The crossroads of destiny

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In August 1995, exactly half a century after the destruction of Hiroshima, the Canberra Times published a cartoon entitled ‘Fifty years on’. 1 The cartoon shows a large, muscular genie emerging from a bottle labelled with the now familiar symbol for radioactivity. In one hand he holds a dove, in the other a skull, a death’s head. ‘C’mon make a wish!’, he demands of us. Fifty years on…

The atomic genie was obviously more patient than anybody had imagined in 1945. Fifty years on and he was still waiting for our decision. The genie, like the crossroads and the turning point, symbolised a critical moment in the history of the world. The bomb had fundamentally changed the conditions of human existence, confronting civilisation with an urgent and inescapable choice. And yet, the moment itself seemed impossible to grasp. Rather than being anchored in 1945, it hopped and jumped from year to year, constantly renewing its sense of urgency, and reasserting its challenge to humankind.

On the Sunday following the first use of the atomic bomb, the Rev. Dr Clifford Norman Button addressed his Ballarat congregation on the implications of this new weapon. Although it seemed ‘too awful to contemplate’, the bomb raised ‘long range questions’ about the future of humanity—questions that could not be ignored. 2 ‘We have to learn to come to some sort of terms with the painful things of life’, Button noted, ‘if we would grow up’. 3 Described by the Bulletin as ‘an argumentative little cleric with a pugnacious jaw’, Button was always ready to take up the fight against privilege or hypocrisy. 4 But the bomb posed a different challenge. ‘Humanity is at the cross-roads’, he warned his congregation, ‘This is a turning point in history, perhaps the most solemn turning point of all history’. 5

Science itself wasn’t the problem. Button expressed a keen layman’s interest in physics, and his efforts to open Presbyterian teaching to scientific analysis had marked him out as a modernist. 6 The ‘facts and forces of nature’ that made the bomb possible were, Button argued, ‘God’s facts, and God’s forces’. The question was whether scientific progress could be matched by ‘moral and spiritual progress’. Like many others grappling with the implications of the bomb, Button recalled God’s challenge to Israel: ‘I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live’. 7 The bomb was a test—if humankind was to survive, it had to learn to use God’s gifts with wisdom and humility.

But this was not the first time that the world had faced such a choice. ‘There have been many turning-points in history before’, Button admitted, ‘There has been a turning-point whenever there has been a great new invention or discovery’. Gunpowder, steam power, the aeroplane, the wireless, each had ‘radically changed the life and habits of mankind’, and each had been ‘used both to bless and to curse’. So far humanity had failed to heed the crossroads challenge. Turning point after turning point had been ignored; civilisation had continued upon the same doomed path, exploiting the bounties of science both for life and for death. But no more. With the coming of the bomb, God’s challenge had been restated, it seemed ‘for the last time’. The choice could no longer be avoided, humanity could not continue upon its thoughtless, middling way: ‘It is one or the other now, life or death, blessing or cursing’. 8

For the last time? The bomb represented the dramatic conclusion to humanity’s secular ambitions. An age old story had taken a final unexpected twist. ‘Steady!’, exhorted Button in conclusion, ‘The end of humanity is not yet! By God’s grace it may be a new beginning!’ 9 It was a denouement inspired by the bomb’s radical break with the past, a new age demanded new solutions. The world had changed, hearts and souls must follow. But how new was the new? Postwar planners had begun charting the outlines of a ‘new social order’ long before the news from Hiroshima. 10 In 1937, Button himself contributed to a pamphlet entitled The Church and the New Era which outlined the challenges facing the church at a time when ‘radical changes are taking place with alarming rapidity’. 11 ‘We are entering into a new period of history’, the pamphlet argued, ‘the Christian Church faces to-day a greater menace than any which has assailed her during the last four centuries’. 12 Five years later, at a time that had ‘no precedent in our national history’, Button asked ‘Whither Australia?’ ‘The plans of the new world that is to be’, he insisted, ‘are not to be found in Westminster or in Washington or in Canberra. They are laid up in heaven…’. 13 The feeling of rapid change, the sense that the present was somehow unprecedented, these were already regarded as characteristic of modern life. The bomb was an emblem, not an engine of this transformation.

For the last time? Norman Button died suddenly in June 1950, mourned by his friend Tom Hollway, as ‘a man of high ideals’. 14 Only months before his death came confirmation that the US was pushing ahead with the development of a new, even more terrifying weapon. Nine years after Button’s address on the implications of Hiroshima, Canon EJ Davidson spoke to a packed Sydney Town Hall on the ‘challenge of the hydrogen bomb’. ‘Our civilization stands at the point of decision’, he gravely proclaimed, either ‘it meets, accepts and answers the challenge to use the power God has given it through science in the spirit of humility and service; or it follows other civilizations into the dust of oblivion’. 15 Another crisis, another last chance, another turning point to ignore.

How many such points have punctuated our journey since the dawn of the Atomic Age? How many dividing lines have we crossed? How many crises have demanded our urgent attention? And yet the challenges just keep coming—cold war, nuclear arms race, pollution, overpopulation, computerisation, gene technology, global warming, terrorism, globalisation—crossroad signposts sprouting at each footfall of history.

In 1982, Nobel prizewinning biologist, Macfarlane Burnet, reflected upon the ‘challenge to Australia’ wrought by modern science. In an article headed ‘Mankind at the crossroads…’, he argued that the ‘present and pending crises’ confronting the world were ‘utterly different from anything previously experienced by the human species’. 16 Try scanning the daily media, or the titles in a bookshop. ‘We are at a turning point’, notes the back cover blurb of a book on climate change. 17 ‘The world has changed’ proclaim media commentators in the aftermath of devastating terrorist attacks on the USA. 18 It is a ‘turning point in history’, one letter writer argues, ‘the United States has two paths it can take’, it can ‘lead us into a new era of peace or hell’. 19 We are, a recent work on postmodern theory suggests, ‘currently at a crucial crossroads where the “fate of the Earth” hangs in the balance’. 20

The belief that there are key moments, turning points, when destiny can be seized, when a different path can be taken, has offered inspiration to an army of revolutionaries and a plethora of self-help books. But somewhere amidst the headlines and the cliches is an attempt to grapple with the nature of change. Crossroads and turning points are an expression of hope, a pause amidst the overwhelming onslaught of the future. Caught in the swell of history we seize upon fractures and crises as evidence that things can be, must be, different. Button imagined a chastened humanity renewing its relationship with God. For Clem Christensen, the fall of the ‘guillotine’ had created a world in which the creative artist was invested with new powers and responsibilities. 21 Others believed that the bomb would bring an end to war, that national sovereignty itself would wither in a new era of international cooperation. 22 For all its terrors, the atomic crossroads offered the chance to create a better world.

So what happened? Why didn’t we? Why do we continue to layer crossroads upon crossroads, imagining each new turning point to be the most urgent, the most significant, the most far reaching? Why does every generation imagine itself on the threshold of a new age? 23 Part of the answer may lie in modernism’s oft-quoted fascination with the new. Old crises, like old ideas, last year’s fashions and superseded computers, are regularly discarded and replaced by something more up-to-date. But our understanding of what is ‘new’ is itself part of the broader play of time. Elizabeth Eisenstein suggests that our recurrent sense of discontinuity is a product of ‘history-book time’. 24 We assign the past to a series of sequential chapters, only to have the narrative break off at the ‘most personally significant, densely packed, fact-crowded final chapter’. 25 We appear on the scene as the story ends, ‘previous experience offers no sure guide’ as we venture upon unknown territory: ‘each generation discovers that earlier turning points have failed to turn after all, while remaining convinced that the real “great divide”… is occurring in its own day and age’. 26

But even as we close the past behind us, we seek to extend the reach of the present. The modern conception of progress demands an ‘open horizon’, an empty future into which our treasures and achievements can be unpacked, our maps unfurled. 27 We annex the future as the storehouse of our security, our guarantee of continuity. 28 Every new turning point extracts an event from history’s morass of contingency, and pushes it out into the open fields beyond. Existence is imagined as a problem whose solution lies somewhere in the future—in an ‘extended present’ that demands action but dissolves responsibility. 29 Continuities are lost as the conflicts and complexities of human society are compressed into a single critical moment that looms suddenly in our path. Aha! A crossroads! The journey is always onwards, the challenge is always ahead. The critical moment always exists slightly beyond reach, just the other side of now.

And so here we stand on threshold of a new book. A revolutionary analysis perhaps, one that will change the way you think about the world; a turning point in our understanding of the Atomic Age; an end to illusion and myth! At last, the final chapter of the atomic story! ‘Why is it’, asks Bernard Yack, ‘that contemporary intellectuals cannot uncover a new or hidden development without declaring the coming of a new epoch in human history?’ 30 Just as Norman Button sought to convey to his parishioners the crucial significance of their own moment in history, so, it seems, we still try to convince ourselves that there is something fundamentally different about our own times, our own thoughts, our own possibilities. Just as Button looked back across the divide that marked the beginning of a new age, so we can conceive of him and his audience only on the other side of a break in history—the world is different, we have moved on. We are separated not simply by time, but by the assumption of change, by the very idea of the ‘new’.

The meaning of the Atomic Age lies not merely in the bomb, or our reactions to it, but in the way we grapple with change. We are linked with Button in an ongoing struggle to reconcile hope with inevitability, to find a timescale for action, to make our own destiny. Instead of focusing on the crossroads, perhaps we should explore the nature of the journey—this thing we call progress.


  1. Canberra Times, 6 August 1995, p. 8.
  2. CN Button, God, Man, and The Bomb, St Andrews Kirk, Ballarat, 1945, p. 3.
  3. ibid., p. 12
  4. Patrick Weller, Dodging raindrops – John Button: A Labor life, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1999, pp. 9, 13.
  5. Button, God, Man, and The Bomb, p. 8.
  6. Weller, Dodging raindrops, p. 5.
  7. Deuteronomy 30:19-20, quoted in Button, God, Man, and The Bomb, p. 1.
  8. Button, God, Man, and The Bomb, pp. 8-9.
  9. ibid., p. 16.
  10. See chapter 3
  11. C N Button, Hector Maclean, JT Lawton, AT McNaughton, and HC Matthew, The Church and the new era, Presbyterian Church of Australia, Melbourne, 1937, p. 7.
  12. ibid.
  13. C N Button, Whither Australia? An address delivered at the opneing of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria, Monday 4th May 1942, Waller & Chester, Ballarat, 1942, p. 11.
  14. Hollway was a member of Button’s congregation, and was married by him. See Weller, Dodging raindrops, p. 13.
  15. Canon EJ Davidson, ‘Challenge to human nature’, Voice, vol. 3, no. 7, April 1954, p. 19. See chapter 6 for more on this meeting.
  16. Frank Macfarlane Burnet, ‘Mankind at the crossroads…’,  Australian, 19 May 1982, p. 7.
  17. Clive Hamilton, Running from the storm: the development of climate change policy in Australia, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2001, back cover.
  18. See, for example, Herald Sun, 24 September 2001, p. 18.
  19. Anastasis Paltoglou, Letter to the editor, Australian, 14 September 2001, p. 18.
  20. Steven Best, and Douglas Kellner, The postmodern adventure: science, technology, and cultural studies at the Third Millennium, Guilford Press, New York, 2001, p. 274.
  21. Christesen, ‘Editorial’. See also Lynne Strahan, Just city and the mirrors: Meanjin Quarterly and the intellectual fron, 1940-1965, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1984, pp. 117-8.
  22. See chapter 6.
  23. Such feelings, writes Elizabeth Eisenstein, have ‘been manifested by each generation in turn for over one hundred and fifty years’, Elizabeth L Eisenstein, ‘Clio and Chronos: An essay on the making and breaking of history-book time’, History and Theory, vol. 5, Beiheft 6, p. 58.
  24. Eisenstein, ‘Clio and Chronos’.
  25. ibid., p. 59.
  26. ibid., p. 60.
  27. Helga Nowotny, Time: the modern and postmodern experience, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1994, p. 48.
  28. Barbara Adam, Time and social theory, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1990, p. 138-40.
  29. ibid., p. 140-1.
  30. Bernard Yack, The fetishism of modernities: epochal self-consciousness in contemporary social and political thought, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 1997, p. 138.

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