Heresy, or common sense?

The Last Western Heretic, a documentary about the life and ideas of Lloyd Geering, was shown on New Zealand TV last weekend. It was excellent – extremely well made and great intellectual content. Geering is considered a radical theologian and a NZ icon and was once described by the BBC as “the last living heretic.” He has fearlessly challenged Christian doctrine for the last 50 years. I have read several of his books and attended several of his seminars. His ideas are always stimulating and refreshing.

I admire people who are prepared to challenge outmoded ideas. Particularly when this could result in personal and financial recrimination. I suspect that there are many thoughtful ministers of religion who have come to the same conclusions as Geering. However, most of these appear unprepared to face the prospect of loss of income and pension rights, and a comfortable life style, which would result from public honesty on these questions. So they continue to hypocritically promote the same old tired myths to their parishioners.

The documentary is structured around the following nine statements:

1: We created the concept of God.

The question of the existence or non-existence of a god is nonsensical until the god is defined. Without definition it is a stupid question.

2: Jesus was not divine.

He was seen as human by his followers. Attribution of divinity came after his death.

3: Resurrection was symbolic, not real.

This, together with the next statement was a reason for the heresy charge.

4: There is no life after death.

Although the heresy charge was dismissed as “not proved” by the Presbyterian General Assembly the issues themselves were never debated by the church.

5: The bible is not divinely inspired. It is often wrong.

Biblical claims are often proved wrong by scientific evidence. The scientific enterprise can be seen as a new “revelation.”

6: Fundamentalism is a danger to the world.

The fundamentalist mind builds a barrier around itself to provide security. Fundamentalists suffer from stilted intellectual growth. Fundamentalism exists in all the major relgious traditions as a resistance to change and a desire for the past.

7: Religious beliefs evolve over time.

There is a tremendous amount of superstition within Christianity. Prayer is superstition.

8: We need a new ethics and new rituals.

Christianity is in rapid decline. We should be concerned to maintain the beautiful Christian buildings or they will be lost. Religious rituals are in transition. Christmas is now a family event. Funerals are being bought back into the world and becoming more secular. A celebration of the life of an individual rather than their passing on to the “next world.”

9: The New God is our planet.

We alone, of all species, have the power to destroy all life on earth. We have a responsibility to the planet and all life on earth.

YouTube links to The Last Western Heretic
Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8 Part 9 Part 10
Playlist

Some of Lloyd Geering’s books:
Tomorrow’s God
Lloyd Geering Reader: Prophet of Modernity
Christian Faith at the Crossroads
Christianity without God
A Religious Atheist?: Critical Essays on the Work of Lloyd Geering

See also:
Atheists in the Pulpit: Ministers Who Lose Their Faith

Related articles:
Intelligent design and the threat to Christianity
Religious opposition to “intelligent design”
Atheism and religious diversity I: Diversity in New Zealand
Atheism and religious diversity II: A personal perspective
Atheism and religious diversity III: Conflict between science and religion
Atheism and religious diversity IV: Values, morality and spirituality
Thank God or Thank Goodness?

11 responses to “Heresy, or common sense?

  1. Thanks for this, Ken! I have linked to it on Perlocutionary because it is a great contribution to the ongoing discussion of science and religion.

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  2. I’m going to be able to watch this for myself soon, hopefully (thanks to Damian who has graciously put it on DVD)…

    Theology is, of course, the field I play in; I have ideas that are my own, but I also benefit from many of the ‘real’ theologians… (That’s my way of saying ‘I am not an expert theologian.’)

    Contra to the implicit statement of your title, I think that one can find Geering to be theologically heretical (at least at some points), and still maintain ‘common sense’…

    And I struggle to see the immediate connection to science… The doco seems (from your bullet-pointed summary) to cover very theological (and at times historical) issues…

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  3. Dale, Geering essentially takes the side of science if and when science and religion (or, at least, Biblical interpretation) come into conflict. He mentions in the documentary that Genesis 1:1 is a scientific statement (I don’t know if it would classify as an hypothesis?) that has since been proven wrong and the science is gradually revealing more of this idea of ‘God’ which he currently classifies as the planet.

    I personally struggle to make any sense of this conclusion however. Why not the whole universe?

    It’s my view that Genesis 1:1 is exactly the opposite of a scientific statement. Perhaps it was the best explanation available at the time but actually adding an invisible, all-powerful entity to explain how something works is far removed from science. A more scientific approach would have been to say “We just don’t know” – like what scientists these days say about before the Big Bang or the properties of dark matter or quantum physics.

    Actually, I’ll amend that a little. It’s OK to say “We don’t know” but to put forth a hypothesis even if it is a crazy one. The trick is to be willing to let go of that hypothesis when evidence against it comes to hand. It’s legitimate to alter the hypothesis as more information comes to light and perhaps this is what Geering is advocating?

    Ken, you say you’ve read some of his books – is this the sense in which Geering sees the Biblical tradition as originally science?

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  4. Actually, Damian, one of the things that has fascinated me about Geering is that following him for a while you can see his ideas developing (and often one’s own ideas developing at the same time). He has written on modern physics before but this is the first time I have heard him say these specific things, so perhaps it is relatively new.

    It actually intrigues me because I take issue with the concept that science is a new endeavor. True, in some basic ways modern specifically experientially-based science is only a few hundred years old – and even people like Newton did lapse into non-scientific explanations at times.

    I think we can see elements of a scientific approach from early times. Knowledge may have been expressed in superstitious ways but some of it was practical – e.g., navigation, agriculture, etc. – and would have relied on practical information (effectively primitive experimental testing) for its development and verification. The fact that some aspects of superstitious belief had practical use required this and we could say that even superstitious myths and beliefs were to some extent scientific. Modern science is a tremendous advance on the old knowledge, but it is still a development from that – it didn’t just appear from nowhere.

    So that comment of Geering’s resonated with me. As an atheist and a scientist I can accept that old religious beliefs, concepts and myths are part of my cultural and scientific past. Of course we know many scientific ideas today are wrong – they are proved wrong by testing and are replaced. So it’s not surprising that we can accept that at least as many ideas held be the ancients were also wrong and have been proved wrong (although not as quickly as they are today).

    I often ask myself – “How will our current sophisticated scientific knowledge appear to the ordinary person in 1000 years?” I suspect it might look a bit like the old biblical myths appear to us today!

    Dale – see your point about being heretical and sensible at the same time. Geering actually made the point that originally heresy just meant believing different things to those believed by the majority. I guess we are all heretics in our own way.

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  5. Heh, speaking of ideas developing that’s pretty much what happened to me by the time I got to the end of my last comment. I started out quite critical of Geering’s reasoning but by the time I’d taken it apart I realised he’s advocating science in the way I understand it but with perhaps a better understanding of its history but couching it in religious terms that I’m wary of.

    I might have to delve more into his writings.

    Thanks for the insights.

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  6. Ken/Damian,

    I would (perhaps a technicality?) diagree with anyone –Geering included– who would suggest that ‘Genesis 1:1 is a scientific statement that has been disproved…’

    Genesis 1:1 (not to mention the rest of the creation story) is a form of literature which reflects several things; the primary thing it reflects is not a scientific idea, but rather a theological one. Now, I do think there is more there than just theology, of course; there’s poetry/art, politics (the contrast with other creation stories of neighbouring nations is key here), philosophy and yes, some level/kind of reflection that some may wish to call ‘scientific.’

    As for modern science disproving the theology, poetry/art, philosophy and ‘science’ of Genesis 1:1, I beg to differ. The meaning of this ancient text is large enough for any discoveries of science to not only ‘fit’, but enhance it.

    Now, I’m not sure what Geering says or thinks, but announcing the triumph of ‘modern science over ancient myth’ is not only a category mistake, but is an insult both to modern science and ancient theological literature.

    Cheers,

    -d-

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  7. Dale, This reminds me of a passage in Dawkins’ “Unweaving the Rainbow” about a theological response to the theory of the structure of DNA after it is (fictionally) proved to be incorrect. I can just see some future (1000 years in the future) equivalent of todays theologian criticising comments that our current cosmology was primitive and wrong. Just imagine them saying:
    “No, no! The Big Bang story was never meant to be a description of reality. It is metaphorical story of great literary and poetic content and we should see it as such. The story of “inflation,” “expansion” and the “cosmological constant” have great implications for our own spirituality. The evolution of of galaxies and stars parallels human experience of birth, maturity and death. The saints Stephen Hawkings and Carl Sagan were great moral teachers, not scientists.” An so on.

    I don’t see any essential difference between the Judeo/Christian/Islamic origins myths and the origin myths of other cultures. (In fact, I prefer the Maori creation myth as being more poetic, inspiring and unknowingly insightful).

    While many biblical stories are clearly metaphorical and were always meant to be (the parables attributed to Christ for example) I don’t see any evidence that our species knowingly invented metaphorical stories related to origins and the social and natural environment. Surely these we stories meant to provide an explanations. Many of them were not tested in practice (and then adjusted) the way superstitious stories related to agriculture, animal and plant breeding, and navigation would have been. People were presumably happy enough to have such stories without feeling any need to validate them. (Quite a few people seem prepared to do the same thing today).

    Of course we see these old myths through the inevitable “Chinese whispers” of time which will have imposed a lot of literature, poetry and meaning. These are distortions to fit the contemporary mind and I suggest this is what happens today to justify religious maintenance of these myths.

    I don’t think Geering was using “scientific” in the modern sense. My point is that science as we understand it today didn’t just suddenly appear. It is an evolution of primitive approaches (which today we call unscientific) which involved supersition and religion. If fact in many ways scientific investigation developed within organised religion (although today there are very good reasons to cut that umbilical chord)..

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  8. Hi Ken,

    (Begin footnote: This topic is firstly that of a historical nature; that of seeking to discover what the writers of ancient texts thought about the cosmos. Secondly, it is a theological topic; the texts are theological ones (as well as, of course, philosophical, political, poetic). We are surveying what we think to be part of the history (historical) of theological (theology) thought as seen in ancient texts. Though the subject matter is indeed to discern what their ‘scientific’ view of reality was, this remains a historical and theological topic… End footnote.)

    I’m not denying that the writers of ancient texts (biblical or otherwise) did indeed have opinions of the nature of reality. No doubt. It’s quite clear that they imagined a ‘dome’ above and ‘corners’ to the earth, etc.
    This view of reality comes through clearly in the texts. But this does not mean that they didn’t consciously and intentionally (and poetically) use metaphor. It’s not a matter of either/or; it’s both.

    I don’t think that Hebrews imagined that the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ was a literal/historical/scientific tree which had knowledge growing on it. I smell metaphor here. That some Christians later imagine this tree as a literal tree is baffling.
    Further, the Creator is described as (for example) ‘laying the foundations’ of heaven/earth, etc. Here we might see the ‘both’ coming together. Did ancient Hebrews believe heaven/earth had ‘foundations’? Perhaps likely (in some sense). But the metaphor used here is certainly architectual. The Creator is likened to a master-builder. Now, I don’t presume an atheist sees the need for this metaphor, but we theists remain quite happy with it, and find it fully compatable with and big enough for anything science has to say…
    gotta run… 😉

    -d-

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  9. Here’s my reading of the Genesis creation myth:

    The book of Genesis is a collection of stories woven together by some unknown redactor. The work contains legend, poetry, fantasy, genealogy, short story, and other literary forms which are blended together to form a more or less coherent whole. Genesis is a kind of universal history; like other myths, it presents a story about what the beginning of time may have been like. It opens with two distinct creation myths: one emphasizing the transcendental nature of the creator god and the other emphasizing the human-like properties of the same creator god. The first god creates by fiat, by giving verbal commands; the second creates by breathing air into a lump of clay. The two may be different versions of the story by different poets, or they may be contrary projections of the complex human creation called god. The “third,” if the projection is read as a psychological ground, would be this: the verbal is the lump of clay. God speaks and the world begins. God speaks and life begins. The creative power of speech is celebrated in the beginning. Language with its formal aspects – its rules of syntax and semantics – is the perfect analog for creation itself, since language gives us the power to create order and meaning out of the chaos of experience.

    The creation myth can be read as a description of any act of creation: first the intention, then the translation from mind to matter, and then the evaluation: “and it was good.” Professor Douwe Stuurman, who taught The Bible as Literature at the University of California in the nineteen sixties, pointed out in lectures that the creation myth, when read aloud, will be heard to be an accurate description of the completion of any creative act. He told us the story of his first wife, a blind poet, who had asked him to read Genesis 1 and 2 aloud to her and who when he finished said “that is precisely the feeling of creating a poem.” In writing a poem one starts with an idea and a blank and formless page. The creative act of beginning to “blow” life into that page and after some time (and with some luck) giving form to the stuff of the mind, transforming it into a new medium has formed a completed work. Human creation, like Eliot’s The Wasteland, is often a multi-staged affair with false starts, revisions, crumpled failed attempts tossed away, and a complex of discovery and creation. The poet does not know the poem until it is finished. And when finished the feeling is there to be expressed: “And it is good.”

    Read this way `good’ is an aesthetic term, as in “Shane is a good movie” or “King Lear is Shakespeare’s best play.” Value terms are ambiguous in that sense, for we use many of the same words to describe both aesthetic and moral judgments, `good’ doing service in both categories of judgments. “And it was good” as used in Genesis is evaluative, but not in the moral sense. The story itself is silent on the moral status of the creation and therefore the puzzle of how evil can arise in a perfect creation arises only because of the confusion between aesthetic and moral uses of the word `good.’ `Is the universe and everything in it good?’ is the wrong question to ask when `good’ is used in the moral sense. Such a question gets currency only if one presupposes that the logically prior assertion `God is good’ is true, and that there is a perfect transfer from creator to creation. But in the creation myths in Genesis we have no argument to establish the truth of that claim, in fact, Genesis actually tells us very little about God. “In the beginning of creation, when God made heaven and earth…” presupposes the existence and nature of God and the reader has the task of creating God from the narrative stuff provided. From the first line of the book the main character is a given, yet a mystery, a term looking for a referent. Here again confusion arises when we fail to see that the particular kind of verbal act the writer uses in the story is not one to be evaluated by some correspondence theory of truth, but is rather a proclamation or statement in the sense that the Canadian Constitution is a proclamation or set of statements. If one says of a country’s constitution, `It is true’ what exactly is one saying? Constitutions constitute the rules of the game, and are, as we all know, subject to interpretation throughout time. The logical status of many statements in the Bible is similar to the logical status of rules of a game: `three strikes and you are out’ not only regulates the game of baseball, it also constitutes the game. “And it was good” is thus proclamation and aesthetic judgment. The priests who compose the account of the creation presuppose God, as an objective being. God, as a character in a narrative, is yet to be discovered.

    [Reading the Bible: Intention, Text, Interpretation, page 45-46]

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  10. Hi Bob,

    Thanks for sharing that selection from your book.

    My following comments are critical (and brief), but that’s what good scholarship is about, right? 🙂

    While your comments contain some helpful points, I think most biblical scholars will agree that the best exegetical treatment of an ancient text will need to do the work of establishing (appreciating) the historical context. As you probably know, we have many texts from the Ancient Near East to compare the Hebrew Bible with. This comparative process enables one to appreciate the distinctiveness of one set of texts from the other, and one finds interesting differences between the Hebrew texts and the other ANE texts.

    Any attempt to discern what the original author intended really must do this difficult, but fruitful work…

    I’ve got a 10am meeting, so gotta run, but I’ll just say that there are many very helpful scholarly works on such things… The New Interpreters Bible commentary series is great. These scholars are very much in touch with the historical context (as well as the literary context, the canonical context, redactive process, etc., etc.)…

    Cheers,

    -d-

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  11. p.s. – my friend frank (over at servantsthoughts.com) did an exegesis on this passage which can be read at http://www.servantsthoughts.com/brief-genesis-1-exegesis/

    Cheers,

    -d-

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