Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind

The Last Western Heretic (Part 5)


Previous parts of The Last Western Heretic can be found:

Part 1  |  Part 2  |  Part 3  |  Part 4

In this segment, Lloyd Geering argues that the Resurrection is symbolic and not real.


The Christian faith has always focused on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, but the crucifixion by which Jesus died nailed to a cross is an event open to historical investigation in a way the resurrection has never been.

When the Apostles first claimed that Jesus had been raised from the dead, they meant that God had raised him from the Underworld of the Dead to the Overworld of Heaven. That’s mythical or symbolic language. He belongs to the way people then saw the world. What was historical was the impact that Jesus had made on them. It convinced them that neither he nor his teaching could ever really die.

This conviction came to be expressed in all sorts of stories. One of them said that his tomb had been found empty, and the body had gone. When people began to take the story literally, it gave rise to the further story of his Ascension. That said that Jesus rose bodily into heaven and disappeared behind the clouds. And in the fourth century, Christians decided they knew the exact spot where that occurred, and built a church on it. Faithful pilgrims came and marvelled at the indentation on the stone said to be the last footprint Jesus left on earth.

But the stories of the Resurrection and the Ascension, if taken literally, make no sense at all to us in our scientifically shaped view of the universe in which we now live. The heavenly places to which Jesus supposedly rose or ascended have simply disappeared from reality. That’s why the resurrection and the Ascension of Jesus can be adequately understood only in poetical or metaphorical terms, and no one said this better then the Scottish theologian Gregor Smith. He said “until Christians feel free to say that the bones of Jesus may still lie in Palestine they had not really understood the resurrection“.

Now I agree with Gregor Smith, and said so in an article I wrote for the Easter edition in 1966 of the Presbyterian Journal. Inadvertently it sparked off a controversy so widespread that it culminated in the so called heresy trial in which I was charged with doctrinal error and disturbing the peace of the Church. There was a unfortunate misconception about what the debate was really about. The doctrine committee treated it as a question of did Jesus rise from the dead or not. Now that’s not what I was denying. I never said Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. I said what did it really mean to say he rose from the dead. The things got worse the following year because I was asked to preach at the inaugural service of the Victoria University academic year, and in the course of this I questioned whether we humans have immortal souls. And this once again raised the question of what happens to us when we die. Is there such a thing as life after death? And because of what has happened the year before, things exploded immediately. At this stage in 1967, everybody up and down the country, not only in the churches but even in the bars and round [the livingroom] were discussing what happens to you when you die. So it’s a period of great excitement really. Very interesting in many ways. I wished I hadn’t quite been the centre of it, but nevertheless it was good to have such theological talk going on. And that, of course, eventually led to the so called heresy trial at the end of 1967, when two of my critics brought charges of doctrinal error and disturbing the peace of the church against me.

“It is therefore submitted that the assembly should consider these matters and clarify the situation by determining whether the points of doctrine apparently denied by Principal Geering are, or are not, of the substance of the Scriptures, and if professor Goering admits that he cannot affirm such beliefs, or if he will not do so, and does not help to restore in the church the peace and unity which he has disturbed, then this assembly should censure him in an appropriate manner.”

“I would like to suggest that what my accusers have been pleased to call the Peace of the church is more properly called the sleepiness of the church, and we should be thankful to God that it has been disturbed.”

“The faith of Principal Geering: this faith of cultural development and discovery is nothing but an intellectually conceited mockery of the real Christian faith. What we would like to know (and it is important because of the very great influence which he exercises from his official position) is wheher Professor Geering himself believes within the New Testament and the Christian hope that when this universe is no more, Christian believers will continue their personal life in the presence of the Living God?”

“What are we to make of death? We learn the answer to this by turning back to the heart of the Christian faith. It was not the dead Jesus who was acclaimed as risen but the crucified Jesus. Some people seem to think that Jesus went willingly to the cross because he knew that within 36 hours he would rise in glory. That I believe to be a grave travesty of the meaning of the cross Jesus was ready to give himself completely, and he did not give himself completely if he expected shortly to live.”

People in the churches and the pews often had little idea of what was going on theologically. The reason for that is that the church didn’t have any kind of organ within the church to disseminate theological thought. The sermon isn’t the proper place to do it on the whole. The sermon is meant to be inspirational.

“Naturally I hope the assembly will see its way clear to dismiss these charges and express no less than full confidence in the way I have been dealing with the position of responsibility entrusted to me. It has been reported to me that there is a rumour circulating that I intend to resign because I’ve been offered another post. There is no foundation for this. I doubt if any church would want me and at the moment. Even if there were a choice I would prefer to serve the church from which i have received most.”

the General Assembly as is its practice is to act as a kind of judge and jury, listening to the charges and then deciding what to do about them. And they eventually decided that the charges have not been proved, and so they dismissed the case and and I was in effect exonerated. But it didn’t really satisfy, of course, my critics who were a very vociferous kind of group and so the attention went on.

Author: Barry

A post war baby boomer from Aotearoa New Zealand who has lived with migraines for as long as I can remember and discovered I am autistic at the age of sixty. I blog because in real life I'm somewhat backwards about coming forward with my opinions.

9 thoughts on “The Last Western Heretic (Part 5)

  1. So he was even tried for heresy! Sad.

    • One lay member laid the charge of doctrinal and one ordained minister laid the charge of disturbing the peace of the church. The charges were dismissed.

      Actually in many ways the trial was a silver lining. The attention it attracted meant that his theology got much more publicity than it otherwise would have in both Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia.

      • I was thinking that maybe the case led to suppression of his thoughts elsewhere around the world since it was not mainstream.

        Your blog has introduced his thinking to me and I am certain to most of the people I know, too.

        • What was very apparent in the decade after the trial was that it was the laity and not the clergy or theologians that opposed Sir Lloyd’s views. The Presbyterian Church has become more conservative over the last 50 years, but many individual congregations follow the Geering line of theology. In fact all the main stream churches have two distinctive camps: one which holds views similar to those of Geering, and one that adheres more closely to the Nicene Creed.

          Sir Lloyd still attends church regularly, but as he points out, God hardly ever gets a mention in his church.

          • One would expect the clergy to be more hostile to such a line of preaching. It would be interesting to know what drove the laity to be hostile to such a freeing exposition of religion

            • The simple answer is that the laity have little or no understanding that the world view of those who wrote or complied the Bible is completely foreign to our own, so they interpret the Bible as if it was written for a modern audience. That’s why they tend to interpret it literally. And of course, they choose to believe the same myths that their parents and grandparents did. They don’t want to be challenged in their beliefs. If you put a liberal clergyman in front of a conservative congregation, that clergyman will be driven out of town. The clergy learn to study the Bible using modern methods, and whether they like it or not they must put away preconceptions and study it critically. In mainstream protestant churches, at least here in Aotearoa New Zealand, it is the laity that choose their clergy and decide what the creeds etc are. The role of the clergy is to serve the needs of the congregation and perhaps to inspire. It’s not to lead or control or to determine beliefs. The clergy are not rich here. Most earn less or about the same as the average wage. The exceptions would be the handful of cult-like groups that have a charismatic leader. Such groups usually don’t last long.

            • This makes a lot of sense, especially on the training. And I bet you are right, if you take a liberal clergy to a conservative church, he will be driven out of town and he will be lucky if he keeps his job.

  2. I’ve read all five parts about Geering and found them most interesting. I’m not a believer at all, but Geerings sane approach if adopted by Christianity would go along way towards peace and brotherhood.
    Seems I’ve heard of a similar Episcopalian pastor named Sponge. And an excellent historian is Bart Erhman.

    • Geering’s theology is widely accepted here, even among religious moderates who may themselves hold to different beliefs. We’re a tolerant and mostly secular lot. People who claim a Christian affiliation are outnumbered by those who don’t.

      Spong believes in some form of afterlife. Robert W. Funk is more closely aligned with Lloyd Geering.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s