“All talk and discussion about God is really an exercise in human self-understanding,” Sir Lloyd Geering once said.
Reaching the rarefied milestone of 100 years, Geering has both seen a lot of change in his life and been a major force in causing significant change within New Zealand.
In a recent seminar, Professor Paul Morris from Victoria University of Wellington’s Religious Studies programme explored the mixed legacy of New Zealand’s most highly decorated academic and the relevance of his perspective now.
“I would like to suggest that what my accusers have been pleased to call the peace of the Church is more properly called the sleepiness of the Church, and we should be thankful to God that it has been disturbed.”
That was Geering’s response to the infamous accusations of “heresy” the Presbyterian Church levelled at him in 1967 for denying the immortality of the soul and the physical resurrection of Jesus, which catapulted him into the public consciousness as the voice of modernity on matters of religion.
“He was absolutely nodal in our recent national cultural narrative, and he has a significant place in our national story,” says Morris, a student of Geering’s during his time teaching Religious Studies at Victoria University.
“He empowered a whole generation of New Zealanders, within the Church and without, to overcome the challenges to religious beliefs by rendering them compatible with modern thinking. ‘This is what it was really all about, this is the framework and get on with it.’”
But in “capturing the zeitgeist with a functional account of religion as a set of pre-scientific propositions that can’t bear the weight of scientific scrutiny”, Geering inadvertently shut down further debate about religion in this country.
There was only ever one argument, says Morris — what happened to religion and tradition in modernity? It is undoubtedly an incredibly important argument, but it was an answer rather than an invitation to dialogue.
“He played a singular and important role in the religious history of our country, and he brilliantly translated the 1930s and 40s theological discourse into a 1950s New Zealand public context.”
– Professor Paul Morris
“He effectively closed down public debate about religion and muted religious voices in the country. It wasn’t just the closure of debate around religious liberalism, it was a more general closure of religious debate in New Zealand,” says Morris.
“I think that’s an ongoing legacy, and it’s proved difficult to revive those voices. In the main there hasn’t been a religious voice outside of a more right-wing one with a particular ‘traditional’ theological view, so there hasn’t been much of a public debate.”
Another part of Geering’s legacy has been providing a conduit out of the Church for considerable numbers of New Zealanders, says Morris.
Churches were already “in freefall” by the time of the televised heresy trial that brought Geering to the general public’s attention, but his ‘modern’ stance on religion exacerbated the trend by showing people how they could think religiously outside of the established churches.
“Today, many adults are finding it necessary to move to the margins of traditional Christian orthodoxy in order to rediscover a genuine faith — one that is much more than words and beliefs, one that can never be adequately expressed in words, one that is the positive response of the whole person to life, that involves the emotions and the will just as much as the mind,” Geering says in his 2014 book Reimagining God: The Faith Journey of a Modern Heretic.
It’s a similar argument to that made in the 1960s and 70s, but reframed slightly for the modern era by a man who has become “much more benign and rosy in his old age”, says Morris.
“I have been struck by Lloyd’s huge optimism, but the grounds for his palpable positivity are vague and seem to be focused on articulating his belief that in spite of all that we experience things are getting better,” he says.
“Lloyd Geering is clearly a congenital optimist, but what’s interesting is that his optimism appears to be so very Christian. His radically secular humanism has over the decades given way to a much more Christian perspective.”
So is the approach of this “grand old man who’s got a brand new voice” still relevant in the more irreligious context of today’s world?
“He played a singular and important role in the religious history of our country, and he brilliantly translated the 1930s and 40s theological discourse into a 1950s New Zealand public context,” says Morris.
The issue is that the contemporary discourse has “changed dramatically, almost beyond recognition — and while his approach works for some, it clearly doesn’t work with many contemporary New Zealanders”.
“The science that he is so wedded to is already largely outdated and problematic, and the new materialism demands that we think very differently about both our humanism and supernaturalism. The relationships are no longer simply between matter and non-existent spirit, but are now between matter and different types of matter,” says Morris.
However, although science may have opened up entirely new windows on to the base realities of our world, thereby dating Geering’s perspective, the impact of this influential thinker cannot be underestimated.
“He has never desisted from the work. On the 70th anniversary of his ordination, he reported that since the day he was ordained he felt he has continued to minister right up to the present. He has not actually been a minister since 1971, but in a very real sense he has ministered to New Zealanders through pamphlets, reviews, articles, lectures, interviews and his many books.”