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2018 NZ Festival Writers and Readers: Questions of Faith

Sessions recorded at Writers and Readers Festivals in New Zealand

Two deep thinkers on faith, fundamentalism, hope and humanity

Lloyd Geering / Sarah Sentilles

Lloyd Geering / Sarah Sentilles Photo: Bill Nichol / Gia Goorich

Theologian Lloyd Geering and writer Sarah Sentilles explore questions of faith at 2018 New Zealand Festival Writers and Readers.

foam on tide

Photo: Kyle Loftus / Unsplash

When Presbyterian minister and theologian Lloyd Geering was tried for heresy 50 years ago, it was already clear to him the old definition of a supernatural God were no longer sustainable.

While he is still a church minister in good standing, Geering remarks drily that he's also on the fringe.

“I feel a bit marginalised by my church, actually, because I feel that they have departed from me. I haven’t departed from them.”

Although Geering still feels that he is fulfilling his ordination vows, he says churches like his own have not kept up with the rapid cultural change that has taken place around them.

Lloyd Geering

Lloyd Geering Photo: Bill Nichol

On reflection, Geering believes the 1967 heresy trial was a half-way point on the journey to his current position on God.

Up until that time, he had regarded the Church as a rather holy organisation, but the trial taught him it was just as much a human society as any other.

“And it can make mistakes,” he adds, “like anyone else.”

From that time onwards, Geering was determined to fulfil his vows in a way which connected with the world as it is.

“After all, this modern secular world has evolved out of the past Christian world, and in doing so, has actually fulfilled one of the central doctrines of the Christian faith, which was the incarnation of God in humanity. Initially in one man, but through him in us. That god, who is the sum total of our highest values, now is in us. And we have to respond to those values. That is what the secular world is.”

Utah canyons

Photo: Holly Mandarich / Unsplash

Sarah Sentilles' faith evolved in a similar way.

The American writer's beliefs are now far from those she held while growing up as a devout Roman Catholic.

Yet she still she understands the power of very literal faith – it’s very comforting to imagine a God in the sky.

“Belief in a God who loves you and sees you and knows you, and somehow has control over what’s happening in the world, provides a lot of people with orientation and meaning when life feels purposeless or chaotic.”

Sarah Sentilles

Sarah Sentilles Photo: Gia Goorich

It was disorientating to let go of that version of God, she says.

Shattering, even.

“In the United States, we have these canyon lands in Utah where there was once an ocean. And now there’s no ocean, there’s just these high canyon walls.”

She says her emotions, even her mind, felt emptied out.

“The old version of God was this ocean which carved the shape of my thinking. And without it, I had to figure out who I was, who I understood other people to be, how I wanted to relate to the earth. It requires an ethical obligation to make your own meaning, and to hold yourself accountable for the effects of your ideas, that belief in the God in the sky makes easier.”

Text drawn from the poem Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold, 1851.

Text drawn from the poem Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold, 1851. Photo: Flickr/Bonnie Moreland

About the speakers

Lloyd Geering

Sir Lloyd Geering, CBE, GNZM, ONZ, is a public intellectual and religious scholar, and one of the most stimulating and original thinkers about belief in the history of New Zealand. Having become a centenarian at the time of this discussion, he is currently working on a new book.

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Sarah Sentilles

Before Sarah Sentilles became a journalist, she came close to being ordained as an Episcopalian priest, an experience she writes about in the 2011 book, Breaking Up with God. Her most recent book, Draw Your Weapons, has drawn instant acclaim for its lucid and eloquent investigation of the histories of art, violence, war and human survival.

This audio was recorded in partnership with 2018 NZ Festival Writers and Readers at Wellington's Michael Fowler Centre. The next festival is scheduled for March 2020.