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Towards a Secular Christianity

Is Christianity Going Anywhere? By Lloyd Geering (St. Andrew's Trust $12)
Reviewed by Alan Goss

Lloyd Geering's short answer to this question in his May 2004 lectures in St. Andrew's, Wellington, is, Yes. But the Judaeo-Christian path of faith will in future be a secular one, leaving behind orthodox Christianity which has ground to a halt with no place to go and no prospect of recovery.

Geering, in four succinct chapters, expounds how Christianity has come to a crossroads and stands at a critical point in its long and complex history. He also shows how the emerging secular and humanistic world, rather than being treated as Satan and an enemy to be defeated, is not anti-Christian but is an offspring and product of the Christian West. It evolves, and continues to evolve, out of the Judaeo-Christian tradition and is driven by the hopes, visions and values of the Christian past.

The first sign of cracks in institutional Christianity was the Protestant Reformation which shattered the unity of the Church. Subsequently confidence in the Bible was shaken, it was recognized as being of human origin calling into question the divinity of Jesus Christ. The reality of belief in a personal supernatural being became more and more unconvincing. Three knowledge revolutions - the Copernican, the Darwinian and the modern knowledge explosion - have together led to a critical examination of orthodox Christian beliefs. Geering emphasises that "it is in the context of the evolution of human culture that we must seek to understand the current crisis in the Christian path of faith."

Two major changes that occurred during this long cultural evolution, known as the First and Second Axial Ages, are outlined. The Second Axial Age refers to the huge knowledge explosion which has erupted over the past 500 years and out of which has grown the modern secular world. It is now circling the globe, compelling us to re-think religion and make a fresh start. A majority of people, both Christian and non-Christian, see little or no connection between the modern secular world and its Christian origins; which is why Christianity is at the crossroads and why groups like the Sea of Faith Network have been formed.

Two chapters focus on attempts by scholars, past and present, to recover the original Jesus of Nazareth, also his teaching. Both help us to understand where Christianity is heading. The claim that Jesus was divine, e.g. in the Nicene Creed, is challenged. The layers of belief that have smothered the historical Jesus have slowly been excavated to reveal a different picture of the man of Galilee. The strong influence of Paul, who never met Jesus, must also be removed. We are left only with footprints and voiceprints of a Jesus far removed from those of an other-worldly miracle-worker who claimed to be Messiah and Son of God. Scholars of the Jesus Seminar, U.S.A., have concluded that Jesus was primarily a teacher of wisdom, a sage, fully human to whom modern secular people can relate more readily than the traditional other-worldly Christ.

Geering's view is that although the institution of the church as a power structure deserves to die the legacy of Jesus' teaching will continue along other different paths. All the major religious traditions are evolutionary, they tend to diversify. There is no Christian "essence", for Christianity is too big - and too complex - to classify. Traditional Christians who regard the modern secular world as a demon are whistling in the wind. In spite of its failings it has given people the freedom to think for themselves rather than submit blindly to an other-worldly divine authority.

Three basic Christian themes, faith, hope and love are explored showing how they can take us into the Christian future. That path, Geering concludes, is a secular one and is a legitimate continuation of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

Lloyd Geering's ability to see the whole picture and compress it into a brief and readable form is legion. The position he takes will be hotly contested and even ignored by traditional orthodoxy and that is understandable. The real tragedy will be if the issues he raises are not debated at all.

Alan Goss, Napier