Month: August 2018

On the Book Shelf. September 2018.

Published / by Dean Eland

Conversations between members of Pilgrim Uniting Church are frequently about current reading habits and this year we have been encouraged by two publications produced by members.

Geoff Boyce’s book, Radical Hospitality: space for human flourishing in a complex world, draws on his extensive experience at the Oasis Centre Flinders University and reflects on the relationship between faith traditions and hospitality. He takes an expansive, inclusive view in the context of contemporary society and explores both secular and religious practices that produce creative, satisfying lives.  Copies of this publication are available at the Pilgrim office for $20.00.

Judith Raftery has produced an essay of her study of the Quaker community in York UK. Just released, Being Quaker in York in the Twenty First Century, is the outcome of conversations with members of the Society of Friends in the Friargate community. There are many insights about the different relationship members take to their tradition and to current theological issues. Interesting comparisons could be drawn with members of Australian UC congregations. Copies are available from Judith.

Other challenging books are on the 2018 list of the bi monthly meetings of the Pilgrim Reading group. Books and essays are helping members appreciate the postmodern context for ministry while generating insights about public theology practices.

The group began the year by discussing the 2011 book by Charles Lemert, Why Niebuhr Matters. Lemert was guest of the Hawke Centre (SA Uni) March 2013 and the web link to his presentation on that occasion can be found at

Charles Lemert is University Professor and John C. Andrus Professor of Social Theory Emeritus at Wesleyan University and Senior Fellow of the Center for Comparative Research at Yale University. He is widely acknowledged as one of the most acclaimed sociologists working in the world today and hailed as “America’s most pre-eminent social theorists”. He is the author and editor of many books, most recently Globalization: An Introduction to the End of the Known World (Routledge, 2016).

Why Niebuhr begins with a story of a 2007 interview by the political writer for a major American newspaper. A young and relatively unknown political figure was asked what he has discovered from reading Niebuhr. He answered, “I take way the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things.” The interviewee, Barack Obama later became Americas 44th President.

Niebuhr “developed a political realism that refused to sacrifice ideals to mere pragmatism or politics to bitterness and greed. He examined the problem of morality in an immoral society and re imagined the balance between rights and freedom for the individual and social justice for the many”.

Pilgrim readers agreed that reading Lemert was a challenge in coming to terms with implications for Pilgrims commitment to social justice. Niebuhr was a significant prophetic voice of the 20th century and a summary of the group’s reflections are included in an early word at Pilgrim on 3 June by Judith Raftery, “What are we to make of Reinhold Niebuhr?”

A second major study, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good, by the author Miroslav Volf, 2011. The basic argument of this book is that religious people should be free to “bring their visions of the good life into the public sphere“ and it would be oppressive to prohibit them from doing so. Volf argues that Christians are called to work towards human flourishing, not by coercion or imposition, but by bearing witness to Christ who embodies the good life. They therefore need a complex attitude towards the larger culture, an attitude marked by accepting and rejecting, learning from and transforming, subverting and putting to better use. Inevitably they will embrace pluralism as a political project and reject any form of religious totalitarianism. Pluralism isn’t, as some people fear, about “indiscriminately affirming anything and everything”, but about embracing opportunities to make common cause with others of goodwill, and to “rejoice in overlaps”. These insights resonate with many Pilgrims and inform our mission practices.

A new book by well-known Australian social researcher Hugh Mackay, Australia Reimagined: Towards a More Compassionate, Less Anxious Society” is on our list and the author’s insights address many of the current ethical and community concerns confronting the nation. Mackay’s work draws on social research and expert analysis and makes the current debate about Australian ethics and values accessible to the reader. The final chapter, Big Hearts, Open Minds invites readers to affirm or delete his Tick list of things we’d like to be able to say about an ideal Australia. In his diagnosis and positive affirmations there are echoes of Niebuhr’s social realism expressed in the words of Niebuhr’s original serenity prayer. “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”