“Other side,” said the driver as I, fresh off the plane, moved to climb into the wrong side of the car.
Oh yeah. Drive on the left in Australia. Walk on the left. Keep left when bikes pass on the right.
Determined to stay awake until evening, I decided that scoping out a nearby university campus would be the best way to distract my brain from jetlag.
Slender gum trees engulfed the campus grounds in a thick forest, trailhead signs alerting dog-walkers that koalas ranged among the long, silvery leaves.
Tufted “grass trees” resembling something from the mind of Dr. Seuss populated the understory; vivid flowers I had neither seen nor imagined before hung like pompoms along the footpath, and Jurassic-league ferns looked down at me from beside the campus buildings. Meanwhile, squeaky grey birds dubbed “noisy miners” chortled from the canopies, which also rustled with multi-coloured parrots and the magpies which dive-bomb humans often enough that cyclists here fight back with spiked helmets.
Toto, I concluded, we’re not in Canada anymore.
I wandered into the science and social science buildings, noting posters on the walls and marveling at campus buildings’ “openness:” roofless pedways, doorways without doors, indoor corridors continuous with outdoor courtyards…all things that wouldn’t fly under a foot of Canadian snow at 40° below. However, this campus did resemble Canadian ones in terms of bulletin board postings, with messages about sexuality situated alongside advertisements for yoga parties and invitations to Bible studies.
“Can you tell me where this happens?” I asked a nearby student, indicating a signboard promoting the next day’s Bible study.
“I’m not a part of that group,” he said, but went on to mention that he was Orthodox.
“Oh, well I’m hoping to speak with Christian students, in general, about what spirituality is like on this campus.”
“You mean dead, like everything else?”
I felt my eyebrows shoot upward. Dead? But he was still speaking.
“There aren’t many groups which run events on campus,” he explained, and motioned to the Bible study poster, “That’s why this group started, but I don’t think it’s very well-attended.”
I thanked the student and moved on, passing a “koala crossing” sign in the parking lot, to explore the arts and humanities buildings. Lining the drama wing walls were posters with content I found unsettling, along with a banner for a play about Christian evangelisation being ‘white man’s’ agenda. A few floors above, I also happened upon an art display with a piece depicting a human figure hanging from a cross-shaped gallows. Surrounding the gallows were the words “Love? No thanks.”
Maybe the gnawing heaviness I felt while exiting the building was spiritual oppression, or maybe it was just a combination of hunger and jetlag. Either way, I didn’t have long to ponder the feeling, as a rather large lizard suddenly materialized in my path.
This never happened at school in Canada.
Does one simply walk past such a creature?
“Hi,” I said to it, “can I cross?”
It didn’t say anything, so I skirted past its dinosaurian frame and traveled onward. While I didn’t find any more Christians, I did witness a kookaburra steal a student’s lunch.
She shook her head. No.
The next day, though, I returned to campus for the Bible study.
And unless gum trees can sprout blobs of grey fur, I’m pretty sure I saw a koala from the bus.
Only a couple of students were at the study, a solid look into Isaiah. More students, however, attended the next “round” of Bible study on the other side of the university. I met some of these students afterward, when the Bible study group convened at a campus café.
“So, what’s the general attitude towards Christianity here?” I asked a linguistics student seated next to me at the outdoor café table.
“Very hostile,” he said at first, “Though from what I’ve heard, this uni was more aggressive in previous years. In the past, for instance, in the science department, you apparently had to take a test which indicated whether you were religious. Then, the religious students were weeded out. But it’s better now, and I’ve never heard professors make remarks about Christianity except for one comment about Genesis being sexist. There’re even some Christian professors, so religion is fairly neutral. But there’s still hostility, in that factoring religion into discussions is highly discouraged at a social level.”
“In Canada,” I commented, “People I’ve talked to sense that the dominant worldview is pluralism—picking bits and pieces of whatever worldviews you like. Is that how it is here?”
“Oh yeah. If you state that you hold a faith, you’re not going to be very actively persecuted. There’s the sense of ‘if you’re faith works for you, that’s great.’”
“So, instead of active hostility it’s more like marginalization?”
After saying goodbye to the students, I passed several campus-sponsored events including “Free Clairvoyant Readings” en route to speak with the head chaplain.
“I don’t think people of faith see particular hostility here,” he said. “There is the occasional student who feels like they should take the cross off their neck for a week or so because their friends are giving them a hard time, but nothing too intense that I’ve seen. You also see posters on campus against religious hostility and discrimination. I think on the whole universities are quite open-minded about everyone having their say. Even Christians too can say their bit; no one’s going to stop you from having your say. Obviously, for evangelistic purposes that can make it a bit more difficult. If people want to evangelize others they’re going to meet not necessarily hostility, but incredulity. Pluralism is definitely the way things are.”
Certainly, these encounters left me with a lot to consider that night as I headed back through the gum tree forest. What conclusions can I draw about Christianity on the Aussie campus? With a few more visits to campuses and some key divine appointments, perhaps time will tell.