Study of Religion: The Academic Study of Religion in Australia and Oceania

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Aside from literature reinforcing the Christian and Jewish ways of life, studies in religion in the Oceanic region began with reports on the customs and beliefs of "savage" or "native" peoples in and near European colonies. Along with the published diaries of early explorers, whose observations were highly cursory, most of the early commentators were missionaries, including the Spanish Jesuit Juan Antonio Cantova, who wrote about the Caroline Islands as early as the 1720s; William Ellis of the London Missionary Society, who documented various Polynesian cultures by 1829; and the German Lutherans Carl Ottow and Johann Geissler, who described the New Guinea Biak people in 1857. In addition, visitors who utilized missionary informantssuch as the French captain François Leconte, who wrote about northern New Caledonia in 1847also recorded events of interest to the study of religion in the region.

Pioneer Missionaries' Reports

Although evangelization was their main priority, many pioneer missionaries were surprisingly interested in gaining knowledge of the peoples they encountered. Such concepts as mana and taboo, destined to stimulate Western theories about the origins of religion, hailed from the Pacific mission field. In the 1770s, after Captain James Cook's brief notations on the meaning of taboo in Tahiti and Hawai'i, the term became associated with biblical prohibition in evangelistic discourse and was thereafter incorporated into European vocabularies. The priest-academic Robert Codrington introduced the notion of mana as manipulated "spirit power" after investigating Banks Islander beliefs (New Hebrides, now Vanuatu) in the 1870s, at a time when he headed the Anglican Melanesian Mission. Totemism became an acclaimed feature of Aboriginal (and thereby very primitive) religion; the earliest significant account of an Australian native protecting an animal (a goanna ) as his "brother" was made by a London Missionary Society delegate in 1834. Ideas about high gods, again important for origins theories (e.g., Andrew Lang in the 1890s), arose out of Aboriginal talk of the All-Father, which was in all likelihood an innovative indigenous concept to make sense of missionary teachings about the one God.

That Polynesia could match Europe and Asia for sacralized royalty, moreover, was made plain by the Hawaiian king Kalakaua's eulogistic Legends and Myths (1888). With this background, a professional competitiveness sometimes arose when secular anthropologists entered the region. There was no love lost, for example, between the Lutheran Carl Strehlow, a missionary to the Aranda in central Australia, and Baldwin Spencer, the leader of the 1894 Hort Expedition and later Chief Protector of the Aborigines (19111912), who divulged many secrets about Aranda religion that Strehlow had honored. In another case, Bronislaw Malinowski, allegedly the first true field anthropologist, was told nothing about the coastal Mailu by his initial host, the London Missionary Society missionary William Saville (19141915), who wanted to write up his own findings. Disappointed, Malinowski moved on to the Trobriand Islands. Although Oceania was home to a quarter of the world's discrete religions and research material was plentiful, this professional tension lasted through the years leading up to World War II.

In a number of places, missionary scholarship was utterly determinative. For example, the Dutch relied on church initiatives to carry missionaries into Irian Jaya, the far and dangerous frontier of Indonesia. The church also had a singular influence across equatorial Polynesia as illustrated by the work of Wyatt Gill in Rarotonga (the capital of the Cook Islands) and Father Sebastian Englert on Easter Island. Elsewhere a mixture pertained, and government-sponsored anthropology was sometimes evident. In the more colonized Polynesia, for example, the one-time British governor of New Zealand, Sir George Grey, adopted a policy of collecting Maori lore that lasted up until the 1890s, and during the 1910s the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, otherwise focused on mainland cultures, encouraged Nathaniel Emerson to document the Hawaian hula. Between World War I and World War II, Francis Williams, the most reputable of all government anthropologists, worked in coastal parts of Australia's Territory of Papua (now Papua New Guinea), although his brief included cooperation with the missions. The Anglican cleric Adolphus Elkin, who served as a professor of anthropology at the University of Sydney from 1934 to 1956 and founded the journal Oceania, was welcomed by the Australian government as adviser on Aboriginal issues during the 1940s.

Early Intellectuals

Interest in the wider world of comparative religion came late in the colonial histories of Australia, New Zealand, and also Hawai'i, which matched other southeast Pacific museum constructions with its own Bernice P. Bishop Museum as early as 1885, before American annexation. A key impetus to study other religions was provided by the Theosophical Society, starting in Australia by 1895 and possessing an impressive center in Sydney during the 1910s. In New Zealand during the 1920s, a circle of study formed around Elsdon Best, cofounder of the Journal of the Polynesian Society in 1898, who likened the Maori cult of Io to a removed Gnostic-looking deity with layers of beings that separated him from the earth. At the same time, more critical scholarship emerged: The Australian surgeon Grafton Elliot Smith became a chief instigator of the Egyptocentric Diffusionist school in the 1920s, after having been anatomy professor in Cairo, and Samuel Angus of Scotland, a graduate of the universities of Princeton and Berlin (under Adolf von Harnack, 18511930, and Gustav Adolf Deissmann, 18661937), took up a professorship in New Testament and historical theology at the University of Sydney in 1915 and quickly emerged as an eminent authority on Greco-Roman mystery religions.

This coming and going of "imported" and "exported" intellectuals was typical well into the postWorld War II period. Scholars writing on non-Christian traditions usually arrived from outside. Among provocative Germanics was the economist Kurt Singer, who wrote from Sydney that the Zoroastrian stress on the battle between good and evil added to problem of human conflict, and Peter Munz, who sought to better the theories of myth formulated by James G. Frazer (18541941) and Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908) from Dunedin, New Zealand. British scholars Raynor Johnston (comparative mysticism) and John Bowman (Samaritans) went to Melbourne, and George Knight (Semitics) went first to Dunedin and later to Suva, the capital of Fiji. In return, Australia and New Zealand lost various experts in Christianity to overseas postings, including the theologian Colin Williams to Yale University, where he became dean of the divinity school; the church historian George Yule to the University of Aberdeen; the New Testament specialists John O'Neill and Graham Stanton to the University of Edinburgh and Cambridge University, respectively; and the interfaith specialist John D'Arcy May to Dublin University. Some expatriate dons came as long-term (and often highly productive) visitors; yet, as time went on, homegrown scholarship firmed up and the Pacific eventually became established on its own as a region of scholarly prowess.

Early Academic Programs

With university courses in Asian studiesespecially on Middle Eastern and Indic civilizationsbeing set in place during the late 1950s and the 1960s, the time was ripe for historical and comparative studies of religions to enter the academic forum. Among the faculty of Australian National University's new oriental studies program were Indologist A. L. Basham, Buddhologist Jan De Jong, and Islamicist Antony Johns, as well as the region's leading scholar in the sociology of religion, Hans Mol. Similar studies were also implemented at the University of Melbourne, where the journal Milla wa-Milla: The Australian Bulletin of Comparative Religion made its appearance in 1961 and the first of the Charles Strong Lectures, designed by a liberal Protestant cleric to be on non-Christian traditions, took place. These were followed up by the publication of Essays on Religious Traditions of the World, initiated in 1970 by the Anglican priest George Mullens, a scholar in Japanese Buddhism. The first department of religious studies in the region, however, was not institutionalized until 1971, and then at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, although New Zealand's programs at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the University of Otago in Dunedin foreshadowed this, with Albert Moore's 1966 University of Otago lectureship in the history and phenomonology in religion being the discipline's first generically significant appointment for Australasia. The foundation professor at New Zealand's University of Wellington was Lloyd Geering, a renowned liberal Christian theologian.

Intriguingly, Geering remains the only memorable classic-looking theologian born and bred in the whole South Pacific region. Theologically engaged Australians who possess genuine international acclaim have simply not worked on mainstream mattersJohn Eccles's work on synaptic theory and Charles Birch's work in process thought are two obvious cases. However, Australia is a more secular country, and Eric Sharpe, the first chair of the religious studies department at the University of Sydney (19771996), was by no means a practicing theologian. Sharpe secured the Sydney chair primarily on the basis of his work Comparative Religion: A History (1975). This volume established him as one of the world's leading methodologists in the comparative and historical study of religions, a reputation that emanated from Australia and was consolidated by such later works as Understanding Religion (1983) and Nathan Söderblom and the Study of Religion (1990).

An Englishman, Sharpe had strong connections to the University of Manchester (especially John Hinnells) and Lancaster University (especially Ninian Smart) and served as chair of the history of religion department at Sweden's Uppsala University from 1980 to 1981. Although Sharpe could have been enticed back into the transatlantic center of theoretical debate, he decided to remain in Australia and consolidate his new department. He consistently published research on Western interpretations of Hinduism and brought to Sydney brahmin Indologist Arvind Sharma, who founded the journal Religious Traditions in 1978 and the Journal of Studies in the Bhagavadgītā in 1981. Sharpe also continued conducting historical studies of Christian missionary approaches to other religions. At the 1988 Chicago symposium on his opus, Sharpe acquitted himself artfully against younger critics' suggestions that he was a closet theologian, and as the years went on he defined himself more as an historian of ideas about religion than anything else. Interestingly, in 1995 his first academic appointee and protégé Garry Trompf took a chair in the History of Ideas beside him at the University of Sydney.

Trompf had previously held the first of two lectureships in religious studies in Australia, in the not-yet-independent Territory of Papua New Guinea, where he taught alongside the Semiticist and fellow Australian Carl Loeliger. Australia's north was to yield the earliest formal developments in the discipline, with the first autonomous department emerging at the University of Queensland in 1975, before Sharpe arrived in Sydney. Although begun under the early leadership of the Englishman Eric Pyle, Queensland was to wait until 1981 for an established chair. That the Australian-born Francis Andersen took the position was significant nationally, but it was also indicative of the weight of interests in the department. He was a fine biblical scholar amid others, including the American Edgar Conrad as a fellow commentator on Hebrew prophetism and the Irishman Seán Freyne and the German-Australian Michael Lattke as scholars of New Testament times. Queensland, however, was also to secure a special reputation for Buddhist studies. Buddhism had already been of wide attraction, including the popular writings by the early feminist-lawyer Marie Byles from 1957 to 1965, the founding of the Journal of the Oriental Society of Australia in Sydney in 1963, and the various textual studies and translations, especially those of Peter Masefield. Special distinction was also given to the work of the Australian Philip Almond on the history of Buddhism's Western interpretations and Rod Bucknell's work on meditative practice.

Almond, who succeeded Andersen as professor after the latter moved to the University of California at Berkeley, can be credited with a distinctly Australian contribution to the theory of religion. He was crucial among revisionist thinkers in deconstructing Western scholarly reifications and popular representations of significant Eastern traditions. In The British Discovery of Buddhism (1988), he argued that Buddhism, as it is popularly defined in most textbooks, was a Western invention. At a slightly later stage, Almond went on to ponder the Victorians' invention of Islam, and his work compared with Edward Said's deconstruction of Orientalism. In other writings, especially Mystical Experience and Religious Doctrine (1982) and those appealing to the methodological insights of Rudolf Otto (18691937), Almond doubted that mysticism could be apprehended with the kinds of objectivist treatment beginning to dominate his discipline.

At the University of Sydney, research into the religions of Oceania was a forte, with Trompf returning to Australia in 1978. Like Sharpe and Almond, Trompf was, admittedly, better equipped to write on Western theoretical ideas. A practicing historian who later served as a professor of history at the University of Papua New Guinea from 1983 to 1985, he was the beneficiary of a very strong tradition of religious history in Australia, if one considers such lights as the German Hermann Sasse, the Britisher John McManners, the New Zealander Edwin Judge, and the Australian Bruce Mansfield, who founded the internationally acclaimed Journal of Religious History from Sydney in 1960. This background helps explain Trompf's books on Western historiography and religious ideas, particularly his volumes on The Idea of Historical Recurrence (1979). However, prior training in prehistory and ethnohistory and over ten years of intensive research in Melanesia (Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia) allowed him to produce the first major monographsMelanesian Religion (1991) and Payback (1994)to address one of the most complex religious scene in the world. A distinctively homegrown contribution to the theory of religion developed from these combined interests that dealt with "the logic of retribution" (i.e., those aspects of religious life concerned with revenge, reciprocity, and the explanation of events in terms of praise and blame, reward and punishment).

Scholarship set on understanding Melanesia's religious life seems to have involved one of the largest conglomerates of social-scientific endeavor ever undertaken. Important theoretical positionings were forged out of the region's great cultural diversity: the Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski's school of functionalism derived from his Trobriands research; the English proto-structuralist A. M. Hocart read Fijian chieftainship as a basic model of sacral leadership; in his studies in Houailou, New Caledonia, Lévi-Strauss's predecessor Maurice Leenhardt framed early body theory as a self-awareness process running from cosmomorphism to anthropomorphism; the Hungarian Géza Róheim and the Englishmen John Layard tried substantiating Freudian and Jungian insights, respectively, from coastal Papua and Malekula; and Margaret Mead (19011978) and Gregory Bateson worked together to formulate theories of gender and social divisiveness from the Sepik area. Important contributions to particular religio-ethnologic issues have also been drawn from Melanesia, mainly by European and American researchers. Topics that have been addressed include head-hunting by Jan van Baal, cannibalism by Marshall Sahlins, grand ceremonial exchanges by Andrew Strathern, initiatory disclosures by Fredrik Barth, ritual homosexuality by Gilbert Herdt, sorcery by Reo Fortune and the Australian Michele Stephen, and sacral legitimation of leadership by Jean Guiart and Maurice Godelier. Melanesian cargo cultism produced various theories, such as cosmic regeneration by Mircea Eliade (19071986), proto-nationalism by the neo-Marxist Peter Worsley, the dream of a perfected reciprocity by Kenelm Burridge, new explanations of a changing cosmos by Peter Lawrence, a rite of passage into modernity by Patrick Gesch, and a search for salvation by John Strelan. The conversion processes among Melanesians also attracted mission historians such as the Australians Niel Gunson on Polynesia, David Hilliard on the Solomons, and David Wetherell on Papua; missiologists such as the eminent Australian scholar Alan Tippett, as well as Theo Ahrens, Ennio Mantovani, Friedgard Tomasetti, Darell Whiteman, and Mary MacDonald; and analysts of indigenizing Christianity such as John Barker and the Australian Bronwyn Douglas. Part of Trompf's vision has been to assess Melanesian religion in all its aspects to find the means of representing all this scholarship synoptically and to facilitate indigenous scholarly writing on religion.

An early graduate of the Sydney department, Tony Swain confirmed its strength in indigenous studies by writing the first exhaustive account of theories about Australian Aboriginal religion and the first history of Aboriginal religion since outside contact in A Place for Strangers (1993). He questioned Eliade's stress on cosmic axis and accounted for more diffuse notions of space and one's belongingness to land. He also disputed that there were any traditional Aboriginal notions of Mother Earth and denied that high gods were honored before outside pressures from Melanesia and then white colonization. Again, Swain benefited from important predecessors that included, aside from those already mentioned, the Australians Ronald Berndt and Ted Strehlow (both with German backgrounds), W. E. H. Stanner of Australian National University, and the Victorian Max Charlesworth. Swain and Trompf's Religions of Oceania (1995) revealed the extraordinary international interest in the Pacific religious scene. Sometimes disproportionate group interest is found, such as Germanic scholarship on the Aborigines and Americans on Micronesia, but some unusual individual achievements by outsiders stand out. For example, the Italian Valerio Valeri wrote a detailed account of Hawaian religion; the German Hans-Jürgen Greschat wrote a thorough ethnography of taboo; and the Finn Jikka Siikala wrote an authoritative account of new religious movements in central Polynesia.

Academic Program Development

Other intellectual and institutional developments within the whole Australo-Pacific region make for a complex story. In Victoria, programs for studying religion were successively established at LaTrobe University, Deakin University, and Monash University. At LaTrobe the sinologist Paul Rule researched Western images of Confucianism; Gregory Bailey studied ancient Indian ideologies; and the Australian dean of patristics, Eric Osborn, researched select pre-Nicene Church Fathers. Deakin possessed the philosophers Max Charlesworth and Ian Weeks. Charlesworth, who had already taught a religious studies course at Melbourne University as early as 1970basically in the philosophy of religionwas to institutionalize his dream as professor at Deakin (in Geelong) and he went on to write incisively about methodology issues in Religious Inventions (1997). In Victoria, interestingly, there has been sympathy for the idea of a philosophia perennis behind spiritual traditions, revealed not only in Kenneth Oldmeadow's fine exposition, Traditionalism: Religion in the Light of Perennial Philosophy (2000), but also among philosophers attracted by Eastern, especially Indian, metaphysics, including Ian Kesarcodi-Watson and Purussotima Bilimoria, founder of Australian Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy and editor of the journal Sophia.

Further afield in Australia, Adelaide is most important. With the change in institutional status that produced the University of South Australia came the largest department of religion studies in the country in 1991. This was spearheaded by Professor Norman Habel, the brilliant expositor of the book of Job and founder of the Earth Bible project. With liberal philosophical theologian Vincent Hayes, he founded the Australian Association for the Study of Religions in 1975, which came to oversee the Charles Strong Lectures and built up its own publications, including the journal Australian Religion Studies Review, first published in 1988. The Association's concern with a variety of religions demarcated it from the Theological Association of Australia and New Zealand, which is linked to the journals Colloquium, Australian Biblical Review, and Pacifica.

New Zealand benefited from Paul Morris, who returned to Wellington from Britain in 1993 to take over the chair from Geering. Already established in Judaic studies, Morris went on to edit impressive collections on modernity and postmodernity (and New Zealand religious verse). He worked with James Veitch, a critical thinker inspired by Geering with an eye for crises produced by environmental degradation and ideologies of terror. Also worthy of mention are the well-known Africanists Elizabeth Isichei, who was for a time at Wellington, and Harold Turner, who has worked primarily from Britain. Other New Zealand scholars of note are Albert Moore, an authority on religious art; Brian Colless, a patrologist; and Peter Donovan, an instructor in philosopher of religion. Of journals published in New Zealand, Auckland's Prudentia stands out, although its special issues brought together classicists, philosophers, theologians and religionists from across the Tasman Sea and were dominated by Australians, especially the patrologist Raoul Mortley and the historian of philosophy David Dockrill.

Although Mark Jurgensmeyer wrote his first book on religion and politics, The New Cold War? (1993), from the University of Hawai'i, in the Pacific Islands more broadly the history and phenomenology of religion has chiefly focused on traditional and changing religious life. Although they also have pastoral agendas, the Melanesian Institute's journals Catalyst and Point provide valuable information, and the Micronesian Seminar, a research institute founded by the Catholic Church in 1972, contributes to scholarship in the north Pacific. The CORAIL colloquia in Nouméa have been a key outlet for research in French dependencies, as fixtures in Hawai'i have been for American scholars, such as the East-West Center and Brigham Young University's journal Pacific Studies. Overall, indigenous writing in religion has been more consistently theological; major forums are the Journal of Melanesian Theology and Journal of Pacific Theology.

Biblical Scholarship

To conclude, one cannot underestimate the continuing strength and color of biblical scholarship in Australasia (e.g., authors such as Robert Maddox, John Painter, Robert Barnes, and the controversial Barbara Thiering), and their impact on religious institutions. The same may be said of regional church (and school) historians (e.g., Ian Breward, Hilary Carey, and Susan Emilsen) and public-policy philosophers (e.g., Graham Little and Robert Gascoigne). Apart from the more comparativist volume Reclaiming Our Rites (1994), most feminist and gender-related works about religion betray women's hopes for greater opportunities within the Christian churches. Even Aboriginal womanist writers such as Anne Pattel-Gray and Lee Skye have been theologically oriented. Although the creation of religious studies departments threatened divinity boards, theological colleges held their own, and in some universities, theological studies discovered new life (e.g., Flinders, Monash, and the Australian Catholic University). Pauline Allen from the Australian Catholic University was rewarded with the presidency of the International Patristics Association in 2003 for groundbreaking (and liturgically relevant) publications on early Christian prayer and spirituality.

Much sociology of religion has been crucial for religious organizations to ponder their constituencies and demographic possibilities. Over and above valuable theoretical work on religion as identity and anchoragesuch as Identity and the Sacred (1976)Hans Mol heralded the more statistical approach found with Alan Black, Gary Bouma, Trisha Brombery, and Philip Hughes. Some sociology is more internationalist: Rowan Ireland on Brazilian spirit movements; Rachael Kohn on self religions, and the Sydney branch Center for Millennial Studies on comparative chiliasm. Impressive empirical and clinical work in Australia also led to the publication of the International Journal of the Psychology of Religion by Lawrence Brown of the University of New South Wales in 1991. Intense research into ancient Gnosticisms by Samuel Lieu, Majella Franzmann, and Iain Gardner, and into later esoterico-theosophic currents by Gregory Tillett and John Cooper, have been reflected in the Australian cofounding of the monograph series Gnostica in 1997. Interest in religion and science was greatly boosted by cosmologist Paul Davies' arrival in Adelaide in 1990, and religion and politics received a boost with the introduction of the monograph series Religion, Politics, and Society in 2001. Clearly, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the critical study of religions is most certainly in blossom in Australia and Oceania.

See Also

Australian Indigenous Religions, overview article; Christianity, article on Christianity in Australia and New Zealand; Transculturation and Religion, article on Religion in the Formation of Modern Oceania.


Barnes, Robert. "Religious Studies and Theology: A Short Historical Survey, 1850 to the Present." In Knowing Ourselves and Others: The Humanities in Australia into the 21st Century, edited by Anthony Low, vol. 2, ch. 24. Canberra, Australia, 1998.

Osborn, Eric. Religious Studies in Australia since 1958. Sydney, Australia, 1978.

Trompf, Garry. "A Survey of New Approaches to the Study of Religion in Australia and the Pacific." In New Approaches to the Study of Religion, edited by Peter Antes, Armin Geertz, and Randi Warne, sect. 2, ch. 4. Berlin, 2004.

Garry W. Trompf (2005)

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