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Conflicts of religious interest and the big questions

Australian life is surprisingly religious. Most of us, from politicians and activists lobbying for or against marriage equality in Australia, to royal watchers obsessed with the christening of Prince George on the other side of the world, spend some of our time talking about religion.

In this column I will be exploring the place of religion in the modern world, especially in Australia. This includes divine beliefs, ritual behaviours, and religious identities.

I need to declare a massive conflict of interest at the outset. I’m a believer, who can identify with the Theophilus, the “lover of God” whom the evangelist Luke addresses in his account of the gospel. In particular I am a member of the Anglican Church of Australia, a branch of Christianity that has its origins in the Church of England.

I am the Vice-Chancellor and CEO of a University of Divinity that is wholly dedicated to the critical exploration of Christian theology and its application to contemporary issues.

Yet I also bring to my topic the critical apparatus of a cultural historian. My academic training has led me to believe that a critical analysis of religion and religiosity is essential to understanding contemporary humanity.

Religion in this sense is broader than a particular set of doctrinal beliefs, or a prescribed body of moral practices – though it may be those things. Religious questions are cultural questions, ones that seek to understand, even to explain, beliefs, behaviours, and identities. They are ambitious questions as they take seriously human beliefs in the possibility that forces greater than ourselves and beyond our control may be determinative of our existence.

Some of these questions are obvious. Who is still going to church, temple, mosque or synagogue, and why? What does it mean to have “no religion”? What do contemporary religious leaders have to say about divinity or humanity, and on what do they base their claims?

Other questions are less expected. What do public rituals such as the opening of Parliament, football finals, or civic parades, tell us about belief in Australia? How is religious or spiritual language used in modern pulpits – sacred and secular – and what does that language mean? What is the future of faith-based hospitals, schools, and community service agencies in an increasingly secular nation?

Many questions remain unanswerable. So what are the methodologies of theology, anthropology, sociology, history and how do they help us understand the formation, content, expression, and impact of our beliefs? What is the state of religious scholarship today?

I look forward to exploring these questions with you.

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