Sacred Ground: An Exploration

Article excerpt

Some of us are becoming accustomed to paying tribute to the 'Country' on which we find ourselves when speaking or giving a paper. This is not, I suggest, mere tokenism. Iplicitly if not explicitly it signals an epistemological or even ontological uneasiness, a growing sense that the cultures of those peoples whom the imperial culture to which we belong has seen as 'primitive' may have more to offer than we have been prepared to concede. This may well be yet another signal that the realities--as distinct from the fantasies--of our post-colonial situation are beginning to bite; more specifically, that many of the questions posed in the early days of colonisation, which for the most part we refused to face, much less answer, are returning to haunt us. To give an obvious example, this is the point made by the Reconciliation movement, by the powerful feelings and social actions which exploded--despite official government indifference--in events on the Sydney Harbour Bridge in May 2000. In this essay I want to consider these theological and ontological issues, concluding with a discussion of David Malouf's collection of short stories, Dream Stuff.

In a sense, the uneasiness which fuels these events is the subject of Ken Gelder and Jane Jacob's Uncanny Australia. 'Indigenous claims for sacred sites and sacred objects over the last twenty years [they argue, have been] crucial in the recasting of Australia's sense of itself' and they regard this--as I do also--'as a sign of a predicament ... which we can characterise as postcolonial'. (1) Specifically, they see it as a question to do with Country, with belonging, and with the deepest politics of belonging: 'The Aboriginal sacred always throws up questions to do with who is 'marginal',--who is empowered enough to claim to represent the nation, and who feels as if the nation has disdained them'. (2) These are crucial issues, though not properly canvassed at the political or even at the social level. This is not so surprising, however, when one reflects on the difficulty of dealing with issues which, as I think this one does, interrogate the basic assumptions of one's culture. That is probably why, for all the sophistication of their scholarship, Gelder and Jacobs seem unable to do more than pose the problem, leaving the heart of the matter--conflicting notions of the sacred--more or less unexplored. Acknowledging that this is the heart of the matter, that 'the relationship between Aboriginal sacredness and modernity may be more intimate than first might be imagined', they nevertheless do not turn their attention to the sacred as 'some kind of thing-in-itself'--as Aboriginal cultures conceive it--consciously refusing to delve '"anthropologically" into [their] beliefs and practices' and contenting themselves with an examination of its disturbing effects on our culture. (3)

As I have argued elsewhere, however, this is to remain within the monologue of colonialism and thus beg the very question they raise. (4) The definition of the sacred they rely on is essentially functional, and in this sense ethnocentric. It is Durkheim's definition, which sees the sacred as an aspect of religion, which in turn is seen as a reality which is essentially social. But limiting the definition in this way leaves aside what many anthropologists would see as crucial: an analysis of lived experience from which it may be possible to discern certain universal elements that can be found underneath the variety of specific cultural determinisms. Recognising difference, at the same time as it acknowledges an underlying basic humanity, it thus resists and interrogates the totalising assumptions of western culture. Critiquing Edmund Husserl's Ideen I, Emmanuel Levinas suggests that for Husserl, 'consciousness presents itself as a sphere of absolute existence'. (5) He, on the other hand, argues that:

   It is ... in the laying down by the ego of its sovereignty ... that
   we find ethics and also probably the very spirituality of the soul,
   but most certainly the question of the meaning of being. …