Nov 27 2008

The Last Western Heretic

Published by under Opinion

Recently, TVNZ showed a programme with the above title, featuring Lloyd Geering. The following deliberately tries to provide provocative counter-theses to the title and the nine ideas that the programme presented. They were intended as a discussion starter for our meeting but were not used.

The Last Western Heretic

It is inappropriate to use the term heretic to characterise Lloyd Geering. You could call him a religious liberal, an Enlightenment-style critic of traditional Christianity, or even (from a fundamentalist standpoint) a non-believer, but he is not a heretic. Not believing something doesn’t make you a heretic. Heretics such as the Gnostic Marcion and the reformer Martin Luther had their own passionate and positive religious convictions, which the establishment viewed as dangerously attractive distortions of true religion.

1 We created the concept of God

At one level this is a trivial statement. Yes, and we created the concepts of space, the universe, money, imaginary numbers, and the Tao, too.

A brash young scholar, James Barr, challenged the learned authors of the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, by arguing that a word, taken by itself, has no meaning. The smallest linguistic unit of meaning is the sentence. Focussing on the word ‘God’ rather than on whole sentences containing the word God may be part of the reason for the peculiar abstractness and absence of an experiential/existential dimension in Geering’s and Cupitt’s lengthy discussions of God-talk.

To paraphrase God as ‘the process of creativity’ or ‘a name we give to our highest values’ is at best a tentative beginning of the process of translating traditional religious talk into contemporary language. I find Tillich, Buber, Carl Jung, and even AA talk of surrender to your higher power more insightful.

2 Jesus was not a divine figure

Before Jesus, the Pharaohs and Caesars were declared to be sons of God. The early Christians used this mythological language to express what Jesus meant for them. In the process, they transformed it from a way of bestowing a divine nimbus on the current locus of political power, to revering a radically different approach to community. It’s hard to tell whether the view that the use of this language came later is a solid historical conclusion based on evidence, or a not-to-be-questioned liberal dogma.

3 The resurrection was symbolic, not real

4 There is no life after death

It is astonishing that the Israelites in Old Testament times did not believe in an afterlife, even though they lived in the shadow of ancient Egypt, a culture that was perhaps more preoccupied by death and symbols of the beyond than any other.

Geering’s denials came as a great shock to many ordinary church-goers, and led to the Presbyterian Church dissociating itself in 1970 from statements he made. Rather than saying that the immortal soul is not a teaching of the bible, I would say that the bible adds nothing in the way of affirmations in the face of death to what the ancient Egyptians had already said: resurrection, ascension, descent into the realm of the dead, final judgement, immortality; it’s all there, long before the bible.

Perhaps, after centuries of rationalistic propping up of traditional Christian doctrines of the afterlife, the disillusionment had to be brutal, but I’m disappointed by the absence of any counter-affirmation to the reality of death, any assertion of the transcendent significance of the individual, when modern biology sees us as mere survival machines for the gene. This is where religion, at the latest since the Neandertals, has played a role.

For me, there’s more religious substance in the U2 song “One Tree Hill”, than in the discussions of the symbolic significance of the resurrection.  “We run like a river, run to the sea…Oh great ocean, oh great sea.” How badly that symbolic significance needs rescuing from wooden-minded literalists at both ends of the spectrum!

5 The bible is not divinely inspired – it is often wrong

Joseph Campbell doesn’t labour the point, telling us what he doesn’t believe about the various scriptures and mythologies that he offers inspiring interpretations of.

6 Fundamentalism is a danger to the world

We all have our own ‘fundamentalisms’, assumptions that we resist questioning. Zizek points out that contemporary society has many ‘end-of-the-world’ fears, but cannot even conceive of the end of capitalism. There is a danger in branding those who use religion to combat globalisation and Western hegemony as ‘fundamentalists;’ it encourages a holier-than-thou ignoring of the role our own societies play in the emergence of fundamentalism and violence.

7 Religious beliefs change over time

I really like Geering’s statement that faith is a form of trust that expresses itself in beliefs that can change over time. It is the form of trust that is fundamental and that begins with our relationship with our parents.

8 We need a new ethic and new rituals

Fine, let’s get started, then. To do so, however, we will need to get out of the mode of analysis and critique of traditional doctrines.  I suspect that we will end up adapting/renewing old ethics and rituals.  Although about the only example of a new ethic I can think of that is emerging in SoF circles is Cupitt’s ethic of solar living, future historians will probably look back and conclude that it wasn’t new, but rather an adaptation of a tiny selection of the rich and diverse symbolic meaning that the sun has had in the religions of humanity.

9 The greening of Christianity

You can’t make Christianity green with a quick touch-up of green paint. Rather, begin with an analysis of the anti-nature aspects of Christianity and its Western secularised technological offshoots and learn first from other religions and their closeness to nature.

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