Christianity Without God
A Review by Mike Grimshaw
Christianity Without God
Wellington: Bridget Williams Books 2002
USA: Santa Rosa, Calif: Polebridge press
Lloyd Geering is living proof that life can begin at Fifty! Such is his liveliness, his prolific outpouring of books and booklets, his public lectures and energy that it is all too easy to forget that he was born in 1918 and so is now in his eighty-fifth year. He was therefore almost fifty when he was thrust into the public spotlight and tried for doctrinal error. His response was not to fade quietly away but rather seize the opportunity to talk, write, educate and debate in a way that was accessible, provocative and influential. In doing so he brought issues of secularization and theology to the general public in ways that the churches have generally never really been able to cope with. In the past thirty five years he has articulated reasons for people to both leave and stay within the churches, himself operating as a dissenting believer [my term] in the best protestant tradition.
His great skill lies in his ability to communicate ideas and concepts in a manner that makes them accessible and easy to comprehend. He is not so much an original thinker as an educator, a reporter, a describer — one who seeks to overcome that gulf not only between academy and clergy, but also, often bypassing clergy, between academy and laity. His work displays the hallmarks of his original training as a skilled mathematician; logical, methodical, seeking clarity. And yet there is always the pastoral voice of the minister seeking to improve lives and the evangelical zeal of the convert. These are not bad things — they are in fact the reasons for his success.
Now we have the publication of his latest text. It is of course another very accessible book, easy to read, clearly written — yet, and here I must act as critic, somewhat lacking in substance. It would of course be patronisingly easy to say "to write such a book in your eighty-fourth year is a great achievement" and not treat it as one would any other text. But this is a serious book and deserves serious attention — and a serious critique. So I cast myself in the role of 'Young Turk'.
The title is, of course, deliberately provocative. However, as Lloyd explained in an interview with Kim Hill on National Radio, he wanted to call it "Christianity without Theism". His publishers did not agree, arguing that "theism" is not a term readily understood, nor does it have the impact of "Christianity without GOD"!! As a marketing ploy it is of course a flashback to the headlines of the 1960s — no longer "Geering denies resurrection" or "Geering denies immortal soul" but rather "Geering denies God". It did get some response but no longer is it headline stuff — perhaps what would have gained headlines would be the inverse "Geering confirms God"? So has our society moved in the past thirty five years.
This is a parallel publication with Robert Funk's Polebridge Press i.e. the Jesus Seminar. Geering and Funk made acquaintance when, some years back, Robert Funk, on Jim Veitch's instigation, journeyed to New Zealand on a lecture tour. As a result Lloyd has now had highly successful lecture and book tours to the United States under the introduction and auspices of Funk and the Jesus Seminar. Funk is someone who polarizes opinion and here provides an introduction which is typically sweeping in its generalisations and reminiscent of what I call "animal farm theology" i.e. "4 feet good, 2 feet bad" — or in this case "no God liberals good, God non-liberals bad".
So according to Funk if we get rid of God we will all become tolerant, politically-correct, accepting western liberals — ready to embrace all the delayed benefits of the 1960s social revolution including "doing away with original sin and the stigmatization of sex". It always amazes me to what degree sin and sex are still linked in a far more constrictive way for old liberals than they really are for any one else of any other theological persuasion. Perhaps they are all versions of the poet laureate John Betjeman who when asked towards the end of his life if he had any regrets infamously replied "not having more sex!" Or maybe they are all similarly frustrated Larkins [to continue the poetic analogy] who claimed that sexual intercourse began in 1963...between the end of the Chatterly ban and the Beatle's first LP — but still too late for him. The problem is that many liberals seem to have been torn between the repressive and permissive society — wanting a divine-like authority to re-order society but wanting, personally to 'be free'. But this is just Funk's introduction. Geering of course is far more sophisticated and thoughtful, not so blatantly faddish — perhaps one advantage of having stayed clear of American cultural and university politics!
Enough of the introduction — what of the text itself? I suppose what most concerns me is the underlying tone of anti-intellectualism. It seems that having decided that theism/god/ whatever is no more, then any theological attempt is a waste of time — or worse, a form of deliberate obscurantism. Yet perhaps the most damaging thing he could have written — far more than any anti-theistic conclusions is this passage (p15):
Moreover theology can be highly deceptive! It can give the appearance of being very profound; yet, on closer examination, it may turn out to be gobbledygook, saying nothing very sensible or meaningful at all. It may even deceive the theologian who wrote it. It is wise to take some theology with a grain of salt. The learned and abstract language engaged in by some academic theologians can have the effect of clouding the issues rather than clarifying them. One sometimes suspects, for example, that some of those who write this way have beguiled themselves with their own apparent brilliance. Profound yet simple issues can all too easily be fudged by abstract language and made to look more complex than they really are. We should be on our guard. When we find the Emperor has no clothes on we should have the honesty to say so.
Of course as someone who works in a university, teaches and writes on theory and religion you could say I am most likely to get upset by such comments. And yes I am known to delve into abstract thought and theology. Yes it can be difficult and yes it can be complex and yes it can be confusing [and yes perhaps I protest too much] but damn it this is really the most inexcusable point made in this book. His arguments regarding theism or no theism are there to be debated and critiqued — and yes they may need academic theologians to comprehensively do so. But to dismiss theory, complex argument and debate, to dismiss much academic theology so out of hand, to call it gobblegook is really pandering to the lowest common denominator.
If anything is set to confirm the dominant New Zealand anti-intellectualism then this is it. It is a form of lay protestant piety: "I can read the truth for myself — and it is easy to understand. All academic theologians are just a bit too clever for their own good and attempting to confuse and mislead all us good, plain-thinking, plain-speaking people".
Now interestingly this was exactly the sort of charge many laid against Geering back in the 1960s! So what has happened? The answer I believe can be found in the bibliography which for a text addressing such an issue is remarkably limited. Aside from his own works, the heaviest reliance is on the works of Don Cupitt. Now there was a time when I was an enthusiastic supporter of Cupitt's — and I still think his earlier, more philosophically-inclined, more academic texts are worth perusing. However Cupitt started to derail back in 1995 with Solar Ethics. In many ways Lloyd's book is an antipodean counterpoint to this work of Cupitt's. Both cast off theology, a theological and academic past and turn to embrace a form of semi-mystical secular humanism than is strongly New Age inflected — yet strongly modernist in their assumptions that this is the inevitable next step in human progress — in fact the only acceptable step. The other strong influence is Wilfred Cantwell Smith — another universalizing New Ager again highly dismissive of academic theology or any intellectual save himself!
And then, yesterday, when I was doing some separate research, it all came clear. I am currently researching the 'Death of God' movement in the 1960s. This involves tracking down and reading articles from this still misunderstood theological uproar [but that's another story]. I was reading a little article by Fred M. Hudson entitled "Four meanings of 'the Death of God' " which originally appeared in the American journal motive in 1966 and was republished in Ice and Carey's 1967 anthology The Death of God Debate. Hudson was Chaplain and Assistant Professor of Religion at Colby College in Maine. Reading his short article I suddenly thought that the central themes and conclusions were very familiar. Then I realized that these were what sit under Lloyd's book. Now I am not saying that plagiarism has occurred — either consciously or unconsciously. Rather that Lloyd's book fits a type of thought that existed in America in the 1960s [briefly] and which soon disappeared. It is a de-mystified, secularized version of Thomas Altizer, William Hamilton etc — without the theology. In many ways the long delayed, populist, anti-academic exposition of secular culture against the 'death of Godders'. I say against because Altizer, Hamilton, Vahanian and van Buren by no means sought such liberal triumphalist resolution as Lloyd posits. So what seems to be happening here is a form of secularizing the 'death of Godders' of the 1960s whose understanding of the end of religious Christianity and of theism did not mean such a reduction into a humanised humanism — that is a humanism that appears to worship another human being as in Christianity without theism.
A central problem is that this book appears to take Berger's 1960s secularization thesis as still relevant and descriptive [indeed prescriptive] for today. In the 1960s the American sociologist Peter Berger was at the forefront of a school of sociology stating that by the year 2000 religion would to all intents and purposes have disappeared, especially in the West. As Berger states in his recantation and reassessment [Berger, The desecularization of the world, 1999 p.3]:
[The] idea is simple: modernization necessarily leads to a decline of religion, both in society and in the minds of individuals. And it is precisely this key idea that has turned out to be wrong. To be sure, modernization has had some secularizing effects, more in some places than others. But it has also provoked powerful movements of counter-secularization. Also, secularization on the societal level is not necessarily linked to secularization on the level of individual consciousness. Certain religious institutions have lost power and influence in many societies, but both old and new religious beliefs and practices have nevertheless continued in the minds of individuals, sometimes taking new institutional forms and sometimes leading to great explosions of religious fervour. Conversely, religiously identified institutions can play social or political roles even when very few people believe or practice the religion that the institutions represent. To say the least, the relation between religion and modernity is rather complicated.
Berger is worth quoting in detail because his argument sits at the heart of the critique of Geering's text. There is an enlightenment inevitability omnipresent in all of Lloyd's books, a sense that there has been another inevitable, universal Jasperian axial period that has made all moderns secular and every one else who is not modern and secular is now premodern or primitive or superstitious or, really a bit simple, thick or weak…
Yet the reality is that the world is becoming less secular, not more secular. Now we can take up at least a couple of positions towards this. The first is to continue the enlightenment critique and state that even if this is occurring those who are turning away from the secular are misguided and in fact seeking to hold back and even retard human evolution. They are willingly [or being deceived] into enslaving themselves to false beliefs of the past. They are re-opiating themselves because they cannot cope with the act of will necessary to frolic on the empty beach [to mix nineteenth century metaphors].
Another position is that the rise of spirituality in the post-modern world is part of this secularizing that posits the individual over the institution as the authority. Thus the institution of the theistic God is replaced by the inner voice of spirituality — the individual becomes 'their own god'.
Or the third is a question of slippage and cultural evolution: that secularization is inevitable, but also that some cultures and peoples are more evolved than others and while slippage does occur overall we are all becoming more secular and part of this is a new global understanding. That a new planetary consciousness [a secular form perhaps of Teilhard's noosphere] will result in a common, global humanized ethic…
Perhaps the problem is that Lloyd has fallen prey to his own prejudices — for it is precisely the cultural and theological theorist who are engaged in attempting to understand what is happening. The modernist is always wary of postmodernity, yet I kept hearing the words of Lyotard in my ear: "the post-modern is the return to pre-modern ways of thinking."
Now of course the post-modern is notoriously verbose and jargon filled [all those damned French and their wordplay] but this is a book that dismisses postmodernity out of hand. The moderns who look to the Nineteenth century afterdraft of the enlightenment might have dismissed talk of God, but continental influenced theory, theology and philosophy is full of talk of God especially [and this is my main point] of talking of the possibility of articulating the god after the death of God.
But before we venture down this track I do need to note those areas that I consider are handled well. Chapter Four on the invention/discovery/revelation [take your pick according to your position] of the Trinity and especially its centrality for Christianity is an important read for all who would seek to dismiss this book and its conclusions out of hand. We often fail to realise how little people know of the Trinity — even [or perhaps especially] those who profess themselves to be 'Christians'. Now of course 'Christian' is really a shorthand for 'born again' in the majority of cases, but even those who first claim some sort of denominational allegiance often confess almost total ignorance as to the Trinity. What happens is that that rather than the Trinity [God in three persons] we often get a procession of three divine beings of descending power and influence depending on need: a strong Father, a weaker Son and an ineffectual Spirit — all separate; or an over-arching Son, secondary Spirit and distant Father; or all-consuming Spirit, a receding Son and a dominant Father waiting in the wings.
Yet it is the Trinity that really marks out Christianity as something quite different from what are often termed the other Abrahamic faiths [Judaism and Islam]. To dismiss the Trinity is really to dismiss the central claim of Christianity which is not that Jesus was/is a good man or an excellent guru, but rather that there has been a new self-revelation of God that we are to understand through the Christ event. So those claims that Jews, Christians and Muslims all worship the same God have to be read, from a Christian viewpoint, through the self-revelation of God in Christ and through the resulting Trinitarian revelation of God. This may be too doctrinaire for many who seek to call themselves Christians but that is precisely my point. The centrality of Christianity rests on a Christian Trinitarian theology. Christ cannot be Christ without the Trinity — nor can you have a Trinity without Christ. Can we understand this? Perhaps only graspingly [what may be termed 'faith seeking understanding']. Does it make sense? Well yes to a certain degree — and no, not at all. But that is the point. If it made perfect sense then that would invalidate its claim of being a divine self-revelation. For to be perfectly humanly understandable would be to reduce Christianity to religion [a human creation] and not revelation. And yes this may be slipping into a neo-orthodox mode but we need to consider that if Christianity is a religion and not self-revelation of God then Marx, Nietzsche and co are correct. More than that it makes those who claim to follow and believe in 'Jesus' idolaters, who following Feuerbach not only project themselves into a God space in the sky but then project themselves into the Jesus space they worship. In other words they worship another human being…
The issue with what we term religions is that they cannot all be 'true'- but they can be all false. Yet to challenge the first [they can be all paths to the same centre] makes the centre rather contradictory and schizophrenic. Yet to affirm the second raises its own internal issues because then we [the ones who perceive this] put ourselves out there as the sole possessors of truth — the more highly evolved…
Yes religions are cultural and expressed in and through culture but there does come a point when their central truth claims have to be confronted existentially. So if the Trinity does not make sense then you may have to choose whether sense is your highest criteria or not — and act accordingly. So what does the Christian say to those who believe otherwise? They have to say, "I believe you are wrong." And those they confront have to either say "You are correct" or "No, you are wrong." Does this create peace and toleration? The honest answer has to be no unless — and this is the nub of the issue — each side has the faith in their own position to accept the difference. The reality is that the 'religions' of the world do not agree internally and this needs to be the point we focus upon. The debates on belief and truth need first to be thrashed out within the domains of those calling themselves Christian or Jew or Muslim etc — and not taken half-thought, half-debated, half-understood and used to confront other belief systems. There is enough internal dispute within that which is termed Christianity to occupy all those seeking to identify with that tradition; perhaps here a biblical passage is apposite: Matthew 7:3-5
Why do you see the speck that is your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother 'let me take the speck out of your eye' when there is a log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.
This has two applications for what is under discussion. Firstly you need to clearly work out your own theological position before seeking to correct others. But then secondly, Christianity needs to clarify and work to understand what it possibly means in today's world before ever seeking to challenge the beliefs of others. And this, in its own way is what Lloyd's book is seeking to do. This book is a call to reform, to challenge, to self-critique to Christianity. If we believe that it is not correct then we need to engage with it — not dismiss it. And in engaging with it we need to consider our reasons for disputing and critique. And so Lloyd's chapter on the Trinity is salutary reading for all who claim some association or allegiance or influence to or from Christianity.
Chapter Seven 'How did God become Man' is perhaps Lloyd at his best and clearest. I have always considered Faith's New Age his best book. A clear, concise, thoughtful, accessible portrait of intellectual and theological history — and this chapter is really a condensed rewrite of that important work. Of course it does espouse a latent universal modernist humanism as an inevitable part of human progress and evolution — but in doing so it explains how we could come to believe that. The underlying issue of cultural evolution with forms of western inflected modernist universal humanism as its raison de'tre I do have some problems with. The inevitability of such cultural evolution is in fact a form of secularized apocalypse that has antecedents in Francis Fukuyama's thesis of the triumph of western liberal democracy in The End of History. In fact the two are really linked- History ends when God dies. So Christianity without God can occur as a Christianity without History. We have reached the kingdom of (non) God and Jesus (in our western liberal progressive image) has come to judge 'the living and the dead…'
This judging is what sits at the heart of Chapter Nine, 'Was Jesus the wise man par excellence?' [or as it should be subtitled: 'Are the Jesus Seminar the wise men par excellence?']. The merits of the Jesus Seminar have been constantly defended and debated over the past decade to a point where most people who know of them will have come to a strong position either for or against. I believe the question that needs first and foremost to be considered is why go searching for 'the original Jesus'? The search is an act of secularization, the belief that the man can be isolated from the theology and used as a measuring stick against the institution that proclaims his name. It is an attempted reformation, yet unlike the Lutheran reformation is not so much based in sola scriptura as in a guiding principle of secular reason. Yet the Jesus in the text is first and foremost a theological Jesus, a written statement of belief that has no existence independent of the texts. We may wish [as the Jesus Seminar appear to do] to claim him as a human sage — but that would not make those who claim to live by his teachings and examples "Christians". We only know of 'Jesus the sage' through those who wrote of him as Jesus the Christ [the anointed one, the messiah). Now Judaism states clearly that he was not the Jewish messiah, so those who seek to posit Jesus the sage against Christianity also have to remember that their preferential position for Jesus places him at odds with Judaism. Also, such a preferential positioning also places him at odds with Muhammad. So preferring Jesus the sage is just as divisive [if not more so] than preferring Jesus the Christ.
Jesus in the text is theological, that is we only know of what is claimed to be Jesus the sage because Christianity believed that Jesus is the self-revelation of God, the second person of the Trinity etc etc. Without the Christian theology there is, simply speaking, no Jesus the sage — for that is a secularization of the Christian expression. In other words, without the theology there is no Jesus outside the text that is recoverable as accessible to us today. While it can be argued that the Jesus in the earliest texts is not the same as the latter theological Jesus this actually runs counter to the basic presupposition of the liberal modernist — that our cultural evolution means that over time we have come to know more, not less. Yes the cultural revelation is human not divinely based, but to suddenly change tack and now say that contrary to everything thing else that, because it suits our purposes, the earliest texts are now those that understand truth best [because we can read them in a way that supports our cultural evolution theory] raises large issues of academic intent. That is, suddenly cultural evolution gets thrown in reverse.
Then there is the issue of why focus on Jesus the sage over and against any other philosopher/philosophy/sage — especially given that we only know of him as the theological messiah? What happens is the old analogy of looking for Jesus down the well — the face we read as that of Jesus is really our own. Jesus becomes us in fancy dress.
The real focus of the book is played out in Chapter 10: 'Why Christianity must become non-theistic'. It is interesting to re-read the central thesis expressed here through a Barthian hermeneutic in which 'God' is the God of religion, not the self-revelation of Christianity:
…why Christianity must [his italics]henceforth take final leave of God. It must do so first, to continue along the path to freedom on which it set forth; second, to be true to its own early development as expressed in the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation; and third, for the ultimate salvation [my italics] of humankind and of all life on this planet.
We need to read this through such a hermeneutic so we can be reminded of the basis of much 1960s Death of God theology. The extreme transcendence of Barthian theology was a formative influence that many of the 'death of Godders' reacted against. Having been Barthians [or at least very Barthian influenced] they now sought to secularize that transcendence — but did so often through Bonhoeffer's only partially articulated call for a 'religionless Christianity'. Influenced also by Tillich's call for 'the depths' as the location of God, the Barthian transcendence often merely got inverted. What I'm attempting to say here is that this call to take leave of God is nothing at all new, rather still stuck in forms of 1960s death of God theology. Yet like many exponents of this theology, there is the conceptual leap that the God of religion may go — but Christ (or in this case Jesus) takes the place of the revelatory God. In other words, we get rid of religion's God and now have a Christ or a Jesus who subsumes all of the transcendent God's grace and truth into himself — and this new post-God Christ or Jesus just happens to express and support our liberal western, twenty-first century ethics. So now being free of God [and justified by a liberal Christ or Jesus) we can achieve "the most mature stage of personhood"(p136) and it is now "possible for us to become more morally responsible persons."(p136). Yet such a position is only available if we leave theism [or later] (p142) "God" behind. The culturally mature, liberal, educated [but plain speaking and thinking — no gooblegook!] honest person now lives a life of freedom without reference to God or theism or external authority [as Jesus is said to have told us to] where they now have the weight and future of the world on their shoulders "to establish the parameters of the new global and ecological culture and to create the forms of spirituality most appropriate to it" (p139) remembering the new version of 'the white man's burden': "Only people of the affluent countries are in a position to turn their attention to the wider issues…"(p142). To which I hear Greek and Roman voices saying "why should we listen to a poor galilean peasant from the arse-end of empire?…"
The problem that this book faces is not so much that it is seeking to have 'Christianity without God or theism' but rather that it is claiming that it is possible, nay preferable, nay demands a Christianity without Christ. The claim is a detextualized, demythologized Jesus, a Jesus who suddenly exists not only free of the theology of the text in which he is written and encountered but also free of the theology and culture in which he existed can somehow now manifest a non-theological kingdom in the twenty first century.
So what's the alternative? I think the problem can be found in the bibliography. The problem is that Lloyd has not read widely enough — nor attempted to engage with those who have sought to grapple with the issues of God on the other side of the death of God. Yes I realise that this could be seen as perilously close to goobledygook but let me try to explain. If we take Bonhoeffer seriously then the call to a religionless Christianity seeks to ask what is there that we create that obstructs and limits our hearing Christ, or experiencing God? The death of God theologians began to venture down this path and articulated the killing off of the religious God but really often indulged in a form of patricide — God is dead long live the son. They also took God and Christ [the Holy Spirit often conspicuously missing] out of the transcendent realm and located experience [of them/of it?] in the secular. The next thing that happened is that the issues and trends put forward were also taken up by the continental philosophers and theologians — and especially by the postmodernists. For Modernity ends — or rather reaches its flat-line with the death of God. God is dethroned, humanity is enthroned, we live a secular, rational existence. The post-modern however is not so celebratory in the triumph of a western rationalist ethos, noting that progress and liberal values often become enthroned in the place of the now departed God — religion reappears with a secular, liberal face. Does Jesus lead so inexorably to a western liberal position? How can western liberals be so sure that they know that 2000 years of Christianity was misguided and that the truth is now abundantly [and finally] clear. Furthermore, are the secular modernists the most evolved? Have they arrived in the kingdom before everyone else? Here perhaps the Buddhist influence (derived from Cupitt) comes through. The secular westerners have reached a form of enlightenment — the question is are they Theravada or Mahayana? Broadly speaking, Theravada [little vehicle] Buddhists look for individual salvation while Mahayana [greater vehicle] await for everyone and have Bodhisattvas seeking to allow everyone to gain access. So perhaps the secular liberal westerners are a transcultural form of Mahayana Bodhisattvas seeking to get us all to nirvana?
I stated the problem is with the bibliography because the narrow focus of reading, the almost total disengagement with continental theory and theology, the implied dismissal of late modern/post-modern theology and thought is a great pity because as Lloyd has consistently shown, he has a rare gift to take other's thoughts and insights and refract them in an accessible way. To a degree he has done this with this book — but in doing so he has merely written the book he should [by this logic] have written back in the 1960s [or early 1970s at a pinch]. Geering on Vattimo, Virilio, Nancy, Derrida, Baudrillard, Mark C. Taylor, Caupto, Kristeva, on Bauman, Milbank and Ward to name but a few would be interesting. For in philosophy God has come back — not the God the modernists sought to dethrone but a God on the other side of the dethroned God, a god that challenges the claims of secular modernity as yet another form of religion. The trouble secular moderns have with such claims is that they read such writers in the secular equivalent of religious literalists — and so dismiss them as 'gobbledygook' in much of the same way religious literalists dismiss any reading that does not fit their selected expectation.
Perhaps in the end the publishers did understand the real intention of this book. To argue for Christianity without theism is a different thing than what occurs here. For while this is an attempt to have Christianity without God — it really, at heart is a call for Christianity without Christ. As such it needs to be placed on the bookshelf somewhere between the 1960s 'death of Godders' and Fukuyama's End of History.
In conclusion the irony is that while for many people Geering will be seen to have now, finally, 'gone too far', the reality is in fact that he has not gone 'far enough', being stalled in a version of 1960s triumphant modernity while the world is attempting to move on from (and in) a desecularizing postmodernism.
Dr. Michael Grimshaw lectures in Christianity in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, University of Canterbury. Currently researching issues of culture, location and identity he also co-edits the journal "push". His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org