Sacred and secular, Lloyd Geering

Spirit in a Strange Land: A Selection of New Zealand Spiritual Verse
ed Paul Morris, Harry Ricketts & Mike Grimshaw
Godwit, $39.95,
ISBN 1869620976

The editors are to be warmly commended for taking the initiative in assembling this first anthology of New Zealand spiritual verse. As they rightly point out, although New Zealand is sometimes described as the most secular country in the world (instanced by the drop in those participating in traditional religious activities), this fact does not necessarily imply a decline in spirituality. Indeed, such is the radical change taking place in human culture today that it is by no means clear any more just what constitutes genuine religion, as opposed to, say, superstition and idolatry. The editors warn that they have been working with a very broad definition of religion. Today’s widespread confusion over the nature of religious experience and practice is the reason for the current preference for the term “spirituality” to “religion”.

But even though spirituality is a broader concept, it is still very difficult to define. This uncertainty about its limits only complicates the task of the editors in making their selection. Some readers, particularly those unaccustomed to a broad understanding of religion, may query whether some of the material found here falls into the category of spiritual.

This is only to be expected at a time of rapid cultural and religious change. By the same token, it makes the venture here undertaken even more relevant. There has always been a strong affinity between poetry and spirituality, since religious experience, drawing heavily as it does on emotion, is more readily expressed in poetry than in mundane prose. That is why the singing of hymns has always played such an important role in Christian worship. So, at a time of great religious change, we may well find poets at the leading edge of the evolution of human spirituality.

What has chiefly been happening in the modern world is this: human attention has been shifting from an imagined unseen and supernatural other world to our daily experience in this world. The other, and so-called spiritual, world has been rapidly fading from modern human consciousness, leaving the tangible world of space and time as the only certain reality. This process of change has been called secularisation (from saeculum, “this present age or world”). Secularisation can be judged anti-religious only if religion is too narrowly defined in terms of the supposed other world; it does not eliminate spirituality but simply leads to its expression in new and this-worldly forms.

The cultural transition still taking place from the conventionally religious to the openly secular is well reflected in the very wide spectrum of material selected for this book. At one extreme, there are items celebrating Christian themes or events, and reminiscent of traditional religiosity; at the other pole, there are poems about nature and about the secular character of New Zealand life. This movement from the supernatural to the natural is reflected in the quite unusual headings under which the editors chose to group their selection – “Godzone”, “Holidays & Holy Days”, “Saints & Sinners”, “Troubled Souls”, “Jesus Alone”, “Book of the Land”, “Rebels & Recluses”.

Many well-known New Zealand poets have found a place, such as James K Baxter, Denis Glover, Sam Hunt, Lauris Edmond, Janet Frame, Vincent O’Sullivan, Allen Curnow, R A K Mason, to name but a few. Only at one
point do I find the selection somewhat too limited. The editors concede that they deliberately “did not draw fully on the fertile New Zealand tradition” of hymn writing, on the grounds that excellent hymn collections are already available. Consequently, the contemporary hymns of Shirley Murray and Colin Gibson have found no mention at all in spite of the fact that they are probably better known overseas than most other work in this anthology. This omission is all the more surprising in view of the two hymns that they did include – Thomas Bracken’s “New Zealand Hymn” and Ernest Merrington’s “God of Eternity”. Not only do both of these represent the more traditional genre of spiritual verse but the latter was written by a Queenslander and intended for use in Australia! It was only later in life that Merrington migrated to New Zealand.

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This one complaint now dealt with, let me express appreciation of what has been included. It is catholic in the original sense of that term. As the editors note, the voices to be heard here are Catholic, Protestant, post-Protestant, and openly secularist. There is present what they call “a tough-minded, non-denominational, even atheistic spirituality”.

Some poems, such as M K Joseph’s “Easter in the South” and Peter Cape’s “Nativity” reflect the need to re-imagine the central Christian themes in a very different setting. Peter Cape’s New Zealand version of the Christmas story is quite captivating. Kathleen Hawkins, in her “Church Sunday”, has captured the homely character of an afternoon service in a countryside schoolhouse. Every detail of those “religious” celebrations, so unique to New Zealand, is very faithfully portrayed (as I can personally testify, having participated in so many of them during the 1940s).

But the ancient rituals, bravely translated into the New Zealand setting, are themselves now declining, leaving only echoes of their importance in the Christian past. A quaint but humorous example of this is found in Owen Marshall’s “South Island Prayer”. He briefly expresses the wish to die eventually in the South Island rather than in the North, using the name of Jesus Christ in a way some would judge blasphemous; yet it reflects all that is left in our language of the use of the sacred names in the solemn oaths of mediaeval times.

Basil Dowling’s “An Apology for Atheism” expresses in eight lines the modern version of the problem with which the author of the biblical Job wrestled long ago. Dowling, an ex-Presbyterian minister and Christian pacifist during World War 2, was a very sensitive person who felt deeply the moral dilemma posed by the traditional theology. By contrast, the “Secular Litany” of M K Joseph captures New Zealand’s very shallow spirituality (or perhaps the lack of it altogether!).

There are contributions (perhaps too few) which reflect Maori culture. They come from Hone Tuwhare, Keri Hulme, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell and Apirana Taylor. Campbell’s “Looking at Kapiti” and Taylor’s “The Womb” take us back to the spirituality associated with the natural world, which so characterised the indigenous culture. These Maori voices may well herald the revival in the future of a spirituality of nature, made necessary by current environmental and ecological concerns. With them, therefore, may be linked the poems about the New Zealand landscape, grouped in “Book of the Land”.

One could go on and on commenting on the poems chosen; for those mentioned have been selected almost at random. I enjoyed reading through them and found my interest growing as I did so. From time to time, there are flashes of humour. As with all poetry, they need to be read (preferably aloud), re-read, and pondered. This is a valuable anthology that mirrors the spiritual dimension of New Zealand society. If one is looking for a distinctly New Zealand form of spirituality, however, none is to be discerned, apart from its diverse and more secular character. All future anthologies will turn back to this pioneering one with gratitude.

 

Lloyd Geering was foundation Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. His book The World to Come was reviewed in our August 2000 issue.

 

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Posted in Literature, Poetry, Religion and Review
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