feelings and needs. So why are they separate and distinct? The answer arises out of differing cultural and historical factors as well as unique revelational or experiential insights.
So are they all equally valid… or equally invalid? No-one argues that there is no value in other religions, but to claim they are all equally true is to trivialise and erase the things that make them distinctive. To say they are all equally false is to consign them all to the scrap-heap. If they are false they lose all credibility. We have no choice but to say that each one is right… for its own adherents. But almost all make the further, dogmatic claim that they alone possess absolute truth and the whole world should and must adopt it. To bring their views into the democratic market-place of ideas is one thing, but coercively to proselytise is to deny others the right to their own conscience and convictions.
But why in any case do we need the question of where ultimate truth lies? Is this not one of the mysteries of God? We are not God’s policemen. Why can we not leave some questions to Him? Human vision is partial and our understanding limited. The question of ultimate truth is one that only He can answer. To Him we can leave the problem of why He has made us different in faith and commitment.
Though some things have to be left to God, not everything does. “The heavens are the heavens of the Lord, but the earth has He given to the children of men”, is what the Biblical Psalmist says. There is a heavenly agenda… and an earthly responsibility. That responsibility works in concentric circles. The innermost circle is particularistic and concerns the internal affairs and dynamics of our own traditions. Beyond it is the outer circle of shared inter-religious challenge in which we all work together. That challenge insists that instead of, God forbid, fighting one another, we find common cause and fight together to bring religious insights to the task of peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all mankind.
How do we carry out this task when there are still differences between us that are frequently incompatible, even differences in ethical concept and emphasis? By rejoicing in our diversity and at the same time seeking to address together issues such as poverty, homelessness, failings in education, uneven opportunity and a plethora of bio-ethical, commercial and professional dilemmas. We may not find one answer to any given problem but the effort and the unity are in themselves a step towards social justice. The alternative? To fritter away a priceless opportunity because of internecine conflict.
Once upon a time there was a Jewish humourist famous for his annual send-up of the Jewish community of England, a nation where religious people have always taken themselves rather seriously. The son of a rabbi, he knew rabbis well. No wonder he tried one year to offer a few choice definitions. They included the word “rabbi”, which he said must have derived from the Hebrew riv, to quarrel. We rabbis thought it was priceless fun, but we got the message. However, I strongly suspect that the general, irreligious public think that the nature of all religions and all religious teachers and leaders is to quarrel and to aid and abet interfaith rivalry and friction. If they are right, then not only do they not want religion, but for my part I don’t want that sort of religion either. So let’s use today to decide that Australia will lead the way in allowing religion to seek peace and pursue it, and to find ways of loving each other and making the world safe.