Saturday 28 October 2006

A Great Kiwi Heretic

Such is the moribund state of intelligent Christianity in New Zealand that the biggest theological punch-up since 1966 is shaping up without anybody much noticing.

In 1966 a rather dry Presbyterian scholar, Lloyd Geering, was hauled before his church on charges of heresy. The country was fixated for months on end, and as a child I remember headlines and photographs in the Weekly News, the nearest thing the country then had to a news magazine. Wicked Professor Geering had been reading Paul Tillich, and had the poor judgement to pass on his thoughts in the local Christian press. A horde of Westminster Confession-wielding Evangelicals rose up to defend their insecurities from logic, and all hell broke loose. Ultimately the professor was acquitted of the charge.

In 2006 two new books have hit the country's bookshelves, one is Geering's autobiography, Wrestling With God, the other a volume of anti-Geering polemic entitled A Religious Atheist? from a clutch of university academics determined to distance themselves from his brand of radicalism. Since 1966 the mainline churches have grown brackish with conservatism as their constituencies age and the stomp 'n holler folk defect to the Biblicist fringes. More and more Kiwis are fully secularised, owing allegiance to no recognisable version of Christianity, and staying away from Sunday services in droves. Which explains why, this time round, the battle of the books has barely caused a ripple.

I've never, thank God, had much to do with Presbyterianism, lacking a dour Calvinist background and having a natural aversion to porridge. I have read several of Geering's books though, and found myself in reluctant agreement with much that he says. I attended one of his seminars at Victoria University a number of years ago, but the great man was not at his best form on the day (I had the honour of jogging his memory when he was attempting to recall the name “Feast of Tabernacles”!) To his credit he is one of those brutally honest people who avoids wrapping unpleasant truths in comforting metaphors. I, alas, am still squeamish enough to prefer my own sacred cows to be slaughtered humanely and well out of sight.

The academics might be expected to produce a festschrift for an eminent scholar in his eighty-ninth year, but this is hardly that. Geering is accused of terrible crimes such as monoculturalism and, in a back-handed compliment few others have been deemed worthy to receive, had a new heresy named in his honour, “Geeringism.” As Christianity recedes from the public consciousness it seems a scapegoat must be found, though I could think of better qualified individuals to heap blame upon. But verily, a prophet is without honour among colleagues. Nor was it a surprise when, after being honored by Queen Elizabeth in 2001, assorted Evangelical and fundamentalist ministers wailed and gibbered in protest.

The punters, thankfully, have the final word, and the autobiography is deservedly outselling the debunkers. A positive review graces the pages of today's Wellington Dominion-Post, a tribute to the readability and human-interest side of the story. I'm not in agreement with Lloyd Geering on a number of counts, but any fair minded person would respect his courage in facing down the latter-day scribes and pharisees.

The competing volume, published by Otago University, will be inaccessible to most readers, and lacks the common decency of balance. It's not that the various contributors don't have valid things to say, I suspect they do, but this is a poor way to make a point.

In 1966 the Geering affair made headlines. In 2006 its a very modest bun-fight in the corner, well out of sight. I know who I'm cheering for!

May heresy (of the enlightened variety at least) ever flourish!

Postscript: also in today's Dom-Post is a quote from an 82 year old visiting American rabbi who says: "You should take your old ideas about God and trash them. We're no longer talking about an old man in the sky who watches over us." My advice to him: stay away from those Evangelical Presbyterians!


Simon said...

Amazing how deeply this story is ingrained in our minds.

Anonymous said...

According to Lloyd Geering, the world we inhabit is largely a product of our own making. We supply its meaning. Thus "God," a central symbol of meaning, is entirely a human creation. In Tomorrow's God, Geering traces the collective "drift toward meaning" that gave rise to the various religions and explores the reasons they are now in decline.