Today we remember that 50 years ago Lloyd Geering was, what the media called, ‘tried for heresy’. A fascinating period and one of the few times in New Zealand history that matters of belief and faith have been talked about by the general public.
The word ‘heresy’ means having an opinion or belief contrary to the official or accepted opinion or belief.
There is always with heresy the dynamic of power. I suspect that in the 1960s many saw the Church, and its foundation [God], as a rock holding out against the turbulence of change. So for Lloyd to question the existence of the supernatural was to question the existence of God and the very foundation of this ‘house’ called the Church. People felt threatened.
Of course others felt liberated by this questioning. His questions echoed and validated their own. For them the church should be less like a house on a rock and more like a ship sailing the seas of change.
I’ve been accused of heresy more than a few times. Usually by people who simply want to say that I’m wrong. And they may well, of course, be right. But then this accusation can go further than simply a difference of opinion. They want to find a way to enforce their opinion upon me – not by means of reason, but by means of power. In short they usually want the church to sack me. I suppose I’m lucky, in centuries past if the authorities agreed with them, I could have been tortured and put to death.
This week we remember the so-called ‘heresy trial’ of Lloyd Geering at the General Assembly fifty years ago. His accusers, Wardlaw and Blaikie, drawing upon Biblical proof texts and the Westminster Confession of Faith [which is full of biblical proof texts] charged Geering with denying the supernatural, the deity of Christ, the physical resurrection of Jesus, and the afterlife. Having read a number of Lloyd’s books frankly I’m surprised that the General Assembly found in his favour. I wonder whether the majority of commissioners were suspicious of the simplistic certainty of Wardlaw and Blaikie, and the manner in which they expressed it.
Two worldviews were in conflict; and I believe remain in conflict. On the one hand there are those who believe God revealed ‘his’ truth in Scripture and in the Westminster Confession’s way of interpreting
Scripture. This truth they believe is true for all time and places. It’s a rock. Tolerance can be extended to those who are struggling to understand this truth, but not to those who, like Lloyd, reject it.
On the other hand there are those who believe that revelation is ongoing: in the world, in science, in human relationships, and in biblical study. Truth is changing, we are on a journey. Lloyd points to three revolutions in thought to underscore this: Firstly, the cosmological revolution, where we learnt from Copernicus, Galileo and others that we don’t live on a flat earth and the earth is not the centre of the universe. Secondly, the biological revolution introduced by Darwin – that God didn’t create us, we evolved. And lastly, the anthropological revolution, where the soul is not something that exists separate from our bodies and therefore says Lloyd there is no after-life. Some, like me, are more agnostic on this last point.
Andrew Brown[i], writing of the Roman Catholic Church, describes these two worldviews – one being that the Church, as teacher of timeless truths, should set the agenda for the world, and the other being that the world must set the agenda for the Church. Of course, says Andrew, any Catholic will be a mixture of those orientations, but in most, one worldview will predominate. The former has the Church as a rock – offering stable, permanent teaching; the latter has the Church as a ship navigating the seas of human life and culture, and changing sails and direction accordingly.
The doctrinal dispute before General Assembly in 1967 came at a time of cultural disjuncture. The 1960s as Allan Davidson points out[ii] was a time of great change – socially, morally and politically. The experience of theology known in the Knox seminary where faith was about exploration not the recitation of yesterday’s beliefs was very different from the experience of theology in many church pews throughout the land. Some held to the beliefs of old in the hope that such certainty would be an anchor. Is it any wonder that Lloyd’s advice to cut the anchor rope was met with such resistance?
Right now there is a similar struggle going on in the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Francis, in his 256 page statement titled ‘The Joy of Love’ included a footnote that makes an apparently mild assertion that divorced and remarried couples may sometimes receive communion. Francis, in the spirit that has marked his papacy, contrary to Pope John Paul II’s clear denunciation only 14 years ago of divorced and remarried couples taking communion, is being accused of making a radical theological departure from his predecessors. And his accusers might be right.
Although I’m conscious that Francis is shaped by a patriarchal, hierarchical, and deeply conservative religious institution, I imagine him before he reads the Bible and the revered documents and teachings of his church putting on the spectacles of compassion. As one commentator[iii] says Francis sees the church as a hospital; his enemies see it as a kind of fortress against error and infidels. Those spectacles of compassion, while cheered by the watching secular world, will and are getting him into trouble. Like the cartoon on the newssheet this morning, love/compassion is often contentious and political, and if you follow its lead you can get crucified.
Our reading this morning of Jesus criticising the alleged pretentiousness of the Pharisees comes from the post 66-70 CE war context when the Temple has been destroyed and Rabbinic Judaism [read the Pharisees] and the Christ communities are competing for the hearts, minds, and allegiance of Jews. And so the vitriol steps up.
Jesus was not a heretic within the Pharisaic movement. Sure there were differences of opinion – particularly around interpreting Sabbath regulations and the liberal inclusive dinner parties Jesus encouraged [or was this liberalism a post-Easter creation?]. But the Pharisees during Jesus’ life did not have the desire or the power to impose a uniformity of belief and practice, though some individuals might have tried.
Where Jesus ran into the rock wall of political and religious power was in relation to the Temple and Rome. He was seen as a forthright critic of the hierarchical caste system of the Temple, the centralized and manipulative economic, political and religious systems of the Temple, and those who profited and grew fat from them. Compassion led to confrontation. As for Rome, the words like ‘Messiah’/‘anointed one’ and ‘Kingdom of God’, though spiritualized by New Testament writers, never sounded harmless. So like other threats he was crucified. The Romans didn’t make a mistake: he was a threat. Confrontational compassion was a threat.
The early Christ communities were shaped both by their powerless and by the overarching threat of Rome’s violence. They met, as Hal Taussig told us last Thursday, to take time out from their hard work and miserable living conditions, and in the context of a supper club – a kind of lengthy potluck meal with lots of alcohol, singing, and boisterousness – they found joy and fellowship and what it meant to be ‘in Christ’. There was a lot of plurality of thought, and plurality of practice. It was a long way from those who would later insist that all Christians had to, on key doctrines, think the same; and punish those who didn’t. In the context of supper clubs compassion was kindled.
For some the church’s founding documents are true for all time, despite the revolutions in knowledge that undermine such ‘truth’. They hold to the rock of the past in the hope they will be saved. To allow for difference of thought, for other truths, is to question some people’s very philosophical and psychological foundations.
For others, faith leads them on a journey. Faith leads them to cast off from the sureties of the past and sail out into the ocean of unknowing. Their compass is the compassion of the man from Nazareth. But, of course, like any pilgrim, they take with them many cherished ideas from the past that will be held to or refashioned as they journey.
In the 1960s our church didn’t know how to discuss and explore religious differences – being ‘right’ was too important to allow for difference. Indeed I wonder how much we’ve progressed since then.
Today the orthodoxy we should worry about is not found in most religious institutions. Power has by and large left us. Power and belief is now vested in things like digital technology. As John Naughton[iv] points out [and I will footnote the link to his articles], heresy today might be questioning the new secular religion of the West: technopoly.
[ii] The ‘Heresy Trial’: Doctrinal Dispute in the Presbyterian Church in New Zealand, 1966 to 1970.