Songs from the liberal hymn book, Mike Grimshaw

Wrestling with God: The Story of My Life
Lloyd Geering
Bridget Williams Books, $34.99,
ISBN 1877242365

A Religious Atheist?: Critical Essays on the Work of Lloyd Geering
Raymond Pelly and Peter Stuart (eds)
Otago University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1877372374

The Genesis narrative of Jacob wrestling with God is a favourite with Protestants, in part for its reaffirmation that a strong work ethic will gain both spiritual and temporal rewards. Its other attraction, especially for Presbyterians, is its re-reading whereby physical wrestling became re-imagined as intellectual wrestling. For the scholastic tradition of Presbyterianism runs deep, and it was not so long ago that theological and intellectual competency were seen as a hallmark of Presbyterian clergy and laity. These books discuss in contrasting ways why this might not necessarily be so today. In short, the problem is either theological conservatives (for Geering) – or Geering’s influence (for his critics).

Those who use the wrestling with God analogy often overlook the fact that, while Jacob’s wrestling gains him a new name (Israel) and the blessing of God, he is also wounded. God dislocates Jacob’s hip-socket, so Jacob will continue to carry the permanent legacy of the cost of his struggle. To read Geering’s autobiography is to be reminded time and again of the cost involved in his struggle. And yet I want to add a caveat: his wrestling was not with God, for he is not concerned with theology. Rather his wrestling was always secular: on the one hand, with the search for and demands of community and, on the other, with modernity itself. These costs continue in the critiques and challenges of A Religious Atheist? Here the Jacob analogy could be reversed. For these essays, in a telling way, also do not wrestle with God. Instead they seek to wrestle with Geering. And yet in their wrestling, there is no new name or blessing, only wounds newly inflicted.

Geering’s story can be read on two levels. In one reading, this is a social history of a particular type of New Zealander who attempts to engage with modernity in a post-colonial context. It has the possibility of being that most rare New Zealand text – the intellectual history, a history of ideas. And yet, limited perhaps by Geering’s audience, ideas play a distant second fiddle to the search for community. However, on reflection this search for community is perhaps what sits at the heart of Geering’s story and more so at the heart of his appeal and influence.

Born in 1918, Geering is the living embodiment of a particular experience of modernity in New Zealand society. For him, the question of being a New Zealander is secondary to the search for community among a society living life in a materialist vein. For those who were outside that Kiwi trinity of rugby, racing and beer – which provided the hearty mateship of provincial life – the question was always how to find an alternative community. Geering was a convert to Christianity, and perhaps most tellingly to Christian community. His story is an important reminder of the role that churches played in providing a community that existed within – and yet at a critical angle to – everyday secular society. His is a story of church and culture re-affirming each other, and yet also of how Christianity increasingly came to locate itself in sectarian opposition to both New Zealand society and wider modernity.

The cause of this break is often on a populist level, traced to Geering’s trial for doctrinal error by the Presbyterian Church in 1967. The charges arose out of public statements concerning the immortality of the soul and a spiritual rather than a physical resurrection. The problem was not that these statements, commonplace in theological scholarship in Europe and North America, were made. It was that the Principal of the Presbyterian Theological Hall expressed them in a manner which made them understandable and accessible.

Suddenly, for those of middle age and beyond who were hanging onto Christianity because of cultural and institutional loyalty, Geering became a cultural hero and prophet. He was the New Zealander who challenged, from within the church, that Calvinist, village mentality identified later by Gordon McLauchlan in The Passionless People. Geering gave such liberals a new way to understand their discontent, writing books and giving lectures to help chart their separation from their Christian culture. Most importantly, he made them feel mainstream. For all those within the churches for whom church first and foremost meant community, not theology, Geering’s trial forced a radical split. Many liberals saw his trial as reason to leave the church. Others stayed, but increasingly turned to cultural and political agendas whereby the liberal church became a community of good works and inclusivity. Conversely, for the conservatives, Geering’s trial was a confirmation that the barricades needed to be thrown up against the secular world and modern theology. This meant the broad church in New Zealand, not just Presbyterian, but also Methodist and Anglican, separated into two communities of the elect: a decreasing liberal wing and a conservative, sectarian rump. The ones Geering made feel mainstream took their new-found freedom and became casually secularised and often New Age seekers.

The essays collected in A Religious Atheist? are in many ways an attempt to deal with the continuing impact of Geering’s secular mainstreaming of the broad church in New Zealand. For the essays’ concern is also with community, in particular the role of a traditional, often theologically evangelical community who still, it appears, view Geering as their greatest threat. Their concern, if not so explicitly expressed, is that Geering has become by default the national theologian, courted by media, and recognised as such by a secular government. And in expressing this critique they make an important point. For Geering has never been a theologian per se. What he has been is an Old Testament scholar, a scholar of religion and, most importantly, the extremely effective communicator of other people’s ideas. Yet such has been his influence that for 40 years the only alternative voices that have seemed to gain any wider exposure have been caricatures like the Destiny Church.

As co-editor Raymond Pelly puts it, the concern of the writers gathered in A Religious Atheist? is whether what Geering expresses is true. That is, are his statements on God, belief, Christianity, Judaism, religion, Jesus, secularisation and the resurrection true? Or, rather, have his particular assessment and expression become, as a result of being expressed by “Lloyd Geering”, a new form of orthodox belief for many in New Zealand – and internationally? The critiques, often strongly expressed, are fair ones, in the main – fair from within a particular theological and philosophical perspective. They are predominantly conservative voices that will be read by conservative minds. As such, they are a particular theological and cultural community talking to itself and, in a somewhat fascinating manner, exhibiting an obsession with someone who successfully restates and repackages other people’s ideas.

That there was felt to be a need for this collection of critiques actually points to a problem in New Zealand society. For, not to downplay Geering’s influence, what has occurred when our most influential and well-known writer and thinker on religion is 86 years old and retired from his university post back in 1984? Why has a whole generation of theological and religious scholarship failed to gain a public voice? Is it because of what they have – or have not – been saying? Or is it because of how they are attempting to express it?

In his recent autobiography, the art critic Robert Hughes describes himself as religiously tone-deaf. So, too, is Geering. This may seem a paradoxical label to pin on our most famous religious writer, yet I would argue it is an accurate one. Geering is religiously and theologically tone deaf, but, culturally, he is able to sing with perfect pitch and gusto from the modernist, secular, communitarian, liberal hymn book.

In a different sense, my accusation of tone-deafness also needs to be levelled at many of the contributors to A Religious Atheist? It is not that they are religiously or theologically tone deaf (although many are listening within a limited range) but rather that they are culturally tone-deaf. Their outrage at and challenge to Geering is positioned within a cultural view that fails to understand the causal secularity and anti-clericalism of New Zealand society. Those writing from overseas may perhaps be excused. But what so many of the local critics of Geering cannot seem to excuse is that what they perceive to be Geering’s faults are, to most of those who know and follow Geering, actually his greatest attractions and assets. This is why Paul Morris’ critique of Geering as Old Testament scholar and writer on religion may well be the most significant piece in both books. Writing from the position of a New Zealand-Jewish scholar of religion, Morris pinpoints the liberal anti-Semitism implicit in Geering and his supporters. His essay is an important reminder that secular and Christian liberals can also, perhaps unwittingly, be anti-Semitic – precisely because they are religiously and theologically tone-deaf.

 

Mike Grimshaw is Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Canterbury.

 

 

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