Geering Interviews by Michael Grimshaw
Review by Doug Sellman
Here is a book all members of the Sea of Faith will enjoy reading. It is ‘Geering Interviews’ by Michael Grimshaw (2017) and is published by Polebridge Press, which is the publishing arm of the Westar Institute. I found it hard to put down, and when I did, I had that warm feeling of knowing I had more of the book to read later. At times it was like being at a Sea of Faith conference on the last day listening to The Panel. The author, Michael Grimshaw, asks questions not dissimilar to how Noel Cheer has; questions
that open the door for Lloyd to further elaborate or clarify a point with the unique intelligence and wisdom we have all come to love in Lloyd’s korero.
Michael Grimshaw was born in the year of the heresy trial in 1967, which makes him almost exactly half Lloyd’s age. In the Introduction we see Michael walking a similar path to Lloyd, religiously and academically, spending time himself at Knox College and the Religious Studies Department at Victoria University, which along with his family inter-relationships makes him an ideal person to be the author
of this important biographical work.
The book contains a wealth of diligently researched and carefully annotated historical data about Lloyd, particularly focused on the lead up to the trial in 1967, his academic life thereafter as the first Professor of Religious Studies in a New Zealand university, and his subsequent career as a writer and speaker of
international acclaim. The book begins with an extended Introduction in which Michael provides an overview and sets the scene.
This is followed by extracts from an invited address Lloyd gave to the Presbyterian Summer Conference in Gore 1962-1963, considered the initiating event for the troubles to come with conservative fundamentalists.
The central feature of the book, Q&A between MG and LG, came from a series of interviews that Michael conducted with Lloyd over six years beginning in October 2010 amidst the chaos and disruption of the
Christchurch earthquakes. Michael then meticulously organised the interview data (that he transcribed himself) into four chapters titled as follows:
1. Early Life, University, and Entry into the Church
2. Parish Life, Queensland, Then Return to the Theological College
3. The Trial and Then Escape to Religious Studies
4. From Religious Studies to Public Theologian.
These interviews record many additional details and clarifications not included in Lloyd’s autobiography “Wrestling with God”.
Escape from Knox isn’t exactly what I picked up though. Lloyd wasn’t expecting to get the Chair at Victoria University in the aftermath of the heresy trial; however he saw the move to Wellington as a great
opportunity to explore “Comparative Religion” as it was known then, a field he had begun to enjoy exploring previously when in Queensland. However he is clear he would have been quite happy staying on at Knox if this opportunity hadn’t come along.
There are several sad references to the fact that apart from St Andrews on the Terrace and a very select few others, Lloyd has not been invited to preach in any other churches — his mission has been almost
completely outside of the church; but nevertheless, a church he continues to remain loyally attached to.
Lloyd speaks of his two conversions. The first when he was a student; not in an evangelical “born again” sense, but rather a deep commitment to Christian community as evidenced in the university Student
Christian Movement and attending First Church, Dunedin. Theologically he describes himself as having initially been a liberal Christian, and although he never really prayed at a personal level, nevertheless
believed in a theistic God and gained inspiration from communal prayer.
Following the trial his theology morphed into a post-modern radical non-theistic Christianity. He reminds us that the modern world represents “a form of secular Christianity”, where we experience spirituality in the valuing of human relationships and a respect for all forms of life and their interconnections.
Lloyd says it was somewhere between 1963 and 1966 he stopped believing in the physical resurrection (aged 45-48), influenced by Gregor Smith’s Secular Christianity, in which the words “the bones of Jesus lying somewhere in Palestine...” got him thinking. Lloyd emphasizes several times he doesn’t like labels but agrees with Michael as interviewer about being a secular Christian Buddhist at one point and Christian Humanist at another. I wonder what he entered for religion on the recent census form.
The book will likely appeal particularly to those who lived through those times closely involved in the trial and beyond and knew of the major protagonists involved. Appendix 2 provides detailed biographical sketches of all these people and other key figures with whom Lloyd has interacted. However, the
book provides the necessary supporting detail and explanation for many other people not as directly involved in these events to appreciate it as well. It is a story of human drama in which the serendipitous flow of life led a humble down-to-earth man who simply wanted to know the truth to attaining great
stature as an internationally renowned intellectual while living in a young country that has been rather anti-intellectual at heart.
Lloyd’s quest for truth shines through. He even proclaims at one point: “all of life is a search for clear, logical truth”. His extraordinary thirst for knowledge and hard work is well recorded. Appendix 1 (over a
third of the book) is a list of all the titles that Lloyd consumed from 1965 — 1990; Lloyd had kept them all in a notebook. His five named mentors - Schleiermacher, Feuerbach, Teilhard de Chardin, John Robinson, Jung (especially Feuerbach) naturally feature a lot, but writers from different perspectives also regularly appear, for instance Billy Graham.
Most of us feel good if we read 10 books in a year. Lloyd averaged 74 books each year for those 25 years — 1853 books in total! No wonder Lloyd speaks with such authority on so many topics — he is an authority. I can imagine a keen PhD student making a study of that library of books in time to come.
Like many others, I suspect, I discovered Lloyd Geering on reading “Faith’s New Age” (1980) so it was interesting to see that he considers this book his most important work, because he put the most research into it. It formed much of the basis for Stage 2 Religious Studies at Victoria University.
His love of the Old Testament certainly came through the interviews, comparing its down-to-earth focus with the more supernatural “Paulism” of the New Testament. He comments that since the late 1990s he has found the Jesus Seminar helpful in gaining a fresh perspective on Jesus’ teaching as essentially focussed on this world rather than the next world.
Lloyd doesn’t hold back his opinion about certain individuals such as James K Baxter, or his admiration of others such as his contemporary Colin McCahon. There are also a number of compelling Lloydisms
dotted throughout the interviews, like this one: “we need to remember that community and the Holy Spirit are one and the same”.
But it was the documentation of Lloyd’s dedication to the church and his strong sense of service that I found most moving: “when I came into the church I lost all sense of goals, as I was here to be used”.