Rabbi Harold S. Kushner has had it with the simplistic, shout-it-from-the-rooftops religion of some television evangelists. He'd like to write a book outlining his more complicated, in some ways less reassuring, views on religion. But he's not sure people are ready to embrace it with the enthusiasm they showed for his two books, the best-selling When Bad Things Happen to Good People, and When All You Ever Wanted Isn't Enough.

So he's testing his thoughts these days before committing them to paper, in public lectures and in an article to be published in the December issue of Redbook magazine. His first stop took place earlier this week in a glitzy new restaurant in Greenbelt, his $6,000 fee paid by the Washington Institute of Contemporary Issues, a Seventh-Day Adventist organization.

Religion, Kushner told an audience of about 350 people, is "the conviction there is a power greater than ourselves that sets moral guidelines for us." People need that conviction for four reasons, he said:

To maintain a sense of awe about life. Awe, Kushner said, is the feeling one gets seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time, or sitting alone on a beach for an hour. At a time when life can be created in a test tube, and destroyed by a missile, human beings "need to be reminded that they can do many things but not all things." With that knowledge comes humility, and with humility, an ability to put one's life in perspective and reorder life's priorities.

To affirm the human instinct that some things are right and some are wrong. For example, what most disturbed Kushner about Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork was Bork's position that the law was the law, no matter what. Laws can and should change, Kushner said, as higher moral principles dictate.

God makes moral demands, said Kushner, "so that I as a moral being can be taken seriously. He's there when I'm tempted to do wrong. And He's there to offer forgiveness when I have done wrong."

To provide a sense of community. This, said Kushner, is "what religion does first and best." Human beings need to be able to share their joys and their sorrows with other human beings, and one goes to synagogue or church "to find a congregation."

Kushner likes to tell the story of author Harry Golden, who asked his father, an atheist, why he regularly went to temple. "You know Garfinkel?" Golden's father responded. "Garfinkel goes to temple to talk to God; I go to talk to Garfinkel."

"The plague of the '80s is not AIDS," Kushner told his audience, "it's loneliness. It's why people go to shopping centers when they have no desire to go shopping."

To have a source of strength to turn to when all else fails. Kushner conceded that some people enjoy the first three dimensions -- reverence, morality and community -- without joining the ranks of the faithful. But his fourth reason for religion, he said, can be found only in faith.

"What is the difference between me and a good, honest atheist?" he asked. "When we have been as brave and dedicated as we can be and have run dry, I have a place I can turn to."

As one of this country's best-known pop-religion writers (his first book stayed on The New York Times best-seller list for more than a year), Kushner, rabbi of a Conservative temple in suburban Boston, is attempting on a large scale what Roman Catholic leaders and mainline Protestant clergy have been trying to do for several years -- reclaim religion from the decade-long hold that evangelical Christians have had on it.

"I'd like to find a mass audience for a more mature understanding of religion," he says.

His timing seems nearly perfect. Since the PTL television ministry scandal exposed the seamier side of prime-time preaching, Americans' confidence in those particular evangelical ministries has dropped significantly, according to the Gallup Religion Poll, a survey done regularly by the George Gallup organization. Another poll showed that only one-third of those surveyed had a high level of confidence in organized religion.

At the same time, a majority of Americans (55 percent) continue to claim that religion is "very important" to their lives, and there are signs that overall interest in religion is climbing, particularly among that critical demographic segment, the baby boomers.

One Gallup poll asked a cross-section of Americans last July how their current interest in religion compared to their interest five years ago. Forty-five percent of those between the ages of 22 and 42 said they were more interested. Another 37 percent said their level of interest hadn't changed, while only 17 percent said they were less interested. The other 1 percent was undecided.

Kushner's idea for this third book came following a Sabbath service at his Natick, Mass., temple where, he told last Monday's audience, he had preached to "300 people disguised as empty seats." Walking home after that service, a businessman friend who was accompanying him said that the low turnout suggested "that either what I was selling was something {those people} didn't need or if it was something they needed, I wasn't getting that message across."

Though Kushner's books refer often to God, their focus is largely secular, encouraging readers to reach out to other people rather than simply converse with God. While Kushner doesn't regret that emphasis, he suspects it's time to remind his readers that there's a foundation supporting his well-received life philosophies.

Conspicuously absent from Kushner's reasons for religion is the assurance many pastors give -- that there is life after death. On this point, Kushner is characteristically candid: "I don't know how I feel about that. Where does a soul go when the body dies? I draw a blank."

What he does know, he said, is that a person lives on in the memories of those he leaves behind. Clearly, Kushner has struggled with this issue -- "What we are afraid of is not death, it's insignificance" -- and just as clearly, he is still struggling.

Understanding Kushner's explanation of human suffering, and of the God in whose presence suffering takes place, is critical to understanding what his faith is all about.

The oldest of two sons from a Conservative Jewish family, Kushner, now 52, believed in the just, good, all-powerful God of his ancestors for years. Then, in 1966, he and his wife learned their 3-year-old son Aaron had progeria, a condition that aged Aaron rapidly and killed him at 14. Those years from 1966 to 1977 were a turning point for Kushner, a time when he drew heavily from the Old Testament Book of Job to redefine God.

Kushner thought it through this way: Either Aaron and his family were bad people and deserved their fate; God is not good; or God is not all-powerful, and some things happen outside God's will. Kushner chose the latter explanation, still finding in God a figure who could suffer with him and console him.

Kushner now says more recent experiences have convinced him that his vision of God is correct. To the critics who say he diminishes God, he responds, "Your God wants the earthquake to happen, the little boy to die? Which one of us is diminishing God?"

He insists his God is not "an absentee landlord, someone who gave the world a push and then watches it get in trouble saying, 'What a pity, I didn't mean for that to happen.' " God created the physical laws of the universe, he says, and it is up to human beings to fully comprehend and apply them. "When we are ready to pay cancer researchers as much as we pay football quarterbacks we will find what causes cancer."

In some ways, Kushner's view of God is less reassuring than the traditional vision, for it allows for occasional chaos in the world and defies the human desire for universal order and purpose. But Kushner's God also is more accessible, an imperfect figure who forgives human beings when they're not perfect. If the traditional God sits somewhere up in heaven looking down on the creation, Kushner's God has stopped by for a chat and maybe a good cry.

Monday's audience -- Jews and Christians, many on leave from their jobs -- clearly related to Kushner's vision. "I went through a divorce and I felt so guilty, so shunned, until I read his {first} book," said Ellen Fleming, a teacher from Rockville who had bought six copies of the book to give as Christmas presents.

"His ideas sure make me feel better," said Bill Scott, a Navy contract negotiator from Mitchellville.

"I've probably used his {first} book more than any other single book," said the Rev. J.L. Hansen, pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church in Forestville.

Would Hansen use a new book, Why People Need Religion? Yes, Hansen said, particularly if it expanded on the idea of community, which Hansen sees as the suburban church's most critical role.

"I'd read it and use it," said Hansen. "His writing is not wonderfully profound, but I am impressed by his ability to be clear on issues that have only been circling around in my mind."