Sushil Suresh discusses the role of Christianity in contemporary Australia
The common belief today is that in public life the importance of religion has been diminishing in Western societies like Australia. This, we have been taught, is the outcome of a long process of secularisation that first began in Western Europe as science and capitalism undermined the power of the church and ushered in a new era of rationality.
The religious conflicts endemic to Europe were overcome as nation states and enlightened liberalism replaced the monarchies that had emerged in the territories of Western Christendom. These kingdoms preceded the arrival of secularism on the historical stage; as political units they were welded to the reigning religious institution of the time—ie the church. This version of the story has it that the territorial possessions (in Asia, America and Africa) of the newly emerged European states created the possibility for persecuted minorities and all those who were disillusioned with the ongoing religious strife in Europe to relocate to new lands and build new societies based on an ethic of rational enterprise, religious tolerance and civic virtues. The role of the church, the institution that now became the scapegoat for all the sectarian strife, was to be relegated to the margins of public life, and the nation-state and its institutions would be the terrain on which rationality would guide an enlightened public sphere. The new societies, at the time being geographically far from the European church, would be free of the menace of a religion beyond the limits of rationality.
However, the native populations of Asia, Australia, Africa and America were seen as unable or not ready for the rationality that was gaining the upper hand in European society. These societies, according to the Eurocentric worldview that was becoming synonymous with reason, were still at a stage in history that European civilisation had transcended centuries ago. It was to be the burden of Europe or the European to civilise the rest of mankind, to guide to the higher stages of human culture and civilisation those vast sections of mankind that were still lingering in the darkness of primitive beliefs and barbaric customs. European man, through his discovery of the new continents and societies there, and the mission that came with this discovery (ie to civilise the rest of humanity) found himself the bearer and transmitter of a new world order of peace, progress and prosperity. In order to be on the path to modern Eurocentric civilisation, Africans, Orientals, the natives of Australia, and all the other non-European peoples would have to shed the customs and beliefs that had stymied progress in these societies. These customs and beliefs were invariably the outcome of religious superstition, the Eurocentric worldview would insist. Every custom that would look barbaric, according to the Eurocentric worldview, had the sanction of the native religions of the world outside Europe. Europe’s power and prestige, Eurocentrism would contend, was an outcome of the enlightened rationality that inspired its humanistic history.
Under the shock of this new constellation of power, native societies would go through a prolonged phase of self-examination and criticism, leading to the rejection or reform of tradition rooted in religion. This process of cultural or civilisational encounter that ushered in our contemporary world was not to be a one-way street: it was not the case that Europe heaped scorn and ridicule on everything African or Oriental, and didn’t learn from or imbibe aspects of these cultures. The very idea of Europe and the West, ie the central concepts informing the political geography of the modern world, was forged in a historical process of civilisational encounter where “Europe” discovered its superiority or distinction in relation to the racial/cultural other. What was unique or new was not civilisational encounter (since it is impossible for a culture to be conscious of itself unless it is aware of other cultures that are not the same) but the nature of the encounter; the nature of the encounter had transformed the very meaning of the concepts civilisation and culture. The concept of civilisation would now express the self-consciousness of a politically hegemonic cultural formation that would see itself as the West in relation to the rest.
All over the globe that was now on its way to becoming a village this hegemonic culture would have its representative populations, and institutions of government. Scientific technology and a social organisation based on this technology would secure its political power. The inability of native cultures to match the prestige and superiority of the new institutions synonymous with European culture would worsen the crisis of confidence among the natives. The choice the natives initially faced was to try and gain representation in the new institutions; this was followed by a realisation that representation did not translate to empowerment or influence; and slowly but surely, in a confused manner, that the institutions were meant to deny or curtail the sharing of power on a basis of equality between Europeans and the natives. This realisation can be seen as the motivating power behind the struggle for national self-rule, ie the transfer of power from European rulers to natives. This transfer of power can also be viewed as a process whereby the natives attained the political maturity and confidence to man the new institutions of power that would be at the heart of independent self-rule. Roughly, this was the larger context of the political struggle that would determine the nature and faultlines of the global village that would emerge from this period. Behind all the institutional and cultural changes that would characterise modernity, race would continually rear its head as the one single issue that overdetermined all the various local outcomes.
Whether it was Australia, India, Africa or China; or whether one chooses to see it as the East-West encounter, or a problem of population growth and social unrest in Europe that created the need to migrate to new lands, race war or the potential for race war would shadow the encounters between people. Nor would there be a peaceful outcome to this; racial conflict and tension would continue to haunt every corner of the globe even as people found ever more and newer ways to characterise and rationalise this dominant feature of modern society. This feature would determine the nature of the new world, its possibilities and its rationalities. The struggle against one type of racism would often prove to be the seedbed for a new type of solidarity based on race. Nations, cultures and societies would be founded through racial struggle, and these struggles would lead them to discover the power of a majoritarianism based on cultural and ethnic solidarity that would never be free of chauvinism.
Through all the various theatres of conflict and war, the figure of Europe and its institutions would loom large as the norm for the newly emerging nations, even as they defined themselves in opposition to Europe. European man would be the model for the new man of the world. People who considered themselves non-European still had to define that otherness using the idea of Europe. And the nations that were most European would be the symbols of the superiority and prestige of this new way of life. The modern world would increasingly begin to look like an attempt to create a Western European inspired world. Nations did their best to imbibe Europe’s strengths or empower their own cultures to adapt to the institutions of modernity. The private life of human beings, now increasingly under the sway of the institutions of modernity, started assuming noticeably European features in appearance and sentiment. One could say this was a fundamental transformation of humanity by a dominant cultural paradigm that was and continues to be White Western.
But how has such an immense transformation been effected? Was it solely through coercion? Or can we say that the civilising process is both coercive and empowering, at the same time? This is of course a problem that we cannot hope to be able to explain in a detailed manner here. However, there are aspects of this problem that we could indicate briefly. Let us go back to our initial question: the problem of secularism and Australia. Our concern here is simply to illustrate a point about race and power in the modern world.
To make a point about its secular society Australia is contrasted with societies of the third world. This society, as a Western society, is seen as made up of individuals for whom religious faith is a private matter, if not indifference or overt disbelief. Religion, according to this view, is defined as a thing of the past, and it has less importance when it comes to governing a complex technological, rational and pluralistic liberal democracy. In the third world, however, religion seems to be at the centre of a great deal of conflict. It may be true that the Christian church in Australia doesn’t enjoy the power or place of the church in medieval Europe. However, it is problematic to go further and claim that Western Christianity doesn’t have a tremendously significant political function in contemporary Australia. One of the reasons why Australia is seen as a society that doesn’t live by the dictates of the church is the declining importance of church-centred worship, or any religious worship for that matter. From this social trend it is concluded that the church, its ethics and values and the religious worldview have less and less significance in the life of the community and the lives of private individuals.
The problem with such a view is that it is based on a simplistic understanding of the influence and role of the church in previous centuries. While the church was a powerful institution previously, its power was not set against or wielded to dominate communities or individuals. Rather, it was the power of the community that crystallised in the religious institution of the church. This communal power was a set of values and practices that were institutionalised in the church. When we think of religion as a practice of the past, we assume that it was a product of the superstitious human social imagination. We tend to think that fear and credulity was the lot of a mankind that took refuge in religious beliefs as a way to propitiate forces that were beyond its control. This, however, was not the case with any society of the past, and religion was never the opium of the masses. Such ideas about the past have gained currency today as a consequence of an idea of history as a story of progress—the progressive emancipation of mankind from bondage, tutelage, servitude etc to the current norm of the Western social and cultural ideal. This is the crucial point: the Western social norm was the criteria used to evaluate and judge eastern religion right through the entire civilisational encounter where race was the dividing line.
In the time of Europe’s direct political control over the East, the church did not take the back seat so much as it did its missionary work in the shade of the political power of the European colonial state. Creating the impression of a church-state divide was politically important for the colonial rulers. This would give the ‘political’ enterprise a status separate from the work of the missionary; additionally, crucially, it would bestow an autonomy on the spiritual that would give the Christian the credibility and legitimacy the European political ruler would find hard to maintain in all situations. The Christian would work for the cause of a white Christianity as a benevolent but not uncritical missionary. Where the European colonial state showed reluctance to repress or reform native religion-inspired customs, the missionary would spread the word of a benevolent white Jesus. There was a significant political convergence of interests here. When the state felt that resistance to its rule was too well-entrenched, the conversion of human beings into willing subjects was necessary: this was done through the civilising process of modern schooling and religious proselytising. The incentive for those who were willing to be initiated into the mores of the new culture was access to the domains of power and status that the new knowledge would confer. There was another important reason for this style of rule, ie the non-coercive, educational, spiritual, enlightening type of civilising process that gained ground under Europe’s political domination of the East. Religion was that one site of resistance to European political hegemony that would prove the most recalcitrant. Religion would not just inspire the natives to mobilise against the oppressor, it would also provide the terrain on which the subjects could unite against the Western-inspired and guided institutions that excluded them from the new social spaces and forms of life taking shape around them.
Religion, the colonial master and the missionary (who appeared to stand aside from the political) would claim, was a matter of private faith, something that should be kept out of the spaces where the new civic, social virtues of the nation state was gaining a foothold. Yet religion was the social for the native, it was the life of the community, it was the collective soul and spirit under which social life unfolded. Religion was the manifestation of the community’s collective will, it was also the source of the social power of the customs and mores by which the community’s political life was guided. It was for this reason that religion would consistently spark conflict between the natives and the colonial masters. It was precisely for this reason that the colonial state decided to stand aloof from the native religions and dedicate itself to the task of rational bureaucratic administration. This administrative apparatus’s conflicts with the natives would be seen as the conflict of tradition versus bureaucratic administrative modernity. Into the space that the state had decided to withdraw from (ie the space of native religious customs) the aura of white Western Christianity would step in through the work of the missionary. This work would be directed at the souls of men. Together with the power and success of the colonial state it would have a strong symbolic presence in the minds of the natives. It would be wrong to measure the success of Christian missionary work by the number of converts to the new religion. More important would be the impact it would have on the minds of the entire surrounding population. Not just that this new factor on the social landscape would create curiosity among natives, it would eventually make them look at their own customs with new eyes. Christianity was the religion of the colonial master. The Christian church was central in the pantheon of Western history. The native elite, educated in institutions modelled on or run by the colonial master, would spearhead reforms aimed at their religious beliefs. At the time, a series of other changes would lead to transformations that would later be called the secularisation of native society: among these, for instance, were the diffusion of new furniture that would transform the native’s relation to food; a new architecture that would transform ideas about domestic and other spaces. To the casual observer it would appear that religion was on the retreat, the way Europe claimed religion had retreated in the West. The White European would capture the native’s imagination as the harbinger of all these transformations society was going through.
These transformations would also result in a revolutionary transformation of Hinduism, which are easily noticeable in the Hindu pantheon. It wasn’t just that Hinduism, faced with a Judaeo-Christian tradition, would reinvent itself to suit the needs of the colonial nation state through standardising and classicising much of its past; the gods of the Hindu pantheon would shed distinctive ethnic features, such as a very dark skin or facial traits, as they adopted the facial traits and other ethnic particularities that were distinctively Christian. For instance, it is well known that the common description of Krishna as karmega varna underwent a semantic and representational transformation at the figural level. Karmega varna denoted the dark complexion of Krishna—it meant the one with the complexion of dark rain clouds. This in the traditional texts was meant to be a eulogy of the appearance of Krishna, the cowherd and lover of maidens. But even if this connotation remains, karmega varna also today serves the function of a euphemism for Krishna’s dark skin. One has to keep in mind that it wasn’t just the lightening of dark gods like Krishna and Shiva in the contemporary Hindu pantheon (their blackness has turned into a blue skin colour); there was simultaneously a process of whitening of all the other lighter skinned gods of the native pantheon. Hinduism, like Christianity, was assuming new avtaars. The spiritual ideal would be the Western white-male-face of Jesus Christ. This face itself was an outcome of the changed self-perceptions of European Christianity.
The race of Jesus was not a dominant issue in primitive Christianity. Several communities of Christians in the past and in our contemporary world have worshipped darker versions of Jesus. The Western white-male-face of Jesus is a reflection of a changing Christianity and a changing Christian community. The Whiteness of the community was not a central political or cultural preoccupation of the community’s social imagination in previous eras. In medieval Europe the whiteness of the community was not a fact of tremendous political import or social significance. This whiteness assumed overriding importance through the encounter with the racial other. It was this encounter and the awareness of social separateness that this encounter instilled in the European that led to the projection of what was most important to this community on to its cherished god. Jesus Christ in the West is also that holy figure who represents symbolically what the community of alleged non-believers has sacralised: this is whiteness itself. It is not just whiteness that has attained this sacred position. It is the face too. The face as we know it today is the Western man itself. It would be hard to find other societies in previous eras where the face was so dominant. This face gives whiteness its human norm. But it would be wrong to see this whiteness as a norm that excludes or that is deterministic in an ethnic or biological sense. Like all norms it is an ideal. Even the whitest face doesn’t really measure up to this image. The emergence of faciality as a dominant feature of contemporary society is a reflection, an indication of the nature of social power today. It is not the perceived differences of other faces associated with other ethnicities that matters; it is the adaptability, the ‘mouldability’, the ability of any face to resemble or adopt the traits of whiteness that matters. Whiteness itself shows itself to be a social category as much as anything else. The ability to adopt and adapt to this norm, this is what determines who is excluded and the degrees of exclusion that operate in the community.
Let’s come back to Australia: all of these historical developments, according to conventional wisdom, are the stuff of a historical narrative tradition that sees the past as dead and behind us. This same tradition compartmentalises history to suit the needs of a political geography serving the needs of a political present divided along the lines of nations and their histories. India’s encounter with Britain, according to the worldview arising from such a history, would be relegated to a past that didn’t always have a living relation with the present; this past would also be relegated to a part of the globe that didn’t necessarily have a direct role to play in the birth of modern Australia.
Let us now bring into the argument once again our earlier remarks on racial conflict and its global dimensions. The production of social scientific knowledge through institutions of the state (like universities) creates agendas and imperatives that are often tied to the needs of situations that are only locally relevant. But these agendas and imperatives constitute the silent a priori of historical or social scientific research. The questions asked and the answers sought are always already determined by the culture and political needs of our nation states. The common perception of the historical otherness of India and its remoteness from Australia cannot withstand the most casual scrutiny. Yet the fact that India’s historical relation to Australia has not been on top of the research agenda in Australia is a reflection of the continuing logic of racial domination – and the generation of knowledge tied to the needs of such domination – that was and still is the prime political necessity of Australia. In passing we must mention that the debate around the origins of contemporary Australia has always had the presence of India as one of the main motives for Britain to secure territory in this part of the world, both to refuel ships on their way to India and also to consolidate its possessions in the East by making it difficult for rival powers to gain easy access to these regions. There was the additional incentive of extending colonial power into the societies of the South Pacific. These are points we must bear in mind to understand the nature and extent of the historical encounter, and the nature of the religious in Australia today.
It is a mistake to see the past as continuing its hold only in some aspects of social life. Social life is not separable into neatly packaged autonomous compartments. The racial conflict and struggles that preceded the birth of Australia determined the nature of the new nation that baptised itself Australia: this much every schoolboy knows — what is not readily acknowledged (especially in terms of the political implications and necessities that led to the formation of a White society) is that Australia was meant to be another location for the Western European way of life, both for White Australians and for the surrounding non-white populations. While the European norm had found a territory within which it would ensure unchallenged hegemony for its culture, this was not a practical situation in the long run. The racial conflict that had given rise to Australia and its way of life would refuse to be a thing of the historical past. These conflicts would continue into the minute details of everyday life in our contemporary societies, as a continuation of the past in the present. The whiteness of the contemporary Hindu gods was and is not an indication of the subjugated status of the Oriental imagination. It is rather a reflection of the varied terrains on which the racial struggle manifests itself, and the very stakes and strategies of the battle.
When we say colonial we fall into the trap of a very general term. To repeat an earlier point: what is specific about the colonial encounter of the recent past is that whiteness formed a crucial differentiator. This differentiator was not biological. Whiteness was a moral category, a way of life, a superior presence that differentiated itself in naturalistic terms, as well as in social terms. The native had to have the hope of measuring up to and imbibing this whiteness. This was a symbolic power that would expect a total transformation of the human being. In every realm of life, the native would be found wanting. In rising to the challenge of this power, those natives who were capable of resembling or claiming to resemble this power always gained social ascendance over their counterparts who couldn’t measure up to or appropriate the white way of life.
All of these aspects of the racially charged historical encounter continue to live on in Australia, both with the elite sections and the response to the elites that the subordinate classes throw up. While modern Australia has moved beyond the medieval European church, it has not, need not, and will not, shed aspects of traditional European Christianity that were crucial in the encounter with the racial other. What we see is how various traditions of the Christian West continue to permeate everyday life in Australia, silently and secretly mesmerising our souls and structuring our sentiments. Just as the colonial state needed to partition itself off from the religious, we see the autonomy of the religious figure function in a beguiling manner vis-à-vis the non-white native from the third world. The frustrations or resentments that arise in social life are not easily traceable to a power that operates in a varied ways in widely disparate domains. This power displays itself in a diffuse and seemingly contradictory manner, in what is a sustained effort to win the minds and sway the hearts of men, even against their own consciences formed in the thick of a battle where their place is predetermined right down to the last detail.
It is not for nothing that today in Australia many communities are trying to set up their own religious places of worship; places the institutions of state power (ie the power of a community that rules through the institutions of a state) cannot penetrate in a straightforward manner. And it is not for nothing that Australia’s official proclamations of tolerance are tested by communities setting up their own places of worship. Not one of these communities has found it easy to set up a place of worship. When an ethnic religious place of worship springs up in an Australian suburb, it usually triggers a wave of white flight to other places, if this hasn’t already been happening in the suburb. It is the creation of institutions that will enable communities to assert themselves in ways that the Australian White nation and its institutions make it hard if not impossible for communities to do — this is the recurrence of a historical pattern that the political analyses of academia or journalism are incapable of noticing, wedded as they are to the institutions of a dominant rationality.
It is the formation of the souls of men that facilitates their submission to the holiness of a white god —not necessarily Jesus Christ, but the symbolic prestige of the values, the history and the way of life that is enshrined in his face. Nor is it just a case of the right faciality traits; there is a disciplining of the body that goes with this regime of whiteness; a proper use of the body; specific and detailed habits of hygiene; a way to care for one’s body so it fits into the system of white discipline… The challenge to this regime comes most effectively from a domain that manages to keep at bay Western W hiteness as a way of life.
All of these also serve to highlight why the face is at the centre of seemingly diverse political debates today: the rights of women, the sophistication men should show through their appearance etc. For the Western man the face is that cultural fabrication around which his entire civilisation revolves. The face in itself has nothing human about it. But its significance and the manner of its manifestation in contemporary society means that it has been humanised, civilised, cleaned up of all the inhuman traits that are capable of showing up in every ‘face’, and standardised to create a norm that parades itself as natural. The close-up: this is what the face is. A cultural artefact that blinds the eye to the cosmetic side of its nature, and the political and cultural necessities that are evoked through it. The face is the mask itself of Western man. It is what pacifies and normalises the impulses of the other and makes insubordination a virtual impossibility. Contrary to common conceptions, Jesus Christ is not a figure from the past who lingers on for reasons of tradition or sentimentality. The white face of the despot god is a crucial element in the political entity that calls itself Australia.