The last Western heretic
Can a Christian remain true to her or his faith while rejecting the resurrection of Jesus?
This Easter Christians around the world, including millions in Indonesia, recognised their calendar’s high point. For many, worship at Easter identifies commitment to their faith.
Professor Sir Lloyd Geering was among them for he’s a regular churchgoer. But the New Zealand theologian doesn’t accept any of the great tenets of the faith he follows, virgin birth, the Holy Trinity and the Resurrection.
“My own theological journey through life has been one of continual change and development,” he told a congregation celebrating his 70 years as an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church.
“I have slowly come to realise that there is no such thing as unchangeable Christian truths.”
Such comments would result in banishment from many pulpits, even charges of heresy. This is what happened to Sir Lloyd in 1967 when he was accused of ‘doctrinal error.. and disturbing the peace and unity of the church.’
Earlier he had written that the church had long misinterpreted the resurrection story as resuscitation, and that the bones of Jesus still lie in Palestine. Not surprisingly the reaction was white hot.
The trial made media headlines around the world with Sir Lloyd labelled as ‘the last Western heretic’. The charges collapsed after the accused mounted a vigorous defence based on his scholarship and reasoning.
Although Sir Lloyd has visited and lectured in several countries it’s unlikely any church in Indonesia would welcome his presence, even though the Archipelago is on the speaking circuit for overseas preachers, often from the US.
These evangelicals draw thousands to big rallies. They don’t inspire Sir Lloyd who has been outspoken in his hostility towards zealots of any faith.
“Fundamentalists are people who see traditional religions being challenged and fear the change,” he said. “They feel their own ways are under threat and react because they are too lazy to think.”
Sir Lloyd said he’d learned more from Buddhism than any other faith outside Christianity. Buddhism had survived for 2,500 years without belief in God, and could point the way to Christianity without God
He also paid respect to Islam, saying that the faith in its early days, particularly in Andalusia (a region in Southern Spain once controlled by Muslim Moors), had contributed much to the world’s learning. This included mathematics, the West’s numbering system, science and “a new burst of theology.”
“If it hadn’t been for the contribution of Islam, Christianity might have died a natural death,” he said. “Religions provide the time-tested frameworks of values. They help us learn how to be human beings and live with one another.
“Diversity of religions is a very good thing. What we’ve learned through ecology is that life evolved because of diversity. As humans we are an unified organism, not separate bodies.
“Religion must be relevant to the times in which we live. Christianity in its classical form had already died when I was a student – it was preached as a way of life. Unfortunately ‘religion’ is a blocking word. It’s associated with the supernatural.”
Attempts to find a bookstore in Indonesia’s major cities stocking any of Sir Lloyd’s 16 books, including titles like Christianity without God and In Praise of the Secular, was a doomed exercise.
Sir Lloyd, who has just turned 95, has been a widower twice. He was knighted in 2009, remains physically spry and drives to St Andrews’s on The Terrace, a Wellington Presbyterian church where he is the theologian in residence and a regular speaker and debater.
The church supports same-sex marriage and gay and lesbian clergy. It’s part of the Progressive Christianity movement popular in the US and Australasia, though unlikely to take root in Indonesia until criticism of religion is accepted and divorced from atheism.
Although Christianity in Indonesia is reported to be expanding it tends to be charismatic and conservative, with Protestant congregations sometimes splitting and forming new denominations.
In Australasia congregations are shrinking and churches closing, helping energize ecumenism. Doctrinal differences matter less when the prayerful depart the pews.
Preachers from other faiths, including Islam, Judaism and Buddhism have spoken at St Andrew’s and read their holy books at the lectern. An Indonesian gamelan orchestra has played in the church.
Lloyd Geering was born in New Zealand’s South Island where Presbyterians from Scotland first settled in the 19th century. His family was only mildly religious.
A brilliant mathematician he later turned to theology and became a university lecturer in his homeland and Australia. He remains Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at the Victoria University of Wellington and is a drawcard for theologians of all faiths from across the world.
Attitudes towards him have mellowed over the decades from vilification as the most divisive man in the country to praise as the nation’s leading public intellectual.
He is a member of the Jesus Seminar, a select group of largely Western Biblical scholars that’s been re-examining and re-translating the scriptures. They’ve been seeking what they call the ‘historical Jesus’ as opposed to the figure constructed by later contributors to the Bible.
Sir Lloyd’s lectures and preaching are intellectual exercises, not happy clapping and calls to prayer, which he doesn’t support. He has made a series of TV programs about his philosophy set in the Holy Land. He says he has no expectation of an afterlife.
“The Biblical witness to the path of faith starts with the story of Abraham, a figure who is equally honored in what later became three great faith traditions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam,” he said.
“Like Abraham of old I am not at all clear about the way ahead, either for the church or for the human race as a whole.
“But I continue to go into the unknown, walking the path of faith that started in his time and drawing my values and inspiration from all who have followed in his steps.”