Nov 29 2008

Reflections on “God, Gaia, and Us”

Published by under Opinion

Laurie Chisholm talked recently to the group about Lloyd Geering’s and Juliet Batten’s talks at Conference. The following is a tidied up and abbreviated version of his comments on Lloyd Geering.

For many years, I have had mixed feelings about Lloyd Geering’s message. He is, of course, a towering intellect, and has single-handedly done much to make New Zealand aware of modern thinking about religion. I well remember standing in a queue at a Presbyterian General Assembly, to record my dissent from the Assembly’s decision to distance itself from his views.  So while I have little sympathy for the position of those who have been critical of him, I generally find his views unsatisfying. The following is an attempt to articulate that dissatisfaction by focussing on Lloyd’s talk to the Sea of Faith’s national conference in 2008.

The Classical Enlightenment Story: With Variations
Lloyd presented the standard Enlightenment story, which tells how modern thinking has emptied the cosmos, which was populated by heaven and hell, angels, and devils, of all those religious entities. This time however, he went back to the time before the emergence of monotheism, he was critical of the endpoint of the story (we have shown hybris, which is why we are in an environmental crisis), and he acknowledges that “in some rather curious ways, the ancients may have had a healthier understanding of the universe than we do today. “
For me, it is too much the triumphant Enlightenment story,  the story of how human reason, rational thinking, has questioned and undermined religious dogma and overthrown religious authority.   Today, there is a terrible split between an enlightened unbelief and an unenlightened superstition. What we need is an integration of believing and thinking, of religion and the Enlightenment. What Lloyd gives us is still largely the story of how thinking has triumphed over believing.

Imagine listening to a communist Chinese official telling us the rationale behind his country’s annexation of Tibet, destruction of the monasteries, and imposition of communism. Just think how he would rail against the primitive, unscientific medieval attitudes and views of the monks, of how inefficient they are in a productive sense, and how oppressive the old monarchical form of Government, with the Dalai Lama at its head, has been for the people.  And yet, the Tibetans have been peace-loving, have lived sustainably with their environment, and have maintained a stable population level. We would find it hard to accept that this ‘progress’ was an unmixed blessing.

Stuck in Demythologising Mode
Another way of expressing the same thing is to say that he is stuck in demythologising mode. This is what David Tacey said to Don Cupitt and Bill Cooke at a recent conference. Listening to him tends to put me in demythologising mode too. I want to be critical and analytical and questioning.  Often, I find myself applying just that demythologising mode to Geering’s conclusions, tearing them down in the same way that he tears down traditional Christianity. Imagine, in a parallel universe, another Lloyd Geering giving a speech.
I actually think that Lloyd is right, that we do need a new mysticism, and I would like to have heard a whole lot more about it.  As soon as I begin to take mysticism seriously, a host of questions arise. Why a mysticism of nature rather than a mysticism of love or of emptiness, following a Buddhist approach? How does a mysticism of nature deal with the realities of nature: of death and disease and built-in suffering? And how is this mysticism going to deal with anxiety? What will stop it fading away as soon as we fear a down-turn in the economy or international conflict that could result in war? How does this mysticism of nature differ say from Richard Dawkins’ view of nature? If this mysticism is worth its salt, won’t it challenge our assumptions about economic growth, globalisation, and the use of scientific research to perfect our exploitation of nature?

Geering on God
My first reaction to the talk was disappointment that Lloyd Geering didn’t have a good word to say about God.  The wonderful progress of human science and reason has given us an amazing picture of the cosmos, which has no place for God. God is disappearing, like the grin on the Cheshire cat. The role that God used to play is today being fulfilled by human culture and language – the third of Karl Popper’s three worlds.  When I re-read his talk, I noticed that he also said “The concept of God may now be seen as a symbol, a symbol for the duties and virtues we feel bound to respond to.”  And at the end, he seemed to acknowledge that there would be people who would continue to use traditional God-language, as well as some who use the new Gaia language, and the very down-to-earth, who would simply use the language of ecology.  There seem to be two strands in Lloyd’s thinking that coexist a little uneasily: an Enlightenment strand, in which human reason does away with God, and another strand, which tries to constructively re-interpret God for the modern world.

Lloyd didn’t directly address the question of whether Gaia is the new God. I was looking for a new understanding of God that would bring God down from heavenly transcendence, connecting him/her with nature in a panentheistic way. Instead, he stuck with the idea of God as a symbol for duties and virtues. I find this a very unappealing God. It is a super-ego God,  a  cold and rational abstraction, every bit as ‘heavenly’ and ‘transcendent’ as the God who is like the grin on the Cheshire cat.  It is a God in the tradition of the iconoclasts, who forbade any images of the divine, the Protestants, who rejected anything without direct scriptural warrant, and the Puritans, who insisted that everyone conform to their absolute moral code.

The New Story of the Cosmos
For Geering, the Enlightenment story is actually embedded in a more comprehensive story, the story of the evolution of the cosmos. We humans are the culmination of this process. We are able to make a picture of things as a whole, we don’t just see and hear and feel, we build a concept of the universe. Through us, the cosmos becomes aware of itself.  I think that this story, although it derives a lot from modern science, goes well beyond it. It is, if you will, a modern myth, a kind of new religious world-view, or what the post-modernists call a grand narrative. This is the way he put it at a workshop at an earlier Sea of Faith conference:

“If we interpret this discovery [of the unfolding process of the universe] as the moment in which the universe, through us, becomes aware of itself in origin and process, then it is a moment of supreme revelation. Moreover it is one which completely eclipses in importance the illumination experienced by the Buddha or the divine revelation in which Christians have long rejoiced.”

I find this an astonishing passage, reminiscent of John Lennon’s claim to be more famous than Jesus Christ. Comparing the Buddha’s illumination with modern cosmology is like comparing chalk and cheese, the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA with psychotherapeutic methods for treating mental illness. It reveals a liberal perspective that has found a new truth to replace the old, a new way of finding meaning in life.

I can respect this new myth as part of the great diversity of human convictions and perspectives on life, but  I’m just not a true believer in it. I can see it as a truth, but not as the truth. I certainly don’t see it as replacing or trumping humanity’s religious heritage.  I think that is the difference between being liberal and being post-modernist. The liberal is critical of traditional ideas, but has replacements for them. The post-modernist is critical of everything. Nothing escapes deconstruction. There are no unbroken myths any more.  I suspect that the negative reactions I have had to Geering’s thought are because his new myth or vision is given the appearance of rational objectivity, of inescapable truth, of ‘there is no alternative.’  The learned professor informs us that everything is connected, that God is disappearing like the grin on the Cheshire cat, and that there is a new manifestation of mysticism. However, these are not so much incontrovertible facts as persuasive rhetoric designed to convince us of his vision.  In order to “believe in freedom” I need to free myself from the enchantment of this rhetoric just as I need to free myself from the manipulations of authoritarian Christianity.

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