Believing not belonging, Mike Grimshaw

New World, New God: Rethinking Christianity for a Secular Age
Ian Harris
Mākaro Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9780994137869

In 1967, Lloyd Geering, Principal of Knox Theological Hall and Old Testament lecturer, was tried for heresy by the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand – and liberal, mainstream Christianity was never the same. Geering’s heresy was, in the language of the church, actually two different charges of doctrinal error, from two opponents (who did not agree on much). Geering was at this time, as he has told me, actually just “an old-fashioned liberal”, but one with a broad interest across many issues of science, religion, humanism and biblical studies. Moreover, what he stated, regarding both the resurrection in 1966 and the immortality of the soul in 1967, had scarcely made a ripple when said by others overseas. But Geering’s problem was threefold: he made his statements in New Zealand; he made them as Principal of Knox Theological Hall; and, perhaps most importantly, he stated them clearly, in a manner perhaps too many could understand. The result was that issues of liberal, modern Christianity, or what as it was increasingly termed at the time “secular Christianity”, were debated both within and outside the churches, in workplaces, bars, families and the media.

The fault-lines of not only the Presbyterian Church, but those of the other mainstream churches (including the Catholic Church), were exposed by Geering’s statements, his trial and the public reaction. Following Geering’s trial and then relocation in 1970 to establish Religious Studies at Victoria University, many liberals slowly left the church. Liberals who remained increasingly found themselves at odds with a growing body of refocused and organised conservatives. 

Of course, it was not just the impact of Geering; the rise of secularisation in the Western world made distinct inroads in New Zealand society: institutional Christianity was considered old-fashioned, conservative, not modern. As part of this, increasing numbers of previously mainstream Christians found themselves moving, with surprising ease, to at first the margins of their churches and then often, with even more ease, outside the institutional church. Yet, having been raised, socialised and often partnered within the church, the questions and narratives of Christianity as a type of liberal questioning and social force remained for them. What resulted was a group of post-church/cultural Christians, similar to what sociologists in Europe have described as “believing but not belonging”. 

Such a background is important if we are to understand not only where this book arises from – but who it speaks to. For Ian Harris has written a book that, in many ways, continues the work and thought of Geering; that is, as the subtitle explains, “Rethinking Christianity for a Secular Age”, and, perhaps most importantly, in a manner accessible to the non-theologically trained.

What post-church “believers but not belongers” actually believe is unsurprisingly varied and individual, but common is a belief in what they see as the core values of Christianity, perhaps best captured by Harris’s “Credo”, which serves as the gateway into this most fascinating book. These values are a thankfulness for life; an honest search for truth and meaning; a Jesus who challenges how we live and act; a Christ of faith who is an archetype of love, grace and transformation; communities of trust, love and endeavour; and out of and via all these is experienced that called God.

Harris is a member of both the Ephesus Group in Wellington and the New Zealand Sea of Faith movement. These bring together those seeking to rethink liberal – sometimes radical – Christianity and spirituality as a way to critically engage with modern life. A similar movement is the much larger American Westar Institute, which grew out of the Jesus Seminar, that from 1985 has had the twin focus of undertaking and communicating cutting edge, modern scholarship on Christianity, its traditions and possible futures.  Having attended their spring meeting earlier this year, I have no hesitation in stating that this fine, accessible book would find a ready and eager, appreciative audience in America.  

There are those who could seek to dismiss such groups – especially the local ones – as aged liberals who can’t let go of Christianity; but then, I ask, why should they? What they see, discover and identify within the Christian story, history and thinking is something that has not only framed modern culture, but continues to try to speak the language of value and meaning into it. In America, such groups are attracting a smaller, but significant grouping of younger people who view liberal, radical, questioning, political Christianity as a community and thought that intentionally critiques the reduction of human life to merely commodity value in modern capitalism. 

The narratives and thoughts we live out of and among are important and need to be constantly rethought for the times in which we find ourselves. Christianity as a culture and institution is understandably very problematic for many because of its misogyny and homophobia, its abuses of power, its history of support of the status quo, and claims to singular truth. That Christianity needs to be challenged. Harris’s very readable and insightful book has shown a rethought secular Christianity may still have something to say to those who understandably dismiss the institutional version. 

Mike Grimshaw is Associate Professor, Sociology at University of Canterbury and has recently published Geering Interviews (Polebridge Press, USA, 2018).

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