Wrestling With God: The Story of my Life

Ronald Pearse reviews Wrestling with God: The Story of my Life, by Lloyd Geering. Published by Imprint Academic (Exeter), 2007. £14.95. pbk. 263 pages. ISBN 9 781845 400774

Shortly after this book appeared, the New Zealand New Year’s Honours List 2007 announced the award of that country’s highest honour, the Order of New Zealand, to the author, Lloyd Geering. Professor Geering is not as well known in the UK as he ought to be. This is partly due to his modesty. Although he has travelled considerably, much of this has been for his own learning (or for taking fellow New Zealanders on learning trips to the Middle East), rather than on promotional tours. His first three main books (up to 1980) were published in the UK, but from then until now publishers in this country have neglected him. During that period some of his works have been published in his home country and become bestsellers there. Now, Imprint Academic, of Exeter, are to be congratulated on bringing out a UK/US edition of his autobiography.

My first awareness of Lloyd was in 1991 when Don Cupitt recommended him as a useful Antipodean contact for the Sea of Faith Network. (Don had benefited from Lloyd’s Faith’s New Age (Collins, 1980) in preparing his The Sea of Faith (BBC, 1984).) As Network Secretary, I had the privilege of opening the correspondence and then the audacious duty of inviting Lloyd to speak at the 1992 Sea of Faith conference in Leicester – without fee and without guarantee of finding his airfare. He came (and we found enough to pay the fare). The result was two lectures, which became chapters in Tomorrow’s God (Bridget Williams Books, 1994).

Who was this quiet and unassuming personality? His grandparents had emigrated to New Zealand from England and Scotland. Lloyd endured many changes of school in his formative years while his father moved between factories and farms in New Zealand and Australia during the difficult employment years of the Depression. As a boy he had no pocket money beyond what he gained by gathering mushrooms and trapping occasional rabbits. Despite the previous unsettled schooling, Lloyd prospered at Otago Boys’ High School, becoming a bright student and a keen hockey and cricket player. Then at the University of Otago he gained a First Class degree in Mathematics. During his time there he began to have contacts with the Presbyterian Church and with the theologically very liberal Student Christian Movement. Eventually he offered himself for selection as a minister, inspired more by a desire to serve humanity than by a personal devotion to God.

The book is the story of the development of its author’s family and professional life. After three parish ministries into which he threw himself with great enthusiasm, he moved to lectureships, first at Emmanuel College, Brisbane, Australia and then at his alma mater, Knox Hall, Dunedin, the NZ Presbyterian Church’s sole institution for ministerial training. In both posts he developed his passion for Hebrew and Old Testament studies, and eventually became Principal at Knox. Then, forty years ago, he was tried for heresy. The trial was the result of his writing articles in a church journal bringing the church up to date with scholarship of the past fifty years. In the UK we were not aware of – and probably cannot now imagine – the impact on the nation’s life which this public trial made in the whole of New Zealand. Under the blaze of TV lights, it was the talk of the country. He was accused of grave impropriety in teaching doctrines contrary to the Bible and with disturbing the peace and unity of the church. After days of debate, he was acquitted. The trial has been written about since then, but, until now, not fully by the chief figure in it. It cannot be understood in isolation and so needs the background of the accused’s theological development, which this book gives. This, in turn, is best understood alongside his development as a person. The trial’s long-term effect on the Church is also considered. So, in this book there is something of importance to New Zealand in the understanding of part of its recent history. After the trial Geering went on to an academic life outside the Church (but without abandoning the Church). As a minister still and as professor of religious studies he did not disappear from the public gaze, but continued to be in demand for a liberal or radical view on many subjects. Now, aged 89, he is still writing and speaking.

What use is this book to us in the UK? It is the story without national boundaries of one who has wrestled, if not with God as a person, then with the idea of God and with developed ideas about religious faith that are of enormous value to us in the West as we now drift rudderless after the rapid decline of organised Western Christendom. His writings help us to get a perspective on life and history. A key thought appears on page 47 where he writes of a time when he came to see that instead of indoctrinating people with creeds and confessions as if they were unchangeable truths, it would be more enlightening to present Christianity as a living and ever-changing cultural tradition. Also, on page 70, ‘Doing the right thing took precedence over having the right beliefs.’ Increasingly and passionately he has been concerned about doing right for our neighbour – including our neighbour the environment.

He says he writes, not for scholars, but for ordinary people like himself, ‘who are trying to make some sense of the awe-inspiring yet bewildering universe, and to find some purpose in their lives.’ The book lacks a full list of the author’s writings, but in the text there are references to the most important ones, which can still be sourced via book suppliers It is a good introduction to them. This is a warm, human book, which the author offers ‘as a theological tale’ in the hope that it may encourage its readers on their own paths of faith. I commend it heartily.