We recently passed the 10 year mark for Kevin Rudd’s apology in the parliament, and the arguments continue about the state of relations between indigenous and other Australians, and about the best ways to uplift aborigines. Sounds paternalistic? Sure. Because the sooner there’s a shift from “trying to fix their problems” to respecting, appreciating and learning from their traditions, the swifter the reconciliation.
I believe aboriginal material impoverishment and affliction reflects the degree to which their spiritual heritage is repudiated. I believe their economic condition tracks outsiders’ esteem for their religion.
A caveat from the outset is that the terms “Dreamtime” and “Dreaming” are highly problematic. Though I use them for convenience, I wish in no way to downplay the diversity of the hundreds of language groups that each had their own name for this sacred source of ancestry, story, song, geography, ecology, kinship, law and ceremonial. Even the fact that the “Dreamtime” is a catch-all for that complex litany can boggle the modern mind. But in the resonances of the Dreaming I hear a strangely familiar melody which nourishes my own sense of sacred tradition.
To be learned in the sacred evokes a freshly ageless standard of education.
The commoner, contemporary sense of educatedness is an amalgam of civics and workplace skills; of the philosophy of citizenship and the technical training that equips one to perform an economic role. But education is also the passing down of sacred learnings in a religious community both orally and through other media. The community members imaginatively link back to a Source through an ancestral lineage. My experiences today occur distinctly in historical time, but I share a Judeao-Christian tradition of stories going back thousands of years, and my remotest ancestors seem to disappear into the mists of something - not quite mythic, but where time gets dilated and action takes on a surreal quality. It’s like the Dreamtime.
If the People to whom I immediately belong look to Jesus, they must also look to the Source of his forefathers, to the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob. The stories of these ancestors are my stories, in that I am living in that tradition.
Before them still, the line runs through Noah, Seth and Adam. There is a tale of human disobedience, misadventure and chastisement. Then there is a Land that is promised to the descendants of Abraham. The wanderings of the Israelites for 40 years in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land evokes the archetype of ancestral beings journeying over the Land and sacralising its features. Where the great ancestors went walkabout, they repurposed the landscape so that its features became integral to the unfoldment of the divine plan and law : the trees of Eden, the trees of Mamre, The rock by Jacob’s Well, The Jordan River, Mount Moriah, Mount Sinai. Later in the story, the Promised Land seems reassimilated to the Dreamtime’s everywhere and everywhen with the coming of the Kingdom of God and the Heavenly Jerusalem. The topography of the Promised Land now touches all parts of the world - not merely the pilgrim routes to great cathedrals and other sacred sites but, like a penumbra, surrounding any group or element of creation serving a holy purpose.
For those living the tradition, the stories need to be heard with the head and the heart, not as dead tales, but as foreshadowing the future and living on in the present.
They picturesquely imprint our memory in all their bizarre surrealism : a serpent urging the eating of an apple; a dove flying over the waters of a great flood; a super-ambitious tower-building project demolished; a smitten thigh from a wrestling match with an angel; a voice from a burning bush; trumpet blasts bringing down city walls; a man surviving in a whale’s belly, and so on. The songs too, need to be sung as today’s psalms. Again, thank you to the Australian aborigine for pointing me back to my own stories and songlines.
There is an ethos of stewardship for the natural environment in the Judaeo-Christian tradition as there is in the Australian Dreaming.
Since divinity brought about the world, the role of humans is to protect and cultivate its various forms and creatures according to their intended purpose. They are not meant to exploit or outright own parcels of the natural heritage for their own exclusive ends. There needs be intergenerational responsibility and an ethic of sustainability, lest animal stocks and vegetation be depleted and the earth herself rebel. The earth is not inanimate, but is filled with the radiance of the divine feminine, as the Hebrew word Shekinah implies.
Amongst the aboriginal nations - and all enthusiasts for the Dreaming - there is men’s business and women’s business.
They form a natural polarity and even division of labour in the myriad activities that constitute communal life. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition there is a similar tendency towards men’s business (like the priesthood) and women’s business, much to the chagrin of complainants against the patriarchy. Rites of initiation like male circumscision, found in both traditions, help reinforce the twofold businesses. And passage through the womb of the Jewish mother confers membership in the community. In contrast, the thrust of modern feminism is to blur any distinction between men and women, resulting in a secularising rather than a sacralising of society.
Kinship networks also issue from the Dreamtime.
The original assignment of human beings leads by an increasingly complex set of arrangements to a society in which one can know how one is obliged to behave toward anybody else. Similarly, it is by widening circles of kinship that Yahweh brings increasingly more people into family relationship with him. The marriage bond begins with Adam and Eve, a covenant marked with the sign of the sabbath. The rainbow covenant with Noah is at the family stage (the Flood survivors are Noah and wife, his three sons and their wives). The covenants with Abraham mark the stage of the tribe.
The descendants of Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, whose name is changed to Israel, lend their names to the Twelve Tribes of Israel. These tribes are forged into extended kinship under Moses on Mt Sinai, when they become one nation. So there was Israel, the chosen nation, and all the other nations, the ethnoi or the Gentiles. Later, another covenant was formed with King David - and his descendants - which had the effect of promising the extension of Israel’s sovereignty over all the nations. The Temple built under Solomon, David’s son, was said to be a temple for all peoples, not just Israel. Jesus, coming in the line of David, claimed kingship over the inclusive, universal kingdom.
This organic development of society, laid out in the Bible, would make more sense to the children of the Dreamtime than the children of the Enlightenment who imagine an atomic society formed of autonomous individuals - where freedoms can come without structure and rights without obligations.
Dietary laws typically come with sacred education. What is given for nourishment is inseparable from what enters under ecological stewardship. And eating is never just eating - mere caloric consumption - but has a ritual dimension which makes it more festive. Feasting, we remember and celebrate our interdependence with the other orders of created life, placed here intentionally, rather than popping up by chance mutation. We even discover that, beyond natural food, we can be nourished, like our ancestors, by a supernatural food. To take in the supernatural food brings supernatural life, as the natural food brings natural life.
Sacred education is supposed to convey all the laws that regulate society, be they the Ten Commandments, the 613 mitzvot, or the Code of Canon Law.
What is handed down from the Dreamtime or the Beginnings as tradition, must continue to be lived and applied, not consigned to the remote past. Otherwise how do we maintain that connection with the ancestors? If we work out our salvation together rather than as solitary figures, then we need everyone “rooting for us”, including those who have gone before and those who have passed beyond. We need also to “root for them”. It is this togetherness that sustains tradition.
Ceremony and liturgy combine dramatic, visual, kinaesthetic and other aesthetic elements to make present again - or represent - the eternal in the temporal and local.
We should expect there to be some meaningful reenactment of Dreamtime legend in contemporary indigenous practice of hunting and gathering, in dealing with the monsoon, as well as, of course, in corroboree. There is the encoding also of practical survival information : a story about the origin of Fire, for example, can teach you how to make fire. Such representations serve as a mirror to the ancient sacerdotal tradition I grew up in, a tradition wherein daily activities are capable of sanctification; where right-minded sacrifice can be joined to Jesus’ atoning sacrifice; and where, liturgically, the priest stands in persona Christi to speak the words of consecration and offer the sacrifice of the Mass.