Reimagining God: The Faith Journey of a Modern Heretic
Polebridge Press, $37.00,
Professor Lloyd Geering wrote his first book in 1968. Fifty-six years later, the grand old man is just shy of 100 years old and has published his 17th book, at least on my reckoning! Quite an achievement, and well worthy of celebration. Those who have heard Geering lecture will, on opening this book, recognise the scintillating clarity which has always been his mark as a lecturer.
I have to admit some disappointment, however. The book is a collection of lectures given to various bodies between 1992 and 2013. Many of the lectures have already been published by the St Andrews Trust. What seems to have happened is that an American publisher has taken some of these lectures and put them together into a book. For anyone who knows Geering’s work, there is virtually nothing new. But it is interesting that the book is published by Polebridge Press, the publishing arm of the Westar Institute. This is the organisation responsible for the Jesus Seminar, which decides by ballot which bits of the gospels are authentic. The Institute obviously likes Geering’s works, and has republished some six of his earlier books prior to this. Thus they have given him an American audience which he previously lacked. So Geering is now welcomed, in some American circles, as a compelling voice of what has become known as “Progressive Christianity”. They have taken the precaution of a laudatory preface by a certain Tom Hall, who seems to be a Los Angeles writer on spirituality. Geering hardly needs a foreword for New Zealand readers, but it reflects the tyranny of distance for the New Zealand academic, for although Geering’s work sits nicely alongside prominent radical and progressive religious thinkers, he has never had the circulation of writers like Bishop John A T Robinson, Wilfred Cantwell Smith or Ninian Smart. Yet, Polebridge Press clearly likes Geering’s writings and sees them as non-technical and very lucid accounts of their style of non-theistic and progressive Christianity. In a way, Geering’s thought has now found a label.
It is interesting to watch the changing legacy of what began as liberal Christianity and seems to be slowly transmuting into something else on the sea of faith. Since Geering first raised his questions about the resurrection 50 years ago, the previous debate between liberals and conservatives has changed somewhat. Geering has progressed with it in a particular direction. He has no time for the polemics of the new atheists with their singular capacity to see everything about religion as poison. His approach sees the evolution of religion as, in some sense, a new revelation. He believes that religion has been transformed by a series of “axial ages” when new understandings of God emerge. For him, the direction of religion is away from talk about God and towards a deeper understanding of the human condition. The problem with this approach is that the evolution of religion includes a variety of trends, and not all of them point towards progressive enlightenment. This was the principal complaint of the scholars who produced the review of Geering’s thought, A Religious Atheist? Critical Essays on the Work of Lloyd Geering (edited by Raymond Pelly and Peter Stuart). As Paul Morris, Geering’s successor at Victoria University, has pointed out, evolutionary models of religion tend to ignore uncomfortable differences in religious traditions. Actually, we seem to be heading into a religious world which is not converging in its evolution, but diverging.
When Geering first addressed the issue of the resurrection and the immortal soul back in the mid-1960s, New Zealand culture was framed by conservative and creedal Christianity. In those terms, Geering was a heretic; but, as he said at the time, he saw himself as a pioneer. I was surprised to see the term “heretic” on the cover of this book. Geering’s whole point over the last 50 years has been that he has moved on, but perhaps the term heretic makes more sense in America than it does in New Zealand.
The book consists of two preliminary autobiographical chapters, five chapters on selected spiritual pioneers followed by five chapters exploring various aspects of science, ethics and the development of ideas about God, while two final chapters explore trends in spirituality. In the opening chapter, Geering summarises his life story, but I think readers would get far more pleasure out of his Wrestling with God: the Story of my Life. The next chapter is a chapter on the nature of God as Geering perceives it and, again, this is much more fully expounded in his Tomorrow’s God. If this seems too much to read, there is a much better representation of his thinking in The Lloyd Geering Reader, edited by Paul Morris and Michael Grimshaw. Moreover, the chapters really feel like a series of lectures. There is rather too much duplication, which might be acceptable in occasional lectures, but not if you read this book sequentially and find the themes in the chapter on Schleiermacher repeated in the chapter on Feuerbach. An editor’s red pen would have benefited this text.
Francis Spufford, in his recent book Unapologetic, has complained of the tendency of liberal thought to simply treat believers of any kind as anachronistic. Geering is aware that the criticism he levels at others could very easily be levelled at him, too. He seeks to explore new issues like ecological ethics but in essence this is no longer, if it ever was, the cutting edge of new ideas. If you want to hear another version of Geering’s favourite themes, read this book, but you will need to look elsewhere for any new insights.
Peter Lineham is Professor of History at Massey University in Albany.