One of the unfortunate consequences of being a pioneer is that pointing to new paths does not endear you to those comfortable with the safer well-trodden tracks. Professor Lloyd Geering is now seen as more mainstream than he was to a previous generation but the story of how he fell out of favour with the conservative faction of the New Zealand Presbyterian Church suggests some interesting lessons.
Now the furore has died down a little, Lloyd Geering is seen by many as having well earned respect. He has been a regular and prolific writer, a most distinguished academic and for years has been a highly sought speaker at conferences and international gatherings. In 1988 he was made a Companion of the British Empire and in 2001 he took the top honour in New Zealand Honours list, being accorded the title of Principal Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
In 1967 Professor Geering’s writings about the resurrection of Jesus led to him being charged by the Presbyterian Church with “doctrinal error” and “disturbing the peace of the church” which was more or less accurately described by the media of the day as a heresy trial. In essence his crime was that he had enraged the conservatives first with an article in the Presbyterian Paper The Outlook by pointing out that the 16th century standard Christian teaching was no longer accepted, pointing out for example the view that there were no errors in the Bible had long since been debunked. He had then gone on to write a further article for the Easter edition of the Outlook in which he raised the question of what it really means, within the modern worldview, to assert that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven – asking of heaven where on earth is it? And to do this, he drew on a statement from Professor Gregor Smith of Glasgow, in his Secular Christianity – largely based on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And in this book Gregor Smith had said “we may freely say that the bones of Jesus lie somewhere in Palestine. Christian faith is not destroyed by this admission. On the contrary”, he further quoted Gregor Smith, “it’s only when this has been said that we are in a position to ask about the meaning of the resurrection as an integral part of the message concerning Jesus”.
This was too much for the conservatives. The Auckland Presbytery met in secret to discuss the issue and their reluctance to admit the detail of their discussion drew the attention of the media. A flurry of angry letters to the Outlook followed including calling Geering the “Devil Incarnate”. Geering tried to placate his accusers by pointing out that most of his writing was based on established scholarship. For example he pointed out that not only is there no real evidence for an immortal soul (a concept actually traced to Plato) but that the Bible itself points out that only God is immortal. Then Geering then made what he wondered afterwards was a tactical error in trying to defuse the public criticism, most which seem to have little to do with his stated views, by releasing his Outlook articles for wider circulation in the daily national press. In retrospect he later saw this as the equivalent to throwing petrol on the fire. It was finally left to one of the outraged leading laymen and also one rather more theologically literate ordained presbyters to front the legal challenge at the annual Presbyterian General Assembly. As a then young observer attending the trial out of idle curiosity, and as one with no direct connection with the Presbyterian Church, I had neither the background nor sufficient prior knowledge of the sides in the case to know who was the more convincing to the Presbyterians present, but it did occur to me that the manner of the presenters of the prosecution was so unpleasant compared with Lloyd Geering’s calm, reasoned and gracious presentation that he should in fact win. Lloyd Geering was later to say that it had been something of a shock to him just how much vitriol and unpleasantness had been directed to him from within the very Church he had respected. In one address in Australia he was quoted as saying: “….with many others over these thirty years, I had come to regard the church as a holy society, manifesting a very special quality of life. And it came as a great shock to me to find that behind its benign face, it could also harbour poisonous thoughts and sheer hatred. At one stage I was under police protection. And all this came from people in the church who regarded themselves as its most zealous guardians. It made me feel shame for the church. The sad realisation came to me that although there are, of course, many fine people in the church, the church as an institution is just as human as any other human institution”.
The trial gained widespread attention, even rating a mention in the London Times. As it turned out in the event despite serious accusations, it turned out there was little that could be substantiated. For example he was accused of leading his theological students at Knox College into error with false teaching on the resurrection but as Lloyd Geering mildly pointed out since all his writings on that subject were totally outside his course delivery since he held the Chair in Old Testament, he simply did not teach that particular topic at the college.
Another weakness in the case was that in fact Geering had been writing about well documented ideas well-known in theological circles.
From Rudolf Bultmann, Geering had accepted the assertion that the New Testament message had for too long been “imprisoned” – imprisoned in the mythological worldview of the 1st century – and that to make it relevant to the 20th century, it needed to be “demythologised”, in other words be radically reinterpreted to fit the way we view the world in modern times. From Systematic Theology of Paul Tillich. from Tillich, he learned that when one talks about God, one is talking about whatever it is that concerns the person in an ultimate way. Another influence was that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who – imprisoned by Hitler in a Nazi prison, and had plenty of time on his hands to meditate there – began to realise why it is no longer possible for people in the 20th century to be religious in the way they had been in earlier centuries and sketched a way of what it means to be Christian in the modern secular world.
Another key influence was that of the Jesuit scientist Teilhard de Chardin: The Phenomenon of Man. He had found de Chardin’s visionary sketch of an evolving universe, which eventually produced the human species, to be more convincing as a description of God than Tillich’s rather enigmatic phrase “being-itself”. God was to be seen not so much as the maker of the world, or even as the cause of this evolutionary process. The evolutionary process itself, of an evolving universe, was in fact the ultimate mystery that could be called God.
In short the real weakness of the case against him was that he was saying nothing that other well respected theologians had been saying for a number of years and there were a number of instances where his accusers seemed to be ignorant of what was accepted in the theological literature of the day.
Even the Catholic Church in their Zeelandia commentary on the trial indicated they were impressed by Geering’s defence even likening him to Luther , but they wondered where the case had left the Presbyterian Church. The failure to convict Geering on the Heresy related charges appeared to the Catholic commentators to be selling out on some major points of doctrine. The final judgement of the Assembly was
“the Assembly judges that no doctrinal error has been established, dismisses the charges and declares the case closed” and that should have been an end to the matter.
In reality as with the Bible Belt in the US, the issues refused to die. Conservative district moderators attracted like-minded conservative ministers under the call system and a number of regions began to assume more conservative stances. At a subsequent General Assembly there was a short lived attempt to further liberalise the Church by allowing the acceptance of practising homosexuals into ministry. Shortly afterwards this was in effect rescinded as the power of the conservatives began to grow.
Robert Wardlaw, the leading layman Geering critic in the trial was so disgusted with the trial outcome that he resigned from the Presbyterian Church and started his own Church. Others deserted the Presbyterian Church for more congenial fundamentalist alternatives. Geering himself widened his target going on to challenge Christian orthodoxy even more profoundly, by questioning the distinction between the religious and the secular worlds. For example at one lecture to an audience of some 200 mainly medical alumni at Auckland University he explained that such had been the increase of knowledge and technology that humans as he put it were … “now required to make decisions that previously we assumed were the exclusive province of God. Of course, in all activities of special breeding, we’ve been doing that for quite some time. But now, we are gaining such control over the forces and understanding of nature that we have some decisions to make about the creation of new life, and over questions of life and death: contraception, in vitro fertilisation, euthanasia, genetic modification, cloning, and we are determining – often unthinkingly – what species should survive, and what should become extinct. We are already playing God without knowing it….But these responsibilities are now on our shoulders, whether we are ready or not”.
As with the 1967 heresy trial the conservative versus liberal campaign will not be won with a single battle. No doubt the die-hard opponents of modern Biblical scholarship and evolution will continue to believe that the weight of religious literalist tradition is firmly on their side and that they rest secure in the certain knowledge that their traditional faith will safeguard their very souls. It is equally certain that Lloyd Geering and his supporters and successors will continue to be fearless in their conviction that any faith worth pursuing must draw its knowledge and insights from the current frontiers of discovery and that where error is shown by evidence we should be prepared to let go of that which is now seen as inadequate. Since giving familiar ground is uncomfortable we should not be surprised if each new insight is greeted with the continuing cry of “heresy”.
(Lloyd Geering’s recent books include “Christianity Without God”, “Christian Faith At The Crossroads“, and “The World to Come: From Christian Past to Global Future“).