Shuck and Jive

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Lloyd Geering: A Religious Atheist and a Secular Mystic

I am enjoying Lloyd Geering's latest book,
Coming Back to Earth: From gods, to God, to Gaia.

I heard Geering speak at a Westar meeting a few years ago and was greatly impressed. He writes and speaks clearly and understandably. He writes about our cultural history, science, and how Christianity has developed and where it is going.
I think of Geering as a religious atheist. I put myself in his camp. Neither of us affirm the existence of God or of gods but we are religious. He writes regarding religion:
Humans show themselves to be religious whenever and wherever they take the questions of human existence seriously, and then create a common response to whatever they find to be of ultimate value to them. The only truly non-religious person is one who treats human existence as trivial or meaningless, for ultimately the religious phenomenon arises out of human experience as we reflect on the fundamental nature of human existence. With but rare exceptions, people everywhere and at all times have made some kind of response to the demands of human existence. They have tried to make something of life. They have looked for meaning and purpose. They have hoped for some kind of fulfillment. For such reasons humankind has in the past been universally religious, and there is no good reason to suspect that in the future people will cease to be religious. And this is true even though an increasing number have grown dissatisfied with the religious forms of the past, having found them to be irrelevant in the new cultural age we have entered. pp. 151-2
He is also a secular mystic.
To recapture the original meaning of "secular," then, one might propose that its nearest synonym is "this-worldly" and its antonym is "otherworldly." For clearly the modern world has brought a steady increase in our knowledge and understanding of "this-world"--that is, the physical, tangible world. In particular, the discoveries of Galileo, Newton, and Einstein have caused the "other-world" of the heavens to become merged with the "this-world" of our space-time universe. All this has led to a steady decrease in our interest in, or convictions about, any unseen and therefore hypothetical "other-world."

....This point was made in a lecture as long ago as 1850 by W.B. Hodgson on "The Secular, the Religious and the Theological," in which he said, "Secular means belonging to the Saeculum or Age, or period of life on this earth, as distinguished from eternity or life to come. It should never have come to mean the opposite of religious. The fact that something may be described as secular does not preclude it from also being religious." pp. 149-150
What happens when religious atheists become secular saints? We gather in community and focus on things that are most important, such as:
  • An attitude of awe towards this self-evolving universe.
  • An appreciation of the living ecosphere of this planet.
  • An appreciation of the capacity of the earth to regenerate itself.
  • The value to be found in life, in all of its diversity.
  • An appreciation of the total cultural legacy we have received from our human forbears.
  • Responsibility for the care of one another.
  • Responsibility for the kind of planet we pass on to our descendants.
He goes on to say:
Such a spirituality could be called secular mysticism. It is not entirely new, for it is reflected in many insights from the past....In developing a spirituality for today's secular world we must not be primarily concerned with saving our individual selves, with self-improvement, with introspection, and least of all with any form of navel-gazing. Rather we must be primarily concerned for the welfare of one another, for the future of the human species, and for the health of the planet. pp. 200-1
Like many forward thinkers, Geering was misunderstood. He was tried for heresy in the 1960s by the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand. He was far brighter than his accusers and he "beat the rap." You can view a documentary of his life here. Here is the first section:

Those looking for a way between the atheism of Dawkins and Harris on one hand and the theism of traditional Christianity on the other, may find Geering to be a helpful guide and companion on the journey.


  1. Thanks for this, John. I am a big fan of Geering and wish we had more voices like his in this country, rather than having to look to the UK and the Commonwealth.

  2. Interesting stuff indeed---thanks for sharing about his new book. I posted something about Geering awhile back: TheoPoetic Musings: Interesting documentary on Lloyd Geering---definitely an interesting voice in the Presbyterian and Christian world in general. Peter Cameron is another voice I find interesting and refreshing. Good stuff all around.

  3. Yes , Lloyd Geering an example of a truly religious atheist and a very inspiring man . You can find lots more of his writings if you google the site of the New Zealand Sea of Faith network .

    Regards ...

  4. Thanks Hugh, Theo, and Doug. A Trinity of heretics right there :~)

  5. Great vid. Quite inspiring. Thanks for putting this out there for us.

  6. Geerings comment that "Thus, if we continue to speak of God, we are pointing to the values, goals, and aspirations that motivate us to follow the path of faith."

    I prefer not to use the word "God" to describe this ground of aspirations -- "Spirit" works better for me -- but I do appreciate that Geering identified this spirit so clearly.