A Middle Class Man: An Autobiography, Chapter 35: Christian reflections

Chapter 35: Christian reflections

Author: Alistair Knox

The moment I was willing to let Christ deal with me, instead of me telling Him what I would do for Him, was the instant I realised I had been born from above: not of natural descent, nor of human decision, nor of a husband's will - but born of God. It gave me no sense of joy or exaltation, only a realisation that the best intentions of the past twenty years of my existence were no longer capable of sustaining a good conscience or of preventing me from a radical change of lifestyle. I did not know what it would involve; but I was aware that I was no longer my own master but the servant of another whom I would have to obey whether I wanted to or not. I saw the future as doing the right thing and supporting the status quo, no matter how dreary it might be. Wordsworth's words 'Duty stern daughter of the voice of God' did not thrill me one little bit. The sense of adventure would have to be surrendered to a determination to do good to others instead of gratifying my own normal desires. It eventuated that nothing was further from my goal. I didn't seem to do any good works, and I didn't stop thinking of myself. But there was a sense of change, as though the past didn't matter anymore. My day-to-day commitments did not change appreciably until the week following my return to church, when I had an appointment with some difficult clients whom I had not seen since my conversion. They kept pressuring me to comply with aspects for their building which were patently wrong and to which I could not subscribe. At the encounter, however, I could not, despite my best endeavours, continue arguing with them. They were still just as wrong as ever, but I wasn't able to get angry as I had done in the past. I remember thinking to myself that I was losing my punch, when three words came into my head which describe what the fruit of the Holy Spirit is in the heart of a believer: Love, Joy, and Peace. It was the first conscious inkling I had of an inner change. It owed nothing to me. It was the gift of God. Perhaps there was such a thing as an inner life that enabled one to be aware of a personal relationship with the Creator.

This was the background to my life in 1949 when I was converted and suddenly found myself changed in attitude and direction by a new, invisible force. The fact that it was a reality and not merely another 'agreeable' cause was gradual. The whole situation was jumping with new possibilities from day to day. Life was full of change and opportunity. Like a chess master playing six opponents simultaneously, I was presented with new challenges and opportunities every moment. But from a distance, the question that I could never answer - had I ever bothered to ask it - was: Who was I, and where was I going? To be on my way to an unknown destination had not bothered me. Effects had taken the place of the facts; discernment had given way to diversion.

At first, it was not easy at first to comprehend what difference the new spiritual life was making to me. Its impetus towards action came from within. I knew what the spirit was telling me was right and that I wanted it, but to make it actual to my daily living was another matter. Although scarcely aware of it, I was finding that the things I used to want to do were no longer of interest, and that the things I used not to want to do were now important. They quietly took the place of my always planning to meet my old mates for dinner at one of our haunts and going on to spend the evening at a party. These friends were special men who ranged from Arthur Boyd and John Perceval at one end to Matcham Skipper and Barry Humphries at the other. They were creative-idea producers making important statements; but their whole philosophy had developed a black hole somewhere in the middle, and it no longer attracted me as it had. I had discovered a new fascination with the Bible, not only because of how it said things, but also for what it said. It had become personal and specific, instead of general. It confronted me, and I could not ignore its requirements as I once had. To obey became better than burnt offerings and conscience more than regulations.

As our design and building business increased and supplies of normal materials became available, it was a relief to turn back to traditional men and bricks and mortar. It was now possible to calculate results rather than be entangled in the unpredictability of eccentric mates and the vagaries of inclement weather, which were always the major complexity of alternative building. The early signs of a multi-national society were becoming apparent, but we still remained adamantly Australian and regarded all Greeks and Italians as sub-human, never dreaming that we would later be accepting Turks as migrants and inviting Vietnamese refugees into our 'White Australia' Anglo-Saxon society. There were two jobs available for every person who wanted work, and the newcomers were just right for all those multi-national industries that were taking over in the workplace. The immigrant families, down to their youngest members, worked; and their women, many of whom failed to learn English, accepted wages and conditions no self-respecting Australian female would even contemplate.

A national spiritual decline set in during the early 1950s in direct proportion to the general increase in affluence. Once a status quo had been attained between East and West at the Berlin Wall, and with both the major powers developing atomic weapons, an uneasy hiatus set in. Since we could only look on helplessly at these international crises, we spent the interval making money and learning to believe in nothing. The Christian ethos disappeared, despite the great interest in religion. It became broad, intellectual, and demythologised. As I now believed in a miraculous God who created all things and by whom all things exist, the general standards that surfaced around me were bound to be submerged again within a few years because the intellectual was not impelled to call white 'white' or black 'black'. His thinking became as indefinite as the oyster-grey walls that were the prevailing fashion in the best Toorak drawing rooms of the period. I, however, was permitted no such flexibility of mind. I had been converted by grace through faith, and not of myself, to discover that I no longer had personal rights: I now belonged to another. Despite my failures and attempted prevarications, I was a bond slave of Jesus Christ. I could no longer delude myself. I was a new creation.

It was about a year before I became a Christian that I began to comprehend that environmental planning consisted of bringing the building and the natural environment together into one indivisible whole. Each was the counterpart of the other which sought to reconcile the whole scene rather than to act as a disjointed and competitive element within it. The second postwar construction I designed was called the Periwinkle House. The plan consisted of an extending spiral which began as a low-sitting wall around a tree; the spiral curved outwards until it became the inner concentric wall of a small courtyard house which comprised two floors and three roof levels. It was truly environmental in both essence and appearance. It was the first building I had designed using a concrete slab, and I thought I had originated the principle. The specifications certainly were. I learnt a year or so later that Frank Lloyd Wright had designed house slabs in the 1930s, though they cost double the price of the Periwinkle slab. It had no counterpart in Australia or any other country that I knew of, except for the general concept of Wright's desert buildings, which were made of timber and had the spirit of strange cactus plants. The earth walls of the Periwinkle were much more like organic sculptings. They employed low-cost - and often reclaimed - materials that seemed to be integral parts of the primaeval Australian landscape, which had remained unchanged since the beginning of time. This realisation turned me away from modern design, which was still mostly in the talking stage. I soon perceived that dust, heat hazes, and mirages were also part of this overall concept which, in conjunction with the pristine light and colour and the immense red-gold distances, made it unique.

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