An ordinary, 'natural', progressive religion

© Rex A E Hunt

Founding Director, The Centre for Progressive Religious Thought

29 August 2009

• A presentation to The Centre for Progressive Religious Thought, Sydney, at the Kirribilli Neighbourhood Centre, Kirribilli, NSW.


I wish to pay my respects to the Gorualgal people and to those

who have cared for this part of the land

from time immemorial.

It was four months before his 23rd birthday – the date being April 1907 – when Henry Nelson Wieman walked into his college room after evening meal

“and sat alone looking at the sunset over the Missouri River”

(Shaw 1995:1).

As he watched

“[s]uddenly it came over me that I should devote my life to the problems of religious inquiry” (Wieman 1963:6).

And the problem which engaged Wieman for more than 60 years?

• What operates in human life with such character and power that it will transform us as we cannot transform ourselves, saving us from evil and leading us to the best that human life can ever reach, provided we meet the required conditions (Shaw 1995:2; Wieman 1963: 3).

Wieman’s ‘finite theism’ or ‘religious naturalism’, especially in the story of the relationship between radical religion and science, coupled with the thought of others, (eg. Karl Peters, Gordon Kaufman) mostly associated with the Institute of Religion in an Age of Science, have been constant companions on my own personal religious journey, covering some 40+ years of inquiry and practise.

Thank you for the invitation to be present here today, sharing the leadership of this gathering with Dr Val Webb.  As you will be aware her task will be to talk on the theme: Does God create religion, or religion create God?

Mine is somewhat simpler:

(i) to make some general observations about religion in the Australian society and offer some comments on progressive religion ‘down under’ style;

(ii) to share an example of one from our progressive past who sought to wrestle with his own path of religious inquiry - against the church institution of his day, and

(iii) to ask the question: can religion be ‘natural’?


The religion called Christianity has always been rather a casual affair in Australia.  “At best,” writes retired Anglican Bishop Bruce Wilson, “Australia was only ever superficially Christianized” (Wilson 1982:6).  In contrast to the European settlement of America, Australia was not in the main settled by religious refugees on a mission of hope, but rather a gaol for criminals and social outcasts – an ordeal of exile.

Australian sociologist Hans Mol, writing in 1971 but relying on research from the late 1960s, suggests the Australia of his day seemed to be either a “Christian nation in search of a religion” or a “heathen nation in flight from one” (Kaldor 1987:37).

While Muriel Porter, in a book on the Australian religious experience written prior to the 1991 World Council of Churches World Assembly in Canberra, says:

“...while institutional religion is not attractive to most Australians, and some find it alienating, they are not godless as so many church leaders have feared.  The religious dimension is important, and many Australians seek an active relationship with God, though not via the church” (Porter 1990: 84).

In all these comments the relationship between religion and culture is:

(i) changing or fluid, and

(ii) more complex than simple.

And certainly beyond talk-back radio clichés!

Commenting on the religion/culture relationship in general, Bernard Meland argued more than 30 years ago that in the past the Judaic-Christian experience had been interpreted in a very narrow way: as being too much church-centred.  While our culture can not extricate itself from the Judaic-Christian mythos, he argued, and please excuse the exclusive language…

“[t]here is something about church Christianity that depresses the creativities of men, that foreshortens their imaginative and critical powers and impels them to suspect concern with qualitative attainment, thus lulling them into or even summoning them to a preference for mediocrity” (Meland 1976:169).

Despite the inauspicious beginnings, a progressive religious expression within Australian society is not new.  Indeed, in one form or another it has been around for nearly a 170 years or so.

Various historical resources tell us, for instance, the first Unitarian church in Australia was established in Sydney in 1850 by a Revd. Stanley.  The Melbourne Unitarian Church was founded two years later, in 1852.  While the church in Adelaide was founded in 1855, by English settlers.

Similarly, efforts at establishing progressive Jewish synagogues in both Melbourne and Sydney date from 1882 and 1932 respectively, with the first enduring Liberal or Progressive congregation being founded in Melbourne in 1930, and Sydney’s Temple Emanuel founded eight years later.

Now, what seems new about the current progressive religious movement is it is expressed in two streams:

(i) a non-church ‘spirituality’, as distinct from ‘religion’, and

(ii) an open and critical Christian theology which, despite or in spite of, archbishops, moderators and ‘religious right’ lobby groups, is giving sustenance and support to thousands of disillusioned individuals, both current and former church members (Jack Spong’s ‘church alumni’), who meet in informal, safe, discussion groups away from any church institution.

Those from overseas who have nurtured the current progressive Christian movement are well known: Jack Spong, Marcus Borg, Karen Armstrong, Richard Holloway, Matthew Fox.  Before them were Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John A T Robinson, Harvey Cox, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

While locally grown contributions – sometimes overshadowed by the volumes of printed resources from their overseas colleagues – have come from such as Charles Birch, Norman Habel, Val Webb, Michael Morwood.

And two books from the many published, which have almost become a manifesto for progressive christianity, are Marcus Borg’s The heart of christianity and Jack Spong’s earlier Why christianity must change or die.  Both emphasised intellectual and religious/spiritual integrity.

Generally speaking, the current progressive christian movement in Australia, like its counterparts in various other parts of the world, is a grassroots movement, where its practitioners are

“refreshingly confident about a new lease on Christian expression that is strikingly different than both the fundamentalism or the flailing denominations often featured in the... press” (Taussig 2006:2).

This movement does not make up the majority of Christians, but as American biblical scholar and researcher Hal Taussig says “some astonishingly new developments with promise for a very different future (Taussig 2006:2) are being explored and developed.  Taussig also says the current progressive movement is not the action of religious bureaucracies...

“(it comes) from an unorganised but broad-ranging kind of Christian response to felt needs for vital spirituality, intellectual integrity, new ways of expressing gender, an alternative to (the) Christian sense of superiority, and a desire to act more justly in relationship to the marginalized (and the environment)” (Taussig 2006:2-3).

But what of our Australian progressive story?  Let me offer a brief introduction to one ‘first generation’ person of interest, who helped shape the ‘progressive/liberal’ story in Australia.


Charles Strong (1844-1942) came to Australia from Scotland.  For some today, Strong is regarded as the first genuine theological progressive in Australia, with comparisons to John Shelby Spong (Gardner 2006).

Ordained into the broad Church of Scotland in 1868, his success as a “pastor, preacher, liberal theological teacher and social reformer” (Brighton Cemetorians) led to his appointment as minister of Scots Church, Melbourne in 1875.  For the next eight years Strong was never far away from controversy and is acknowledged as one of the most controversial clergymen in the history of the Victorian Presbyterian Church.

Strong described his theology as “broad or liberal” (Badger 1971: 51) which, he said, was “absolutely necessary to a minister of the gospel in order to the development of a healthy Christian life” (Badger 1971:51).  Such a theology had several characteristics:

(i)  it was fluid, anti-authoritarian, “being bound by neither creed, church, dogma nor council” (Badger 1971:237);

(ii)  thinks of God as an indwelling, energising Spirit;

(iii)  God was manifested in Humanity – Humanity was God’s ‘Son’;

(iv)  love and justice were always working together;

(v)  it allied itself with science, and

(vi)  it is based on human experience rather than an infallible book

(Badger 1971:285).

Unable to resolve differences with the Presbyterian Church, and with the threat of a charge of heresy for “promulgating and publishing heretical and unsound doctrine” (McEachran) sponsored by a group of evangelicals, hanging over his head, Strong resigned and returned to Scotland.  When he returned to Australia in 1884 he was approached by a group of old friends and supporters

“[who] suggested he should begin a series of Sunday addresses in the Temperance Hall… which stood within a stone’s throw of Scots Church…  At the Temperance Hall, the wealthy, the fashionable, the dissident, the intellectuals, and the many of the merely curious, gathered Sunday by Sunday to hear the leading preacher of Melbourne, whose addresses were an immense success” (Badger 1971:98, 99).

In 1885 he assisted (on the sidelines) in founding the Australian Church – a free, non-sectarian, undogmatically-based religious fellowship “largely composed of religious liberals and ex-members and adherents of Scots Church” (Brighton Cemetorians).  He always insisted the church was not founded by him, but by others, “who asked him to accept the responsible and difficult task of becoming its first minister” (Badger 1971:99).  He remained its minister until his death 57 years later.

While Strong was an excellent scholar who’s teaching and preaching style was suggestive rather than dogmatic – “he was always rational and lucid and never sentimental” (Badger 1971:233) - according to some he was not a powerful preacher.  To an ‘Argus’ (newspaper) reporter on 17 June 1876,

“‘his reading of the sermon could not be called eloquent.  …there was a harshness and dryness of delivery… but the matter of the sermon was everything’” (Breward 2006:1).

But when people came to hear him preach they did so – a thousand or so at a time!  He was the most popular preacher of his day.

The underlying aim of the Australian Church was that it should

“attempt to provide a favourable climate and a home for those who were convinced of the significance and importance of religion, but who were unable to accept the traditional formulae of the churches and a theology derived from the past” (Badger 1971:106).

Some notes from the Australian Church’s own literature reads:

“The Australian Church aims at being a comprehensive Church, whose bond of union is the spiritual and the practical rather than creeds or ecclesiastical forms.  It recognises the principles that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty, that ‘by one Spirit are we baptised into the one Body’ and that it is hurtful to truth, honesty and spiritual life to hamper either minister or people by imposing on them the interpretation of the Gospel or the theologies handed down from olden time…” (Badger 1971:104).

C. R. Badger who wrote the history of Strong and the Australian Church more than 35 years ago, said Strong’s social views and his efforts to reform the society of his day were an integral part of his religious outlook.

“He emphatically rejected the idea that religion had nothing to do with the affairs of this life, with social welfare and economics.  He scorned the notion of religion which conceived it as principally concerned with preparation for an ‘after life’, with ‘salvation from hell and damnation’, and as dealing mainly with prayer and the Bible, with sacraments, services, vestments and sermons” (Badger 1971:108).

The primary function of the church, Strong argued according to Badger, was to be the ‘body of Christ’ in the sense of being

“the community which accepts the task and responsibility of judging all the values and the work of the society by the standards of the ideals of the gospel of Jesus…  The activity of the church, its whole point and mission, was directed to the world.  It was a means and not an end…  The church was not to say ‘Believe this’, but ‘Do this’…  The only essential and significant work and task of the religious [person]… was that of creating here and now a community founded upon the spirit of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  All else was secondary and of little account” (Badger 1971:108, 231).

All kinds of religious phenomena interested Strong.  He was, Badger says,

“an early advocate of the study of comparative religion.  From the earliest days of the Australian Church, his Religious Science Club read whatever could be bought on comparative religion and Strong himself gave many lectures and addresses on special aspects of this study” (Badger 1971:232).

In summary, suggests Badger, Strong’s liberal or ‘broad’ theology

“was that religion is based on human experience and its ‘revelation’ was in [the] human experience of God.  Theology must be worked out from experience and cannot be deduced from a series of texts in a supposedly infallible book, or delivered to [people] by a supposedly infallible church or council” (Badger 1971:238).

While it appears to have been the hope of some of the original founders of the Australian Church that it might become a truly national church, attempts at founding branches in Sydney, Newcastle and Brisbane were not successful.

However, the idealistic dream of Strong and his church leaders did not last.  Huge debts beyond the capacity of members to meet, as well as quarrels and differences of opinion, its failure “to become deeply rooted in Victoria” (Badger 1971:156), as well as an aging congregation, led to the church considering closure in the early 1950s.

However in reality a decisive event occurred before that - the death of Charles Strong in 1942.

After another 12 years of struggle, meeting with a retired minister then volunteer laypeople as leader, a decision to close the church and sell the building was reached.  A final service was held on 10 July 1955.  When all assets were finally wound up a permanent memorial to the life and work of Charles Strong “to enable some part of his teaching to continue” (Badger 1971:157) was established – The Charles Strong (Australian Church) Memorial Trust.  Its current chairperson is Dr Norman Habel in Adelaide.

Badger offers this concluding comment:

“Neither Strong, nor his supporters, ever wavered in the belief that their movement, pitiful and insignificant as it might seem to others, was a movement in the direction of the future and that the ideas they taught and proclaimed would prevail in the end” (Badger 1971:156).


Perhaps some general observations on religion might now bring these brief comments to a close.  And maybe serve as an introduction to Val Webb’s session later this morning.

Religion is a uniquely human phenomenon.  Rocks, plants and animals are not religious.  Indeed, humans are naturally religious.  But is religion ‘natural’?

Loyal Rue, professor of philosophy and religion at Luther College, Iowa, in his book Religion is not about God, contends that religion, very basically, is not about God but about us.  He argues that successful religions are narrative or myth traditions that influence human nature so that we might think, feel, and act in ways that are good for us, both individually and collectively.  Through the use of images, symbols, and rituals, religion promotes reproductive fitness and survival through the facilitation of harmonious social relations.  Rue writes:

“Religious traditions work like the bow of a violin, playing upon the strings of human nature to produce harmonious relations between individuals and their social and physical environments.  Religions have always been about this business of adaptation, and they will always remain so” (Rue 2006:1).

So Rue sets about to show how each of the major religions - Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism - in their own way, have guided human behavior to advance the twin goals of personal fulfillment and social coherence.  Indeed, before and after him, theologians have said similar things: Henry Nelson Wieman, Lloyd Geering, Gretta Vosper, and of course, Charles Strong.

So what is ‘religion’ if it is not about God?  Dictionary definitions are not always helpful as they are often too narrow.  Most claim religion is primarily about the human recognition of a superhuman controlling power entitled to obedience, reverence and worship.  It is only much later in their list do they talk about religion as ultimate commitment or a concern for what really matters.  Lloyd Geering writes:

“Derived as it is from the Latin religio, religion did not originally refer to any particular set of beliefs at all, but to the degree of commitment or devotion which people displayed towards their most important interests” (Geering 1998:6).

No reference to specific beliefs or practices.  No concepts of the divine or of the supernatural.  No dogmas, doctrines or rituals.  These are all quite modern.  At the suggestion of another: we should stop talking about ‘religion’ and ‘religions’, and instead fasten our attention on the capacity of people to be religious.

“Humans show themselves to be religious whenever and wherever they take the questions of human existence seriously, and then create a common response to whatever they find to be of ultimate value to them” (Geering 2007:10).

All natural I would want to claim.  So, in the spirit of Strong’s ‘broad’ theology and Wieman’s religious problem, let me run these suggestions past you… (If we have time we might like to discuss them.)

• To be progressively religious in the 21st century is to see ourselves “as webs of cosmos, life, and culture, so that we and the rest of our planet can continue and flourish” (Peters 2002:136)

• To be progressively religious in the 21st century is to be devoted to maximising the future of the earth and all living creatures whose destiny is increasingly in our hands…

• To be progressively religious in the 21st century is to value the importance of the human relationships which bind us together into social groups…

• To be progressively religious in the 21st century is to place the needs of the global society before those of our own immediate family, tribe or nation (Geering 1998:46)

• To be progressively religious in the 21st century is to celebrate life.

While to be progressively religious/Christian in the 21st century is to also

“honour the one called Jesus, a first century Galilean Jewish sage, nurtured by his religious tradition.  A visionary and wisdom teacher, he invited others through distinctive oral sayings and parables about integrity, justice, and inclusiveness, and an open table fellowship, to adopt and trust a re-imagined vision of the ‘sacred’, of one’s neighbour, of life…” (The Canberra Affirmation 2008).

However, challenging all this is another stream of thought: the current trend to make distinctions between ‘religion’, and ‘spirituality’, and the claim that any ‘spiritual capital’ should not be located solely within religion, especially solely within Church Christianity.  Often this debate has been reduced to a simple dualism: ‘spirituality is good and religion is bad’.  Or, spirituality is the religion you have when you don’t have religion!

David Tacey (Tacey 2008) who has written on this phenomenon, explains:

“For many secular people, religion signifies ‘doing things by rote’, rather than by inspiration.  Religious authority is viewed as ‘constraining’ rather than helpful.  Spirituality is seen as liberating, a quest for the ‘wings of the spirit, upon which the individual takes flight from the mundane’… [On the other hand] many appear to forget that personal ‘spirituality’ is often lonely and isolating, while religion gives support in the form of ‘community’…” (Tacey 2008.

While another, Ian Lawton, who is the founder of, said in a recent sermon “No more second-hand God”:

“I’m often asked the question, ‘Do you believe in God?’  This is my answer -  If by God you mean a personal being who is like a puppeteer controlling our lives from outside, loving some over others and condemning some people to eternal suffering, then no.  If by God you mean a racist, misogynistic being who manipulates people and situations to further his own ends, then no.  If you mean the God who is possessed by Christians alone, then no.

“I see no evidence for this God, I feel no need for this God and I won’t allow this God in my life.  It adds nothing of value to my life.

“If by God you mean an impersonal force that is the unity of all things, a force that belongs to no religion, and is not even contained by religion, the Source of life that resides within me and yet compels me to stretch beyond myself, then sign me up.  I can check that box.

“I believe that it is part of the human psyche to worship something.  Choose carefully what you worship…  If you choose to worship the God of your understanding, and by whatever name, you will come to a place of deep peace and contentment that will compel you to serve the world and be all you can be” (ILawton/3Cccc web site).

One thing seems obvious: the old religious view of the world - often pessimistic and passive, and always mediated - has collapsed and a new one is in the making.  Thus in any Australian spirituality, suggests David Tacey again,

“God in Australia will not be proud, haughty or exalted but, rather, everyday, horizontal and earthy” (Tacey 2000:256).

In order for us to rediscover ‘religion’ and/or being ‘religious’ we will have to learn a different way of thinking.  Living in a time of transition rather than tradition, “stuck between a secular system we have outgrown and a religious system we can not fully embrace” (Tacey 2003:2), the current progressive religious movement is, I reckon, a quest to be both religious/spiritual and intellectual, with an emphasis on ‘lived’ rather than ‘believed’.

But such rediscovery will require a preparedness by Church Christianity especially, to enter into “the most radical kind of deconstruction and reconstruction of the traditions we have inherited” (Kaufman 2004:124) including those considered most central and precious.

Meanwhile, Carole Cusack (University of Sydney), presenter of the 2005 Charles Strong Memorial Trust Lecture, concluded her lecture on this note:

“…it is entirely possible to live religiously while disbelieving in heaven, hell, and all other super-empirical elements of religion.  Indeed… outside of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheistic tradition most people have.  This is what is meant when it is asserted that humanity is ‘naturally religious’.  Humans have engaged in a religion that made sense of life, was based on embodied experience, and was world-affirming.  Garry W. Trompf argues that this is the original and perennial form of religion.  Long may it flourish” (Cusack 2005:10).

I tend to agree.


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