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Why Is ANZAC Day So Popular In Our Secular Age?

It’s 100 years since The Great War ended.

In that century we have seen a transformation in Australian religious life.  Granted it hasn’t, contrary to many a popular progressive opinion, been a case of the more modern and educated we have become the less religious we have grown.  And certainly the narrative of religious decline does not account for the increase of migration from the rest of the religious world, which has boosted the number of religious adherents in our country.

But since the 60s, the half century since that awful war, the decline in the number of adherents and attendees in Christian church has collapsed.  With that collapse has come the rise of the “Nones”, those who claim to have no religious affiliation at all.  Those who look at the world that is and say “this is it.”

The Intriguing Rise of ANZAC Day

Yet, intriguingly in that time, the rise of the cult of ANZAC Day has been spectacular.  It’s like cross-over escalators in Myers; the religious one going down, the ANZAC one going up.  The transcendental reverence in which the ANZAC legend is held within Australian life in 2018 is completely at odds with both the distance from the events of 1915 at Gallipoli, as well as the drop in belief in the transcendent in general.

Here we are in our secular age and yet the need for transcendence remains.  And ANZAC fits the gap very nicely indeed.

That it was not always this way is apparent from the manner in which the 1960s and early 1970s pushback against institutionalism and social and religious conservatism in this country.

I remember studying Alan Seymour’s classic and iconoclastic 1958 play “The One Day Of The Year” in the early 1980s at high school, and being struck by how brutal it was in its assessment of the ANZAC legend.

The gods of old were being dismantled by the artists who could see the 1960s coming and were indeed urging them along. It seemed that the only possibility was that ANZAC Day must be wiped out like the dinosaur it was, and they were only too happy to be the secular prophets announcing the coming meteor.

Yet here we are.

Here we are another thirty five years on from my high school reading of the text and the two ANZAC Day ceremonies I have attended at my son’s local primary school (a site from which soldiers bound for Gallipoli were actually trained, and which contains a fully grown pine tree from an actual pine cone from the actual pine tree obliterated during the campaign), have been full blown religious experiences, attended by huge crowds of sober-faced Aussie suburbanites.

ANZAC Day is Deeply Religious

And that experience, I suspect, has been replicated around the country at most other ANZAC Day ceremonies these past fifteen to twenty years.  ANZAC is deeply religious.

ANZAC day is deeply religious.

With deep religion, of course, comes deep anti-religion.  Hence we have also seen the pushback against the secular solder/saint from the “transgressors” and “sinners” who would question its role in our society.  But it’s a different pushback to the one that was central to Seymour’s play.

There, the narrative was of a fading past, a past that was more interested in former glories, was tinged with grief, and which was being jettisoned by the Baby Boomer generation who would go on to sweep Whitlam to power and then maintain the rage when he was outed.

Yet they haven’t.  They now turn up in droves for ANZAC in their SUVs.  The new transgressors don’t scoff at the meaningless of ANZAC and view it as a doddering vestige of the past, but rather as a dangerous and virile portent of an even more dangerous future.  The transformation has been astonishing.  And in that sense the suspicion that ANZAC is dangerous and reactionary, and is a threat to a peaceable, more accepting future, is mirrored by how the progressive narrative now sees Christianity.

The Inescapable Need for Transcendence

The take home point for me is just how much we need transcendence, even if we cannot name it.  We cannot live without ultimate realities, and as Charles Taylor points out, this loss of transcendence finds itself under pressure from an innate desire to rediscover it, even while lamenting that it does not exist.  It’s as if there is a built-in mechanism in human beings to worship something, someone, anything, that will provide a level of ultimate meaning in a world of myriad penultimate options.

We need transcendence, even if we cannot name it.

Like El Greco’s 1604 painting of The Vision of St John, in which his original work has had the top five feet ripped off – the part that contained the actual vision! – all we are left with is humanity raising its hands in ecstasy towards something, anything, that will give it a bigger picture than it is currently experiencing.

And for that reason the ANZAC Day worship experience shows no sign of abating any time soon. Not unless we find something as, if not more, transcendent to replace it.

 

Photo courtesy Pablo.com

 

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