Demythologising, Mike Grimshaw

Sacred Histories in Secular New Zealand
Geoffrey Troughton and Stuart Lange (eds)
Victoria University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9781776560950

My late grandmother was a Presbyterian, who had some Catholic friends. They lived in working-class Stanley Point (when it was working-class) in Devonport. During the week, they existed very happily as friends and neighbours. But, on a Sunday, according to family lore, my nana, despite her bad hips, would walk the long way to church so she didn’t have to go past – and therefore acknowledge the existence of – the Catholic church. Apparently, her friends did the same thing in reverse. They were lives in which religious identity and practice were important components, yet these did not create sectarian communities, as during the week they lived interrelated non-sectarian lives. These were the respectable working class, whose children became middle-class, but a middle class that was still religious in framing culture and ethos, if not so regular practice, into the 1980s. Up to the end of the 1980s – and longer in the provinces and rural areas – there was still a large swathe of broad-church Protestantism and Catholicism in New Zealand.

This may have been increasingly irregular and idiosyncratic in practice and belief, but it took a mainstream view of an underlying Christian framing of society and culture. It lingered much longer than most historians and sociologists believed, or wished to believe, it did. Yet it is very hard to find an account of such lives in most histories of New Zealand. For religion, as this collection of essays skilfully dissects, has, too often in New Zealand historiography, been written off and written out as a “bad thing” that necessarily and understandably got left behind as New Zealand society matured and became modern.

As noted in this book, I teach the only course in New Zealand on the sociology of religion. Before I relocated to sociology, I taught religious studies and had to fight to teach courses on New Zealand religion. One course in religious studies I entitled “Pākehā prophets”. This examined the intertwining of religion and Pākehā identity in religion, culture, the land and the arts. Students often took the course grudgingly, but each year the same thing happened. About three weeks into the course, there was universal surprise and anger expressed as to “Why didn’t we know about this?” and, as the course progressed, why didn’t courses in New Zealand history, literature and art deal with these issues? Those who did sociology wondered why there was no sociology of religion paper. Many asked why didn’t they get taught anything of this at school? A number went on to do essays and theses on the intertwining of religious and spiritual sensibilities within the Pākehā response to the landscape.

An inspiration for this course was two anthologies of New Zealand spiritual verse I had co-edited with Paul Morris and Harry Ricketts. Then, in 2008, Morris and I (with some assistance from Ricketts) also co-edited the first issue of Landfall (215: “Waiting for Godzone”) to deal specifically with religion and spirituality since 1966. Here, we uncovered a far greater engagement with religious and spiritual ideas, histories and identities than is normally evident in our social, cultural and literary histories.

I do the writers in this collection no disservice if I describe them as coming primarily from the more conservative and evangelical end of the theological spectrum. I am from the polar opposite, a self-described secular and radical theologian and continental philosopher, working in the tradition of the death of god. Yet I am in a much smaller minority in both New Zealand society and academia than the much-maligned Christian conservatives. For people at least can understand, if not necessarily agree with, where the conservatives and evangelicals are coming from. On the face of it, I have much more in common with those in society and academia who proclaim themselves secular and often anti-religious. Yet, if I assume such an affiliation, it is “my tribe” who are in the main responsible for the deliberate writing out of religion and spirituality, especially that of Pākehā, from our histories.

It is here that my inner sociologist starts to rebel against those who wish to tell a story of the normality and continuation of the secularisation of modern society. For that great narrative and myth of mid-20th-century socio-historical thought, the secularisation thesis, was recanted by one of its main proponents, Peter Berger, in 1999. As noted in this collection, religion and secularism are, in fact, intertwined identities, and the current century has seen a resurgence of religion and spirituality in ways those still wedded to a positivist view of the anti-religious secularisation of society fail to see or understand. Furthermore, as I continually tell my students, New Zealand is not a normal place, or a normal place to think about or study religion. To them, it is a surprise – and an increasing excitement –  that, today, neo-Marxists, sociologists, literary scholars and historians are all critically engaging with theology as a valuable source of critique and politics. They discover that religion, the sacred, spirituality, theology are far richer, varied and engaged with, both societally and academically, elsewhere than they ever are or have been in New Zealand. For it often seems as if we are stuck in a particular experience of populist, uncritical 19th-century positivism. Our particular, dominant story of an inevitable secular society, history and culture, is not one that matches with elsewhere – or, as this collection demonstrates – with historical experience. This is why we should all thank the contributors to this collection for forcing a re-evaluation of what has become too much a one-sided, uncritical narrative of New Zealand history, culture, life and thought.

It was the German theologian and New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann who popularised the concept of demythologising; it is not too audacious a claim to state that this collection is, in its own way, a local variant in the field of New Zealand historiography. It demythologises a particular secularist view and history of New Zealand that arose predominantly in the 1940s and 1950s, both amidst and against cultural nationalism, and that somehow survived the global repudiation of the secularisation thesis and the postmodern critique of the limitations of secularist modernity that occurred at the end of the last century. In short, this collection strives to bring New Zealand history and historiography into the 21st century.

As Geoffrey Troughton emphasises in his introduction, “understanding religion is essential to understanding the present of this and any human society”. Furthermore, what we think of as secular is tied to what we think of as religious, and in New Zealand religion has tended to suffer a definition in the universities and liberal society as espousing a very narrow, conservative, pietistic puritanism. This was not helped with the rise of conservative, moralistic Christian politics in New Zealand, the church’s opposition to homosexual and prostitution law reform, nor with often a knee-jerk anti-Americanism and the rise of religious terrorism. If you are a secular, white, middle-class, educated liberal, you might feel you are correct to be suspicious of religion. But, all of us who feel a critical distance from conservative and evangelical Christianity need to remember that we too need to understand and critically engage with it, past and present. For religion, and Christianity, are far more varied than either religious conservatives or liberals wish to reduce them to.

This collection therefore provides one side of a necessary perspective and recovery in New Zealand history. Reading it, we gain an alternative history encompassing sensitive re-readings of Māori and missionary, a fascinating and convincing re-evaluation of William Pember Reeves, discussions of various sectarianisms and also of military chaplains, the recovery of preacher novelists, an evaluation of  the sermons of a popular Baptist preacher, the rise of our New Zealand Christmas, and a discussion of what church and society might mean in New Zealand.

Some questions do arise. I raise these in the hope that there will be a number of on-going companion volumes to what is an important and promising first venture arising from papers presented to the Religious History Association of Aotearoa New Zealand since 2011. Is there the possibility for a companion volume of liberal religious and Christian history? Or even a radical one? How about the central inclusion of women?  And of 20th-century Māori? What of religion and migrant communities both Christian and non-Christian? How about Christianity and class? Or religion, urbanisation and the rural myth? The call, therefore, goes out to New Zealand historians ….

Mike Grimshaw is an associate professor in the department of sociology at the University of Canterbury.

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