Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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God and Me
Lloyd Geering

This is a transcript of an address given to the Pitt Street Uniting Church in Sydney, Australia, in 2004

I cannot remember when I was first introduced to God. The family in which I was brought up was not one that went regularly to church. It is true that from age five to twelve, I was sent by my mother to the nearest Presbyterian or Methodist Sunday School, and I simply accepted this as part of the process of growing up.

I was not aware of any sense of holiness in all this. I was aware that there were different kinds of churches: a girl of my age, for example, from the Catholic family living next door, told me with pride that in her church, God was kept locked up in a box on the altar. Well, of course, I had already absorbed sufficient Protestant prejudices to know that that was a piece of superstition, and I took little notice of it.

That was in Victoria, where I was brought up for some four years. And when my family moved back to New Zealand for me to start high school, my Sunday School days were over then, and I had no further connection with the church of the next six years.

In 1936 I started university, and I happened to find board and lodgings in a Roman Catholic home. The landlady had a son who was a priest, her only daughter had already entered the closed order of the Carmelites, and I was much impressed by the devoutness of this home � so much so that I was quite happy to eat fish with them every Friday.

At the end of the year, a fellow student of mine, who had gone all through high school with me in every form, invited me to a Sunday tea at his home. And after the meal, he said �we as a family usually go to church in the evening � would you like to accompany us?� So this I did. And I still remember thinking, during the course of that service, that it actually wouldn�t cause me any harm to go to church � and perhaps I might even learn something from the sermons.

So when I returned to university the next year in 1937, I began to go to church. Before long, I found I had already joined a bible class, I was going to church twice a Sunday, I was singing in the choir, and was even teaching in Sunday school. So you can see that this year � 1937 � was one in which I changed direction and style of life quite dramatically.

Now, some people would call that a conversion. But what had it to do with God? It never occurred to me to say I had �found God�, or that God had found me. Insofar as I thought of God at all, God was simply part of a total package. The Christian story, and everything associated with it, provided me all of a sudden with a framework of reference. It helped to give me some direction in life. I was not aware of any special relationship with God, of the kind I sometimes heard my fellow Christians speak.

Yet I did submit myself during that year to a program of personal devotional exercises: reading the bible, praying. I assumed that that was the way to get some experience of the reality of God. However, nothing particular came, except one thing � which was eventually to change my life. It was this: during that year, I had a growing (if somewhat uncertain) conviction that I was being called by God to enter the Christian ministry.

So at the beginning of 1938, I applied to the Presbyterian Church to be accepted as a theological candidate. Actually, I was secretly hoping I would be rejected as unsuitable because of my lack of church background � because if so, that would have told me quite clearly that my conviction of being called by God was simply a psychological illusion.

However, the Church, with its all-too-frequent lack of wisdom and insight, accepted me � and that shaped my life from then on. I was now living, I felt, for some particular purpose, and I delighted in that.

So then, when I commenced my three-year theological course, I still continued to accept whatever I was told � after all, my teachers were supposed to know all about the Christianity I had decided to embrace, and I was only a novice, I was not in a position to question that. But I found systematic theology rather boring. It seemed to me to be over-theoretical, and not to have much to do with life.

My chief interest in theological studies was in the study of the bible, particularly when approached through the original languages of Greek and Hebrew, which I loved. This appeared to me to be a much more solid base onto which, as it were, to build one�s understanding of the Christian tradition. The Christian message could be expounded and defended, I was taught, by appealing to the historical testimony to it.

The liberal Protestantism in which I was being trained affirmed that Christianity, unlike many religions, is the historical religion par excellence; it is built into history, and its foundation was not to be found chiefly in revealed truths, but in historical events.

It was in historical events such as the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt, the resurrection of Christ � as well as, of course, the crucifixion of Christ � that divine revelation was to be found, rather than in any dogmatic system, or in the exact words of the bible. And its central figure, Jesus Christ, was a historical figure, testified to by historical reliable testimony. The Incarnation was a historical event, which divided history into two: into B.C. and A.D., so that the God worshipped by Christians could be called �the Lord of history�.

But how did I relate to God in all this? As I look back now, after sixty years, I realise I was still simply accepting the being of God as part of a total Christian package. It certainly seemed to make some sense to say that God was the Creator of the world, but this God was distant, beyond all human understanding.

I realise now that I was more of a deist than a theist � to distinguish between the terms of a God who is simply the Creator, and a God who is a personal being with whom one communes. Indeed, in those days I was rather suspicious of the evangelicals, who loved to ask me �do you believe in a personal God?� � for they seemed to treat God as a kind of friendly protector. But I never thought of God in that way.

So thereafter I was happy to leave God simply as the name of the ultimate mystery of life. I rarely ever preached about God as such in my ministry; I always felt I was on much more solid ground preaching about Jesus Christ as portrayed in the Gospels. And even then, I steered clear of al the so-called miracles � they didn�t make much sense to me, nor did I find them historical.

But I found plenty of material in the Bible as a whole, in both Old and New Testaments, that I had sufficient to draw upon for all the preaching that I ever did. For I saw my task as one of expounding the Bible in a way that provided insights on how to live the Christian way of life.

Well, it was my desire to keep up my theological study during my ministry. I had already found much in the parish ministry that was deeply satisfying � but at the same time, I was finding myself frustrated. After all, I hadn�t entered the parish ministry by choice, but only under a sense of inner compulsion that I was called to do it, in spite of what I wanted to do.

So when I spotted an advertisement in the church paper, that the Presbyterian Church of Queensland was calling for applications for a new Chair of Old Testament Studies, I submitted my name. I held out little hope of being successful � but successful I was. And that proved to be another turning point in my life: I could now devote myself full-time to the study of the thing that interested me most.

Well, there was nothing very controversial about the Old Testament in those days. There had been earlier, but nearly all the great battles about who wrote the first five books of the bible � and it wasn�t Moses � had all been fought out in the 19th century.

And so now, as a student of the Old Testament, I was quite free to study and explain the Old Testament as a set of human documents. They reflected the limited beliefs � and even the prejudices � of the people who wrote them, and you had to look at them critically in order to get the best out of them. Of course, this wasn�t yet the case with the New Testament, because even liberal scholars at this stage still mostly accepted the New Testament as a reasonably authentic record of the history and words of Jesus.

Now, having learned already to reinterpret the myths and the legends that are in the Old Testament � particularly in the book of Genesis � I felt quite free to approach the New Testament, if necessary, in the same way.

I was attracted to Rudolf Bultmann�s assertion that the New Testament message has 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�, a word that he created. And by the word �demythologising�, which no doubt many of you have heard, he meant that it had to be radically reinterpreted to fit the way we view the world in modern times.

So without realising it perhaps at the time, my interests then (while I was still teaching Old Testament) were beginning to move beyond the limits of the Old Testament, to the wider biblical field � and later, of course, wider still.

So on my return to New Zealand, to take up the Chair of Old Testament in my alma mater, I began to read some other very significant books, outside the scope of the Old Testament � books that influenced my thinking on the subject of God. One of them was the three-volume Systematic Theology of Paul Tillich.

And here at last, I found a theologian who, like the biblical scholar Rudolf Bultmann, was aware that he was living in the 20th century and not the 19th, and certainly not the 1st century. And from Tillich, I learned that when one talks about God, one is talking about whatever it is that concerns you in an ultimate way. Or sometimes he said God is �being-itself� � although I wasn�t quite sure what he meant by that.

And a second 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 while in prison, he sketched a way of what it means to be Christian in the modern secular world.

Then third, I excitedly read the magnum opus of the Jesuit scientist Teilhard de Chardin: The Phenomenon of Man. I read this book over one weekend, hardly putting it down. Because here was a vision of the evolving universe which put into one developing, continuous story all that we have come to know about physics, and astronomy, and chemistry, and biology, and theology. I was simply awestruck.

This visionary sketch of an evolving universe, which eventually produced the human species, was much 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.

It was just at this time that there appeared � and the year was 1963 � the publication by Bishop John Robinson Honest To God. Now, this was far more radical than the Protestant liberalism I had been brought up in. Of course, those who had been reading Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer didn�t find a great deal new in Bishop Robinson�s little book.

What this little book did was to alert masses of people � often people outside the church � to what was going on in academic circles. Indeed, it became one of the most widely-read theological books of the 20th century. However the rising tide of Christian conservatism was already, by the 60s, beginning to challenge the now-declining era of Protestant liberalism. And I was destined personally to encounter this rising tide.

It came about through another little book of John Robinson�s called The New Reformation. Now, the editor of the Presbyterian journal called The Outlook had invited me to write an article for Reformation Sunday. So taking the lead from John Robinson, I discussed why a new reformation in the church had become necessary.

I asked: Is the Christian faith inextricably bound up with the worldview of ancient humankind? Or can the substance of it be translated into the worldview of 20th century humankind? I then went on to point out that some of the things asserted by the 16th-century Protestant reformers were just not true. For example: the Bible is not literally inerrant. It does have errors in it, of all sorts of kinds. I said the Bible is not a simple guide, setting forth what every Christian in every generation must believe and do, because it belongs to the ancient world.

Now, this article raised a few eyebrows. But it would have been quickly forgotten if the editor of The Outlook had not � foolishly, I suppose � invited me to write another article for his Easter edition. So in this, I raised the question of what it really means, within the modern worldview, to assert that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven?

And to do this, I drew upon a statement from Professor Gregor Smith of Glasgow, in his just-published book called Secular Christianity � largely based on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And in this book Gregor Smith 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 said, �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 time my article raised a veritable storm. The next issues of The Outlook were filled with letters to the editor � some in praise, some in violent and angry disagreement. Then the newspapers reported that the Auckland Presbytery had met in private in order to discuss some controversial article, and that its members were bound in secrecy to say nothing about it.

Well, you couldn�t ask more for a journalist, could you? So the news reporters were now anxious to find out all about it, and to meet public demand, the offending article was now published in all the metropolitan papers.

So what started as a Presbyterian debate now quickly became a public debate. I tried to pour some oil on troubled waters by writing four more articles explaining the background of the debate. I rather naively thought that it was only necessary to bring people up to date with a short course in current theological thinking, and they would all quickly see it in a different light.

Alas, the articles were like throwing petrol on an already-blazing fire, and the public debate went on apace.

Only three months later, in March 1967, I was invited to preach at the annual inaugural service at Victoria University (I wasn�t there then, I went later) and I chose to speak about the Book of Ecclesiastes.

I have found that this book is one that reflects many of our modern theological problems. You see, it was written by a Jewish author, probably in Alexandria, about two-to-three hundred years before the Christian era. And he was pondering about his Jewish heritage, living in a Hellenistic context where it just didn�t seem to fit at all. In the course of this sermon, I happened to utter the words, �Of course, man has no immortal soul�. 

Well, an enterprising journalist in the congregation, sensing another radical departure from orthodoxy, seized upon this one sentence, headlined it in the next morning�s paper, and then proceeded to telephone all the various church leaders to ask them what they thought.

And of course they mostly appeared terribly shocked. Obviously they had not been keeping up with their reading, because in academic circles it had been recognised for some twenty years that the idea of an immortal soul didn�t come from the Bible at all � it came from the Greek philosophers, and particularly Plato. After all, what the New Testament says is that �Only God is immortal�. (I do quote the New Testament sometimes.)

My sermon was subsequently published in all the newspapers again, and then followed widespread discussion on the sensitive issue of what happens to us when we die.

There has probably never been a time in New Zealand when so many people were all thinking at the same time about the question of life after death. There seemed to be something in the newspaper every day, for weeks on end. News of it of course reached Australia. The Sydney Morning Herald devoted an editorial to it, and then followed it up with a full-page article in their weekend magazine, on whether we humans have immortal souls.

The newly-established Laymen�s Association called for a special meeting of the General Assembly, to defend what they took to be the unchangeable Christian truths. This request was declined, and it was left to the normal meeting of the General Assembly to deal with the issue.

But the debate went on. It didn�t stop the daily newspapers, the church journals, the Catholic newspapers, along with many secular journals, from continuing to publish numerous articles and letters to the editors on the subject.

And I found myself being referred to in the most extreme terms � from �the devil incarnate� to �the new Galileo�. In most of this I didn�t recognise myself at all. It was as if some new mental image of me had been created by the collective consciousness of New Zealanders, an image which some hated and others honoured.

Well, around me there swirled a storm. And it made me realise that a very sensitive nerve had been touched, both in the church and in society. I just happened to be the person who did it � it could have been anyone. The Christian tradition was clearly at a crossroads, because the gap that had been opening up between traditional and popular Christian thought on the one hand, and academic enquiry on the other hand, had now so widened that it had reached breaking point.

And it was the recognition of this that encouraged me to accept the invitation of the publishers Hodder and Stoughton to write a book about it. So over the next six months, I wrote a chapter every fortnight. I didn�t write about the Resurrection or immortality � that book was to come later.

I thought it was first necessary to explain, in non-academic language, what lay behind the whole controversy. And that�s how I came to write my first book, called God in the New World. Little did I realise then that this was destined to be only the first in a series of books I�ve written, several of which include the word �God� in the title.

Now, this book had to be finished by October, when the General Assembly was going to meet in order to hear charges that had been laid against me � charges of doctrinal error. Two Presbyterians � one a minister with good theological training, another a layman who had a very simplistic view of Christianity � had laid charges separately.

And so on Friday, November 3rd 1967, I was called to the Bar of the House � the General Assembly turns itself into a court of law at this stage � where I heard the charges being expounded by my accusers.

There was an electric air of expectancy. More than a thousand people had packed into the church, with an overflow into the hall. The lamps of the television crews served only to increase the heat. On Monday I answered the charges, addressing the Assembly for an hour and a half. After lunch came the debate.

But before there had been very much time for any adequate discussion of the real issues, a motion was put to the House, and later carried firmly on the voices � and it said that �The Assembly judges that no doctrinal error has been established, dismisses the charges and declares the case closed�.

But although the Assembly dismissed the charges, there was no easy way to heal the divisions that had now become public. Robert Wardlaw, the layman, resigned from the church and established one of his own. A number of individuals in the church transferred their allegiance to other denominations.

The various metropolitan dailies once again devoted editorials to the subject. The trial even rated a mention in the London Times. A Catholic newspaper The Zeelandia was rather impressed by my defence, and likened me to Martin Luther � but then went on to say, �Where does this leave the Presbyterian Church, now it has sold Christianity down the river?� Well, that of course was yet to be found out. The New Zealand Weekly News had a leading article on it, which declared,  �The Church will never be the same again�.

And in many ways it was right.

Just thirty years after I had embraced the Christian faith, the year 1967 became the second religious turning point in my life.

You see, 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, and that the Church as an institution is just as human as any other human institution.

In April 1968, my book God in the New World was published. And on the same page of one newspaper there were two reviews. They were polar opposites. One of them said, "This explains the real nature of the Bible". The other, written by the Editor of the Catholic Tablet, said, "This book sweeps away all Christian belief". My chapter on God in that book ends with these words:

By God-talk, we are pointing to the deepest reality we can encounter. We are pointing to that which concerns us ultimately � but we do not know what it is. The God that is known is an idol. The God who can be defined is no God. Because it is of the essence of human existence that we live not by knowledge, but by faith.

Of course, what had gone before the publication all helped to make the book a best-seller. As I had now become a public figure, I was invited to contribute to a series of monographs being prepared for seventh forms in schools.

Mine was to be entitled God in the 20th Century. And there I spoke of the history of the word "God" � why it had to be treated as a symbolic word. Just as in mathematics, for example, we have to learn how to use � and how not to use � the symbol for infinity, so in religion, we must learn how to use � and how not to use � this marvellous symbolic word "God".

Apart from that, life went on for me pretty much as usual during the next three years. I set about researching and writing a book on the topic that started it all off: The Resurrection.

But before this book was published in 1971, I had already left my position in the theological hall. I realised I had become a kind of marked man. Conservative forces in the church were ready to pounce on the slightest provocation; almost anything I said was taken up � and sometimes wrongly. Because of remarks I made on a television interview that I gave in Brisbane in 1970, these conservative forces proceeded to persuade the General Assembly of that year to dissociate itself from my views � without specifying what views they were.

Many in the Church heaved a sigh of relief when three weeks after that Assembly, the Victoria University of Wellington announced that they had elected me to be the first Professor of Religious Studies in any New Zealand university.

Then I entered an atmosphere of intellectual freedom and calm that I hadn�t felt for quite some time. And this also was an opportunity that I welcomed, to return to the wider field of the study of religion generally � including, of course, the study of all religions.

Because of the theological controversy in which I had been involved, I chose as my chief area of research the phenomenon of religious change in the modern secular world. And in my second year, I instituted a new course called "Religion in Change". And as a result of the work for that course, I eventually wrote a textbook for it, which was published in 1980 as Faith�s New Age.

In this book, I concluded that in modern times, humankind has entered a vastly different cultural world from that which obtained when the great religious traditions of the world were being founded. And so the major part of that book traces, step by step, this change from the late Middle Ages right up until the 19th century.

The book itself is set in a model, or paradigm, of three successive cultural periods through which humankind has lived., and in which the diversity of human religious experience can be more clearly understood. And I found the paradigm I had constructed � of three great cultural periods � so illuminating and helpful that it is implied in all my later books.

The first cultural period I call the "ethnic phase" because during it, the many independent cultures around the world evolved out of their own ethnic identity, and served to perpetuate it. And in this phase, there is no distinction made between religion and culture, or between morality and ritual. People saw themselves as living in a world controlled by the gods and spirits that personified the forces of nature. And these forces were often very fickle and quite immoral � but they had to be obeyed, and kept in good humour.

And then came the second cultural period, which I call the "trans-ethnic", because at this point, ethnic identity is relegated to second place. Religion and culture now came to be distinguished from each other. Ritual and morality came to be distinguished from each other � even the Israelite prophets decry sacrifice, but put all the emphasis upon social justice. And of all these traditions, there were three that were most successful in crossing cultural/ethnic boundaries. And they were: Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. So that by the year 1900, they had carved up the world among them: the Buddhist Orient, the Islamic Middle East, and the Christian West.

But already, before 1900, a third phase of cultural evolution had emerged, one that I call global and humanistic. Whereas the first was ethnic and polytheistic � or many gods � and the second was trans-ethnic and theological � i.e. some form of theological understanding of an ultimate � the third is global and humanistic.

The modern humanistic culture is now spreading around the globe � much, of course, to the annoyance of the traditional religions. And this form of modern global culture is undermining the traditional forms of religion, including Christianity � out of which, of course, it came.

And it is also, therefore, giving rise to reactionary religious movements trying to stem the tide of the third phase of culture. And these reactionary movements we know as fundamentalists � Christian fundamentalists, Muslim fundamentalists, Hindu fundamentalists. They are all trying to stem the tide of humanistic, secularistic culture.

In Faith�s New Age, I tried to show that while the modern world is sounding the death-knell of traditional religious forms, it is at the same time heralding new ways of what it means to be religious.

Religious thought and endeavour must now fasten attention upon this world, rather than upon the other-worldly goals. And that is why religion in the third phase can be called secular � not meaning non-religious, but meaning this-worldly.

In the new cultural age, we are becoming aware of the fact that we are all humans, irrespective of our class or race or gender or religion or age. We are developing a growing concern for human rights. We have come to see that what used to be regarded as divine or transcendent absolutes are actually simply the human judgements made by our forbears in the past.

A few weeks ago, I delivered a lecture to the Royal Society of Scientists in Wellington, in which I explored what lay behind the words of a German physicist called Friedrich von Weiz�cker. He said that modern science would not, perhaps, have been possible without Christianity. And we do well to ponder that, because he said (going on from that) that the Church is blind to the true nature of modern times, and the modern world is equally blind to its own nature. Both are blind to the significance of the secularising process. The modern world is the result of the secularising of Christianity.

Of course, the modern world is no longer Christian in the traditional sense � but neither is it anti-Christian. The modern world, at its best, holds in high regard the moral values, the aspirations, and the social goals it has inherited from the Christian tradition. It is the logical development of the doctrine of the incarnation of God in human flesh.

Only a fortnight ago, I was delivering a lecture to some two hundred alumni of Auckland University � most of them medical graduates. I had been given the title "Playing God".

By this is meant the fact that we humans have now reached the point in our cultural and religious evolution where we are now required to make decisions that previously we assumed were the exclusive province of God. Of course, in all activities of animal 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, and cloning.

And we are determining � often unthinkingly � what species should survive, and what should become extinct. We are already playing God without knowing it. And are we humans ready for these responsibilities? Probably not. But these responsibilities are now on our shoulders, whether we are ready or not.

And that is all the more reason why we must all do our best to gain a clearer understanding of the cultural situation in which we live on this globe today, and to understand how we got to be where we are. Second, we must strive to search for whatever wisdom we can glean from the past that will help us make wise decisions in the choices we now have to make in our playing God.

In my latest book Is Christianity Going Anywhere?, I contend that we have come to the end of traditional Christianity, and I point to the new phase which it has already entered. Indeed, if we look around us in the modern, secular world, we find already there many of the elements that Jesus talked about when he spoke of the Kingdom of God.

The Kingdom of God has been coming, and we haven�t even noticed it. It�s becoming when we asserted human rights for everybody. It�s becoming when we emancipated women from male domination. It�s becoming when we freed the slaves. And it is coming as we still painfully try to give fairness to homosexuals. And this book further suggests that we have discovered sufficient of the footprints and the voiceprints of the original Jesus, to help us and inspire us in the path ahead.

To conclude: During my lifetime, I have seen and I have experienced great religious change. And that is why � first in my preaching, and then in my teaching, and finally in my books � I have tried to interpret that change as clearly and as honestly as I could. While finding myself living in an ever-changing world, I have strangely discovered that much that I have learned from the Christian past unexpectedly lights up with new meaning for today.

And so I conclude this story of God and me with some words of the medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart. He said, "The eye with which I see God, and the eye with which God sees me, are one and the same eye".

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