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Book Review: Time We Started Listening: Theological Questions Put to Us by Recent Indigenous Writing

Monday, 23 October 2023  | Charles Ringma

Time We Started Listening: Theological Questions Put to Us by Recent Indigenous Writing

By Duncan Reid

(Adelaide, SA: ATF Theology, 2020


It did not take much for me to warm to this challenging and invitational book. First of all, at an earlier time I had the privilege of working amongst Indigenous communities in Western Australia. This was a formative experience. Secondly, having taught theology for three decades in South-East Asia has made me acutely aware of ongoing Western theological imposition and the failure to listen respectfully to the dynamic ‘local theologies’ that have been emerging for decades. And thirdly, one cannot but be impressed by Duncan Reid’s project in his clear writing, his definitional clarity, his careful listening to current Indigenous writing and his explorative suggestions as to what we may learn from Indigenous voices, practically, politically and theologically.

Reid’s overarching project is clear enough. Australian Indigenous writers have important things to say not only to their own communities but also to us as Settlers. In European settlement the ‘driving force … was not religion but empire’ (p.13) and ‘this nation’s most original sin’ was ‘dispossession’ (p.59). Stan Grant laments that ‘the weight of [European] history in Australia suffocates us’ (p.38) and asks: how can we move forward when as a nation we ‘still can’t decide whether we were settled or invaded?’ (p.41). And Indigenous writers acknowledge the tension of ‘living in and being fully part of two different cultures’ (p.64).

In engaging Indigenous writers such as Ambelin Kwaymullina, Stan Grant, Bruce Pascoe and Tyson Yunkaporta, among others, and Rainbow theologians such as Garry Deverell, among others, Reid helps us to see that the differences between Indigenous perspectives and those of Settlers aren’t peripheral. They constitute ‘two completely different ways of looking at the world’ (p.46). To make one broad generalisation, Western understandings of life and society are based on the concept of ‘differentiation’ (p.46), while the Indigenous view is one of ‘regenerative connections between systems’ (p.50).

More specifically, Indigenous themes include ‘dreaming’ as a source of revelation (p.57), the power of kinship and a spiritually of place. Regarding the latter, Indigenous writers lament that we, the Settlers, have left the land ‘like a house trashed by its tenants’ (p.52). And further regarding land, Indigenous writers suggest that we should adopt the concept of ‘custodian rather than an owner of lands’ (p.45).

At a much more basic level, even though ‘Indigenous presence was systematically written out of Australian culture and … landscape’ (p.25), their marginal presence persisted. In the words of Yunkaporta: ‘there are ghosts all over this massacre-soaked continent’ (p.25). Despite this dark assessment, the Indigenous story in this land has been, and is, the powerful story of ‘survival’ (p.27).

Duncan Reid ends the book with a strong proposal that the task is ‘not to impose another Eurocentric grid’ (p.65) on Indigenous voices and theology, but to be open to ‘rediscover some ideas in the Christian theological tradition’ by ‘our listening to Indigenous voices’ (p.70). Important themes in these voices include: 1) the importance of ‘truth-telling;’ 2) an acknowledgement that the Christian tradition has used parts of Scripture to ‘undergird an imperial mindset’ (p.73); 3) the importance of place and the tragedy of displacement – ‘God … loves places and chooses to dwell in a particular place’ (p.75); 4) the importance of ‘yarning’ (p.77) and the role of story-telling in the formation and maintenance of community, thus, emphasising the need for persons as ‘formed in interconnected community’ (p.81), including the connection with the land; and 5) the notion that ‘different sovereignties co-exist within any political system’ (p.83). Reid uses this to argue the case for the importance of The Statement from the Heart.

It is clear from the above that Reid is not simply concerned that the church and its theologians, but also the wider society and government, listen well to current Indigenous voices.

To some extent this may well be a Goliath and David story. The long tradition of Western theologising on the one hand, and the new voices (though reflecting a most ancient tradition) of contemporary Indigenous writers and theologians on the other, will hopefully be in yarning/debate/conversation with each other rather than in conflict or, worse, indifference. In my opinion it will take a lot for the church, its theologians and the wider society to listen well to the voice of the other. I too believe that such listening will be beneficial to both. And along with Reid, I too hope that Indigenous voices can help us to respond creatively in overcoming the damage the Enlightenment project has done to aspects of the life of faith. As Reid notes, the Enlightenment ‘has limited our access to other ways of knowing’ (p.92).

Yes! It is time we started listening. Duncan Reid has served us well in laying the groundwork for more ‘yarning’.


Charles Ringma is Emeritus Professor at Regent College in Vancouver, Honorary Associate Professor at the University of Queensland and former Research Professor at the Asian Theological Seminary in Manila.

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