Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume. 34, Number 13. Somewhere-in-July. 1971

.... in history

page break

.... in history

Drawing of an old lady

Lloyd Geering is now Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University. He took a first class Masters degree at Otago University. He then studied for the Presbyterian Ministry and served for thirteen years as a parish minister. While Professor of Old Testament Studies at Knox controversy broke out as the result of articles he wrote for the Presbyterian church newspaper "Outlook" A sermon, preached at Victoria's 1967 Inaugural Service contained the statement "man has no immortal soul", and this created a further controversy. He was charged with heresy at the Presbyterian General Assembly and acquitted.

Rev. Peter Jennings Interviews him.

The fact that you've been Professor for Old Testament Studies at Queensland and at Knox gives the impression that you've got a historical orientation. Do you think that we are likely to learn more ideas about God from a study of history than from other diciplines?

I think one can only understand what is meant by God language in our context by making an historical study of religious thought in the past to see how we came to be using language of this kind, and in that sense it is an historical study.

Have you got any reason for choosing Biblical history rather than history of other nations or cultures?

I think for the understanding of God Language one has to study all religious traditions, but it is true that in the Western tradition, the understanding of God has been tied to a sense of history in a way which has been rather unique, and this stems from the God language which Christianity inherited from the ancient people of Israel where the very concept of God was primarily tied to a sense of history in that He was, for ancient Israel, the Lord of history par excellance, whereas in other religious traditions the very concept of God has had rather different orientation.

You've used this phrase 'sense of history' which was one I picked up out of your book "God in the New World", and you are actually talking about the first five books of the bible in the passage I was thinking of. You said that these were "not history in the modern sense but betrayed a marked sense of history." What are you getting at?

I would say that the Biblical writings, for example the Pentateuch, are not history in the sense of being historiography that would meet the cannons of a modern historian, but they do express a very strong sense of history and by that I mean that they focus attention upon the stream of human activity, and see this as the focal point which supplies the meaning for human existence. Now one can contrast this with some religious cultures which focus the attention not upon human history but upon an unseen world inhabited by gods and spirits. For them it is the unseen world where the action is, but those who have a sense of history see the action primarily in the human scene.

You say these other people believe in a whole lot of gods and spirits. Why did the Jews believe in their God, Jehovah, as against all these other spirits?

That's a question which cannot be adequately answered in a few words. The ancient people of Israel shared the common heritage of the acient Middle East from the forth millenium B,C. onwards but they gradually diverged from this common heritage to place a lot more emphasis upon their God Yahweh, as being primarily one whose actions were to be recognised within the human scene. Consequently, for the most part, they dispensed with the older type of mythology and became concerned with what was going on the human scene and in what we would commonly call today the secular world.

What sort of things in the human scene? The sort of miracles like the crossing of the Red Sea?

In the first instance the chief event was the deliverence from slavery in Egypt and the progression through the, so-called, Wilderness into the Promised Land. This was the event that they turned back to for inspiration for the future and for comfort. And against this background there was a long succession of prophets such as Nathan, Elijah, Amos, Hosea and Isaiah, who called people to look more closely at the events of their own day on the grounds that this was the place where they were encountering their God, Yahweh, and consequently the prophets became concerned with questions of what we would call social injustice, moral issues and so on.

But you don't really believe that the Red Sea was swept back and the Israelites walked through on dry land?

It's quite impossible at this stage to say exactly what happened - even in the Bible itself there are several versions of this which are nowadays mixed up, and the reason for this uncertainty is that the whole tradition has come to be recorded at a time long after it actually happened. Most scholars nowadays see anything that happened before, say, the time of Saul and David, as being open to a great deal of questioning and it is usually thought that only a comparatively small section of the people who later came to be known as Israel in the time of David were the descendents of those who had been rescued out of Egypt, but their tradition was so strong that many others came to be incorporated into this tradition and it became the standard tradition of the whole of Israel.

So really what happened was a small group of people under a leader, presumably Moses, left Egypt. Now, if this was the case what is it in that that really says there was some supernatural element in it? Was this just an event of history?

Yes, but you must put yourself back into the period in which this tradition took shape. For all people of that time what we call supernatural was something that could hardly be questioned. They were spiritual forces of one sort and another. What we call the supernatural world was a very real aspect of the world view of ancient Man. Consequently, as Israel came to ponder over the events of her experience and her traditions it was naturally within that context that she interpreted them and to appreciate Israel's particular witness one must try to see what was happening in her understanding against that background and not against our own background. One of the things that comes out in this is that Israel greatly simplified the whole approach to the so-called supernatural. She saw spiritual forces as an essential unity and not a multiplicity of gods and spirits.

Nevertheless we are going to look at it from our point of view if it's got anything to say to us. It seems to me that whatever happened in Israel's history was interpreted as an encounter with God, or with the supernatural. If they won a battle, then God was on their side: if they lost a battle, then the prophets told then it was because they had sinned - it was still the act of God. If it was all pure chance they could still interpret it the same way, so what is it that can possibly convince us that this idea of God has any reality?

I don't think that any of that would necessarily be very convincing to Man today and if the idea of God is to be used at all within our context it would have to undergo a considerable amount of transformation, because the world view in which we are trying to understand the meaning of existence is so vastly different from that of ancient Man. It is from ancient Man that we have inherited God language but whether we continue to use God language or not is, of course, the sixty-four dollar question in our day.

So this language that meant so much to the Israelites isin't necessarily of any help to us?

I think it is of some help to us, but we cannot just take it over without any thought, because we live in such a very different context. Once again I would like to stress what Israel did with this language. She simplified it. In contrast to her contemporaries she looked almost atheistic and in fact one of the ancient 'nicknames' for both Jews and early Christians too for that matter was simply that they were atheists because against their own background that's what the common man was inclined to see them as - people who were denying the gods that ordinary, good sensible people all recognised.

When we turn to the New Testament you have said that "the New Testament claims that Jesus died on the Cross for Man's salvation" and things like that, "are outside the historians' field of reference." When you say that, you are admitting that in fact histroy can't provide the gounds for belief in God.

Quite certainly, yes.

What would you suggest we look to instead?

I don't, myself, think that there is any way philosphically or historically of substantiating belief in God. If there were it wouldn't be a belief in God any more. If one is going to talk about God it must necessarily be an expression of faith, and God language is essentially connected with the faith response of a person to the context in which he finds himself living. Now one can argue as to whether God page break language is the best kind of language in which to express this respnse, and I think there is a lot to be said on both sides here, but personally I would be inclined to say that if one were to abandon God language one would have to look around to find some other suitable words in which to attempt to express substantially the same thing. I think God language, which we've certainly inherited from the past, may be regarded perhaps as being more in the realm of poetry than in the realm, say, of philosophy and certainly more than in the realm of science.

Photo of a man at his desk

May I quote something in your book. You say "the decisions we make in our human situation are our response to God. In these decisions we are making history and in this history we are encountering the Lord of history and working out our own eternal destiny." Now what I ask when I read that is what really are you adding by all this 'God talk'? What more are you saying than just that when we make decisions we are making history and in this history we are working out our destiny? What are you adding by this mythological language of God?

One has added a certain amount of interpretation, whereas the words that you have just used from that are more factual and descriptive. God language is essentially an attempt to interpret the facts of history in a way which express some sort of meaning for them, but this meaning is not of the kind that is open to scientific inquiry. It is essentially meaning that is an expression of the person, it is of an existentialist character, it is an attempting to express why the person expressing it wants to go on living and to pursue some sort of purpose in his living. This is why I've spoken consistently of response and used the word "faith" so much.

Isn't this the way that religion appears to people: that this idea of God is merely a feeling that some people have to have - that life has a plan and unless you've got this feeling they can't face life - in other words they just can't face life without this sort of security built in?

I don't know that it is quite as simple as that. I think it is possibly difficult for anybody to face life unless he sees some sort of meaning and something that is worth pursuing. Whether he actually uses God language to describe this is really beside the point. If he sees something that is worth living for then that, for him, is God. Consequently one can say that the dedicated Marxist, while he today would want to abandon all God language, has in fact a very real God which he serves. He sees a very real purpose to live for and it is of course well known that Marxist philosphy in any cases owes a tremendous amount to the Judeo-Christian culture out of which it sprang.

So a Marxist finds his God as you put it and that makes him able to live his life, a Christian finds his God and that helps him to live his life. There is no real essential difference between the two?

Oh yes, there are differences. There are gods and gods, and there are some purposes or gods which one would serve in life which are considerably better and more satisfying than others. This is something which one finds out in the course of living.

We've got rather a long way from our original concern with history but to get back to it... you've said that the way we talk about God in the Judeo-Christian tradition is based on this sense of history that the Israelites had, and then you said that we talk about God in mythological terms and this is what adds the interpretation to history. Now there have been plenty of other mythologies and people have pointed out the parallel between them and parts of the Christian myhthology - for example, the virgin birth of Christ; the forerunner that prepares for the Messiah; the one who dies; the martyr-type, and so on. What is it that is distinctive about the mythology surrounding Jesus that would claim our extra attention as compared with these others?

The tradition in which our knowledge of Jesus has come down to us is of course a mixture of historical evidence and the interpretation of that which has been expressed in various levels of myth and it is almost impossible to separate these two things now. But I would attempt to describe this tradition about Jesus in contrast to, say, the myths of ancient Man, as an historically grounded myth. The reason is that the myths, say, of Gilgamish of ancient Mesopotamia were a complete figment of human imagination. The myth of Christ is not a complete figment - it is a myth which has come to expression round the person of a certain Jesus of Nazareth from whom there are very good ground for believing that He lived at the beginning of the Christian era and taught at least substantially what has been recorded in the Gospels.

Would it make any difference in fact if it was all a figment of the imagination? Would it make any difference to the value of that teaching, whether it comes from an historical person Jesus or whether somehow it had developed out of the corporate experience of a group of people?

I think it would make some - for some people it would make a tremendous amount of difference and I think part of the attraction of the Christ myth is simply that the Christian in looking to Christ as Lord and Saviour grows in confidence and obedience because he has some conviction that Jesus was an historical figure like himself and therefore he can identify with Him much more readily than if he thought that this was just a figment either of fiction or of some past mythology.

It has been alleged that the Christian teaching is all a rather elaborately coded cover-up for a "Sacred Mushroom" curit. Have you got any comments on this?

I think the evidence for this is practically nil, and I suspect that people who write like this are usually trying to find some way of giving expression to their already strong antipathies towards the Christian faith.

You claim, although some would deny the title to you, the title "Christian", and by your past speculation in Old Testament studies you have been concerned with history. Does this mean that the Department of Religious Studies here in Victoria is going to concentrate (a) upon Christianity as a religion or (b) upon an historical approach to the study of-religion?

First of all, no Department of Religious Studies can confine its attention to only of of the world's religions. By its very nature it must study the nature of religious belief and religious practice in all the great cultures of the past and present, and this means cutting Christianity down to size very much. But having said this, one would have to recognise that Christianity has probably contributed more to Twentieth-Century culture than any of the other great religious traditions and in order to understand the present trends in the human situation we must go back and study historically the great traditions which have led us to this point in time.

You started life as a mathematician. Do you ever regret having left the mathematical world and come into the religious studies world?

I was very keen about mathematics and I gave it up very reluctantly in the first place, so I suppose that there are times when I wonder what it would be like to have continued in that, but I turned from mathematics to theology originally for the simple reason that much as I liked the pursuit of mathematics it left me unsatisfied. It did not really give me much to live for in the sense that it was a very interesting kind of a hobby but I wanted to find something more satisfying to live for, and this brought me into the Christian faith and eventually to study theology for the Christian ministry. And I can only say that this has helped me to become much more of a human being and to have a great deal more appreciation for other people as human beings, consequently I would 'not wish to have changed what I have actually done.

Do you expect any great enrolement for Stage One next year?

This is not a question one can readily answer, but if we go by what is happening in the other universities at the present time I would expect some real interest. In both Otago and Canterbury the numbers of students enrolling has practically doubled in the last twelve months.