Questions of Faith
The relevance of religion in modern society is a discussion that extends beyond theological boundaries.
It is fitting that the acronym of the Group for Religious and Intellectual Traditions is GRIT because grit is an attribute its members are sometimes called on to display.
"It's fair to say dinner parties are a nightmare for most of us," laughs theologian Dr Tim Stanley. "Once you tell people you study politics and religion, that's the end of polite conversation."
Jokes aside, GRIT is a research group within the Humanities Research Institute that probes searching and relevant questions about the way religion intersects with everyday life.
It draws together academics from diverse disciplines including classics, history, sociology, anthropology and theology. It promotes dialogue about the relevance of religion in its various forms, how it is portrayed and perceived, and the role it plays in areas of life such as politics, economics and cultural identity.
"One of the things we are interested in is what is referred to as the new visibility of religion," says Stanley, who convenes the group.
"Some sociologists predicted that religion would dissipate, but the big surprise is that it has continued to not only survive, but thrive. In many parts of the world we are seeing a resurgence in religion and the number of people identifying as religious.
"Even in areas such as Europe where church attendance is in decline, belief is still being reported in censuses and values studies, so we are interested in what that means. But you can't get at these questions strictly with theology; you need to inform your research with sociology and history and philosophy and take a broad approach to really understand what is going on."
Stanley was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Christianity and Contemporary Culture at the University of Manchester in England before his appointment last year to the Faculty of Education and Arts as a lecturer in Theology. His appointment, alongside Professors Roland Boer and John McDowell, has further enhanced the Faculty's internationally recognised research strength in Religion and Religious Studies, which received a rating of four in the recent ERA exercise - the highest rating awarded in Australia.
Typical of his work in bridging secular and religious thought is his recently published PhD thesis, which draws links between the writings of a dogmatic theologian, Karl Barth, and an atheist philosopher, Martin Heidegger.
Stanley argues that it is important to be religiously interested, regardless of whether one has a religious affiliation, because religion plays an integral role in society and can't be viewed in isolation. He sees religious stereotypes and media representation of religion as significant challenges to stimulating reasonable and educated discussion.
"An interesting example of this was a speech given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in 2008 in which he spoke about Shariah law and how some of the more moderate aspects of it could be accommodated by British law," Stanley says.
"Unfortunately to most people in Britain, Shariah law means brutal physical punishments and oppression of women, so there was an absolute uproar over this speech.
"What became apparent as a result is that it is almost impossible to have a nuanced conversation about Islam because the media presentation of the religion in the West is so negative."
As a vehicle for encouraging robust discussion, GRIT convenes and promotes regular seminars and public lectures. Themes for this year's events have included Sainthood in Australia, The Dead Sea Scrolls, and Lenin's use of parables in his texts.