Tomorrow’s symbol, Nicholas Reid

Tomorrow’s God
Lloyd Geering
Bridget Williams Books, $34.95

Reading Lloyd Geering’s Tomorrow’s God, an anecdote about the late Orson Welles kept surfacing in my mind. Welles was doing the standard talk‑show interview when he decided to hold forth on religion. Welles said he really admired people who believed in God, because they had a firm basis for ethics and commitment in their lives. He said he really admired atheists, because they had courageously decided that the human species had to make its own meaning in a godless universe. But, said Welles, he absolutely could not stand wishy‑washy people who had not made up their minds one way or the other. At this point the interviewer was astute enough to ask Welles what sort of decision he himself had made. Welles was visibly flummoxed by the question. He could only resort to a lame wisecrack. Turning to the camera he sheepishly said: “Tune in again next week, folks! “, and the interview steered itself mercifully to other matters.

I saw that interview when I was a teenager and (being the sort of person who plucks morals out of circumstances) I drew this conclusion: if you’re going to start commenting on matters of religious belief, you should be prepared to say where you stand yourself, and where you’re coming from. Otherwise it’s better not to start commenting.

At the very start, then, I have to admit that Lloyd Geering’s basic beliefs and premises are quite different from my own. I understand God to be an objective metaphysical reality. We do not create God. God creates us, and God would exist even if human beings didn’t. Lloyd Geering understands God to be a verbal symbol, a product of the (individual and collective) human consciousness. God does not create us. We create God, and God would not exist if human beings didn’t.

Geering frequently reminds us that “theology, means “Godtalk“, with the connotation that it is the talk (the verbal symbolism) that creates the God. But I would argue that “theo‑logy” is “God‑talk” in the same way that “bio‑logy” is “life-talk” and “geo‑logy” is “Earth‑talk”. It is talk about God just as they are talk about life and about the Earth. That we use verbal symbols about something does not prove its objective non‑existence (or existence either, of course).

Not that Lloyd Geering and I do not share some common ground. We live in the same historical age, and I am as aware of the decline of traditional christianity as he is. I am not a fundamentalist. My world‑view gives me no difficulty in reconciling an objective, personal, metaphysical God with eons of time, the vastness of the universe and the story of evolution. Lloyd Geering is not a zealot. He writes courteously of belief‑systems which he clearly does not share. But I simply make the point that every reader will bring his/her belief‑system to bear on the text. Evaluating Tomorrow’s God is in large measure a matter of weighing the myth within which Lloyd Geering operates against the myths within which we each operate. As Mark Schorer (quoted by Geering) says, “All real convictions involve a mythology“.

What, then, is Lloyd Geering’s myth?

Like Gaul (or the Trinity) his text ‑ some of which began life as lectures in 1992‑93 ‑ is in three parts, of approximately equal length. The first part, “How Human Worlds Are Created”, argues that the “world” in which human beings exist is largely the product of language, which gives meaning. “It was speech that brought order out of chaos,” Geering asserts, and he expands on the evolutionary significance of language for humanity. Language led to self-awareness, higher emotions, personal memories. As a human, evolutionary phenomenon, language not only describes and orders reality. It creates reality. The reality we create is myth and collective myths (“human in origin and form”) are religions.

Parts of this thesis draw heavily on Jung’s archetypes and collective unconscious. More essential to it, though, is Karl Popper’s concept of “three worlds” ‑ world 1 being the presumed physical universe, world 2 subjective experience and world 3 language and (self‑) consciousness. In Geering’s view, religion belongs strictly to world 3, the purely human world of verbal symbolism. World 3 (Teilhard de Chardin’s “noosphere”) is rapidly expanding, first in speech, then in writing, now in printing, computers, the media etc. But it remains exclusively human.

The second part, “Why Human Worlds Are Created”, postulates “a mysterious urge to meaning which has surfaced in human existence”. “Prior even to language”, says Geering, “was … a drift towards meaning”.

Human beings simply cannot live with meaninglessness. Hence our creation of words, sentences, stories, worlds. Hence our creation of religions. Religion and culture are intertwined, the former being inseparable from the latter, for religion is cumulative tradition. The threat of meaninglessness in the modern world (vide Paul Tillich) is thus involved with the breakdown of traditional cultures.

At this point Geering embarks on a brief account of religion and culture. Drawing on Karl Jaspers, he divides human history into three eras: a pre‑axial period, when religions were tribal, national and ethnic; an axial period (being a few hundred years either side of 500BC) when the great “transethnic” religions arose; and an emerging global, secular culture. This account necessarily involves a history of the idea of God, for “of all the symbols to which the human psyche has given birth in order to create meaning, by far the most important is the concept of God”.

Christianity, according to Geering, is built on the uneasy fusion of a dynamic Jewish history‑oriented concept of God, and a static Greek transcendent concept of God. But under the impact of empirical science, and from the pioneering nominalism of William of Occam to our own time, the christian God has been slowly de‑fused. So have other traditional concepts of God. God must now be recognised (or “re‑cognised”, as Geering writes it) as a symbol. “All talk and discussion about God … is really an exercise in human self-understanding,” says Geering.

Doctrinal formulations of different faiths (‘Son of God’, ‘resurrection’, etc) must be similarly re‑cognised. Geering concludes “the traditional use of the God‑symbol … has to die before it can rise to new life as a symbol.”

So in the third part, “The Creation of the Global World”, Geering proceeds tentatively towards the matter of Tomorrow’s God. The christian world is dying and the christian story as traditionally‑conceived is no longer valid. It was christian dualism which separated humanity from the Earth and led to “the desacralization of the natural world and the rise of the modern scientific enterprise”. Hence science developed in the christian west that conquered the world.

But now the modern scientific enterprise (our norm, our myth) is eclipsing christianity. Christian churches shrink from left to right, leaving only conservative literalists practising a “folk religion”. Post‑Bultmann, theologians demythologise. Our age’s great problem is not the demise of christianity, however. It is the threat of meaninglessness. “The very great difference … between the emerging global world and the many traditional worlds it is undermining and threatening to supersede is that they were meaningful worlds and the global world is not, or at least not yet,” Geering writes. Our very humanity abhors meaninglessness.

What then, is the prescription for this malaise? As we more fully recognise all our verbal symbol to be the products of our own (collective) brains, so we must more fully recognise ourselves to be the products of the Earth. The emerging “global world” sees our humanity as part of this planet, not as a separable order. So, drawing on the verbal symbols of all faiths where they are appropriate, we must develop a reverence towards the ecosphere as “the God in whom we live and move and have our being”. That, as best as it can be defined, is Tomorrow’s God.

Obiter dicta, Geering mentions psychologist Viktor Frankl’s famous “logotherapy” ‑ healing psychological ills by giving patients goals and thus creating meaning. His whole enterprise in this book could be seen as an honourable attempt at logotherapy for the community at large. Part one asks how human worlds are created, and answers ‑ out of our brains, out of language. Part two asks why human worlds are created, and answers ‑ because we crave meaning and hence create meaningful symbols (such as God). And finally part three calls for a radical reinterpretation of our traditional symbols to give our future meaning.

According to an old tag, every translator is a traitor. The same applies to anyone who undertakes a summary. In compressing 236 closely‑reasoned pages into a few hundred words, I have doubtless unintentionally distorted some of Geering’s emphases and misinterpreted some of his ideas. In one sense, though, this is also Geering’s problem. Any theory which (Spengler‑like, Toynbee‑like) attempts to take a “long view”, and reason from the vast sweep of human evolution and history, will be in danger of playing Procrustes. Some evidence will be lopped to suit the theory.

Geering partly admits this problem. He acknowledges that he speaks as one who is culturally conditioned and his view of the history of religions draws almost exclusively on the heritage of Eurasia. (The only reference I find to Maori religion is a brief outline of creation myths; I do not think the primal religions of Africa or the Americas rate a mention.) A few of his incidental simplifications rankle. When he mentions the axial phase’s “confident assurance that righteousness will triumph”, I think of the desperate questionings of the Book of Job and the whole “wisdom” corpus in the Old Testament. When he ascribes the advent of “this-worldliness and secularisation” to protestantism’s abolition of purgatory, I ask why, then, so much this-worldly humanistic art flourished in the lands of the Catholic Renaissance. When he speaks of current “folk religion” christians “often looking inwards to their own personal satisfaction rather than outwards to the needs of the wider community”, I reflect on the way all mainstream christian churches now lay such heavy emphasis on a social gospel.

But I accept that I am quibbling here. These are generalisations, which inevitably appear when a grand theory is being constructed. They are as pardonable as the very occasional lapses when (despite observing the very proper Kantian distinction between noumena and phenomena) Geering writes as if objective knowledge is accessible to human beings.

Less easy for me to accept, though, is Geering’s insistence (and it is one of the major themes of his book), that the whole Judaeo‑christian tradition is “dualistic”. He defines dualism as the division of reality into “this‑world” and “the other‑world (the world‑to‑come)”. Such a definition may have some validity, but it is well understood that hard‑core dualism rapidly shades into a contempt for ‘matter’ in contrast with “spirit”. Certainly, christianity has frequently been tempted in this direction (and many individual christians have succumbed).

But as the historical tussles with gnostics, marcionites, manichees and catharas all testify, orthodox christianity rejected hard dualism. By the Jewish concept of a God who is actively interested in, and intervenes in, human history; by the christian doctrine of the incarnation (God‑in‑man and man‑in‑God); by the mediation of the divine in the physical (the eucharist), the Judaeo‑christian tradition rejects hard dualism. Matter is not regarded as ungodly, unworthy, or of no great import. Perhaps it is significant that while Geering frequently refers to the Genesis creation myth, he does not once cite the verse, “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good”.

I was beginning to wonder why so much of the text laid such emphasis on the “dualism” of christianity when I got my answer about halfway through part three. Striving to establish the basis for a new eco‑consciousness, Geering quotes from the famous 1967 article “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis” by the historian Lynn White. White wrote: “Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt for the human attitude that we are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim.” It is, quite simply, necessary to Geering’s polemic that the “dualism” of christianity and the hellenistic conception of a static, transcendent, unchanging God (which has had some influence on christianity) both be played up. Otherwise, it would be harder to show why a move to post‑christian eco‑consciousness is now necessary.

Of the numerous scholarly christians who have rebutted Lynn White (Hugh Montefiore, A R Peacocke, Donald A Hay, Vigen Guroian, et al), Lloyd Geering cites only the evangelical Tim Cooper. And he is cited to show just how “dualistic” christians are!

Yet I do not wish to create the impression that Tomorrow’s God is an exercise in christian‑bashing. There are only a few occasions where Geering’s language assumes a tone of patronising superiority towards traditional Christians, as when he uses the terms “modern” or “modernity” as self-evident touchstones of value. Or when he writes “some, apparently seeking spiritual comfort and reassurance in order to avoid the nihilistic abyss of meaninglessness, are returning to the cultural womb, even if it means they must close their minds …” Rarely does he lapse into the drumbeating tone of a proselytiser, as in “all the hopes, values, goals and devoted service traditionally associated with heavenly places must be transferred to the Earth.” (Note the “must” there.) And I counted only five occasions where he anthropomorphises the Earth. Although he mentions it in passing, he is clearly no devotee of the gaia‑cult.

I return then to where I began. I do not take issue with Tomorrow’s God because of its language or the internal logic of its developing argument. Geering writes throughout with considerate clarity in a text that is uncluttered with footnotes. (There are brief and functional endnotes, and a good bibliography and index.) I am simply measuring my operative myth against Lloyd Geering’s operative myth, and finding an unbridgeable gulf between them.

Believing, as I do, that the religious instinct is as moral as it is ontological, I am bemused that Geering delays any real consideration of the categories “good” and “evil” until two pages from the end of his text. His prescription for our future spiritual health (eco‑consciousness, with contributions from all the world’s religious traditions) strikes me as, at best, the formula for a brief transitional stage towards something else. And I continue to be deeply troubled by that big word “God”. I believe the great majority of people (“unbelievers” as well as “believers”) still take God to refer to an objective metaphysical entity. If, as Lloyd Geering argues in his closing pages, the symbolic word is less important than the values it embodies, then it is hard to see why we should bother using the word at all. Properly speaking, this book should be called “Tomorrow’s Values” or “Tomorrow’s Symbol”.

Elsewhere, Geering refers to unreflective people in a post‑christian age who are “living off the spiritual capital of the past”. Could it be that the use of the word God is evidence of such spiritual capital?

Nicholas Reid is a critic and freelancewriter, currently completing a postgraduate degree in theology.

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