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Book review: Geering a religious athiest?

A Religious Atheist? Critical Essays on the Work of Lloyd Geering

edited by Raymond Pelly and Peter Stuart, Otago University Press 2006 Pp 205 RRP: $39.95

Reviewer: Msgr John Broadbent

For decades, Professor Lloyd Geering has bestrode the stage of religion in New Zealand and beyond. So the media in particular has sought him out as the guru of modern religions especially Christianity. Many Christians have winced and disagreed with many of his conclusions often mixed with pertinent observations. Some have asked: ‘Does this man believe in God really?’

As an answer to this, two theologians have edited a comprehensive and able collection of essays as a critique of this highly intelligent teacher which is long overdue. There have been, of course, written criticisms before; but this book includes assessment of his thought development over the last 15 years.

The editors have no doubt about Lloyd Geering’s integrity: ‘We take it for granted that his integrity, courage, and well earned status as a New Zealand icon are not in question’ (p. 9). However, ‘we reject the stereotyping (or polarisation) of religious debate – which Geering tends to adopt – as a zero-sum game between liberals and fundamentalists, between realists and non-realists, with nothing in between’ (p.10).

Raymond Pelly writes the first essay with a critical reading of Geering’s writings. Pelly characterises him as a secular ideologue rather than a theologian, a theologian being one who offers discourse about God. The strength of Geering’s stance lies in its generalising and quasi-prophetic reading of history, its weakness in detachment and lack of earthly engagement, a penchant for over-simplification, and a general unwillingness to enter into a dialogue with people who have other perspectives.

Pelly makes telling points illustrating each of those opinions. Pelly concludes by asking whether his method, confined as it is to a limited vocabulary and scientific rationalism, can ever deliver a person-centred ethics or an engagement with the natural environment that includes a sense of the sacred. His answer is ‘no’.

Kai Man Kwan’s asks in the second essay, ‘Are Religious Beliefs Human Projections?’ and tackles Geering’s assertion that the word ‘God’ does not refer to any external reality, but is merely a symbol for the highest human values. In Kwan’s opinion, he is a liberal theologian who has gradually turned into a secular humanist. His essay argues that while religion in its language and concepts is humanly constructed, it does not follow from this that it is merely a human construction, as Loisy reasoned two centuries earlier. There remains the possibility, not in itself irrational, that the human artefact of religion might be a response to, or an inspiration from, a divine source beyond or greater than itself.

Is secularisation an outmoded concept? Christopher Lewis takes this assertion up in the third essay. Geering describes the past 3,000 years of human culture as a shift from tribalism to globalism with all cultures about to empty themselves into the great secular global sea.’

But what proofs has Geering got for this? He assumes because the established churches are losing members currently, that religion is dying. But many polls and statistics are showing that even in the first world the desire for the supernatural is actually growing ‘believing without belonging’. Even that is debatable when one sees fundamentalist churches replacing in growing numbers the established churches. Geering’s predictions are not borne out by evidence.

The tricky question of Lloyd Geering and the Resurrection is taken up by Christopher Marshall. Marshall finds Geering’s arguments ‘remarkably trite’ (95). Can his version of resurrection ever deliver a strong message of hope in a world of brutality, injustice, militarism and violence? ‘Just as I cannot understand what it might mean to love a God … when that God is but a linguistic cipher for human aspirations, nor can I understand how to find hope in a metaphorical resurrection that is nothing more than the redefinition of death as being not that bad after all’ (95).

In the following essays, John Bishop sees the shortcomings of Geering’s non-realist understanding of God while Greg Dawes points out Geering’s use of the 19th century thinker, Ludwig Feuerbach. By using his only partially developed argument, he doesn’t come to the conclusion that Feuerbach does that if we continue to use the term ‘God’ do we not risk granting divine status to some this-worldly reality? ‘Perhaps’ Dawes concludes, ‘a non-theistic Christianity is merely a new form of idolatry’ (122).

Neil Darragh’s essay is excellent on ‘Myth, Gods and Paradise’ showing how Geering speaks ‘as a Pakeha New Zealander in danger of downplaying other cultures and values that are community-oriented’ rather than his own individualistic, Western, unilinear (or progress-oriented) view of time. He sees Geering’s views on myth as monocultural.

Ken Booth follows with an essay on church showing Geering’s view of Christianity as an intellectual system which, while Booth does not deny but importantly points out, is also a worshipping community, as experience shows.

Peter Donovan attempts to show Geering’s rational analysis and intellectual discourse make him a stranger to mysticism where emotions, feelings and behaviour reach deeper into human life than do words, concepts, and theories.

The final essay comes from Paul Morris, Geering’s successor in the Chair of Religious Studies at Victoria University, Wellington, who looks critically at Geering’s account of Judaism. Morris, himself a practising Jew, argues against many of Geering’s presuppositions.

This book is a very good one and brings up relevant arguments against Geering which he has yet to answer. It is well worth reading. I have, however, one small caution. While it is the endeavour of the editors that ‘our target audience is the intelligent, general reader interested in what is at issue in the development of faith and religion in Aotearoa New Zealand in the coming years,’ a certain doubt exists in the critic’s mind that this, in parts, is not accomplished. Difficulties in terminology (addressed to a large extent but not entirely on pp 21-24) and structure could be a difficulty in minds untrained in theology and philosophy when reading this book as well as academic reasonings and argument in reaching certain conclusions. This applies, however, to certain writers rather than the generality. However, even in these cases, the specific conclusion and challenge is well expressed.

This is a book to be recommended for most readers who will agree with its challenge to Lloyd Geering, ‘to keep the question of God open and not foreclose it prematurely. Hand in hand with this, we invite him to come down to earth, drop the rigidity of his modernist ideology, allow his thinking to be driven by the facts of contemporary existence – and , in this more empirical, humble frame of mind, to enter into the real dialogue with others that post-modernism requires, in the process learning to use metaphor (symbol, myth) in a more open-ended, creative fashion. Were he to do this, he might well come closer to defining the kind of ethic and sense of the sacred that not only our society, but the whole world urgently needs’ (p. 18).