A time for re-enchantment, Paul Morris


In the global marketplace of popular ideas, religion is currently out and spirituality in. The churches are all but empty. Dogma, doctrines, guilt, judgement, restraint, penance, hierarchy, exclusivity, and wholly transcendent heavenly beings are all suspect, as too obviously indicating the uneasy, unhealthy, and sometimes abusive exercise of institutional power over individuals. Christendom is finally over, and all the pious, clerical millennial hopes can only be for naught.

Spirituality is in and religion is out. Only your own experience, it is contended, can ever be really empowering. Only your own knowledge, it is claimed, can ever be certain. Authentic mystical practices, meditation, contemplation, insight, indigenous wisdom, mythologies, journeys of discovery, personal growth, and spontaneous, tribal and archaic rituals are detached from their original context, packaged, bought and sold, and tried and tested by an ever-increasing number of paying consumers. Scholars search ancient sources and scriptures for new and accessible forms of mysticism and spirituality, and, as Hollywood discovers kabbalah, research students queue to sign up to study tantra, medieval Christian women mystics, Sufis and Celtic spirituality.

Spirituality is held to be both radically individualistic at the experiential and existential levels and at the same time corporate, cultural and collective. And while spontaneity, innovation, and invention are encouraged, one cannot, of course, rediscover one’s Celtic or other roots unless one recovers one’s community. The authenticity of any form of spirituality is to be found in the construction of its cultural history. Spirituality always makes cultural and communal claims. Spirituality is cultural. To fail to recognise one’s spiritual dimension is to diminish one’s divine self-image and to deny oneself full personhood. Spirituality is personal and collective identity. Each particular form of life generates and is underpinned by a specific spirituality, a mode of thinking and practice that allows one to participate in the divine body.

One of the most significant forms of modern spiritual identity is to be found in the heretical form of national identity. According to Augustine, each individual can overcome his or her isolation and separation by participating in the divine life. During the mystery of the mass, we can become part of the corporate body of Christ/God. Likewise, we participate in the life of the country and become part of the corporate body of the nation. We don’t seem to do this participating very often – by voting on Election Day once every three years or so – rather than every Sunday!

We transcend our separation in the secular communion of our America’s Cup parades and in our hands-on-heart support for the All Blacks. We participate in the collective Kiwi body as we identify with the multicultural young person who in the Air New Zealand advertisement carries our sacred Maori-Pakeha cultural heritage aloft as we proceed on our global journey. Both intimately local and valued globally, we project ourselves forward into the world. The glossy engines of popular culture create Georgie Pie McDonald’s mystical geographies that define our sacred territory – from Kaitia to Bluff – or celebrate Toyota masses of our holy racial diversities. But these images, while sometimes drawing deeply, tend to skateboard across our middle evening consciousness leaving little trace.


Is there a distinctive New Zealand spirituality? After a millennium of Polynesian migration and a century and a half of European settlement, are there particular practices and spiritual experiences uniquely of this land and of these peoples? There was, of course, what is now usually referred to as pre-colonial Maori spirituality, although its recovery and relationship to contemporary New Zealanders, Maori, Pakeha, and Polynesian, is not always clear. It is only this pre-European settlement tradition that is generally recognised as a form of indigenous spirituality, indeed as spirituality at all. For instance, other than a passing reference to pre-colonial Maori forms of Polynesian spirituality in the third volume of the recently completed World Spirituality: An Encyclopaedic History of the Religious Quest, New Zealand doesn’t merit a single mention in the entire twenty-five volume series. Is there no New Zealand spirituality worthy of note? Is there no distinctive historical or contemporary New Zealand spirit?

This question all too quickly devolves into the question of whether New Zealand has a distinctive literature of its own, or an art, or has a discernible national culture at all. This issue has been hotly debated since at least the 1860s. Where is home? In Britain, or here in the Antipodes? In the far-flung provinces of the Empire? Is New Zealand identity British or not? If it’s different, how so? Are the products of New Zealand identity and culture to reflect life here or to be part of a promised new international world?

And if the latter, then is this a world of the South Pacific? So, for example, from the first editorial in Landfall, via the later debate between Louis Johnson and Allen Curnow, to the current end-of-the-century concerns about global versus local identities, this question remains with us, live and demanding. And the louder the “yes” of here and now, the greater the pressure to define that distinctiveness. Perpetually announced, our distinctive New Zealand culture is always emerging.

Will this new voice be single or plural? In Mexico, for example, the global culture meets the pre-Columbian and the Spanish Catholic spiritual traditions. Amerindian death cults have seamlessly blended with a Spanish piety amidst the contemporary digital culture. Could there ever be a New Zealand equivalent?


What, if anything, is unique to the New Zealand spirit? A specific form of Protestant evangelical piety did develop in New Zealand, and as Lineham notes, it was a piety that differed from its British Victorian counterpart in being much more subdued, less fanatical, and less prone to visions or miraculous healing. At its best, it sought to transform the colony into a place of service and justice; at its worst, it tried to legislate the behaviour of the majority with God on its side, as with the Temperance issue. This near silent, inner confidence, publicly uncelebrated salvation and secret relationship with God tended to mask social and class divisions and create communal and racial fault-lines. Alongside this piety was an equally if not broader public suspicion of just such pieties, and a general more overt hostility to the churches themselves.

Commentator after commentator has decried the spiritual aridity of New Zealand culture and agreed with James Matheson about the spiritual emptiness of our way of life. This emptiness has only been intensified with the Maori renaissance that has arisen in the aftermath of Whina Cooper’s long march. A significant number of my Pakeha students report that, unlike their Maori counterparts, they have no culture‚ and thus no particular spirituality. They insist that the cultures of Europe were and are im-
perialistic, colonialist, racist, intolerant and generally oppressive. Rejecting their European roots, they are left, as it were, without culture or spirit. Further, this rejection destroys the egalitarian and racial harmony myths of a generation or two ago. Being reduced to “I am your sunshine”‚ in response to an invitation to offer a song on a marae, they discover that few of them even know the words beyond the chorus. Cut off from the diverse spiritual traditions of Europe, they long for some communion and growing numbers of them, as J B Priestley noted during his 1973 Waikato visit, attempt to embrace Maori spirituality as their own.

This New Zealand spiritual hunger is found in the ways in which the emotionalism and experiential appeal of charismatic Christianity grew in the mainstream denominations and in the establishment of Pentecostal communities throughout New Zealand. Bob Thompson writes that the charismatic movement has taken hold across the board to an extent unparalleled anywhere else in the world. The Pentecostal sector grew by more than 50% in the last five-year census period and appears to be continuing to do so.

But New Zealanders have long had a tradition of the spirituality of the unchurched. The Dalai Lama spoke to huge audiences here. These were not just Buddhists or fellow-dharma travellers but New Zealanders who reported that they desired to be in the presence of a spiritually developed being, or of wanting this for their children. New Zealanders have taken to the New Age in a big way, and their spiritual needs support a hugely disproportionate array of goods, services, workshops, trainings, and journals. The most successful business and motivation seminars here are those which are more explicitly spiritual in discourse and orientation. New Zealanders also seem in recent years to have adopted a most un-Protestant celebration of food and wine that might well be viewed in a spiritual fashion.

Artists like Colin McCahon, poets like James K Baxter and novelists like Maurice Gee have explored New Zealand spirituality. McCahon found himself outside of the church, a proto-post-Christian and discovered that it was all but impossible to paint God. The early Baxter struggled to find a new spiritual language and, failing, retreated into an already shaped piety and given system. Gee warned again of that Protestant piety but only promised to show us the way beyond this deep and dangerous inheritance.


New Zealanders, predominantly urban since the 1880s, have also long worshipped the bush of a mythic rural New Zealand. They developed a kind of nature spirituality, a transcending love of this land. This was sometimes a simple romanticism or mysticism of place but more often a generic and abiding love of the bush as a living link with the primordial and settler culture. Tramping in the bush along pilgrimage trails was to return to a purer form of pioneer life: a life lived in close proximity to the spirit of nature itself under those southern skies. In art and poetry, this was always slightly out of focus and unconvincing. Such a spirituality was explicitly linked to national identity in Monte Holcroft’s 1940 prize-winning essay “The Deepening Stream”, and since then this theme has seldom been far from the definitions of New Zealand and New Zealanders. Finding a language for this bush spirituality has been more difficult than Holcroft ever envisaged. And tramping can no longer be quite so innocent as we all come to realise how the land has been transformed and how we have constructed the very bush itself and how little that is original remains.

New Zealanders are required by law to ensure the spiritual development of school children although this is applied very differently in different schools. Growing numbers of New Zealanders draw on recent Maori discourse or attempt that elusive synthesis of Celtic and Maori traditions which perhaps began with Peter Fraser in the late 1940s. The global Celt has made her presence felt here, and Celtic spirituality is flourishing inside and outside of the churches. Celtic traditions are utilised in different forms of feminist spirituality, neo-pagan communities and Wiccan groups. Many of these practitioners forge links between the Maori form of global indigenous spirituality and the global form of Celtic spirituality. The adoption of a reversed Celtic calendar adjusted for hemisphere goes a long way to establishing some connection with the land, but the traditions and practices are all too often mere versions of imported rituals. Reconnecting to the land, like developing an appropriate discourse, seems to be considerably harder than it appears at first sight.


Theologians talk of the need for an indigenous New Zealand theology with local language and symbols of Christ. There are clear New Zealand parallels to the Australian literary scholar David Tacey’s claims: that political, cultural and social development are related to spiritual change; that this is entirely dependent on non-Aboriginal Australians connecting and mythically experiencing the land; and that out of this connection new myths will grow and new voices will be heard. What might an equivalent indigenous New Zealand spirituality look like?

To date the most profound theology of the land of Aotearoa and our relationships to it comes not from a theologian, cultural theorist, or tourism advertiser but from the ecologist Geoff Park. He calls on us to recognise that slowly the land works on us and that generation after generation shapes a new culture. We are part of that still unfolding process. Nature, as we have conceived and constructed it, is a terrible burden for us all. We need a sense of place, a home, but this we have systematically denied ourselves. Park considers that the thin spatial and place imagery in Pakeha art and writing is largely due to the integrity of the spirit of the land being lost so early on in the colonial venture. But just as Maori slowly came to this land as place and spirit, so Pakeha can too. This is not a question of goodwill but of time and of a growing awareness of quite different notions, perceptions and experiences of land. This process is inevitable and underway, and Park’s genius is in his utterly plausible case for the necessity of historicising our spirituality, and then doing just that. It is our history that both shaped and shapes the land and our peculiar and particular understandings of it.

As we consider the millennial upsurge in spiritual concerns and the promise of a new beginning after the longest and bloodiest century, we will discover those waiting for aliens to abduct them, Christians who are prepared for the rapture and the Second Coming, global Kiwi Celts, new spiritual forms downloaded and brought home – and, let us hope, the first stirrings of a profound engagement with our future history in a land re-enchanted.

Paul Morris is Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.

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