Is Christianity going anywhere?

Ronald Pearse, founding member of SoF and a priest in the Church of England, reviews 'Is Christianity Going Anywhere?', by Lloyd Geering. 2004, St Andrew’s Trust for the Study of Religion and Society, 56 pp; ISBN 0-9583645-8-3

It is unusual for a book review to start by looking at its publishers and their premises. I find it rewarding, however, in the case of this latest offering from Lloyd Geering and the St Andrew’s Trust. The first ships of European settlers arrived in what is now Wellington, the capital city of New Zealand, in 1840. A Presbyterian minister from Scotland conducted the settlers’ first service on the foreshore there and from that service the present church of St Andrew’s on The Terrace eventually developed, in the middle of the present city, surrounded by government offices and near Parliament. The church is an integral part of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, but has its own statement of mission:

To create a lively, open Christian faith community, to act for a just and peaceful world, and to be catalysts for discovery, compassion and celebration in the capital.

Its congregational statement says:

We are supportive of theological and biblical scholarship and our ministers have reflected this in their preaching. The liberal nature of the congregation does not mean that all within it think alike; indeed we value our diversity and see that as part of our community’s strength and attraction to newcomers. … [We] represent a wide spectrum of religious and spiritual perspectives: from those with a traditional belief in a personal God, through to post-Christians who conceive of God as the symbolic way of describing the highest of universal and human consciousness and creativity.

Would that there were many churches in the UK which could not only hold such a position but also publicly proclaim it! I think the Anglican Church of St Mark, Broomhill, Sheffield may be our closest example.

St Andrew’s on the Terrace has set up Trusts, including that for the Study of Religion and Society, which has arranged series of four lunch-time lectures (often to a full house) on specific themes, with speakers including Paul Oestreicher, Don Cupitt and Lloyd Geering. Often the lectures have been published in an affordable small book form for use across the world.

Lloyd’s latest lectures, Is Christianity going anywhere?, answer their own question positively, but with qualification – and do so in a way to stimulate uncomfortable thinking on the part of both Christians and those who have made a deliberate or tacit break from the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

In contrast to Cupitt in his Solar Ethics (1995, SCM Press) but, in my opinion, in tune with the latter’s historical approach in The Sea of Faith BBC TV series and book in 1984, Geering stresses the need to know our roots. Although ‘solar ethics’ offers an heroic spirituality of burning out and burning up in a selfless, unknowing way, living solely in the present, I have been worried that by its very impersonality, without history, it could be adopted and adapted dangerously by a totalitarian society (such as the Imperial Japanese kamikaze culture of up to 1945?) or by individuals who are not aware of their own emotional histories.

Geering urges both Christians and Western non-Christians to consider their roots. Christians need to understand their faith tradition as one with an evolutionary history. It grew out of Judaism (which had its own history of growth and of taking in ideas from outside its borders). At what some see as its best, the cumulative Christian tradition has shown awareness in recent centuries of the limitations of believing in a divine personal being that have been exposed by the scientific approach and the historical method of understanding phenomena.

Geering maintains that the modern secular world originated in the Christian West. Western culture had, of course, been enriched inter alia by classical learning and by Moorish medicine and arithmetic. I can see that love of truth and the seeking of it, which are the mainsprings of scientific thought, are, in the West, products of the West’s developed religious faith, even if scientific ideas have sometimes met with opposition in the Church. Christians and Western non-Christians alike need to examine their origins. Without roots, cultures die. Without knowledge of our own self-history we can be vulnerable to neurosis.

Christian history is the story of the Jesus movement. Geering offers an interesting approach to examining it – ‘excavating Jesus’. This archaeological way of understanding Christian evolution contradicts Schweitzer by working backwards from later dogmatic ideas about Jesus, stripping away nine layers, until we are left with what current scholarship suggests may be convincing voiceprints and footprints of him. These enable us to try to recover Jesus’ teaching.

Geering sees Christian orthodoxy as standing still, not going anywhere. But he maintains that Christianity can have a convincing future if it takes a secular path, which can be seen as its legitimate continuation. This small book is well packed with stimulating ideas. I commend it warmly.

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