A liberal parish minister’s lecture 50 years ago sparked the country’s first heresy trial. Now 99, Sir Lloyd Geering tells Mike Grimshaw how this led to new roles as a prominent theologian and public intellectual.
This outraged many, including a couple of conservative Presbyterians – layman Robert Wardlaw and clergyman Reverend Bob Blaikie – who in 1967 laid charges against Geering of disturbing the peace of the Church and, more seriously, doctrinal error – effectively heresy.
However, the Church worried that the charges could cause a split and bring unfavourable publicity. Behind the scenes, concerned people tried to find an amicable solution.
During the televised trial, Geering addressed the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly for an hour and a half, disputing the belief that God created the Earth and is still watching over it and claiming that Jesus’s remains were still somewhere in Palestine. But after lunch, before any significant discussion of the charges, the amicable solution came. A motion was put forward, then carried: “The Assembly judges that no doctrinal error has been established, dismisses the charges and declares the case closed.”
At his Wellington home, the 99-year-old, now Sir Lloyd, says he was “fairly confident” he would win. “Because I thought I hadn’t said anything not already said elsewhere … While Wardlaw accused me of not having belief in God, I hadn’t actually said anything about that. In fact, I was rather more traditional than I am now.”
Following his acquittal, Geering became an increasingly public figure, a prolific author, a religious commentator and a public speaker – roles that continue in his retirement. He was made a principal companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2001 and a member of the Order of New Zealand in 2007. He says he became “a public intellectual by being more distanced from the Church. I felt I didn’t leave the Church – it left me.”
Becoming a Christian
Geering was a convert from agnosticism. He grew up in Rangiora and, briefly, Australia and attended Sunday school in Dunedin – “it had the best library in the city”. But it was not until he embarked on an arts degree at the University of Otago that he became involved in the Church. He quickly went from boarding at a “very devout Catholic home” to attending First Presbyterian Church and becoming an “enthusiastic member” of the Student Christian Movement (SCM).
“It was an extraordinary change. I was mixing with people for the first time in my life. I had had a pretty lonely life up to then. Before 1937, I was simply an immature and naive person with no sense of direction – I can remember wandering the streets of Dunedin at night at 18, wondering what life’s all about. So the SCM meant a lot, more to me than the Church in my student days, because of its openness and because of what was preached. In many ways, it was from the SCM that my popular theology grew.”
The Church, too, was in the main preaching a liberal form of Christianity, “otherwise I would not have come in at all”. The inaugural principal at the Theological Hall at Dunedin’s Knox College, John Dickie, followed the philosophies of German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher.
“Schleiermacher changed theology from revealed doctrine to the exposition of Christian experience. Dickie’s theology was the expounding of our Christian experience and the relating of it to all other knowledge. This was how liberal theology was from 1900 through to the 1940s. When I started going to church, I asked a minister, ‘You don’t expect me to believe all that stuff about Adam and Eve, do you?’, and he said, ‘No one does today.’”
Following further study at Melbourne Divinity School, he served as a parish priest in Kurow, Dunedin, then in Wellington at St James Presbyterian Church in Newtown. In 1956, he was appointed chair of Old Testament Studies at Emmanuel College in Brisbane where he was introduced to Christian existentialist philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich.
“I remember reading Tillich confessing that as a chaplain in World War I, he saw his whole theology dissolve and had to think it through afresh, and he did so at Union [Theological Seminary in New York].”
In 1971, Geering took up the foundation chair in religious studies at Victoria University, where he felt free to further explore the history of Christianity within the context of human culture.
The great divide
Geering was an increasingly public figure in a country becoming ever more divided as secular society was becoming more entrenched and the Church more fundamentalist. The promise of a liberal, broad-church Christianity was fading.
He traces this movement to the middle of the 20th century, when the Church came under the influence of a “highly sophisticated form of fundamentalism” driven by Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth and reflected in the teachings of John Henderson, who succeeded Dickie at Knox College.
If his trial was to have any effect at all, he thought, “it was in giving a lead to the Church to becoming a Christian voice in society. But as time went on, I felt the Church followed this opportunity less and less, went backwards – it hasn’t really come to terms with modernity at all. But the 1960s turned out to be a threshold for change in the whole Western world. This just happened to be the New Zealand experience of a much bigger change.”
Today, he agrees that the word “Christian” has become a code word for evangelical or Pentecostal or fundamentalist.
“In 1900, church and society were still substantively the same – if you accused a person of not being a Christian, they would be offended. I can remember the first time – it must have been in the 1940s or early 1950s – I heard someone say, ‘I’m not a Christian’, and I was almost shocked. Today, if someone is accused of being a Christian, they are offended. ‘Christian’ has come to mean ‘evangelical’, whereas in 1900 it meant a person who valued Christian values and society and knew where they came from.”
After nearly 2000 years, he says, it’s a dramatic change. “But the modern secular world really came out of Christianity. This arises from the doctrine of the Incarnation: that the divine has become human and we are to live this out. Humanity are the gods of the Earth now and this is a great responsibility.”
With its traditional associations, incarnation is not a word Geering would normally use; he says he doesn’t use the word God “because people immediately think you are talking of a supernatural being.
“But incarnation has played an important role in Western culture and really is the key to the rise of empirical science. The unity of God compared to the mythological gods is the basis for the unity of empirical science. In the 12th century, Roger Bacon said he was exploring the ways of God and he was the one who coined the term empirical science and developed empirical knowledge by testing.”
Christianity and politics
Geering has continued to explore religion through the lenses of humanism and science – as a student he was tempted to do a science rather than an arts degree. He says New Zealand has been moving away from some of its socially minded roots and the promise of a welfare state described by first Labour Prime Minister Mickey Savage as “applied Christianity”.
“Socially and politically, we are still thankfully living the fruits of the first Labour Government – the Roman Catholic Church had a strong place in Labour and it came out in their policy.
“My parents were greatly delighted when they moved to social security as a right and not just as a handout. I also think of free hospitals – I knew of people who were in debt for the rest of their lives because they had had to go to hospital. All that gave New Zealand a social equality from 1936 via social security; what some now call the nanny state gave social equity.”
Since Roger Douglas changed the income tax system, he says, the Labour Party has moved away from the language and views of applied Christianity – Geering has been a member of the Green Party since its inception.
As a secular theologian – a theologian of and for secular society – is he still happy to use the label Christian? “Yes – well, it’s my background. I’m very grateful for all the Christian faith has done for me: it has shaped me, given me values, given me my meaning in life and a purpose to live for. And insofar as I entered the ministry, I feel I have continued to minister right up to the present.”
And if the church continues its conservative trajectory? “The future of Christianity has to be distinguished from the future of the Church. The institution is dying, but Christianity, as a set of aspirations and values, has really shaped much of secular society.” Now, he says, Christianity needs to “embrace the secular.
“It has to come to terms with the fact that there’s only one world and that’s the natural world, and as far as Christianity is wedded to a two-world view of reality – this world and the next – it’s doomed.”
Mike Grimshaw is a University of Canterbury sociologist. He is the author of a forthcoming book of interviews with Geering. Click here for a full Q&A with Geering.
This article was first published in the May 20, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.