Hello children. Once upon a time, long, long ago (1967 to be precise) the peaceful existence of the inhabitants of the Land of the Long White Cloud was disturbed when a professor who was the principal of a theological college declared that important Christian stories were really myths. The land was disturbed, not by the message contained in the proclamation, for a sizeable proportion of the population already held similar views. No, the disturbance was caused because of the public nature of the pronouncements, and by a member of the clergy no less!
You see, up until that time, theology was a subject that had to be avoided at all costs. No one spoke openly about what they believed, for there was sure to be someone who would disagree vehemently with those beliefs. The people of the Land of the Long White Cloud were mindful that bringing theology into the open would be a recipe for discord, as would discussing politics. So they chose to discuss other important matters such Rugby, Racing, and Beer instead.
And so children, for more than two years, debates over the Resurrection, the divinity of Jesus, the Creation, whether mankind had an immortal soul, and much, much more, could be heard in sports clubrooms, local pubs, in the work place and on radio and television, and even on picnics! Discussions could be heard everywhere across the Land of the Long White Cloud. Yes, you could even hear such discussions in churches.
The open discussion frightened some of the laity of the Church, for like narrow minded people everywhere, they wanted their beliefs to be the only beliefs allowed. So they plotted to have the professor, removed from office. After much scheming, and with the aid of just one member of the clergy, a plot was hatched and charges were laid in the General Assembly of the Church against the professor. Those charges were “doctrinal error” and “disturbing the peace and unity of the church”, which were as close to charges of heresy that they could find.
Now children, it may seem strange in this modern day, but back then, the trial was broadcast live on national radio, and up and down the Land of the long White Cloud, people stopped to listen to the progress of the trial. And as we all know, the outcome of the trial was very much an anticlimax, because the charges were dismissed as being unsubstantiated.
Slowly, the discussions returned from religion to the more worthy causes of Rugby, Racing, and Beer, and the good people went back to keeping their own beliefs to themselves, just as it always had been. The professor started publishing his ideas in books and magazines, which were read avidly by some, and ignored or burnt by others. And so peace once again returned to the Land of the Long White Cloud. But…
Some of the plotters weren’t satisfied with the decision of the General Assembly and they continued plotting and scheming to do away the the good professor, but as we all know children, they didn’t succeed. And the professor became a highly sought after public speaker, within Christian churches and other religions and within humanist and secular groups as well, and where, to this day, even though he is 98 years old, he continues to advance the causes of a non-theist, secular Christianity.
But children, even though the plotters didn’t succeed, they keep on scheming. They still want their version of the Christian story to be the only permissible version. So how do you know a plotter? Firstly, they are not very good at keeping their plans secret. They usually call themselves Fundamentalists, so that’s a dead give away. But the most telling way to recognise them is to listen to what they say. If someone tells you that their stories are true and everyone else’s are lies, then you will have found one.
The above story is not necessarily the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but it’s my story and a close enough approximation. Unlike Trump’s press secretary, I’m not going to claim that it’s “alternative facts”. First and foremost it’s a story. Second, It’s more or less how I remember the event, and after fifty years, my recollection of the event must be tainted by later memories. Thirdly, it’s my blog and I’ll darn well tell the story my way.
For Non Kiwis, the Land of the Long White Cloud is a translation of Aotearoa, the Māori name of New Zealand. The professor is Lloyd Geering, who at the time the controversy broke out was the principal of Knox Theological College and an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand – the church which tried him for heresy. He will celebrate his 99th birthday in February.
While my own beliefs had already been formed along similar lines by the time the controversy broke out, Professor Geering provided me with the resources I needed when justifying my beliefs to others. I was still a teenager at the time, so was lacking in confidence, while he was a few years older than my mother. I guess I would identify Sir Lloyd as being my most significant religious mentor.
I know many Christians (and atheists for that matter) in other parts of the world will fail to see anything Christian in his message, but here in Aotearoa New Zealand secular and liberal Christianity is well accepted, even within the mainline churches. What liberal/secular Christianity has done is push those with pre-enlightenment beliefs into the extremes of Fundamentalism and evangelicalism, which has seen some growth as a consequence. However, such groups still make up a very small section of the Christian community, and likely to always remain so.
I have found a series of Youtube videos compiled from a 2007 Television One documentary on Sir Lloyd Geering. I plan to link to these in parts 2 to 11 of The Last Western Heretic. with my own comments where appropriate.
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