God in the New World
by Lloyd Geering
This book came to be written in the following way. In 1965 the Editor of our church paper The Outlook invited me to write an article to be published prior to Reformation Day on Sunday October 31. This article duly appeared under the title, "Is a New Reformation Possible ?" I drew attention to the Bishop of Woolwich’s new paperback called The New Reformation, and attempted to sketch the way in which the contemporary world is challenging much of traditional Christianity. As a result, one or two people were stimulated to write to the Editor, either in alarm or in appreciation.
Then he invited me to write something for the Easter, 1966 edition of The Outlook. In an article entitled, "What does the Resurrection Mean ?" I attempted to sketch the difficulties of relating the Resurrection narratives of the New Testament to the kind of world in which we live, and to show that, in spite of these, the Resurrection faith of the church can still have meaning for men who have left behind the world view of the first century. As a focal point for discussion I referred to some words of Professor R. Gregor Smith in his recent book Secular Christianity.
This article brought forth a deluge of letters to the Editor, and as it was clear that many people had been disturbed, I set about writing four articles dealing with the main points being raised. These had to do with the differences between knowledge and faith, an examination of the evidence for the historicity of the empty tomb story, the relationship of the church to her doctrinal standards and the way in which the Bible is to be understood and interpreted. These articles appeared in The Outlook, and were later in the year published separately in booklet form.
So far the scope of the discussion and interest aroused was just what one might have expected. It was the next stage in the debate which took most of us by surprise. In two or three of the courts of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand, there was strong concern expressed about the orthodoxy of the ‘Resurrection’ article, and as soon as this came to the notice of the press, the debate left the confines of Presbyterian Church circles and became a public issue. The original article was published in full in the leading newspapers of the four main cities. Then for some weeks here in New Zealand, ‘Resurrection’ became the subject of newspaper editorials, magazine articles, radio talks and TV interviews. I received hundreds of letters, some written in anger, some in appreciation. They came from a wide cross-section of the community.
Two things became dear. There is a tremendous gap in viewpoint and understanding between academic theology and popular Christian thought. Some of the issues that theological students have been discussing all this century are hardly known at all by large numbers of devout church members. Secondly it showed that in a day when it is often assumed that theological questions are no longer of general interest, a vital theological problem can become the main subject of conversation in tea-breaks at factory and office, and can lead Christians and non-Christians to talk seriously and honestly with one another about the Christian faith, and often for the first time in years.
It was suggested to me that I should write something at greater length about the issues raised. Although it appeared to me that there was already a wide variety of popular books available for those interested, I accepted the challenge to set down the nature of our present predicament as I see it. The three parts into which this book falls may also be regarded as an attempt to answer these three questions: "Where are we?" "How did we get here?" "Where do we go from here?"
This book is not intended for professional theologians, and should any such chance upon it, I must beg their indulgence for the many generalizations into which I have been forced in the interests of simplicity. Of course, it is not even written by a professional systematic theologian; my own special interest in the Old Testament no doubt shows through all too plainly. The people I am mainly addressing are those who are genuinely wanting to know what to make of Christianity in this new and fast-changing world. Some of them will be looking at the church from within, and some from without. Some perhaps will be sixth-formers, who, after being schooled in the basic sciences, are wondering what to make of this new world in which they must live.
After only a few chapters had been written a second public debate broke out. I had been invited to preach at the opening service of the Victoria University of Wellington. I preached on some words of Ecclesiastes, "he has put eternity into man’s mind, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end". The press quoted from this sermon the one sentence, "Man has no immortal soul", and immediately there was a public controversy in which Christians and non-Christians vigorously aired their various views about life after death. The original sermon was published in full in several newspapers. The subject of immortality was discussed on radio and TV and this time the public interest spread to Australia.
While no one really wants to upset the peace, or sow seeds of distress let alone bitterness, it is clear that, if the Christian message is going to be heard in today’s world, it must be related to that world, and it is also clear that, if Christians speak about the faith with openness and honesty, there are many more than is often imagined, who are ready to listen.
This book was nearly finished when there was published posthumously a booklet written by my former teacher and late colleague, Professor H. H. Rex, entitled, Did Jesus rise from the dead? In it he makes this comment, "we live on this side of a rupture which divides the whole history of mankind into two sections; the one extending from the cavemen to the men of the Renaissance, and the other covering this post-Cartesian world of ours. On the surface it may seem preposterous to lump the caveman, Plato, and Michelangelo into one class, and the rest of us into another. And yet, so long as we fail to appreciate the full magnitude of this fact, we have understood very little about the nature of the modern secular world." It is the nature of this rupture which I have been trying to outline in what follows, along with the reasons for it, and the effect of it on the Christian faith.
In the writing of this book I have been greatly indebted to my wife for her never-failing encouragement. The Very Rev. J. M. Bates, the Rev. D. R. Madill, the Rev. T. M. Corkill and my colleague the Rev. Professor F. W. R. Nichol, I wish to thank warmly for their kindness in reading the manuscript and for the suggestions they have made. I am grateful to Mrs. T. Gordon for her care and patience in the typing of the whole manuscript.
Knox College, Lloyd Geering