Religions under scrutiny, Peter Lineham

Religions of New Zealanders
Peter Donovan
Dunmore Press, Palmerston North, 1991, $39.95

The objective of this study is to further understanding of the broad variety of religions now present in New Zealand, looking at them both in the context of their character as world-faiths, and in the New Zealand experience. The high point of the book is undoubtedly the final chapter by the editor, Peter Donovan. Donovan has a deep sensitivity to the forms of spirituality in different religions and a wisdom about what this means in terms of our ways of thinking. He challenges the view of them as ‘non-Christian religions’, by which we lump together many alien forms. He also has a shrewd understanding of the workings of New Zealand society, which has always given room for religion, but not much room. It is a valuable insight.

There are seventeen chapters in this book, of which seven are devoted to Christianity, six to great world religions, one to traditional Maori religion, one to humanism, one to women and religion, and the editor’s conclusion. The balance is reasonable. Many of the world faiths described have very few supporters in New Zealand, but their distinctiveness calls for separate coverage. There are some unfortunate omissions. Humanism is not representative of all the rationalist and free-thought positions. Jim Wilson is chary about describing the numerous westernised forms of Hinduism which abound in contemporary New Zealand. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints, which has the support of a significant minority of our population, is increasingly described by scholars as a new religion rather than just a Christian sect, but it receives cursory and superficial attention here.

A book like this is designed to explain the inner workings of religion to outsiders. In fact some of the authors prove unable to give a sympathetic but non-proselytising portrayal of their faith’s beliefs, behaviour, world context and place in New Zealand society. Some chapters do little to translate the religion into terms meaningful to others. In some essays we are given overwhelming detail of their tiny group of New Zealand believers, and told little of the character of the religion; while other essayists analyze the history and beliefs of the religion, but say virtually nothing about their New Zealand presence. The Judaism chapter tells us little about either aspect. Two essays are particularly good: Chris van der Krogt’s study of Islam carefully covers both, although at some length, and Betty Duncan’s chapter on Christianity among Pacific Islanders conveys the feel of Pacific Islanders’ churches and religious forms in New Zealand, although she does not explain their origins.

The Maori chapters (one given pride of place at the beginning, over-riding the otherwise alphabetical listing; the other in the Christian section) are disappointing. The late Te Pakaka Tawhai conveys something of Maori mood towards religion, but does not explain anything about its practice. Manuka Henare provides a simple and clear coverage of Christian forms, but his comments on Ringatu and Ratana are confined to one paragraph!

The Christian chapters are, despite their number, rather inadequate. Christianity is dominant among the religions in our society, and seven chapters should portray its diversity. Unfortunately they do not. Essays on the phenomenology of Christianity should not have as their starting-point the secularisation of society and the decline of Christianity. Donovan recognises this in his concluding essay, but the argument is so habitual to sociologists of religion that some cannot abandon it. The Catholic experience receives excellent attention from Elizabeth Isichei, but it was a mistake to devote a chapter to the history of the mainline churches before 1960, however careful Colin Brown’s approach, and the churches included as ‘mainline denominations’ are not defined. Then Jim Veitch, supposedly writing on recent Protestantism, trundles out his usual generalisations on the Geering controversy (along with a casual glance at the Charismatic movement). The bizarre complement to this is a chapter in which Brian Colless examines ‘alternative churches’ on a comparative basis. This seems to me to contradict the central thrust of the book: that each religion needs to be understood in its own terms. Overall these chapters seem an odd way to describe patterns of contemporary Christianity.

The contributors all labour to say something about women and their religion. It is all rather dull and formulaic until the second-to-last chapter, which is a rabid essay on women’s spirituality by Catherine Benland. The scope is not a specific religion, for there is none, unless it be what the author terms Neo-paganism. Frankly, Benland’s sermon on finding the goddess, and her diatribe on patriarchal religion would not be tolerated in an academic work in any other era. If the book is intended to build tolerance and understanding, it presupposes an attitude towards others which is necessary if we are all to live together. Benland will have none of this; she is a crusader and her cry is ‘Death to the infidel’.

I think we can all learn that understanding others does not mean compromising our own values. But the exercise is never as easy as it sounds. It is precisely because of the deep significance of religion that it leads more often to tension than to understanding. The book makes some progress, and I’m grateful for that.


Peter Lineham is Senior Lecturer in History at Massey University, a specialist in New Zealand religious history and author of several books and articles.


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