June 04, 2013

Sir Lloyd Geering at AWRF 2013: "How Humans Made God"

There aren't a lot of attractions which can inspire me to make an exception to my Never-Early-on-Sunday rule, but Lloyd Geering delivering the AWRF's Michael King Memorial Lecture, introduced by Brian Boyd, is one of them. How could I miss the chance to hear the theologian who's been called "the devil incarnate" and "the new Galileo" for saying "Of course, Man has no immortal soul"?

My notes say there were 1200 people present; although I didn't note how I knew. I wasn't counting, and I can't believe that Brian Boyd, who introduced the lecture, would have been reciting the latest capted tweets about the session as some AWRF presenters were doing. What I do know is that -- and I can't swear it was the only time this happened at the festival, because of course I couldn't be at all sessions, but it was certainly the only occasion on which I witnessed it -- the applause which started up with the last line of Prof. Boyd's introduction didn't just increase, but doubled, when Lloyd Geering emerged from the wings and stepped up to the lectern.

"The assertion that humans made God is one that only a century ago most people would have found blasphemous and even now most people consider silly and absurd," he began, by way of leading into a discussion of the notable thinkers from the mid-nineteenth century and beyond who have been his inspiration for just such an assertion.

He took us from Hegel ("the first philosopher to say God is dead was not Nietzsche but Hegel, and he did this by introducing to the Western mind the notion of historical development, thus preparing the way for evolution") to Karl Marx, who saw man moving towards the classless society, and then on to David Strauss, who revolutionised the study of the New Testament, in particular the historical investigation of Jesus, and, finally and above all, to Ludwig Feuerbach, "the first theologian to assert we humans made God".

Geering's three revolutionaries:  Copernicus in cosmology, who revolutionised our idea of the Cosmos; Darwin in biology, who revolutionised our idea of our origins; and Feuerbach in theology, who "revolutionised our understanding of religion by turning religion upside down".

Feuerbach said that man created God as an idea in the human mind. It was a creation was made possible by the evolution of language. "Language above all differentiates us from the apes," says Geering. "Language enables people to construct a thought world, a world that can be passed on to future generations. We call it 'culture'."

"This world evolved and is still evolving in tandem with the world of language. Language began 50,000 years ago, by naming objects. Things which could not be seen but only felt took longer to name."

"It's misleading to use the terms 'religion' and 'science' in speaking of the primitive world. Gods were as much a creation of primitive science as of primitive religion in that they explained the mysteries of the natural world."

"The cultural age of the gods lasted a very long time, but a time arrived when the gods ceased to be the most convincing way of explaining the world." Geering dates the birth of God to 500 BC, the era of the Jewish prophets, the first appearance of the commandment  'Thou shalt have no other gods but me'. "It is here that their word for God assumed the status of a proper name."

I liked his take on the Origin Story. "In the old days, a thesis didn't have to be proved, it just had to make sense. And this story made eminent sense."

Religion, Geering postulates, is really anthropology, or, as he quotes Feuerbach, "We project onto God all the talents we would like to possess".

God played a powerful role in taking us to the modern world. "The idea of God is great", Geering says, "and it enabled people to believe that they lived in a universe and not a multiverse. Feuerbach said it allows us to live life to the fullest by learning how to embody our highest values."

"I say," says this intrepid 95-year-old, possibly the only person I've known of in a developed country to have faced a charge of heresy (not quite "The Spanish Inquisition!" but certainly suggestive, nonetheless...), "the idea of God has done its work and it's up to us to shoulder the responsibilities we once expected a heavenly parent to bear".

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 09:00
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