On Thursday 8 December, nearly 200 people gathered at St Peter the Apostle Catholic Church in Toorak for a talk by Prof Geoffrey Blainey AC, one of Australia’s most popular and prolific historians. The address touched on some of the themes of his 2011 bestselling book A Short History of Christianity.
Prof Blainey, who is now 93, reflected on his years growing up in Australia coming from a Methodist background. Although he had ‘drifted away’ from Christianity throughout his life, he indicated that in later years he experienced something of a ‘return’ to his Christian roots.
He said he had become particularly concerned about Australia’s general shift away from its Christian heritage. In 1993, when the tomb of an unknown Australian soldier was interred in the Hall of Memory in Canberra, marking the 75th anniversary of the end of the First World War, Prof Blainey said that the question that immediately raised itself for him was ‘Why was this soldier being buried in unsanctified ground?’
‘Even though he was buried in an unidentified grave, I thought he must have been a Christian,’ Prof Blainey said. ‘I looked up the 1911 census, which was the nearest census, and found that 98 per cent of Australians were Christians.’ In conversations with federal politicians in Canberra several years later, Prof Blainey raised the question of why someone who would likely have been a Christian had been removed from sanctified ground in France only to be buried in unsanctified ground.
Although Prof Blainey didn’t share the outcome of his questioning, he did say that he had argued for the inclusion of the inscription ‘Known Unto God’ on the memorial, and these words, which were from the original grave in France, remain on the memorial, despite a controversial attempt in 2018 to have them removed.
Prof Blainey explained how he had always wanted to write a history of Christianity, recognising its signal achievements and just how influential it has been in the course of world events. Writing such a broad overview allowed him to observe ‘cycles’ in Christianity’s history, cycles of growth and also decline.
‘There are periods where it looks as though Christianity was nearing the end. And there appears also times where it seems triumphant,’ he said. The ‘seeds of failure and success’ are sown in every age.
While acknowledging that Christianity appears to be shrinking in the West, he noted how explosively it was growing elsewhere in the world, often against people’s expectations.
‘At the moment it seems Christianity is in decline, yet in Africa Christianity is very strong indeed. It is stronger in Africa than the whole of the British Isles. Who could have predicted that?’
Prof Blainey also reflected on the many different expressions of Christianity over the years, and just how much we have been influenced by those Christians who did not fit prescribed moulds.
He reflected especially on the legacy of William Tyndale, whose translation of the Bible in English—though emerging from a complicated history—bestowed some of the most memorable lines in the English language. Turns of phrase such as ‘Seek and ye shall find’, ‘No man shall serve two masters’ and ‘In my Father’s house there are many mansions’ all come from Tyndale’s translation, which Prof Blainey described as ‘a mixture of majesty and mystery’.
Prof Blainey concluded by reading a passage from his book that reflected on the enduring influence of Jesus of Nazareth:
It is remarkable that a man who lived 2000 years ago, who held no public office and owned no wealth, and who travelled no more than a few days walk from his birthplace, should have exerted such influence ... The debate about Christ’s message and influence will continue. Long after we are all dead and the twenty-first century is lost behind passing clouds, the fascination with him will persist; and many will still see him as triumphant.
A light supper was served in the parish centre following the talk.
Christian Bergmann08 November 2023
Melbourne Catholic04 September 2023