Christianity Without God
A Review by Janet Trisk
Christianity Without God
Wellington: Bridget Williams Books 2002
USA: Santa Rosa, Calif: Polebridge press
What an extraordinary writer and theologian Lloyd Geering is! Nearly thirty-five years after his first book God In The New World, his newest publication is as fresh, challenging and interesting as ever. My first reading of Christianity Without God was in a single day, as one might read a novel. It is that engaging and it reads as easily, for Geering writes in simple and compelling language, conveying a complicated set of ideas in the most accessible way. He does so with a passion that is exciting and inspiring in the best tradition of the liberation theologians, who claim that good theology is engaged reflection.
Christianity Without God examines whether it is possible to conceive of Christianity without the traditional theistic belief in God. Geering contends that this is not only possible but that Christianity, since its very origins, was moving towards the rejection of theism, and that in our time not only it is possible to conceive of non-theistic Christianity, but that Christianity should become so. If debates in the SOF Network are anything to go by, this question will be keenly followed by a number of Seafarers.
Geering argues that the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation form the basis for the Christian departure from theism. These inter-related doctrines contradict traditional Jewish monotheism, which sets God against humanity. Geering's argument of how the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity spelled the beginning of the end of theism is systematic, scholarly and extremely wide-ranging. For example, in examining the history of the concept of god, he moves in one chapter of just under 15 pages from the pre-Axial period, through Jewish, Greek and early Christian thought to modernity. Yet one never feels breathless in taking in this vast sweep. His synthesis of the main thoughts is clearly the result of many years of reflection and scholarship.
At the same time as scanning these broad vistas, Geering manages to take in details and to draw attention to non-dominant, even forgotten traditions. Two examples will illustrate this. In 'reading' Jesus, Geering presents him as exemplar of a sage of the Wisdom tradition, rather than a messianic king come to institute a kingdom. He draws some wonderful parallels between Jesus' teaching and that of Ecclesiastes and Ben Sirach.
Such a reading of Jesus, of course, has profound implications for the church which has modelled itself on imperial hierarchies, claiming the Lord Jesus and his Father God as the source of power and authority for Christian leaders. Geering notes that for "Christianity without God" there is no place for the traditional institutional church, which owes more to the Roman Empire than to Jesus. What does still have a place, he suggests, is the simple gathering of people for a meal, sharing of stories and support, and ritual and festivals celebrating all we have come to value in human existence.
Geering also draws attention to the neglected Epistle of James as a close relative of the Wisdom tradition. James, he suggests, has been ignored because writers such as Augustine and Luther, who favoured a reading of Jesus as the lord and saviour rather than a human sage, gave emphasis to the Pauline corpus. Yet the emphasis in James on the worlds of faith are highly relevant to the way Christians might choose to live without God, taking responsibility for their world and especially for the "little ones".
The book has some extremely useful introductions on theological topics. For example he offers a precise set of definitions of theism, atheism, deism, pantheism, panentheism and mysticism that is every theology teacher's dream. So too is his chapter on "Why did Christians invent the Holy Trinity?" It is one of the neatest introductions to an understanding of Trinitarianism I have come across, and will certainly become part of suggested reading for students commencing a study of the doctrine. However, this book is not only for scholars and trained theologians.
Because of Geering's clear and simple writing, drawing on everyday examples, it will appeal to interested readers with very little formal training. Christianity Without God is above all, a hopeful book. It recognises and celebrates humanity and our potential for freedom, and the positive changes we have seen in the end of slavery, challenges to patriarchy, racism and heterosexism and a growing concern for the earth and all its creatures. Geering suggests that we still have far to go though, in taking responsibility for our world and our lives, and part of that human movement to freedom and maturity is Christianity without God.
Janet Trisk is an Anglican priest and a lecturer of systematic theology at an Anglican seminary in South Africa. This review first appeared in "SoF", the magazine of the Sea of Faith Network (UK) in January 2003