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Have we lost our way?

As Christmas approaches, features writer ANGELA YEOMAN reflects on the changing role of religion and faith in our lives in the first of a five-part series.

Llyod Geering, a prominent New Zealand Presbyterian minister, went public in 1965 with some controversial views about Christianity.

This was at a time when, according to the 1966 Census, only one per cent of the population had no religion at all, and 78 per cent of our population identified as Christian.

Llyod Geering’s understanding of Christianity

Despite the high proportion of Christian believers in the 1960s, Geering could already see that the Christian religion was becoming less meaningful to everyday people [‘the pew’] as well as some of the clergy [‘the pulpit’].

Rapid developments in science and psychology at the time were raising doubt as to whether the key conceptual pillars of religion – relating to concepts such as God, life after death, the status of the Bible, and Jesus and his resurrection – could be factual as the Church believed, or whether they were, instead, symbolic and metaphorical.

For Geering, Christianity was important because it could give people hope and an incentive to live the best lives they could. It could help reduce our suffering. He was suggesting a way in which Christianity could remain important even as interpretations of some of its key pillars changed.

The key pillars
that define religion

The key conceptual pillars common to most religions are faith in something of reverence such as a God, belief in life after death in some way, the word of truth communicated through special books, and the word of truth through special people. How these could be understood was up for grabs, according to Geering.

Two other pillars also define religion, and these are behavioural rather than conceptual: behaving well [moral conduct], and communing with a faith through devotional or contemplative practices such as prayer, meditation, fasting, or other rituals. Geering did not question the literal understanding of these.

Geering’s views about each of the first four pillars are briefly summarised below.

Faith in something of reverence, maybe a God

Geering said that God could not be a personal, knowable God. Instead, he saw God as a concept that represents our awe of the universe in which we live.

“We make God in our own image,” he wrote in later books, “rather than God making us in his.”

Eternal life

For Geering, eternal life did not mean immortality. It meant living in a meaningful way while on Earth.

“Man has no immortal soul,” he wrote. “Man is a creature whose psyche cannot live independently from his body” – whether that is said to occur immediately after death or later, via resurrection on a future judgement day.

“Eternal life refers to the quality of life that can be experienced here and now, a quality that enables us to face both life and death with a serenity and sense of victory that take the sting out of the universal phenomenon of death.”

The word of truth
through a special book

“The Bible is not the word of God in written form,” Geering wrote. “The Bible is not a guide setting forth what every Christian in every generation must believe and do. [It] is a book from the ancient world and must be studied in the light of modern scholarship and all that it can tell us about the world that bequeathed to us the Bible.”

For Geering, reading the Bible is a “personal and subjective experience,” relating to finding meaning from ancient and wise words about how to live in meaningful ways.

The word of truth
through a special person

The physical body of Jesus could not have risen after his death, Gerring believed, for the same reasons that any human cannot live on or be resurrected after they are dead. “The idea of the resurrection could not be regarded as a historical event in the same way as the crucifixion.”

The impact on Jesus’s followers of his words and his death by crucifixion had been so great, Geering said, it was as if his message had risen and been given new life.

The concept of resurrection was, therefore, a symbolic expression of hope.

The heresy trial

Geering thought that publishing his views would help people to continue to believe in the relevance of Christianity in a metaphorical or symbolic way, in the modern world.

His thinking rested heavily on scholars and theologians who had gone before him. For that reason, Geering was surprised by the degree of outrage from both the pulpit and the pew at his views. In 1967, the Presbyterian Church charged Geering with doctrinal error, and he was tried for heresy.

The heresy trial eventually took a ‘bob each way’ approach. Geering was not thrown out of the church, but the church did not support his views either.

It was about this time that Geering left the clergy to teach religious studies at Victoria University.

The situation today

Today, almost 60 years on, it is estimated there are more than 4200 religions around the world.

The four most practised religions, according to Wikipedia, are Christianity [with more than two billion adherents; about 31 per cent of the world’s population], Islam [25 per cent], Hinduism [15 per cent], and Buddhism [seven per cent].

In this five-part series, the Times-Age reflects on the importance of religion in general and Christianity, in particular, in New Zealand and Wairarapa today.

The proportion of Kiwis who say they are Christian has dropped by more than half over the past six decades

While the 1966 Census recorded 78 per cent of New Zealanders identifying as Christian, this figure had fallen to 37 per cent by 2018.

This is slightly more than the results of a 2018 survey by the Wilberforce Foundation, which supports faith-led organisations. Its survey found that 33 per cent identify as Christian.

The percentages of people recorded in the 2018 Census as Christian in Masterton, Carterton, and the South Wairarapa Districts were, respectively, 38 per cent, 36 per cent, and 33 percent – clustered around the national average.

An increasing proportion of people say they have no religion

According to the 2018 Census, almost half our national population – 48 per cent – has no religion. Wilberforce Foundation’s survey results from the same year, by comparison, recorded the proportion of people saying they had no religion to be 35 percent.

Either way, these figures show a significant increase from the one per cent recorded in 1966.

The percentages of people with no religion in Masterton, Carterton, and the South Wairarapa Districts, according to the 2018 Census, were 50 per cent, 53 per cent, and 56 per cent, respectively – all higher than the national average.

A small but important part of our society worships a non-Christian religion or has a faith that aligns with no specific religion.

Wairarapa is home to many people with non-Christian religions such as Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism.

Census data says that 15 per cent of Kiwis, both nationally and locally, either practice a non-Christian religion or have a faith that aligns with no specific religion.

The prophecies
of Lloyd Geering

Almost 60 years after the fact, Rev. Dr Lloyd Geering’s warnings about a fall-off in Christian believers have come to pass.

For an overview of Geering’s views and his heresy trial, read Geering and God 1965-71: The Heresy Trial that Divided New Zealand.

For the Wilberforce Foundation’s 2018 research, go to faithandbeliefstudynz.org.

Angela Yeoman is a features writer for the Times-Age, social researcher, and an author. She has a degree in religious studies. Visit praxeum.org.

Part two of this series will feature Wairarapa residents and clergy in Wairarapa providing insights into Christian views and faiths today, and canvas the extent to which the church can accommodate both literal and more symbolic views of the pillars of Christianity.

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