Handbook for the global Christian, Nicholas Birns

The Lloyd Geering Reader: Prophet of Modernity 
Paul Morris and Mike Grimshaw (eds)
Victoria University Press, $39.99,
ISBN 9780864735478 

Lloyd Geering is the most famous New Zealand Christian thinker worldwide, though Christopher Marshall is gaining ground with his recent work on restorative justice. New Zealand has, since settlement, had a more pronouncedly Protestant culture than Australia. Among the reasons for this were: the lesser Irish Catholic emigration compared to Australia; the slightly later founding of New Zealand, which meant 19th-century evangelical fervour had more effect; and the interest of the indigenous people in syncretic-Protestant faiths. Though a figure far on the Protestant spectrum from the intolerant and puritanical missionary Samuel Marsden, Geering’s international prominence as a religious thinker – far outpacing any contemporary Australian Protestant figure – is a postmodern variation on a traditional New Zealand emphasis.

Geering, who was born in 1918, is perhaps the last prominent living member of the set of theologians who emerged with the “death of God” movement of the 1960s. Famously censured by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand in 1967 for seeming to waver from the dogmatic creeds of Christianity, in the ensuing four decades Geering has limned his own distinct and often inspiring vision of a progressive, global Christian faith. He brought New Zealand Christianity distinctly past the age of “dowsers”.

Geering’s versatile brilliance as a thinker is nowhere more in evidence than in his piece in The Lloyd Geering Reader on the art of Colin McCahon. Here we not only have the exhilaration of one New Zealand colossus addressing the work of another, but a sense of where spirituality and aesthetics intertwine. Geering also pays tribute to his New Zealand teacher, John Dickie, and in doing so gives us a sense of how he would like to value his own teachings. Though not seeking a prophetic potency, Geering embraces the idea of prophetic religions, of which Christianity is one but not the sole: Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Islam are “prophetic” as well, the presence of the former two differentiating prophetic religions from monotheistic or Abrahamic religions per se.

The neo-orthodox theologians popular in the 1950s were highly disinclined to see Christianity in the same context with Zoroastrianism or Buddhism; Geering proffers the global as liberating in its cosmopolitan sweep and the capacious arena for debate it provides. But sometimes the global can be less benign and can mean the global terror of al Qaeda or African Anglicans setting up breakaway conservative dioceses in the United States. Is sheer breadth tantamount to an ecumenical vision? Geering at times seems to think so, and it is a hope his readers will likely share, but which circumstance may not allow them to share completely.

Geering intriguingly posits monotheism as a kind of proto-science. He claims that the best aspects of secular modernity are traceable to Christian antecedents, and that both scientist and church people have insufficiently realised this. He is, interestingly, more positive about both Christianity and science than most modern historiographers of either. This may stem from his intense practicality. In perhaps the most telling sentence of the entire book, Geering asserts, “The church does not exist for her own sake. Like her Lord, she was sent into the world to perform a mission, and her mission is to transmit the revealed word of God to the whole world of men.”

Geering is a gifted historian, and has a flair for crystallising complex cultural equations in deft observations, such as his point that both Greek and Jewish cultures saw a demythologising of traditional concepts of “the gods”, which made their theisms critiques of older, more reductive theisms. These in their turn influenced each other in the growth of Christianity, “transformed in usage” what people thought God was.

Geering’s long perspectives can sometimes, though, lead him to commit to paradigms that come across as a bit tendentious. He relies on Karl Jaspers’ idea of an “axial period” in the first millennium BC in which a new level of transcendent religiosity was achieved across the Old World. This idea, made into broadly common knowledge by Gore Vidal’s powerful novel Creation (1981), is exhilarating in seeing several major religions as attitudinally linked.

But the very idea of an axial period is Eurocentric or, more precisely, Indo-Europeanist. It tacitly equates the alleged discovery of the transcendent in world religion with the Indo-European presence in world history, exemplified by the Greeks, the Persians, and the Sanskrit-speaking rulers of ancient India. Geering wants to see modernity as a second axial period. But his pluralistic and non-prejudicial view of modernity, arguing for a tolerance of other traditions that is not just a “grudging acceptance”, goes beyond some of the suppositions implied in the original axial periodisation.

Many of the papers in The Lloyd Geering Reader are occasional, and few are systematic. Part of this is the result of the editors’ effort to formulate a volume that will capture both the range and depth of its subject; part of it is that Geering is not really a systematic thinker. The contextual nature of the pieces, though, is part of the fun of the volume; we see a thinker adamantly grappling with diverse circumstances.

Some would say Geering yields to the contemporary world too much. Literary types have never much esteemed the liberal theologian who is nonetheless a committed Christian. From Matthew Arnold’s excoriation of another southern hemisphere reformer, Bishop Colenso of Natal, to Robert Browning’s “Bishop Blougram’s Apology”, to John Crowe Ransom’s God Without Thunder, non-believers have preferred an old-fashioned affirmer of dogmatic belief who can mount a colourful challenge to contemporary latitudinarianism.

Geering would disappoint these views. Yet it is for this same reason that he has clearly pleased and succoured many existing Christians, who are more concerned to live their faith than preserve it in aspic to be admired from a safe aesthetic distance. In his liberalism and tolerance, Geering is very close to the mainstream of contemporary intellectual life.

Yet both God’s reality and His otherness from the human are what define Him theologically in Christian terms. At times Geering may be too immersed in celebrating the human to grasp this, but at key points he affirms the concept of transcendence and understands why human beings yearn for it. His thought, in its refusal to make spirituality into a form of worldly constraint, evades the extremes of relativism or neo-traditionalism that are most easily defined in the contemporary cultural environment.

More than once, Geering quotes Carlo della Casa: “Religion is a total mode of the living and interpreting of life.” That Geering’s affirmation of human and divine life filled a gap in world religious discussion explains his international renown. If, as Geering laments, rugby football is the “national religion” of New Zealand, he can rejoice that his thought has reached lands where rugby football remains an acquired taste.


Nicholas Birns is a New York reviewer. 

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Posted in Essays, Non-fiction, Religion, Review
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