The year was 1967, and a New Zealand Theologian called Lloyd Geering was being charged by the Presbyterian Church in New Zealand for doctrinal error. The case would become national news and discussed across the country.
Geering would controversially claim that Jesus did not bodily rise from the dead. And reject the notion that there exists a supernatural being, namely God, who created and continues to look over the world.
Lloyd Geering would continue to be one of the most well known Theologians in New Zealand as he was honoured many times by the government, for his brave stances against traditional religion, cumulating most recently in his status as Knight Grand Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2009.
The Death of God movement
However these very claims he made were not just the claims of an isolated individual, but part of an intellectual movement at the time amongst some western Theologians broadly called Death of God Theology. Geering became its most prominent advocate in New Zealand.
The movement became notable enough that Time Magazine ran an article on April 8, 1966 enquiring on their cover with a singular emblazoned red question on a black background 'Is God Dead?' The inside article explored this intriguing Theological movement which declared that the concept of God was well on its way to bring bereft of any meaning in the western world.
This is the Theology Lloyd Geering advocated, a sort of Postchristianity Christianity. And he has established himself among older generations as a knowledgeable voice on issues of Theology. About six months ago he published his latest book 'from the Big Bang to God' which advances the thesis that the Scientific metanarrative has replaced the place God used to occupy. In an interview with Kim Hill at the end of last year about his new book he repeated some of these opinions "The God that was mostly believed in in the western world is no longer a convincing kind of thesis…" and "The idea of God, important as it was in the past, has run its course."
The Philosophy of Religion
And this is where it gets really interesting. Unbeknownst to the Theologians of the 1960's there was a movement of thought in a different but related field of study, Philosophy, in the opposite direction. This is especially relevant as Philosophy endeavours especially to explore the reasonableness and validity of any belief.
If we can indulge in tracking western thought through Time Magazine for a little while then merely three and a bit years after Time Magazine ran an article about the death of God they ran another article with this question emblazoned on the front cover 'Is God coming back to life?' This article explored the way in which Christian philosophers were coming out of the closet and defending the truth of the Christian worldview with philosophically sophisticated arguments in the finest scholarly journals and professional societies. While theologians were writing God's obituary, a new generation of philosophers were re-discovering his vitality.
This movement in academic Philosophy of religion would continue through the 1970's as well, and in 1980 Time ran another story called 'Modernising the Case for God.' In which it described the movement among contemporary philosophers to refurbish the traditional arguments for God's existence. To quote from the article "In a quiet revolution in thought and argument that hardly anybody could have foreseen only two decades ago, God is making a comeback. Most intriguingly, this is happening not among theologians or ordinary believers, but in the crisp intellectual circles of academic philosophers, where the consensus had long banished the Almighty from fruitful discourse."
To quote a prominent atheist American Philosopher Quentin Smith writing in the secular journal Philo in 2001:
"The secularisation of mainstream academia began to quickly unravel upon the publication of Plantinga's influential book, God and Other Minds, in 1967. It became apparent to the philosophical profession that this book displayed that realist theists were not outmatched by naturalists in terms of the most valued standards of analytic philosophy: conceptual precision, rigor of argumentation, technical erudition, and an in-depth defence of an original world-view. This book, followed seven years later by Plantinga's even more impressive book, The Nature of Necessity, made it manifest that a realist theist was writing at the highest qualitative level of analytic philosophy, on the same playing field as Carnap, Russell, Moore, Grünbaum, and other naturalists. . . .
Quentin Smith continues: "Naturalists passively watched as realist versions of theism, most influenced by Plantinga's writings, began to sweep through the philosophical community, until today perhaps one-quarter or one-third of philosophy professors are theists, with most being orthodox Christians." (end of quote).
Some Christian Philosophers have called this the renaissance of Christian Philosophy. Whereas previously God didn't really feature and no one would think of defending his existence in respectable Philosophy departments, the tables have now turned and theism (belief in a personal and present God) is now being explored with intelligence and rigour in Philosophy departments increasingly till this very day.
This is a trend that is also found here in New Zealand, a friend of mine attended a Philosophy lecture last year at Auckland University, currently the highest ranked Philosophy department in New Zealand on world university standings, in which it was stated that theism now is, and has become, an intellectually credible and reasonable worldview for academics to hold once again, one which must be taken seriously. As someone who studied a paper in Philosophy of Religion myself at Auckland University I can also attest that an exploration of the reasonableness of belief in God is now a part of mainstream Philosophy. This is not a new superstition, or some form of fundamentalism, but rather a movement of rigorous intellectualism.
Dear Death of God Theology, say hello to Philosophy
And yet Lloyd Geering continues to tell many New Zealanders unaware of these changes in the field of Philosophy that the traditional concept of God is lacking in intellectual substance and has run its course. Perhaps it has in the minds of many normal New Zealanders, but as an academic claim it has become over time since the 1960's increasingly false. How could someone so esteemed be so wrong about the modern academic landscape? Although Dr. Geering by all accounts appears to be a very loving and intelligent man, I do wish to suggest he is behind the times in many of his claims. Namely his claim that the concept of God is past being intellectually credible is only carried on the wings his own authority and others ignorance.
These days a young sdult can easily find they are very well positioned to defend orthodox Christianity as compared to the 1960's. Able to turn to Christian Philosophers who paved the way, such as Alvin Plantinga, with his writings on religious epistemology, and others such as William Alston, and Nicholas Wolterstorff. And with the increase in Christian Philosophy there has also been a corresponding increase in literature and thought on Christian Apologetics, which is just a name for giving an intelligent defence and reason for Christian Faith.
We now have many of these great apologetics resources at our fingertips. Additionally in New Testament studies there are now highly influential and prominent orthodox Christian scholars such as N.T. Wright on the Resurrection. Or Richard Bauckham writing about Jesus and the eyewitnesses. This has all been escalating in academic circles ironically since a group of Theologians in the 1960's along with Geering first claimed, and still seem to maintain, that God is dead.
As a young adult living in these times and as part of a worldwide movement of intellectually curious young people we are finding that Christianity actually makes really good intellectual sense. We stand on the shoulders of this renaissance in Christian Philosophy. And I find that any pronouncements of the death of God seem wholly premature.
First published February 20, 2014
Peter Rope is a Financial Economics and Theology graduate from Auckland.
Peter Rope's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/peter-rope.html