‘There is no Holy One like the Lord,
no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
and by him actions are weighed.’ – 1 Samuel 2:2-3
Earlier this week The Spectator published a reflection on the closing of the Climb up Uluru by David Long. Although Mr Long is a ‘retired solicitor and economist’ he doesn’t appear to be interested in any legal or economic questions raised by the Climb’s end. Mr Long instead seems to be writing theology, and that drew my attention. I don’t want to give this article any more publicity than it has already received, but I can’t leave Mr Long’s errors unaddressed.
It is a little hard to address the argument Mr Long makes in his reflection, because he himself seems to be conflicted. His concern with the closing of the Uluru Climb initially seems to be that it has happened at the request of Uluru’s traditional owners, the Anangu People, without their request being considered through the lenses of ‘historiographic investigation,’ ‘theological examination,’ or ‘the physical sciences’. Mr Long’s argument appears to be that ‘the pagan deity’ worshipped by the Anangu People (and I apologise for using this description even as a quote) is ‘unassailable to modern religious scholarship’. At this point Mr Long’s argument seems to be that all religions, including those of Australia’s First Peoples, should be open to secular scholarship, and that the academics he describes as ‘bin[ning] their previously purchased tickets’ to the Uluru Climb are neglecting their duties.
However, Mr Long also seems to argue that faith should be beyond such academic scrutiny, as long as the faith is Christianity. He writes that while the Christian Scriptures can be studied by secular scholars, and have been so studied in the West since the Enlightenment, ‘if the Bible is the work of God, it has to be read in an entirely different way’. Mr Long seems to believe that it is only when one is ‘open to the belief in God and the possibility of revelation’ that one can truly understand the Bible. Why the same does not apply to the relationship between the Anangu People and Uluru, that it is only when one is open to their beliefs and willing to listen to their experience that one can understand it, Mr Long does not say. To read the Bible with the eyes of faith is permissible; to accept the understanding of the Anangu People that Uluru is sacred and should not be climbed is not.
The mistakes Mr Long makes on his journey to this point of contradiction are many, and I can only address a few here. Mr Long says that, ‘Unlike any other of the world’s faiths, the religions of Judaism and Christianity relied on written texts which stated that they actually originated with God and were revealed by Him to His prophets’. This is egregiously wrong. Surely the most famous of the Scriptures that claim to have been revealed by God to a prophet is the Quran. If Mr Long is to make claims about faiths of the Book, he cannot neglect Islam, within which use of the term ‘People of the Book’ to refer to Jews and Christians originated.
Mr Long appears to make no distinction between the Torah and the Christian Bible as written texts revealed by God. Yet the Christian position is more complicated than that. The Word of God is, for Christians, Jesus Christ, the divine Logos incarnate in a human being. The words of the Bible are unique, prophetic and apostolic testimony to the Word of God, not the Word of God themselves. This is why they can be studied by faithful Christians ‘with respect, but with a willingness to argue, disagree and criticise’. I do that myself.
One interesting comment made by Mr Long is that ‘Christians generally give authority to the teaching of St Paul regarding Christianity, even where it differs from the Gospels’. In some ways this is correct; while Paul wrote his letters after Jesus’ crucifixion, and never met the human Jesus, he wrote before the Gospels took their final forms. In their canonical versions the Gospels were written later than Paul’s letters, although scholars believe the written books were based on oral traditions that went back to the time of Jesus. This antiquity gives Paul’s letters authority as the earliest Christian writings. But Paul’s letters do not have more authority than the teachings of Jesus preserved in the gospels. Christians worship Jesus, not Paul.
However, it is only in letters attributed to Paul that we find condemnations of same sex relationships and the leadership of women. Jesus said nothing about the former, and his treatment of his female disciples was such that churches that ordain women can point back to him to justify their practices. Christians who wish to condemn LGBTIQ people must quote Paul, and churches that do not ordain women often refer to the Pastoral Epistles written in Paul’s name. I suspect that when Mr Long talks about the authority of Paul overruling that of the Gospels, this is the subtext.
Mr Long suggests that while those interested in Judaism and Christianity can read their Scriptures, visit their places of worship, and even take instruction in these faiths, the faith of Anangu People is closed to them. This is manifestly untrue. With the closing of the Uluru Climb the Anangu People hope that more visitors will ‘look around and learn in order to understand Anangu and also understand that our culture is strong and alive’.
The distinction Mr Long seeks to make between Christianity and the Tjukurpa of the Anangu People is an artificial one. As the Uniting Church in Australia says in the Preamble to its Constitution:
1. When the churches that formed the Uniting Church arrived in Australia as part of the process of colonisation they entered a land that had been created and sustained by the Triune God they knew in Jesus Christ.
2. Through this land God had nurtured and sustained the First Peoples of this country, the Aboriginal and Islander peoples, who continue to understand themselves to be the traditional owners and custodians (meaning ‘sovereign’ in the languages of the First Peoples) of these lands and waters since time immemorial.
3. The First Peoples had already encountered the Creator God before the arrival of the colonisers; the Spirit was already in the land revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony. The same love and grace that was finally and fully revealed in Jesus Christ sustained the First Peoples and gave them particular insights into God’s ways.
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. – Psalm 19:1