Religious past, secular present, Bill Logan

Christianity Without God
Lloyd Geering
Bridget Williams Books, $34.95,
ISBN 1877242241

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul: A History 1840-2001
Michael Blain
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 86473428X

This is one of the most secular countries in the Western world, but even the most secular of us must admit that religion has played an important role in our development, and that its residue continues to do so.

Presbyterians never formed the biggest church, but Scottish Otago was financially dominant as pakeha culture took shape, and every political party leader in this country, at least until recently, was led into election meetings by a piper. Strands of Presbyterianism have had disproportionate influence on crucial public debates, whether about secular education, prohibitionism, or homosexual law reform.

And then there was Lloyd Geering’s 1967 church trial for heresy, for denying the literal truth of the resurrection – a conflict that probably had as much impact outside the Presbyterian Church as within. Since then, Geering has remained the New Zealand intellectual most successful at introducing serious ideas into popular discourse. His role in public life is possibly one of the most benign of Christianity’s residues.

In the early 1840s, Ludwig Feuerbach started arguing for a new understanding of what religion is about. In received religion, human beings had always been treated as an attribute of God, as made by God. It was a mode of thought taken to its extreme in Hegel, who saw the continuing historical development of human life, mediated by human thought, as fundamentally an expression of God’s unfolding project. Feuerbach proposed the contrary idea: that God should be treated as an attribute of humans – that we made this thing or idea we call God. This, and his consequent argument that understanding of religion (and other social institutions) should be sought in the conditions of human life, set Karl Marx to turning Hegel on his head. And these ideas are also a starting point for 20th century a-theist theology, of which Lloyd Geering is an eminent representative.

Geering argues that secularism is a necessary, emancipating, and wholly legitimate extension of the Christian tradition. He focuses on historical continuities, where most people of no religion might focus on the discontinuities. It’s a disconcerting focus: at points, Geering approaches telling atheist readers that they are really Christians.

While there are, doubtless, uses in disconcerting, the danger of focusing on our historical continuities with an old world divided by religions is maintaining international discontinuities in a secular world, where those divisions are no longer relevant. If there is something fundamentally Christian about ourselves and the future we seek, then we will be importantly and continuingly unlike those with a different religious past. One advantage of growing secularism is the breakdown of religious rivalries, as Geering would doubtless agree. But that advantage would be undermined by secularists continuing to identify themselves as Christian, Islamic or whatever.

Despite Geering’s clear historical explication, rigorous textual analysis and charmingly accessible writing – and his wise humanity – there remains something a tad perverse about his attempt to place secularism in a grand narrative of Christianity. Yes, there have always been contradictions between Christianity and the life of real people, and those contradictions have in turn affected the history of Christianity. So yes, too, there was an historical evolution within Christianity in the direction of secularism (and understanding that enriches us). But the changes from Christianity to secularism are not merely quantitative; in the end it is the difference between the two approaches to the world that is most significant.

Michael Blain’s history of Wellington’s Anglican cathedral concerns another residue of Christianity – a less benign one than Lloyd Geering’s, perhaps. It is a book of considerable filial piety, telling a tale of vestrymen and clergymen, architects and public figures, fundraisers and donors – a book of names and photographs and sums of money given and received. And it is a worthy chronicle of the long journey a couple of hundred yards from Bishop Selwyn’s first ecclesiastical act on the beach of Thorndon in 1842 through his principal Wellington church’s more or less temporary homes and diverse plans to the building of the new cathedral by stages and, finally in 2001, to the consecration of the completed structure.

And the edifice that is the result of these long endeavours? Well, Blain is reticent, and the conditions of sponsored publication may have made too critical a discussion inappropriate. Choristers and lovers of church music say they are satisfied with the result, but enlightened churchmen talk of the long, narrow, inherently hierarchical design of the building, with the clergy so far from the people, and the altar – and God Himself apparently – even further away. It is very much a monument to the Christianity Geering has transcended.

Said to be inspired by Ragnar Ostberg’s 1923 Stockholm Town Hall (a truly distinguished building), exigencies of economy diminished the plan: some two-thirds of the tower, for example, was chopped off as a result of engineering problems and financial constraints by one of the committees Blain so fully documents. There is something wounded about this church.

Although just across Hill Street from Parliament and the site for various semi-state occasions, nobody would claim the building was the heart of Wellington. Curiously, the more modest building around the corner, which the Anglicans deconsecrated and had to leave behind (but, hardly, pull down, which was their distressing intent), may make this claim. Old St Paul’s has actually become a kind of living cathedral of secular society, where those who turn their backs on the church celebrate their weddings and funerals, with an ironic smile at the symbols of imperialism and old religion that decorate the place.

It is the more satisfying space. This is not a matter of some passing preference for 19th century colonial wooden gothic. There is a warmth and simple grandeur about Old St Paul’s – despite the complex shape, which is the result of various ad hoc extensions. Its attempted replacement is not in the running – 20th century pink concrete gothic, with eclectic, vaguely deco trimmings.

In its own way, the story of the new cathedral is a story of the impact of the secularisation of New Zealand life on capital city adherents to the largest Christian denomination. It is not unfair to suggest that a stronger religion might have built faster, and built better and more satisfyingly.


Bill Logan is a Wellington narrative therapist and celebrant.


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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Religion, Review
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