Our Common Story: a 21st century spirituality for humanity? (Noel Preston)

  (23 September 12)


Our Common Story:

A 21st Century Spirituality for Humanity?




A paper presented to the SOFIA Conference, Gold Coast, 2 September 2012, by Noel Preston




The title for this paper carries a question mark – very deliberately. “Our Common Story: a 21st   Century Spirituality for Humanity? Question mark, to cover the likelihood that this was too big a project and/or that the idea of a “global/universal spirituality” was really not a good idea at all. In fact it is too big a project – so there is a larger document behind this digested presentation. On the other hand the process of preparing it has persuaded me the project is certainly worthwhile. 


Of course the preparation happens in a context I should briefly explain. Many life experiences   colour the task. Among the immediate life experiences colouring this task has been the weekly day of pastoral visiting I spend in the oncology wards of the Wesley Hospital. I learn each visit that authentic ministry presupposes a sense of shared humanity. Here, presence and listening matter more than words and religious formulae. Compassion is the key. I am also conscious that I speak from my Christian background and primarily to those sharing this background, though I hope the conversation and my exploration is adaptable to those with other backgrounds. I own the fact that my story is part of the Jesus story, though I reject what we may call Jesus-olatry. After all,  Jesus did not say “worship me” but rather “follow me”. It is the Jesus way which matters.  I also speak as a Westerner and I am mindful of the fact that expressions of Christianity (and indeed of the other predominant monotheistic religion, Islam) vary across the globe; so in parts of Africa, for instance, expressions of Christianity are very different from those in European derived countries. In fact, in the South or Third World, far from dwindling, religious revivals are common.





Let me begin with that word “spirituality”. Obviously it is used deliberately in the title of this address instead of “religion” or “faith”. In a sense it is also used to avoid being too definitive. But here is my extended description.


To me, “spirituality” refers to the human quest to live life with a meaning and purpose that is linked to a sense of transcendence, that is, a consciousness that we are part of a reality beyond ourselves. Therefore, one’s spirituality helps shape answers to questions which are fundamental for our species, questions of identity (who am I and what am I to be?) and community (to whom do I belong and with whom do I have shared responsibilities?). We cultivate our spirituality in our “inner life” as we cultivate, maybe unconsciously, authenticity, integrity, hope and love, that is, as Buddhists might say, spirituality must be practised.  Spirituality is less concerned with the external trappings of religion, including creeds and catechisms, and more concerned with fostering compassion and an inner awareness of connectedness to all life. In a sense, spirituality expresses a faith stance rather than the assertion of beliefs. If you like, our spirituality is how we put faith into practice. It is more in harmony with the meditative and mystical approach often associated with Eastern religions rather than the intellectual and hierarchical approach of the Western faiths, while it is potentially more in tune with an eco-centric emphasis which contemporary cosmology suggests. To me “spirituality” implies that the ethical takes precedence over the doctrinal, that is, who we are and how we relate is more important than what we say we believe.


This outline of “spirituality” is not novel. Indeed it is in line with what Harvey Cox in his recent book, The Future of Faith, calls “The Age of the Spirit” where spirituality is replacing formal religion, a trend which has paralleled Cox's own 50 year career as a sociologist of religion at Harvard University since he published The Secular City in the 1960s, a text which was significant in my theological training years. According to Cox, for Christians, this welcome trend, “the age of spirituality”, now means dogma is being ignored and the barriers between different religions are breaking down. A local theologian, Nigel Leaves, in his overview of Religion under Attack (the title of his 2011 publication)   speaks of  a movement of “religious spirituality”  citing the ground-breaking research of Hal Taussig into 1000 progressive faith communities in North America [1].  To these contributions we may add Peter Kirkwood’s international review of cross-faith programs [2].


There is a lot happening in the quest for a 21st century spirituality!



A framework

By way of introduction to the main thrust of what I intend to say, consider this threefold framework of an integrated, mature spirituality – experience, explanation and expression.


(1) the experience of the divine mystery, often indescribable and even unrecognizable, an overwhelming sense of goodness and wonder, perhaps associated with some special  life event like the birth of a child or some ecstatic encounter with nature like contemplation of a starry night;

(2) the explanation phase when we try to explain, interpret or pontificate about the experience and what it means, and which give rise to myths that often subsequently become dogma ; and

(3) the expression phase, which includes the liturgical, communal and ethical dimension where we try to ritualize and live out (or 'practise') the truth of our experience and explanations.

Of course these three elements are not neatly divided. They may overlap and inform each other. I am confident they represent a framework which is helpful to interfaith dialogue as it potentially clears the way to what we have in common and to what is more or less important. My aim here is to consider more closely the 'expression' aspects of spirituality. But right now I want to speak briefly   of the 'experience' dimension, for experiencing transcendence is the fundamental impulse of spirituality. 


Experiencing Transcendence

The mystics in all religions are seized by the experience of what we may call, albeit inadequately,  'the divine mystery'. It is linked to the human capacity to 'wonder', which is integral to the evolving consciousness of our species.  The common elements of this phenomenon have been accurately charted by analysts such as Joseph Campbell and Karen Armstrong. Armstrong refers to an “indefinable transcendence, holiness and sacredness” as “a fact of human life” (Webb, 2010, p.8). Across the ages and cultures, such epiphanies are part of our common story.


The mode of such ecstasy (literally ek-stasis, standing outside oneself) is not necessarily religious   as it was for  Moses' encounter with Yahweh through the burning bush.. The experience of 'falling in love' is sometimes cited to explain the experiential initiation into spirituality. Music may open the door of mysticism; certainly science may also.  It is unlikely that many of us mere mortals will live a full time mystical life where such experiences are the norm.  We may be touched by mysticism in occasional seasons of our life while some may be caught up in what has been called the pentecostal or charismatic movements.


Even though formalised religion has often been the crucible in which mysticism emerges, the history of mysticism shows that it cannot be captured by religious systems. Indeed, the mystics are usually marginalised; their contribution may inspire the prophetic, and fan the fires of reform.     The evolution of human consciousness is marked by such spiritual experience. According to some, we are at a point in the evolution of human spirituality where, as the sage Bede Griffith observed:  “If Christianity cannot recover its mystical tradition in a living fashion, then it has nothing to offer the world and it should simply close down” [3]. The development of the experiential process into a collective cultural experience which in turn may become a 'religion', a binding cultural phenomenon, is usually associated with the transmission of an inspirational story, the sort of stories we may be familiar with in the Jewish scriptures culminating for Christians in the Jesus Story.


Explaining the experience

This evolving consciousness also leads us to go beyond the stories, as we try to interpret and  explain that which almost defies such explanation and interpretation. Consequently, across human history, we have constructed voluminous explanation systems or beliefs.  Many of us, it seems, are driven by a need to believe – and it seems we are capable of believing anything.


To illustrate this we might explore the work of anthropologists who have uncovered the exotic beliefs of aboriginal peoples. Or, what of some extreme Jihadists who apparently embrace the delusion that death in the cause of Allah will take one directly to a heaven of waiting virgins! The history of Christianity is littered with bizarre beliefs also. Apparently fifty per cent of 21st century Americans reject the scientific account of earth's history and the evolution of life. Or consider  some of the beliefs which sustained pilgrims in medieval Europe. For instance, believers with painful dental issues knew to travel to the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Rome, where they could touch the arm bones of St Apollonia, the patron saint of teeth [4].


Might we add to this list the fact that many contemporary Christian church goers  believe  there is an interventionist God who hears and answers our prayers? Perhaps some of us here share the view of Richard Dawkins that this is a fantasy with no empirical evidence to support it. On the other hand, a public atheist like Phillip Adams cautions colleagues such as Dawkins about burning their bridges with such believers [5].  Perhaps with characteristic tongue in cheek he also reportedly says: we should not let “a little thing like God come between us.”


In some cases these beliefs are embraced in forgivable innocence. In other cases they are embraced and applied in a dangerous way like theological dinosaurs destructively tramping across the landscape. Clearly there are beliefs which can be dismissed as irrational because they do not conform to reality. But are these harmful beliefs? Do they matter? If so, what kind of beliefs matter and why and how?


In addressing this question, Val Webb (2010, p.9) summons the story of the Buddha. In the seventh century BCE the young Prince who became the Buddha became disenchanted with his Hindu beliefs. He distilled from his experience how overcoming suffering is the ultimate human concern. The insight refocussed him away from a religion and its multi-layered traditions. As Val puts it:

 “his solution was not metaphysical speculation (beliefs) but a practical way of living here and now...”


To move on; many contemporary authors from the progressive camp, thinkers who would be endorsed by most of us attending a conference like this, are down-playing the belief phenomenon. The trend now is for scholars like Karen Armstrong et al to make the case that beliefs do not matter so much. They remind us that there is a distinction between what the Greeks called mythos and logos.  Logos denotes “the rational”, the provable, facts which are practical. Mythos was story or symbol which helps sustain humans in the face of mystery, suffering and the like. Mythos was supported by ritual and spiritual practice (Anderson, 2011, pp.23ff).The original classic mythos in the Judaeo-Christian tradition is found in the opening chapters of Genesis, the creation myth.


Both mythos and logos are meant to be complementary. The argument is that since the early enlightenment period the two have become fused and confused in the Western mind. The result has been a hardening of what might be called 'beliefs' into empirically provable facts which, originally, they were not. So faith becomes adherence to a set of dogmas rather than a life commitment. Increasingly religion was presented as answering questions that lay within the reach of human reason. But that was the role of logos not mythos.  


Do beliefs matter, and if so how and which beliefs?


 Too often this focus on beliefs impedes the human journey toward  practical wisdom grounded in 'a  spirituality' which is life giving. It creates lopsided faith – faith that constrains experience of the eternal mystery by downgrading the mystical, while overemphasising beliefs at the expense of the way we live (i.e. expressing faith through our ethical and communal life). So the dictates of orthodoxy (right belief) stifle the possibility of a life-giving orthopraxis (right acting). Beliefs that produce bad outcomes matter a lot (if it is in fact the beliefs, rather than after-the-fact justifications stated as beliefs). But do we need good beliefs to promote morally good outcomes? We all know examples of people doing very good things with no religious motivation or overt spirituality.


So, how do we categorise good and bad beliefs [6]?


Karen Armstrong concludes, perhaps too summarily: “(it) matters not what you believe in – and most of the great sages of religion would agree with me. If conventional beliefs make you compassionate, kind and respectful of the sacred rights of others this is good religion. If your beliefs make you intolerant, unkind and belligerent, this is bad religion, no matter how orthodox it is.”


Consider the beliefs of some Christians and their apparent impact on actions, or at least, the way they reinforce the way some Christians live. In a hospital visit not so long ago I witnessed the awful, judgemental behaviour of a group of Christians who prayed for the healing of a dying friend. When bodily healing didn't happen, they blamed the dying woman's daughter because she had visited India recently and fraternised with pagan Hindus! Spot the good or bad belief! What of   'biblical literalism'; its impact is often hostility to gay and lesbian peoples? Or is this a prejudice rooted in a particular psychological fear for which the belief masks the basic cause? What of a belief in the survival of the individual in a never ending heavenly afterlife, or even more so, 'the rapture when Jesus returns' rescues the true believers, and sets things right? For instance, in some situations does that bad belief lead to a lack of ecological responsibility; “let's drill for oil in Alaska with little regard for the natural environment, after all the history of this world is moving to an end?” Another major flawed belief is a theory of atonement which says Jesus had to suffer on the cross so God could redeem us sinners.  Not only does that belief justify harsh judgmental-ism and diminish the idea of a loving god. Even more dangerously, it erodes a sense of moral responsibility by undermining the real message of the crucifixion which is that the Jesus way requires us each to take up our own cross through acting at cost to ourselves in  living, or losing, our lives for others.


In a world come of age, the questions become more important than dogmatic answers. Actions matter more than words. One of the more catchy titles coming out of the progressive stable is Michael Benedikt's God is the Good we Do which he brands as a Theology of “Theopraxy”. Then there is Gretta Vosper whose book With or Without God is subtitled: why the way we live is more important than what we believe. Titles like these rightly suggest a caution:  The emerging church or progressive movement should not define itself through different explanations alone. It is all too easy to define ourselves over against the crazy beliefs of fundamentalists. The greater challenge is to define ourselves through the expression of costly discipleship nurtured in a profound experience of spirituality.


What then remains believable (ie. reasonable though ultimately beyond absolute rational proof) and likely to produce good outcomes?


Of course, by definition, a 'theology” (a logos about theos) will have some understanding of a god. My view is that for so called progressives, the critical dividing line for communities of spirituality and religions is that between theism and non-theism. This is a particular challenge within the Abrahamic faiths.


What we name as god may be more accurately described as 'the mystery in which all life is embedded'; and that is awe-some. Mystics speak in a poetic, though personal, way about their god, the one who is nameless, “I am who I am”.   The divine mystery is not seen as an all powerful god, the all knowing author of all things including suffering and illness, but rather as a compassionate presence with us especially in times of vulnerability.  The everywhere God is an embodied god, the god within all bodies ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’, in much the same way as the mystics often speak of their experience of God. From an eco-centric understanding, God transforms our relationship to nature because the earth itself, Gaia, may be understood as ‘the body of God’. We are embodied or connected in that body. All is one and one is all [7].


My lifelong experience and expression of “god-ness” brings me to an explanation that is non-theistic. Technically it is known as pan-en-theism (which means “God in all”, so God in us and others, in being itself, or “god in all things”).  The type of theology issuing from pan-en-theism is called “process theology”. To me, godness is that power within the process of life experienced as unconditional love (agape) in an intimate and relational way.   Alongside the apparent randomness of life, agape love points to a redemptive purpose within life. As one New Testament writer puts it: “God is Love (agape, more than mutual love like eros or philia,  agape is selfless and self-giving to others)”


The call is to so believe and so act that agape Love in its many forms is the centre-point of a life of spirituality whether we are explaining the experience or giving expression to it. Love is at the heart of what is good religion or irreligion.  Perfect love, to quote the New Testament again, casts out fear which is at the heart of bad religion or irreligion. It is often fear, especially fear of the unknown and the different which looks for the clear answers of bad religion.


To conclude this discussion of 'beliefs', the explanations, consider the following outline. What I call:  'the character of good  theology':


(1) inclusive not exclusive, not just in a gender, race or species sense, but also, in rejecting a fundamentalist mindset, it recognizes that “the truth to live by” may be revealed in varying and multiple ways;

(2) mystical rather than literalist, that is, it centres on an experience of transcendence,  in the midst of life’s uncertainties triggered more by  cosmic connectedness with other creatures than by codified religious forms;

(3)shaped by an over-riding sense of the goodness of life rather than its undeniable tragedy which suggests that life’s purpose is more about celebrating original goodness rather than seeking salvation from original sin.

(4) focussed on orthopraxis (right conduct) more than orthodoxy (right belief)

(5) eco-centric and not anthropocentric, that is it rejects human centred theology, which subtly endorses our species’ destructive dominance of nature through human technology, in favour of a view which takes seriously the intrinsic value of all life;


Our personal stories are woven into the fabric of the story of life. Story is lived before it can be told. It is the stuff of orthopraxis more than of orthodoxy; which brings us to discuss the expression of spirituality, an expression which is consistent with the experience and explanation of agape love and the interconnected nature of all life.


Expressing the experience and the explanation


So we ask, what kind of community, what kind of rituals, what kind of ethic reflects agape love best?


This is the critical discussion for those of whatever faith background or none. This is the point of convergence, where the quest for 21st century spirituality for humanity leads us.


I intend to focus on the ethical challenge saying only a little about the shape of liturgy and community building, though they are crucial elements linked to the ethical in the expression of spirituality.


First, some admissions. As we said at the outset, there is no necessary connection between ethics and religion or faith.  It is also self-evident that good, moral people may not have religious beliefs, while believers are not necessarily morally good. Likewise, “progressive Christians”, who have moved beyond traditional theism, have no mortgage on what might be labeled “a progressive ethic”. It follows that a shared human ethic which sustains life for future generations does not need to be built on an explanation of God identical with mine, though it requires an eco-centric (rather than a human-centered) worldview.


I want to point to an ethic which differs from traditional western religious ethics of the 'thou shalt and thou shalt not' variety. I call this “ethic of response”. It is situational [8] or contextual,  responding to  life's realities,  rather than being based on abstract, prescribed moral rules. With love at its core and, in the best of spiritual traditions as Karen Armstrong's work on compassion reminds us, this ethic is underpinned by hope and grace as we quest for the ideal but falter in our human endeavours.


As well as being situational or contextual, this ethic is relational  and therefore compatible with the teaching of Jesus that law or morality rest on two commandments only: Love God and Love your neighbour. It is consistent with the Twelve Steps outlined by Karen Armstrong (2011) and the Golden Rule so universally recognized by human cultures.


Such loving requires right relating. Right relating of course requires right thinking (as the Buddha would emphasize), though right thinking is less about right belief and more about  a way of being in the world. As a way of moral integrity it integrates a due sense of identity (who am I ?) with a sense of community (to whom am I accountable?). Right relating is a term that has been used by progressives and their supporters in church debates about sexuality, because it puts the focus on the quality of relationships rather than the nature of acts. Because all life is interconnected and inter-related, right relating is at the centre of all  ethical responsibilities, personal and social, relating rightly to ourselves, our families, our communities, our god and to the Earth itself. An ethic responsive to  contemporary challenges  must be an eco-centric ethic, enhancing ecological systems and  living communities, non-human as well as human.  This ethic is also transformative, guided by compassion expressed as social justice. That is, it is radically inclusive and committed to the common good, valuing the interests of all (not just those of ourselves and our kin), and especially the most vulnerable. Complex social policy questions are begged in all this. So, a transformative ethic presumes that when we sign up to this vision we must find ways to be politically active, working for the social and public good because the resources of Earth belong to all Earth’s beings including future generations.


As a social ethic, its macro agenda is “eco-justice”. Eco-justice is the double-edged, urgent challenge to achieve environmental sustainability on the one hand and a fairer and more equitable distribution of resources and life opportunities in the human community, on the other. Social justice and ecological responsibility meet in eco-justice. 


There is no scope here to enumerate the human and ecological tragedies of injustice and threat to planetary life which underpin our contemporary situation. I expect they are well understood in this company. [9]


If you want an elaboration of what eco-justice means I commend to you the Earth Charter and its 16 core principles (www.earthcharter.org). It is a comprehensive, global ethics document which is being used and can be used by all sorts of groups, government and civil society and certainly faith based groups across world religions.  There is not time here to explain the Earth Charter initiative but it is certainly a project which sits comfortably alongside the United Nations Millenium Development goals which both add content to the Charter of Compassion and, for that matter, the work  of Hans Kung's Global Ethics project sponsored by the World Parliament of Religions.


It goes without saying that every individual who signs up to the eco-justice vision of the Earth Charter should find a way to be an  activist. But the task is bigger than political and economic change. It requires what Pope John Paul called an ‘ecological conversion’ and transition to a new global culture [10]. I mention the idea of culture transformation because I am convinced that this is the primary vocation of what we call a progressive 21st century spirituality. This task goes way beyond the reform of religions. Similarly it involves taking up common cause with people of other faiths and no faith, even building bridges to fundamentalist believers wherever possible. It will be costly. Requiring that we take up our cross as the Nazarene took up his – as with the Buddha and others of the prophets.  Indeed it requires that we act to reduce suffering by being prepared to suffer, in the tradition of Gandhi, Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Mandela, Aung Sun Su Kyi (all people of profound spirituality), and for inclusiveness I add a professed agnostic, Peter Singer.  


This summons sounds in the context of a globalising world.  In the second decade of the new millenium, whether governments and commercial interests are ready or not, it follows from all I have been saying that the vocation of humanity, and especially of those for whom the journey of spirituality is paramount, now includes what we might term “the Vocation of Global Citizenship”;  our responsibility to each other in the human family has never been clearer though the specifics of our eco-justice response may vary across the generations. For example, those who are of my generation might, among other strategies, prepare their last will and testament so that it reflects our commitment to eco-justice.


It has been said that there is one Earth but there is not one world. For the sake of the community of life on Earth we need to move toward being one world, that is, being a global community. This imperative should not gloss over cultural differences; indeed the multicultural character of global citizenship is a point of enrichment. We will, and must, continue to organise our lives in local communities, nations and regions – as a complement to the global organisation of our life together.

In the words of the Earth Charter preamble: “We are at once citizens of different nations and of one world in which the local and global are linked.”


There is, of course, something so profound about this call to global citizenship that it goes deep, to the heart, to the spirit within. Many secular prophets of our time from David Suzuki to Bob Brown have openly declared that, to meet the eco-justice challenges of our time, humanity must adopt a more humble, reverential ethos, grounded spiritually (which I term “eco-spirituality”). Listen to the scientist Fritjof Capra:


Ultimately, deep ecological awareness is spiritual or religious awareness. When the concept of the human spirit is understood as the mode of consciousness in which the individual feels a sense of belonging, of connectedness, to the cosmos as a whole, it becomes clear that ecological awareness is spiritual in its deepest sense. [11]


So the agenda is very clear. We can be sure that Earth herself will be our ally in this cause just as we will suffer as Earth suffers, or come to life as our earth mother does. 


Now let's give more content to what we mean by “eco-spirituality”. First, we need to acknowledge that a movement which gives birth to eco-spirituality is of necessity diverse and eclectic, even  messy, while spanning generations and cultures.


 Here is my summary statement of what we mean by eco-spirituality.  Eco-spirituality is a practice which arises from our connection to all beings and Earth herself; this spirituality focuses our commitments and relationships, fostering a sense of intimacy with the ever present spirit of life; it is  centred on compassion which is all inclusive and empowering, drawing on communal wellsprings that are both contemplative and prophetic; it is a spirituality which challenges the illusions which easily capture us – that consumerism makes us happy or even that there is a god out there who will save us; it is also a spirituality which accepts the limitations and possibilities of life, aiming for realistic outcomes inspired by ideals.  Eco-spirituality is a necessary companion in working for eco-justice, a work that is costly. In the quest for a balance that is in harmony with the Earth, eco-spirituality calls us to live graciously, act justly, love all beings tenderly and walk humbly with the Spirit of life, sure in the faith that it is the meek who inherit the earth. [12]


Of course it is happening. And it is not really a new happening though the realisation of our common global destiny is at a new stage in human history.


One of the many pioneers on this journey to a spirituality which is eco-centric was Albert Schweitzer, a great humanitarian Christian of the nineteenth century. Indeed, though he emerged from a culture of imperialism which we now reject, his life story illustrates his pivotal contribution in the quest for a spirituality for humanity. As a theologian, his work revolutionized scholarship about the roots of Christianity. As a musician he became the foremost European exponent of Bach's organ compositions. Notwithstanding all this, in his early mid-life, his vocation took him to medical school and eventually to Africa as a medical missionary for the rest of his life. It was Schweitzer who coined the key ethical phrase, “reverence for life”. It is very close to what Karen Armstrong describes as 'compassion'.


The phrase came to him in Africa as he was on the third day of a wearying journey, on an island in the middle of a wide river. He noticed across to his left, on a sandbank, four hippopotamuses with their young plodding along in his direction. He must have felt a sudden sense of kinship with these great hulking creatures lumbering to their destination.


“Just then”, writes Schweitzer, “in my great tiredness and discouragement, there flashed upon my mind, unforeseen and unsought, the phrase, ‘reverence for life’… Now I had found my way to the idea in which the affirmation of the world and ethics are contained side by side…only by means of reverence for life can we establish a spiritual and humane relationship with both people and all living creatures within our reach.


Rachel Kohn [13] comments on this experience of Schweitzer’s, noting that he was sceptical of mysticism. Nevertheless his experience demonstrates the ultimate connection of spiritual experience with the ethical life. Schweitzer himself went on to say in his reflections on this moment that living reverence for life ultimately results in “a mystical union with the Universal Spirit” putting one in harmony with “the Creative Will.” [14]


When theology and ethics are centred on the earth and its community of life, and belief in god is no longer theistic, what implications are there for personal prayer, public worship and communal expressions of faith? Moreover, how is 'the inner life' of practitioners of eco-theology nurtured? These are core questions for eco-spirituality. In a theistic paradigm, prayer is dialogue with the divine being in the expectation that interventionist answers might follow which, for instance, alter the course of natural events like diseases. For pan-en-theists, the idea of intercessory prayer is clearly problematic, just as the idea of singing praises to one’s god might be. Prayer is less about crying out to a god and more about seeking a state of union with the spirit of life and love.  So understood, prayer is living in a way that seeks connectedness with all beings. The practice of meditation is likely to be an important component of this spirituality, especially as it nurtures   compassion and insight. Establishing suitable eco-spirituality rituals, (what I call 'celebrations of being'), may be an element of this, though rituals like “grace” at the family meal table can be a simple start, as we focus on how what we eat expresses the interdependence of all life forms. Different pathways will suit different people at different stages of their lives. Some might find   practices built around communal activity more suitable, while others are nurtured by solitude; some might be enriched more by an innovative use of symbols while others respond to the challenge of inspirational writings or music; some might be awakened to a sense of connectedness to nature by getting down and dirty in the garden while others are awakened by illness which helps them discover how they are embodied and connected to all bodies.


Embracing liturgy, ritual, practical ethics, eco-spirituality can nurture communities and the evolution of a new human consciousness. The resources for communities centre-ing their life around the vision of eco-spirituality are multiplying, but I can assure you from my own local sampling of  religious gatherings, there are many church congregations who have not been touched by  ecological conversion. 'Greening the church' is a good but insufficient  goal.


As examples of how ecological conversion might transform the way contemporary Christian denominations conduct liturgy, consider  the  two sacraments central to most Christian worship. The eucharist (a term which literally means ' thanksgiving') has its magnificent passing of the peace and shared cup, which profoundly marks the essence of not merely the Jesus story or the human story but also the story of life. So at St Mary's in exile, the eucharistic liturgy includes this expression: “You have woven an intimate tapestry and called it life and called it good. In love you formed a universe, diverse yet related. To you, each of us, as each blade of grass and each star, is an irreplaceable treasure, a companion on this journey of love.”


Or baptism. Consider how it must become a celebration of new life, pointing to the possibility of becoming part of the Jesus story (as I would put it, rather than initiation into the church or the washing away of original sin). Beyond that, each baptism should be a welcome into the human story, as Ted Noffs, of Wayside Chapel fame, used to say on behalf of those he baptised: “I am a child of the stars. My religion, like the clothes I wear, will one day belong to the dust of the centuries. My spirit is immortal and belongs to the universe…I am a part of all religions, past, present and future, because I am a human being and nothing in the world can be alien to me…”


Transformed, these sacraments are then more likely to form and give expression to the urgent task  for people like us to act as if we are all related in one world .



We have been painting a broad canvass very quickly, and I apologise if the diet is difficult to digest (forgive the metaphor mixing). But it has brought us, through the framework of spirituality as experience, as explanation and mainly as expression, to the question posed in the advertised title of this session.



What then of a 21st century spirituality for humanity?


The building blocks for our common spirituality are the stories common to us all in the story of life: the history of the universe, the five billion year story of life on earth, the story of homo sapiens including its various faith traditions.



A common spirituality is ultimately essential if life on earth is to be sustainable and just. And that is the responsibility facing our species as a whole. On the other hand, uniformity of belief is unlikely,   while the idea of a global religion, ie. one that is truly catholic, is undesirable. Indeed, the last thing we want is a global theocracy. Rather, as our global governance institutions evolve we need to remember the critical importance of secular, liberal democracy and the preservation of freedom of speech and so on. Otherwise, the possibility of creative spirituality flourishing would be diminished.


Lloyd Geering has always been ahead of his time, and still is. In 1999, at the turn of the millenium, when he was well into his eighties he wrote “The World to Come”, subtitled “from Christian past to global future”. He forecast the end of religion as we know it and rightly argues that religion's future will be tied to our common global destiny and a global culture which “will rest on a shared view of the universe, a common story of human origins, a shared set of values and goals, and a basic set of behavioural patterns to be practised in common”. He is uncertain about the precise future of spirituality and religion but he is certain that it will be radically different from the past – I presume there will be no place for Cardinals, for instance.  He affirms that the basic driving sense for this future spirituality will be one of awe and gratitude about life itself and the vast and wondrous awareness of the Universe story. Indeed his analysis implies that nothing can stop this shift (1999, pp.158-9).


When I was preparing this paper I happened to see a film which spoke to the task I was undertaking. Set against the backdrop of a war-torn country, perhaps Lebanon, the film Where do we go now  is the heart warming tale of a village peopled by Muslims and Christians. The men of the village threaten to let the divisive violence of the outside war invade their town but the women are determined to stop this. They employ several strategies (aided by the local Imam and Christian priest it should be said).  Some of these strategies are quite humorous. One was to swap religions so that the Christian men woke up one day to find their wives in Islamic garb and vice versa for the Muslim men, thus exposing how the superficial garb of religion hid their common humanity. In other words, in the film they avert violence, seemingly by swapping their religion, trading their beliefs for a good outcome. The movie ends with a funeral of a young man caught in crossfire in the battles outside their town. So, Muslims and Christians together process to the town cemetery. As they arrive in the graveyard they are confronted by the division of the cemetery into an area for Muslims and an area for Christians. The mourners and the pallbearers are confused. To which part of the graveyard do they belong? They stumble, they turn back, and someone cries out (as in the title of the film) : where do we go now?


The movie allegorises the dilemma which confronts people of religious belief who come to realise that their tradition is neither special nor unique. The puzzle is – how can religions engage to produce peace and justice and a sustainable world? Will religion get in the road or facilitate? Probably both, but I do worry about conventional and official dialogue between the apparatchiks and theologically schooled leaders of denominations. I worry about outcomes that are more words and minimal agreements. I am more interested in the possibilities of dialogue between progressives as people of all faiths who are willing to sign up to the agenda of compassion, eco-justice and eco-spirituality.


Meanwhile, while this shift is happening, Where do we go now? What do we do now? Well I think Karen Armstrong has chosen the fundamental pathway, named in the charter of compassion, a simple idea which represents a huge challenge and the Earth Charter describes it.


But I have one last question.



So what?  : A Conclusion



The recently published, Australian Book of Atheism, contains an article in it by Alex McCullie “Progressive Christianity: a Secular response” [15]. McCullie briefly surveys the work of Borg, Crossan and Spong, as well as Australians Val Webb and Francis McNab. He explores this movement’s key ideas about God, Jesus, the Bible and ethics. Whilst sympathetic to some of the movement's ethical aims, McCullie observes that it has “effectively denuded Christianity” and he suggests that in denying the Christ of faith (McCullie's term) it has “jettisoned the raison d'etre of Christianity”. So, this atheist critic asks the ‘so what’ question:


“Why bother with any form of Christianity? ….It seems that Progressive Christianity would appeal to the committed but disaffected Christians only, leaving aside the vast majority of us – the religiously indifferent.”


Why bother??? A good question – why bother reconstructing faith? Why bother coming to conferences like this? Why bother hanging in with any church community working on the edge of their tradition?


I imagine there could be a variety of answers and overlapping reasons we might give Alex Mc Cullie in this company. One way of answering the “why bother” question is that we play a sort of pretend game: “act as if you believe because it expresses something worthwhile [16].”


For myself, I know I need a better response than that. Though it may sound elitist, as a theologically and spiritually formed non-theist, I need to answer the 'why bother question' with a conviction that translates into reality. The answer from my gut and heart is; 'Here I must stand. This is who I am, who we are'. So I need to join others, expressing their faith journey differently from the mainstream, where one doesn't have to pretend, and one is committed primarily to building a better world.  Hence I need this sort of gathering, the St Mary's in exile community, and other communal experimentations which are important to me. I acknowledge that, generally, these associations lead to a practical divorce from  conventional and orthodox, maybe confessing, faith communities. (At the same time I must acknowledge that in mainstream congregations and in interfaith dialogues the five crucial hall marks identified in Hal Taussig’s research into progressive experiments in North American religion - spiritual vitality, intellectual integrity, transgressing gender barriers, vitality without superiority, and justice and ecology - are taking root. )


So, “Why bother?” This is my (head) response to Mc Cullie and the religiously indifferent; it is actually a summary of what I want this paper to convey:  “If I seek to cultivate an ethical life, a good life which is loving and life sustaining and committed to the common good, a compassionate life, I need to nurture inner resources and I need the support of a community. But I sense there is more: namely, the need to celebrate the wondrous mystery we are part of. All of this is consistent with the Jesus story as I have come to understand it.”


You see, for me, and, I would argue, for McCullie’s ‘religiously indifferent’ as well, the backdrop to the 'why bother question' is the urgent global challenge of eco-justice.   If the line I have been taking through this paper is valid, when eco-justice becomes the agenda, the question (why bother?) more or less answers itself. In a word, eco-spirituality necessarily nurtures those who would take up this challenge; it is the bridge of practice and faith which can have appeal across all humanity. It represents hope in our common future, hope for the evolution of human consciousness toward that which faithfully represents the best wisdom from our common past.


Anyway, this is the boat I am on and I know I am not alone, and I invite others to come aboard [17].  I also realise there are other boats heading in the same direction. Let’s travel together.



As a post-script, I want to give Gretta Vosper the last word. She may not be regarded as the most scholarly of voices in the progressive Christianity movement but she speaks with profound pastoral concern, and with the authority of one who is practising what she preaches. In addition, she speaks for a younger generation than mine.


Whether non-theistic religious gatherings can thrive and survive is anyone's guess. We are in the midst of a great experiment. I fervently believe that we need to see the experiment through to the end, giving our all to the creation of communities of “faith” that celebrate the communal nature of life and challenge us to engage in right relationships with self, others and the planet. There is much that depends on the survival of love. If we transform church into a vessel in which love can be held, shared, and offered to the world, then we will have been successful. And if we find along the way that church is not necessary to the work of making love known and teaching one another  ways in which it can be lived out radically, ethically, beautifully, then we will be able to let church go and face a world without it with confidence and grace (2008).










Rev Dr Noel Preston AM







Adams P (2010)   Address to Atheists' Convention, Melbourne


Armstrong K (2009) The Case for God, London: The Bodly Head


Armstrong K (2011) Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life,  London: The Bodly Head.


Birch C (1990) On Purpose, UNSW Press


Birch C (2008) Science and Soul, UNSW Press


Boulton D (2005) The Trouble with God,  John Hunt Publishing, UK


Cox H (2009) The Future of Faith, Harper Collins


Dawkins R (2006)   The God Delusion, Bantam Press


de Botton A (2012)  Religion for Atheists, Hamish Hamilton


Geering L (1999) The World to Come: from Christian past to global future, Polebridge Press


Harris S (2006)  Letter to a Christian Nation, Bantam Press


Holloway R (2005) Doubts and Loves : what is left of Christianity , Canongate


Hunt R and Smith J (eds) (2012) We Weren't Told  Polebridge Press  (forthcoming)


Kirkwood P (2007) The Quiet Revolution,   ABC Books


Kohn R (2003) The New Believers: re-imagining God, HarperCollins Publishers.


Leaves N (2011)   Religion Under Attack, Polebridge Press


Madden L (ed) (1992) The Joseph Campbell Phenomenon, The Pastoral Press


Millikan D The Liberal Experiment and the Culture of Uncertainty (publishing details not discovered)


O'Murchu D (2000) Religion in Exile, Gateway


O'Murchu D (2011) Adult Faith: Growing in Wisdom and Understanding, Orbis Books


Porritt J (2006) Capitalism as if the Earth matters, Earthscan


Preston N (2003) Exploring Eco-Justice, The Felix Arnett Lecture, St Francis' College, (Occasional Paper No. 15)


Preston N (2006) Beyond the Boundary, Zeus


Preston N (2007) (3rd ed.) Understanding Ethics, Federation Press


Schwartzentruber M (ed) (2006) The Emerging Christian Way, Copperhouse


Sanguin B (2007) Darwin Divinity and the Dance of the Cosmos: an ecological Christianity, Copperhouse


Tacey D (2003) The Spirituality Revolution, HarperCollins


Thompson G (2011) “Progressive Christianity: Testing its Arguments” Uniting Theology and Church, Issue 5 Feb 2011


Vosper G (2008)  With or Without God, Harper Perennial


Webb V (2010) Reinventing the Sacred: the Baby, Bath water and the Bath (unpublished Address to Sydney CPRT)





































[1]Taussig H (2006) A New Spiritual Home: progressive Christianity at the grassroots, Santa Rosa CA: Polebridge Press).

[2]See the Bibliography for details of Nigel Leaves and Peter Kirkwood's  books

[3] Reported by Matthew Fox p 136 in  Madden(ed) 1992)

[4]Alain de Botton, 2012  p.271

[5]In a speech to the Global Atheists' Convention, Melbourne, 12 March 2010

[6]I am more interested in understanding faith as a way of seeing and trusting reality...which, in turn, supports a way of living with integrity and authenticity. In my own case I recognise that I cannot dispense with 'beliefs' altogether, even if their 'truth' is metaphorically rather than literally true. As a traveller in the new millenium, my faith must be credible, intellectually sustainable and coherent with contemporary cosmological understanding. (Noel Preston (2006), Beyond the Boundary, Zeus Publications, p.291)


[7] Of course belief about life after death for human beings has been a major preoccupation of religions. As one formed by process philosophy my account of this question is more or less as follows:  We die into the eternally bounteous God, Being itself, and the wider space of creative love (paraphrasing Jurgen Moltmann). I also resonate with the Hindu Scripture:

            As flowing rivers merge in the sea and become one with it,

            forgetting they were ever separate streams,

            so do all creatures loose their separateness when they merge at last into pure Being.


[8]     Some  may recall the kerfuffle in the 1960s when an Episcopalian priest named Joseph Fletcher published Situation Ethics which spelt out Christian Ethics from the point of view of a contextual or situational ethic, one that seeks to find a fitting response for each situation and avoids prescriptive moral judgments. Fletcher was dismissed by many as a relativist and a libertine but he was pointing to what I would argue is the style , shape and content of a more credible ethic. Situation ethics speaks of love as the determining calculating principle. Fletcher sums up his key thesis by quoting a former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple: ‘There is only one ultimate and invariable duty, and its formula is “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”…this is the whole of moral duty.’ We might add, this is a demanding ethic, for loving in the sense of agape (or eros for that matter) is very difficult to do and to discern in particular situations.

[9]     Understanding Ethics chs 11 and 12.

[10] For further discussion of the eco-centric global culture I refer to the September 2007 issue of Social Alternatives on “Global Ethics”.

[11] cited Porritt p 300

[12]    Adapted from Preston, N, Felix Arnett Lecture 2002

[13]    R Kohn (2003) pp.182-3. Her quotations of Albert Schweitzer are from   Out of my Life and Thought , Myer and Burgel, eds. P. 273 and 132-3

[14]    For the Buddhist framework linking mysticism and ethics see Armstrong (2011, pp33ff,)

[15] Warren Bonett(ed) The Australian Book of Atheism (Melbourne:Scribe, 2010, 211). I owe this reference to Geoff Thompson (2011)

[16] Which is the point, as I understand it, of David Boulton's position (2005) Then there is Alain de Botton's approach in Religion for Atheists (and his plan to build secular Temples for Promoting Virtue) which he concludes saying p.311: “The essence of the argument presented here is that many of the problems of the modern soul can successfully be addressed by solutions put forward by religions. Once these solutions have been dislodged from the supernatural structure within which they were first conceived.”

            Some justifications for 'bothering' might boil down to: “I keep hanging in with a conventional traditional group who have different beliefs to mine because I acknowledge our common roots and I know some others in my community who are on different points of the journey than I, but I honour the fact that they are also on a moving faith journey.” Some of us who are aware of the cross generational challenge of all this – we worry about what kind of church and belief we are leaving to the future. We might observe “even if our kids have rejected church we want to them to know that, while we disown much of the ecclesiastical baggage, we want them to know that we take spirituality seriously”.


[17]    I echo the following quotation: “Others who have lived through the same period, the transition from late modernity to postmodernity, from the twilight of the old gods to the secular age in which God is dead but won’t lie down, will surely recognise something of my own experience in their own. We may not all be in the same boat, but I’m pretty sure I am no lone yachtsman.” (David Boulton 2002 The Trouble with God, John Hunt Publishing Co., p.70)


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