The World to Come – From Christian Past to Global Future
Bridget Williams Books, $34.95,
ISBN 1 877 242 020
Consider carefully Lloyd Geering’s use of the word “Christian” in the following sentence from his latest book, The World to Come:
the Christian nations, made economically strong by both their political imperialism and their advanced state of technology, have not only constructed the weapons for nuclear war, but also been to blame for the selfish exploitation of the non-renewable resources of the earth, for the accumulating mass pollution, for the gross interference with the delicate ecology of the planet.
To what exactly does the word “Christian” refer here? What is its significance? If we are talking about countries that have constructed nuclear weapons and been gross polluters of the Earth, then we would have to include China and the former Soviet Union, neither of which has been notable for its Christianity, and both of which have indeed made vigorous attempts to suppress Christianity. We might concede a point, and generously admit that modern technology and the modern industrial enterprise largely originated in countries of Western Europe that were traditionally Christian. But how many technologists, creators of industrial pollution or manufacturers of nuclear weapons in the West have been convinced Christians?
In fact, until very recently, when rising ecological consciousness caused a hasty re-think, scientific Western proponents of industrialisation, the exploitation of natural resources and material “progress” often saw themselves as being in proud opposition to what they interpreted as the backwardness, the suspicion of technology and the rejection of materialism of traditional Christianity. Check out H G Wells’s The Shape of Things to Come (indeed, check out any 18th-century French philosopher you could name) to see the type of thing I mean. Besides, one of the big themes in Lloyd Geering’s book is the progressive loss of influence by Christianity in the West in the last 200 years, and its diminishing power in shaping public policy and popular attitudes.
So how do the polluting, nuking, resource-exploiting sins of the world come to be laid at the door of “Christian” nations?
The answer probably lies in the questionable theory that Geering expounded at length in his last substantial book Tomorrow’s God, and revives again in Chapter Ten of this one (“Humanity at War with the Planet”). Christianity, in Geering’s view, is “dualistic”. Hence Christianity “desacrelises” the Earth, and regards it as an inert mass to be exploited. Hence modern science arises in the Christian West. So if the polluter, exploiter and nuclear-weapons manufacturer is an agnostic, atheist, freethinker, secularist or other non-Christian, it doesn’t matter. It’s still Christianity’s fault.
Now consider Lloyd Geering as he deals with “The Failure of Christian Modernism” (Chapter 4). As he tells it, churches are shrinking from “left to right” and becoming more conservative and irrelevant to the modern world. This, in his account, is mainly the result of the active suppression of liberal speculation by church leadership. He contrasts the 19th-century ethical-humanist tendency in Protestant theology (Schleiermacher, Harnack et al) with the counterattack of Protestant fundamentalism, and the
Pope’s suppression of Modernism in the Catholic church, in the early 20th century. Obscurantist Christians, in other words, blocked the development of human thought. Nowhere does it occur to Geering that the ethical-liberal school of theology might have lost ground in the churches because of its own inadequacies. In the century of Passchendaele, Auschwitz and the bomb, what price an ethicism that assumed the rational perfectibility of humanity? Was it any wonder that Christians heaved Harnack, shafted Schleiermacher and rediscovered the realities of Original Sin? (Check out the likes of Auden in his later, Christian phase.)
Or consider Geering telling us how we are part of “the total stream of life” on this planet; how “physiologically humans differ only in degree but not in kind from other earthly creatures”; and how we share most of our DNA code with gorillas. All of which is perfectly true in one sense, of course, and may inspire some people to be more considerate of other life forms. And yet all of which leaves me profoundly sceptical. I am mindful of the fact that pronounced respect for non-human life can (note my tentative terminology here) go hand-in-hand with indifference to human life. I remember George Orwell rightly criticising sentimental poets for rhapsodising “poor blind pit-ponies” while ignoring the poor exploited miners down the same pits. I recall Jewish writer Simon Schama’s reminder (in his book Landscape and Memory) that the Nazis had really enlightened laws about ecology and the preservation of wildlife, but weren’t quite so hot with people. (Come to think of it, Nazis quite liked nature paganism, too. “Gaia”-worshippers please take note.) And I reflect that any theory that sees human beings as differing “only in degree but not in kind” from other animals – even if it hedges its bets by adding the word “physiologically” – is a theory that tends not so much to enhance the importance of other animals, as to diminish the importance of human beings. Roll on reductionism. Roll on utilitarian, Malthusian attitudes to population. In fact, roll on the coercions of China’s one-child policy, to which Lloyd Geering’s chief objection is that it “could seriously upset the gender balance”.
Or consider Lloyd Geering’s endorsement of the 1972 programme of the Club of Rome, as if it really provides an alternative to exploitative, self-serving business interests; rather than being a desperate attempt by Western ideologues to cover their own butts and preserve Western cultural dominance. Or consider Geering’s almost complete ignoring of the mass media (apart from one very fleeting reference to television) as agents in moulding mass attitudes. Or consider his account of the decline of Christianity. It is remarkably without the historical perspective that would note the fluctuating numerical fortunes of all major world religions. It ignores (or underplays) areas of Christian growth. It reminds me of Mark Twain’s reaction to seeing his own obituary: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” In fact, it’s highly Eurocentric, given that most of the world’s Christians now are Africans, Asians and South Americans. Or consider this book’s tendency to use the terms “conservative” and “fundamentalist” to mean any Christians who do not share the views of Lloyd Geering (and the Jesus Seminar).
Or consider …
Enough. I could fill another few pages this way, but I’ve done sufficient “considering” and you must have got the picture by now. There is hardly a page of The World to Come that does not yield a simplification, distortion of the historical record, contestable generalisation or weighted, tendentious implication. Couple this with Geering’s habit (despite a very impressive bibliography) of leaning on pop-sociology best-sellers (“Alvin Toffler warns us …”; “Jonathan Schell says …”, etc) and, despite his admirably clear prose, The World to Come emerges as an unreliable guide to the present and an unlikely guide to the future.
Is it unfair of me to pick out individual flaws like this and ignore the overall thesis? My problem is that the thesis is the sum of all those individual arguments, and I refuse to praise the architecture when the bricks are clearly falling apart.
Yes, there is an overall plan. Part One (the first six chapters) is “The End of the Christian Era”, giving Geering’s view of Christianity deconstructed and disintegrating into insignificance, its vital force now spent. Christianity becomes simply one “cultural stream” feeding into the “global sea”. This particular sea occupies Part Two (the last six chapters), “The Beginning of the Global Era”, in which Geering sees a new humanistic, naturalistic, ecological consciousness arising as a sort of world-faith. In a sense, then, this gospel is a story of death and resurrection, but the new faith is somewhat vaguely defined and sounds suspiciously like a code of civic duty (don’t pollute, don’t overpopulate, don’t chop down that tree etc).
One problem with predictive writing of this sort is that it is neither verifiable nor falsifiable. It refers to things that have not yet happened and hence do not exist. Futurology and speculation may be growth industries in our narcissistic culture, which sees itself as the norm for all human existence; but futurology and speculation are still only names for guesswork. In his opening pages, Geering specifically disavows the notion that the year 2000 is anything other than an arbitrary human date. But his tone frequently suggests that he has bought into an expectant millenarianism far more than he consciously allows. Despite his modest statement that “the future is truly unknowable”, he moves often into confident prophetic mode, signalled by the verb “will”: “Jesus will stand among the great pioneering figures of the past.” “God language, if used at all, will be treated as symbolism.” “The expectation of conscious personal existence beyond death will gradually be abandoned.” (Emphases added)
More fundamentally, there is a tension between the declared global perspective of this volume, and its essential Western secularism. Yes. I know. All writing has a viewpoint (even Geering gets to mention the subjectivism of post-modernism for a couple of pages), but just consider the logical gap between these two passages (which appear on the same page):
Just as in tribalism the destiny of the tribe is more important than that of the individual, so the destiny and well-being of humanity as a whole must now take precedence over that of any tribe, nation or regional culture. … This global culture need not replace existing cultures but it should provide an umbrella to cover them.
This global culture will rest on a shared view of the universe, a common story of human origins, a shared set of values and goals, and a basic set of behavioural patterns to be practised in common.
Does not the second of these statements vitiate the first? If values, goals, behavioural patterns etc are to be global ones held in common by all, then in what sense will they NOT replace “existing cultures”? What, indeed, will be left of the existing cultures? And is it not at least a little naïve to imagine that local cultures will simply meld together, without some dominating and taking on a kind of intellectual imperialism?
Speaking of which, I suggest that under the terminology of global eco-consciousness, Geering still hankers for a world Westernised, not by missionaries, but by secular humanists like himself. The Green talk is attractive and timely, but in this context is merely the veneer for a Western concept of the primacy of the human will and imagination. Kind of Nietzsche in conversation with Forest and Bird.
Nicholas Reid is an Auckland teacher and reviewer.