Ian Harris Otago Daily Times May 23, 2014
At the age of 66, when most people are thinking of retiring, Sir Lloyd Geering began a ministry to Wellington and the modern world, as principal lecturer for St Andrew’s Trust for the Study of Religion and Society. Now 96, he delivered his valedictory lecture this month to a crowded church and a standing ovation. His topic was The Evolving City, tracing the evolution of the city from the earliest settled population clusters and the biblical city of Cain in Genesis, to the megacities of a globalising world, and the biblical vision of the City of God in Revelation.
Geering’s themes over the years cover a wide field, which he has explored with his hallmark breadth of scholarship, clarity, wisdom, and insistence that in a changing world religion must absorb the knowledge explosion of the past 200 years or wither on the vine. Below are some samples from published titles (in italics) from those 30 years.
A basic question is Does Society Need Religion? Geering says: “The word ‘religion’ has come to mean quite different things to different people ... In today’s religious pluralism we must avoid all definitions which interpret religion by selecting one of the particular forms as the norm by which anything is to be judged religious or not. By that method, what is religion to one person is often simply superstition or non-belief to another.
“Derived as it is from the Latin religio, religion did not originally refer to any particular set of beliefs at all, but to the degree of commitment or devotion which people displayed towards their most important interests. Religio, and hence religion, basically meant conscientiousness, reverence and devotion. It could be spelled out to mean a conscientious concern for what really matters.” In practice each of us begins with a norm absorbed from family and culture: children learn the stories of their cultural and religious heritage and the values it teaches. Today it is also necessary to learn about other religions and develop respect for their place in our world. Not uncritically, though. Every religion has its intolerant, even fanatical fringe.
Geering has a word for them all: “Fundamentalism may be described as a modern religious disease, for it distorts genuine religious faith in the same way as cancer distorts and misdirects the natural capacity of body cells to grow. Instead of bringing spiritual freedom and the realisation of a spiritual goal, as all sound religion should, fundamentalism imprisons people into such a rigid system of belief that they find it difficult to free themselves… “Fundamentalism fosters a closed mind, restricts the sight to tunnel vision, hinders mental and spiritual growth, and prevents people from becoming the mature, balanced, self-critical persons they have the potential to become.” That applies to all fundamentalisms – religious, atheist, economic, political – the lot.
But can religion remain relevant in a culture becoming steadily more secular? Specifically, Is Christianity Going Anywhere? Geering is up-beat: “Far from being the enemy of Christianity, the truly secular life is the legitimate continuation of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. The traditional worship of God has widened into the celebration of life. Faith is a matter of saying ‘yes!’ to life in all of its planetary complexity.
“The secular path still honours the abiding values it has learned from its Christian origins, even while it is shedding many of its past symbols and creedal formulations. It is concerned with the pursuit of truth, the practice of justice and nurture of compassion, freedom and peace. It is learning to live by faith, hope and love.
“Faith requires us to be free of all excess baggage. Hope requires us to be open to an ever-evolving future. Love requires us to be inclusive of all people and of all cultural traditions.”
And a final word from Crisis in the Christian Way: “The responsible care of the biosphere, which is the matrix of all life including our own, has become the supreme religious duty of our time …
“It is just here that something central to the Christian Way becomes strikingly relevant. The central Christian symbol has always been the cross. Whatever else the way of the cross may have come to mean, it was strongly symbolic of the call to sacrifice one’s own life and interests for the greater benefit of others. In today’s world that means the readiness not only for us to accept human mortality, but to live and die in such a way as to bring the greatest benefit to all other living creatures.”
● Booklets and CDs of the St Andrew’s Trust lectures are available from firstname.lastname@example.org.