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An Easter challenge: resurrecting religion

By Noel Preston - posted Monday, 15 April 2002

Religion has been getting a bad press lately. In hot spots around the globe, religious bigotry fuels terror and war. Closer to home the link between clergy and sexual impropriety is disturbing.

Allegiance to institutional religion continues to decline. Patterns of religious affiliation in Australia show Buddhism as the fastest growing group, peripheral sects such as the Pentecostalists lead among Christian denominations, while there is an increasing market for a curious collection of so-called New Age practices.

Perhaps the English are more ungodly, but it is likely that polls on belief would find similar results here. Reportedly, in Britain 45 per cent of people claim no religious belief while fewer than 24 per cent "strongly believe" God exists.


Even among those actively affiliated with religions there is a conflicting pluralism of believers ranging from fundamentalists to liberals. This Easter, churches were fill with hosts of worshippers holding divergent convictions about whether or not Christ actually rose from the dead.

As a Christian clergyman I confess that for most of my adult years I have questioned certain dogmas which are sometimes defended by theological doubletalk. The ancient creeds don’t express what I believe very well. At times I’ve almost choked on the words of some hymns.

I am a product of the radical 60s when some theologians actually declared "God is dead" though the footnotes to their books suggested that was far from what they meant. Certainly I was profoundly influenced by theologians who abandoned theistic talk of a God-out-there to express the inexpressible about God as an "inner divine consciousness" or "the ground of our being".

My study of church history demonstrated that religions, as a human construct, audaciously claim authority over truth, and the power of franchisees of the divine, a power which can so easily corrupt. On the other hand, institutional religion has been the crucible from which many worthwhile community service programs emanate and through which millions of individuals find inspiration and solace.

At Easter it is especially interesting to recall that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified because of his opposition to the institutional religion of his time. Subsequently and inevitably, his Good News was itself captured by institutional religion. So began the ambiguous story of Christendom, riddled with recurring attempts at reformation.

As the controversial bishop, John Spong, outlined in a provocatively titled book, "Why Christianity must change or die", it’s becoming harder than ever to put new wine into old (religious) wineskins. A more radical reformation than ever is needed now.


It may be argued that Christianity, the religion, must die if a Christian spirituality is to live.

In this post-modern era, many alienated from religion find the distinction between "religion" and "spirituality" important because it signifies the possibility of an intellectually credible and personally sustaining faith journey.

"Spirituality" is a term for the profound universal human quest for self knowledge and self transcendence. It refers to the desire to make sense of one’s individual life in the context of the vast cosmic web of life by addressing questions of meaning and purpose in a universe of chance.

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About the Author

Dr Noel Preston is Adjunct Professor in the Griffith University Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance. He is the author of Understanding Ethics (20O1, Federation Press, Sydney), and several texts on public sector ethics. His web page can be found here.

Noel Preston’s recent book is Beyond the Boundary: a memoir exploring ethics, politics and spirituality (Zeus Publications).

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