Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind


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Lloyd Geering: on God

For me, God referred to the mystery of life that could not be grasped by the human mind. But more recently I have come to realize that God does not name a reality in the cosmos at all. Rather it is a humanly created idea. It belongs to the human thought-world. It is a word by which we have tried to make sense of the physical world we live in.

This idea of God has a long history, which the remarkable scholar and former nun Karen Armstrong has written up as “The History of God”. God is an idea that has played an extremely important role in our evolving culture. It supplied an ultimate point of reference. It was the idea of God as creator and unifier of the universe that led to the rise of modern science, when mediaeval theologians tried to discover what they called ‘the ways of God’ by conducting experiments. It was they who laid the foundations of today’s empirical science.

But we also associated with this idea of God the values of love, compassion, honesty, and truth, because we find these make such moral demands upon us that they clearly transcend us. And though the idea of God had its beginning in our mythological past, it remains a useful word to refer to our highest values. As the New Testament asserts, “God is love”.

Lloyd Geering, 21st May 2017 sermon at the Community of Saint Luke Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand

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Lloyd Geering: on spirits

[T]he ancients, knowing nothing about vaporisation, drew an absolute line between solids and liquids on the one hand and what we call gases on the other. The name they gave to what we call gas was spiritus (Latin), pneuma (Greek) or ruach and neshama (Hebrew). In each case the word could mean air, breath or wind. The ancients thought of the wind as the breath of God.

So when the Hebrews offered their account of the world’s origin, they said the powerful wind (ruach) of God fluttered over the waters. And when they told of the origin of humankind, they said that God made humans out of the dust of the earth, breathed his gentle breath (neshama) into them and they became living persons. Further, it was as obvious to ancients as it is to us that the best way of distinguishing between a living person and a corpse is to look for breath— for a living person breathes. Breath was believed to be the very essence of what constitutes a living human being, and thus the very principle of life. But for the ancients breath, air and wind were all the same. When a man dies, said Ecclesiastes, “the dust returns to the earth and the breath returns to God”. When Jesus died on the cross, according to Luke, he said, “Father into your hands I commit my spirit (pneuma)” and, “having said this he breathed his last”. Of course we are used to hearing the word ‘spirit’ in one place and ‘breath’ in the other, but in the Greek original the same word, pneuma, is used. Similarly in the King James Version (still nearer to the medieval world-view than we are) Matthew reports that “Jesus cried with a loud voice and gave up the ghost (pneuma)”.

During the transition to the modern world people continued to speak about spirit without realising that they were no longer talking about something originally conceived to be as tangible as the air we breathe. Christians continued to speak of God as spirit and referred to what they called the power of the Holy Spirit. Preachers continued to expound the story of Jesus and Nicodemus in John’s Gospel (where being born again of the spirit is described in terms of the blowing of the wind), but failed to draw attention to the fact that in this story the same word is sometimes translated ‘wind’ and sometimes ‘spirit’.

Only slowly has it dawned upon us that in talking about spirit we are talking about something far less substantial than wind or the air that we breathe. Indeed, spirit has no substance at all. It has become a purely abstract term that has no external referent. It continues in usage as a frozen metaphor from a now obsolete worldview, and its only possible meaning is a metaphorical or symbolic one. Conservative Christians continue to speak about the Holy Spirit, the power of the spirit and so on, as if it were an oozy something that operates like the wind. Without being wholly aware of the fact, they live in the medieval world for religious purposes and return to the modern world for the mundane business of daily living.

Lloyd Geering, Reimagining God: The Faith Journey of a Modern Heretic


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Lloyd Geering: on the trinity

There is an apocryphal yet instructive story of a famous theologian who had just delivered a lecture on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. A student jumped to his feet to thank the professor, excitedly exclaiming that at last he felt he really understood the doctrine. His theological teacher surprised him by heaving a sigh of despair and saying: “If you understand it as clearly as that, then you have misunderstood it and I shall have to start all over again.”

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To speak today of God as three persons readily leads to a mental picture of a heavenly trio (a divine committee!), one which has even been portrayed visually in art. Such a view of God (and it is widespread in popular Christianity) deserves the condemnation which Muhammad heaped upon it. He called Christians polytheists, who had sadly regressed from the pure monotheism of Judaism which he himself felt called to reaffirm.

Lloyd Geering, February 28, 1987 issue of the New Zealand Listener

The full article from which the above quotes were taken can be read at Sir Lloyd Geering: Rethinking the trinity


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Lloyd Geering: on Jesus

For me Jesus is not someone to be worshipped as the divine Son of God, for that sort of language belongs to the world of ancient mythology. What the work of the Jesus Seminar has shown me is that Jesus was not even a prophet after the Old Testament model. Rather he was a wise man, a sage, walking in the footsteps of Ecclesiastes before him. The Jesus seminar scholars have attempted to uncover what they call “the voice-prints and foot-prints” of this Jesus from before the creative imagination of his first-century followers transformed him into the divine Christ-figure. The chief of these was Paul, who had never met Jesus in the flesh. The original Jesus did not talk much about himself, and not even much about God. Rather he talked about the Kingdom of God, describing it in such parables as the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and the Leaven. He used this term to describe his vision of how people should live with each other in loving relationships of reciprocal goodwill.

Sir Lloyd Geering, Sermon 21st May 2017, The Community of Saint Luke

 

The above quote is an extract from a sermon presented by Lloyd Geering to the Community of Saint Luke Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand on Sunday the 21st of May 1971 titled How my thinking has changed.


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Lloyd Geering: on faith

To identify faith with the holding of a certain number of beliefs that come to us from the distant past actually makes a mockery of Christian faith and reduces it to the schoolboy’s definition: “Faith is believing things you know ain’t true”

Lloyd Geering, Reimagining God: The Faith Journey of a Modern Heretic


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(A belated) Happy Hundredth Birthday Sir Lloyd

For the last 2 months I have wanted to dedicate a post to the achievements of Sir Lloyd George Geering who reached the great old age of 100 on the 26th of February this year. The problem is I have been struggling not only with what I should say, but how I should say it.

While I’m able to spout facts as well as anyone (especially if it’s on a topic I have an interest in), expressing more abstract notions presents a real problem for me. I’m not sure whether my thought process is closer the that of the autistic mind or that of the neurotypical mind, but I have great difficulty in converting what I feel/sense about ideas and concepts firstly into words and then into a series of ordered sentences.

So I will simply say thank you Sir Lloyd for helping me realise that my beliefs were not “way out” or heretical way back in the 1960s when I liked to think I was Christian and for affirming to a large sector of NZ society, both within and without Christianity, that religion does not have to be steeped in supernatural beliefs.

Oh, and a very happy (and belated) 100th birthday!


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The Last Western Heretic (Part 4)

In this video clip Lloyd Geering reminds us that Jesus wanted his listeners to think for themselves: not to accept without question what was told to them. It seems that it was Paul who elevated Jesus from being completely human to being a divine figure – something that the early church was quick to latch on to.

For those who find a 7 minute clip too long, here’s what I believe to be the important points:

Jesus was not a divine figure. Jesus was a human person.

Jesus as the divine figure is a creation of the church.

Jesus seemed to be able to speak with authority that they were not used to and it was because of that they were led eventually to attribute to him the authority of God.

The first to regard Jesus as divine was St Paul who had never known Jesus in the flesh.

The Gentile Christianity which was promoted by Paul, was a distortion of the primitive figure of Jesus.

It was his teaching that really impressed people. For example the prodigal son and the Good Samaritan were characters that he created and he spoke to people with such freshness and power that they couldn’t help feeling he spoke to them with the authority of God.

There never was a sermon on the mount.

The parables are stories which often have an unexpected ending, which were told by Jesus to get people to think for themselves. This was a new way of teaching. In some respects [it] is the key to the modern world: that is thinking for oneself, dealing with the problems, not looking for someone else to find the solutions for you, but to find your own solution.

We should always be questioning our tradition because it’s only by questioning that tradition develops and grows and matures in one’s own lifetime or in one’s own generation.


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The Last Western Heretic (Part 3)

It’s been a long time since the previous post in this series. In case you need to refresh your memory, see Part 1 and Part 2.

In the video below clip Lloyd Geering makes the point that we as Human Beings created the concept of God. I agree. One only need to look at the variety of gods that have been created by cultures over a number of millennia, to realise that the likelihood of any of them being true is extremely unlikely.

Some of Lloyd Geering’s comments from the video clip that ring true to me:

I’ve never thought of God as a personal God. Indeed in a sense the word God is really beyond all definition simply because it is a symbolic term.

…and of course that brings us to the point where today we can accept that the term God is simply a symbolic term for all that is greatest and highest in our values.

Is it conceivable that this universe has been created by a rational mind rather like ours? Does it show evidence that it has a clear purpose in being there at all? I would say no purpose for which we can actually give any answer.

What religion is for me is how does one best respond to the various chance events which happen to you in life – how do you make the best of them? And I have found the the whole Christian myth helpful in helping to give me give it shape and supply the kind of values that that one needs in order to live a meaningful life.

Whereas we used to think of God as the Creator, I think it’s better to think of God as simply the process of creativity, which is in us, and is in the universe in an all inspiring way.

The idea that there was nothing once except God, and God created the universe is really a bit puerile now.


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My non-real God

Recently, I’ve been making a somewhat half-hearted attempt to tidy over a decade’s worth of archived files scattered throughout dozens of long forgotten folders on my computer and on CDs and DVDs littering storage space in my home office, and the basement/garage. Yes I confess. I’m a hoarder when it comes to digital data. One of the CDs I came across had a label in my handwriting saying Non-realism in religion. The CD must be pre 2008 as the files had been created by Windows applications. (I’ve been a Linux user since 2008).

The CD was damaged, and most of the files couldn’t be opened, but there was one good pdf file titled Non-realistic Christianity. Inside was this list:

  • Religion is about internal spiritual experiences, and that is all.
  • There is no world other than the material world around us.
  • There are no beings other than the living organisms on this planet or elsewhere in the universe.
  • There is no objective being or thing called God that exists separately from the person believing in him.
  • There is no ultimate reality outside human minds either.
  • We give our own lives meaning and purpose; there is nothing outside us that does it for us.
  • God is a projection of the human mind.
  • God is the way human beings put ‘spiritual’ ideals into a poetic form that they are able to use and work with.
  • God is simply a word that stands for our highest ideals.
  • God-talk is a language tool that enables us to talk about our highest ideals and create meaning in our lives.
  • Religious stories and texts are ways in which human beings set down and work out spiritual, ethical, and fundamental meanings in life.
  • Our religious talk is really about us and our inner selves, and the community and culture we live in.
  • Religious talk uses the familiar language of things that exist outside ourselves to make it easier for us to handle complex and subtle ideas.
  • Faith therefore isn’t belief in a God that exists outside minds.
  • Faith is what human beings do when they pursue ‘spiritual’ ideals.
  • Saying that someone follows a particular faith is a way of talking about their attitudes to life and to other people.

Somehow over the years I had completely forgotten about the use of the terms realism and non-realism in relation to religion, but a quick Google search provided a refresher and the probable source of the pdf file. It seems I’ve done a little editing (bold text) and one bullet point is missing, but otherwise they are the same. And the list does reflect what I perceive religion to be.

While atheism is where my head is, it’s not where my heart is. I don’t live in a purely logical and rational world – I don’t think anyone does, and for me, the reality of what I experience is either denied, described as delusional, or otherwise devalued by much of the atheist community – especially the online one. Delusional or not, I’m required to deny so much of who I am just to be accepted by society (that’s autism for you), that I’m not willing to deny that ‘spiritual’ part of me.

The essentials of non-realistic Christianity have been the cornerstone of my understanding of religion and God for all my adult life, although not as clearly defined as in the list above. In my search for a ‘spiritual’ home, I looked at various Christian denominations and at a variety of other religious and spiritual beliefs. Back in the 1970s and 80s I found small pockets of believers who held similar views to my own in all the mainline denominations, especially within Anglicanism and Methodism, but they were tolerated, sometimes grudgingly, rather accepted or welcomed. That lack of acceptance was a turn off, as was the liturgy and worship practice. Universal Unitarianism and secular Buddhism had some attraction, but, worship, in the case of Unitarianism, and meditation, in the case of Buddhism, were outside my comfort zone.

If I was conducting the search today, I dare say I would have stumbled upon one of the many mainline and independent congregations that welcome or embrace the essentials of non-realistic Christianity. I might well find one that I felt comfortable in, although their forms of worship probably would always be an issue for me. However I don’t doubt that I could find a religious community where I would be welcomed and feel at home in.

Today there are also a large number of secular/non-real/humanist organisations that are non-denominational/pan-denominational/pan-religious such as Sea of Faith New Zealand and St Andrew’s Trust for the Study of Religion and Society where I’d be very welcome and in many ways I’d be more comfortable than within a church community. A major reason for this is that while congregations within the churches embrace the essentials of non-realism, the various churches as a whole haven’t, (although some are getting close). Those darned creeds that they all retain are a complete turn off for me, and there is no way I could honour them. Unfortunately, groups such as SoF and SATRS didn’t exist, or were very thin on the ground when I began my search. Remember, this was well before the arrival of the Internet.

As it turned out, I did stumble upon a religious group that did meet my needs, was non-creedal, and had, over a period of some 350 years, developed an understanding of God that was not in conflict with the essentials of non-realism. That group was the first I had come across that did not have some expectation of how I should understand God, nor did they expect me to hold specific theological beliefs.

That group was the Quakers – the Religious Society of Friends in Aotearoa New Zealand, (Gifted the name Te Hahi Tuhauwiri – “The faith community that stands shaking in the wind of the Spirit” – by the Maori Language Commission). Now before anyone jumps on me and says that non-realism is unchristian, and Quakers most definitely are Christian, I’m going to say hold up a minute, is it important or even relevant? Let’s consider the second part of the statement (Quakers most definitely are Christian)

Are Quakers Christian? There’s about 350,000 Quakers worldwide, and the majority are Christian and it would be very difficult to distinguish them from many other evangelical, fundamentalist Christian denominations. Evangelical Friends can be found in Africa (there’s more than 130,000 in Kenya alone) and the Americas. They have churches, clergy, creeds, articles of faith and believe the Bible is the Word of God. They are hierarchical and (especially in Africa) patriarchal. They are the youngest and most successful (in terms of numerical strength) of the various strands of Quakerism.

There is another strand of Quakerism which is somewhat more difficult to pin down. Often referred to as liberal Quakerism, it can be found in the UK and Ireland, Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand, Canada and parts of the USA. Liberal Friends have no clergy, creed or articles of faith, lack hierarchical structure and have had a belief in the equality of the sexes since the foundation of Quakerism in the 1600s. They value their Christian roots, but as to whether or not this strand of Quakerism is Christian, depends on one’s concept of what Christianity is. Their numbers are small – possibly 50,000 worldwide, with around 1,400 in NZ.

Personally it makes no difference to me whether or not Quakerism is Christian, but in the context of New Zealand, it fits comfortably in the liberal/post modern wing of Christianity, even if it’s considered somewhat “peculiar”.

Now I come to the reason why I was motivated to write this article. I hear and read far too often, a section of atheists who claim that all religion is harmful. If this is true, then the religion practised by Friends, even liberal Friends, is harmful. Try as I might, I can find nothing in the beliefs and practices of NZ Friends and Christians at the liberal end of the spectrum that is harmful. Of course, it’s possible that being religious myself, I’m blind to seeing the harm I’m causing, and if is the case, is it possible for me to recognise it? I suppose it’s possible…

but unlikely.

On the other hand, it could be an atheist plot to discredit religion and bring disorder and immorality to the world. That’s definitely the claim of some Christian extremists. But I can see no evidence of that. There is no organised atheist movement. In fact, non-theists within religious groups are far better organised than atheists. Perhaps atheists are opposed to particular forms of religion. That, I could understand, but when I have put the proposition forward, I have been knocked back: All religion is harmful.

As I understand it, their argument is that religion and critical thinking are always incompatible. Perhaps, because I’m religious, and take my religion seriously, I’m incapable of critical thinking. It would also mean that I am incapable of seeing what harm my beliefs are doing to me, others, and society as a whole. So, if my religious beliefs and practices, and those of my fellow believers are harmful, can someone please point out to me where they are harmful, or at least point me in the right direction. If on the other hand, my religious beliefs and practices, and those of my fellow believers aren’t harming myself, others or society, the argument that all religion is harmful must be false.

I have no argument with atheists. After all atheism is part of my beliefs. My argument is with those who believe all religion is harmful. I’ve heard argument that religion has evolved along with the development of human thought, possibly as a result of seeking patterns and explanations for what we experience. Perhaps religion also helped in the development of cohesive groups. Whatever the reason, a great many of us still seek some form of religion or spirituality. I’ve heard that it could be as high as 9 out of 10 people. That seems rather high, but what seems apparent to me is that a significant number do desire and seek some form of religion or spirituality.

Census figures show a continuing decline in religious affiliation. What they don’t show is is that the number who hold religious or spiritual beliefs remain fairly constant. While those who believe in a deity have declined in number, other forms of spirituality have increased. Worldwide, the number of religious adherents continue to grow, although not as fast as the total population. It doesn’t appear that religion is going to disappear any time soon. This being so, rather than seeking the disappearance of religion, perhaps a more productive course would be to seek a change in what religion is. Don’t let up on religious privilege where is exists. It has no place in in modern society.

I’m not targeting any one with this ramble. I’ve found it helpful for me to share what I’m thinking with others, as feedback helps in clarifying and modifying my beliefs. Sometimes it’s with family or friends. Sometimes it’s within my religious community, or another community. This time it’s I’ve put it out to the blogosphere.