Lloyd Geering’s new book tackles life’s purpose in a time of science and why God’s absence demands we face up to our biggest challenges.
You ring to be let in to see New Zealand’s greatest theological thinker and most celebrated heretic. Look for the button marked “Gearing”. We meet not long after Wellington’s big earthquake. In the lobby, a sign advertises a post-quake clean-up. A resident was caught in the elevator when it struck, a maintenance person informs me on the way up, bouncing off the walls to demonstrate. Even getting into a lift is an act of faith.
No wonder humankind needed to invent the realm of the divine. Geering’s new book makes an excellent fist of explaining how that came about and why God is now surplus to requirements. “… to state that all living creatures were created by a creator deity is no explanation at all for the origin of life; it is simply a declaration that shifts the seat of the mystery to a point hidden behind a divine screen that we are forbidden to penetrate”, he writes.
From the Big Bang to God: an audacious title for a relatively slim volume. “Well, I thought I’d have a go at it,” says Geering. It grew from a talk he gave a Te Papa: 15 minutes on science and religion. “I had to race through the chief stages in the evolutionary process at an average speed of a billion years a minute to allow a necessary deceleration towards the end,” he writes, of the talk. Yikes. It went down well. No problem, then, to go from the creation of the universe to the development of life, language and the world of thought; from religion to science in under 200 pages. The book, chatty and learned, presents it all as one seamless, headlong, thrilling evolutionary escapade. The new Great Story, he calls it, to replace the old ones.
There’s no place for God guiding the whole shebang, but the story has its sense of transcendence. There’s no shortage of miracles. “The self-evolving universe … has brought forth a creature through whom it can now look at itself,” marvels Geering, “and ask questions about how it all began.”
He hasn’t abandoned the notion of purpose. “We human beings have become almost programmed, to use a computer metaphor, to find purpose … The more we live purposefully, the more satisfied we become,” he tells me. “Because we’re all part of the universe, cosmic evolution has become purposeful in us.”
He was hugely influenced in the 60s by discovering the book of a fellow maverick. Jesuit priest and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man, written in the 1930s, was not published in the author’s lifetime. “Instead of God the creator, Teilhard focused the reader’s attention on the ongoing creativity that permeates the universe,” writes Geering.
“I read it almost at one sitting, within 48 hours,” he says, “and through his eyes I had the feeling of this mysterious, awe-inspiring process unfolding until it got to this point. It gave me a vision of reality as something dynamic. Not something static.”
So God is an expression of the mystery of the evolving cosmos? “Yes, that’s right. And also of the creativity in the cosmos.” But there’s no need to throw out the Bible with the bathwater. Geering’s book gives you a fresh appreciation of another visionary feat, the Book of Genesis. “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep …” “One of the most succinct and imaginative documents of origins ever composed,” writes Geering.
And yet, without God, we are doomed to disappear, leaving no trace we were ever here. Ashes to ashes. Why get up in the morning? “To respond to that I would say in the past we have lived our lives on the linear view that the goal is very important at the end. Well, I have to confess now the goal is not important at all,” he says. “What’s important is what happens now.”
At 95, Geering speaks with energy, urgency, verve. His new book is, in a way, a call to arms. Abandon the notion of an afterlife, the belief that only some will be saved, and it turns out we are all in the same leaky evolutionary boat. “Exactly,” says Geering. The responsibility for life on this planet lands on us. “Overpopulation, pollution of air and water, the destroying the biodiversity of life, global warming … All of these are coming together in the 21st century. It’s a very powerful set of challenges to us,” he says. “We’ve got to create out of the past the way in which to find a worthwhile future.”
Weighty matters, God knows. Yet the only time Geering looks a little daunted is when you accuse him of being a public intellectual. “Yes, I know that’s been said and I think that’s what lies behind the fact that I was given the Order of New Zealand,” he says, “but I didn’t feel equal to that.” But surely all would agree that he richly deserves his honours. “I’m sure there are lots of people in the churches who didn’t,” he says evenly. “I know in the minds of numbers of people I’m a devil with horns.”
It’s hard to fathom that this gracious, scholarly, tolerant man was once – still is, by some – considered a dangerous renegade. In 1967, Geering gave a sermon dispensing with the immortal soul. He wrote an article calling for a more modern interpretation of the resurrection. The Presbyterian Church brought charges against him for “doctrinal error’’ and “disturbing the peace of the church’’. Heresy.
Thanks to broadcasts of the trial, Geering found himself starring in an early ecclesiastical version of reality television and characterised as everything from “the new Galileo” to the Antichrist.
Still, he had people debating theology on buses. “Well, exactly. In fact, I said, in the course of my defence, at the so-called trial, that the Church had long been complaining that it wasn’t getting any publicity. I said, ‘Now you’ve got all the publicity you want and you close it all down.’”
As a sort of theological whistle-blower, he was under attack. “At the time I got lots of terrible letters and threats. At one stage the police wanted to put me under police protection. I said it wasn’t necessary.”
He was effectively acquitted – “What they said was that the charges had not been proven” – but victory was not entirely sweet. “I thought the Church would move on to make a real leap forward, but it didn’t. I even had friends who refused to shake hands. I mean, I knew them. They refused.” That must be crushing. “Yes, it is,” he says a little wanly. “In some respects moving to a new position got me out of that.” He was offered a post at Victoria University. “The chancellor, who was a Roman Catholic, said when I arrived, ‘We thought we’d let the Presbyterian Church off the hook.’” He can laugh now.
He stayed with his Church. “I hung in there because I thought the more the liberals leave the Church, the more it becomes conservative.” But doesn’t listening to dogma he doesn’t believe in drive him crazy? “Oh, yes it does, particularly if they’re talking about it in a way that they see it as somehow reality itself. I would find it very difficult to go to many churches for that reason. But the ones that I have been associated with aren’t like that.”
He doesn’t call himself an atheist. “I’m a non-theist. It’s a quibble, I know, but the word atheism has a certain number of associations.” Although he’s in agreement with such New Atheists as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, he thinks they protest too much. “I call them the fundamentalist atheists. They haven’t realised what an important concept God was. We wouldn’t have science without God.” As Geering writes, “… inasmuch as the gods were created by human imagination to explain natural phenomena, they were just as much concepts of primitive science as they were of primitive religion”.
As for the religious fundamentalists’ rejection of science, Geering sees the view as not just obsolete but dangerous. “It’s preventing us as a community from developing a secular-based religious tradition. They’re against everything secular. Secular for me simply means worldly,” he says. “[Fundamentalism] is endangering the future of the human race, it’s become so serious.”
Such thoughts might drive you to prayer. Not Geering. “Oh, I was never a great pray-er.” He sometimes thinks he should meditate more. “What I do is I think. I do a lot of thinking.” He was a university student before religion became part of his life. “I was a sort of bewildered, rather immature person who was just looking to find meaning in life and here it was,” he says, of Christianity. Once in the Church, he has said he felt compelled to become a minister. That’s a strong word. “I’m a bit puzzled by that myself, now.” A sense of belonging was part of it. “The important thing about the Church as I see it is not that it has a set of beliefs but that it’s a community; a community trying to find the best in life. The church – and this applies to the mosque, too – really came out of the synagogue. And the word synagogue tells it all. It simply means in Greek ‘coming together’.”
Writer Alain de Botton has proposed the idea of a secular church for those who want the sense of community without the God bit. “Exactly! That’s what I want the Church to become: a group of people who are supporting. And indeed St Andrew’s [on The Terrace], which I still go to, is growing very much in that direction.” Growth, change, evolution. Nothing is ever final, he says. “It’s just going on.”
Lloyd Geering: We have to have faith in the human species.
Kim Hill: How’s that going so far?
Lloyd Geering: It’s not going so well.
Geering might well be bitter considering the bruises and battles of the past. Yet he seems so … happy. “Oh, yes. The funny thing is that I’m what you would call a man of faith,” he says. “And faith simply means trust. It means trusting one’s fellows to begin with and then trusting the world one lives in. Trusting the future and not fearing it, really.”
His stance on some of the intractable moral debates of our times reflects that trust in his fellows. “I’ve been a supporter of euthanasia from the beginning because I think it’s cruel to force a person to continue when in fact life has lost all value. In so far as the person involved has any choice, then you must follow their choices.”
He’s pro-choice when it comes to abortion, too. “In the sense of letting the people make their choices whatever they are and, of course, under medical advice too as to whether it’s a good thing or not and the age of the fetus,” he says. “I remember going to a lecture in Dunedin from a Roman Catholic priest sent out by the Pope. He filled the town hall and said how wrong contraception was. Really. And, of course, that is now doing a tremendous amount of harm in Africa amongst the African Roman Catholics.”
That was around 1937. Geering has been thinking on our behalf for a very long time. Does he think, these days, about mortality? He did when he embarked on this latest book. “I started it realising that, well, I mightn’t live to finish it. But it doesn’t matter. I’ll just keep on going. I went on chapter by chapter until finally there it was, finished!”
The thought of death doesn’t worry him. “No, not at all. I mean, I certainly don’t want to go on and live in another world which I know nothing about.” He’s sorry he won’t see his great-grandchildren grow up. “Naturally, you feel, looking forward, well, there are things I’ll not live to see.” Christopher Hitchens talked about the party going on without him. “That’s right! Yes, the party going on. You see, it’s like a train journey. You get to the station, you’ve got to get off,” he says philosophically. “But, on the other hand, there are going to be calamities in the future I won’t live to see, either.”
This Great Story of ours. With or without God, who knows how it will play out? But you sense it’s not in Geering’s nature to be pessimistic. He’s too thrilled by our improbable species and its mysterious, mutable home. “Yes, an opportunity. Very much an opportunity,” he says, of the environmental and moral challenges facing us down.
What’s his vision of the best that could come out of it all? “Oh, the best thing that could come out of it is a global community in which we don’t deny our religious and ethnic past but make them secondary to a global community working together for its own common good, in relationship to nature itself,” he says. “In the end, nature wins.” In From the Big Bang to God Geering quotes the words that, in the Bible, are attributed to Moses: “I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil …,” it is written. “Therefore choose life.”
For a new, in-depth interview with Sir Lloyd Geering by Mike Grimshaw, pick up the May 20 issue of the Listener, on sale May 15.
This article was first published in the August 24, 2013 issue of the New Zealand Listener.