New Zealand is the most isolated nation in the world. Located 1,400 miles from Australia, its closest neighbor on the west, the next nearest continent is Antarctica. Late in geological history, New Zealand was created by the collision of two tectonic plates, one each under the Indian and Pacific Oceans. This collision raised from beneath the sea the land that now constitutes this beautiful country. For many centuries, New Zealand was uninhabited. The first human arrival seems to have been from distant Pacific islands no more than 1,000 years ago. These Polynesian immigrants named the land Aotearoa and settled mostly in the warmer regions of the north. Early in the 17th century, a Dutch sea captain named Abel Tasman sailed east from Australia, where the island called Tasmania still bears his name, and became the first European to discover this land. He also had the first European encounter with the Maori, as the original immigrants came to be called. The Dutch visitors called their discovery New Zealand after the Zuider Zee, but made no attempt to settle or to colonize the land.

The British came next under Captain James Cook; finally, in the 19th century, colonization began with English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish people as the primary immigrants.

New Zealand's isolation created a special character in the people. Though there was certainly conflict between the Maori and the invading Europeans, it never reached the level of ethnic cleansing that marked the European relationship with Australia's Aboriginal people or with the United States' Native American population. New Zealand's first and second wave of settlers have forged a collaborative life together, based on a treaty.

Christian missionaries worked among the Maori, and so today, most of the Maori think of themselves as Christian. The Christianity of this nation, however, is deeply shaped by the spirituality of the Maori people, whose native religion personalized nature and sought to live in harmony with it. New Zealand's Christianity is much more centered on the environment as a reflection of God's presence in nature than is true in western Christianity. That, of course, does not necessarily make it more institutionally strong.

This Maori impact is seen particularly in the New Zealand Anglican Prayer Book, widely regarded as the best prayer book in the Anglican Communion. It preserves a sense of awe, wonder and mystery in worship. It is open and contemplative, emphasizing the many pathways to God and the blending of human life back into nature.

In the last 11 years, I have made five visits to this exquisite part of the world, each for a significant number of weeks. I have lectured extensively in many of its cities and towns. Throughout this nation, I have been the guest of almost every university, engaged hundreds of people in conversations, spoken on its television stations and been interviewed by countless numbers of radio and newspaper reporters. It is a land I love, inhabited by a people who in many instances have become close personal friends.

The state of Christianity in this land is intriguing. New Zealand possesses most of the denominational structure that has marked the Western World. Its Anglicans are very English, building great cathedrals in Auckland and Wellington, as well as in smaller towns like Christchurch, Napier, Nelson and Dunedin. The Roman Catholics are predominantly Irish, with southern Europeans arriving in more recent decades. The Presbyterians are primarily Scottish and have their major concentration in the South Island. The Methodists display the original social Gospel thrust of Charles and John Wesley. The Lutherans are mostly Danes and number only about 1,000 in this land of a little less than four million people and 45 million sheep. There are also independent Christian congregations organized along the lines of the Pentecostal traditions in the United States. Finally, a very small number of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus dot the landscape.

The fact remains, however, that New Zealand is basically a secular nation, with less than one out of five of its citizens claiming or practicing any religious tradition.

The demise of the once-dominant Christian religion follows the familiar pattern around the Western World. First, there was a gradual diminishing of religious fervor, as the insights of the enlightenment began to permeate the consciousness of its citizenry. Then came a neo-orthodox revival in light of World War I and the Great Depression. Next, following World War II, this new expansion began cresting in the sixties, when a dramatic religious decline set in.

As the decline broke into consciousness, it spawned two opposing movements. One was a hard line, anti-intellectual fundamentalism that is relatively small, but is nonetheless noisy and aggressive. This behavior reveals all of the signs of hysteria that accompany rigor mortis. The other is the rapid growth of the secular spirit, as fewer and fewer people have any connection with institutional religion. Estimates are that less than one out of five members of the population attends church at all.

The mainline churches appear to be more concerned with keeping conflict minimal than about engaging theological, intellectual or social issues. They avoid, wherever possible, moral concerns that are not safe, pretend that some Christian affirmations are not up for debate, and continue to lose ground.

One public incident in New Zealand's religious history is, I believe, far more important than even New Zealanders have yet grasped. It is not discussed frequently, but when mentioned everyone knows about it. In 1967, the Presbyterian church charged its best-known professor at Knox Theological College in Dunedin, Lloyd G. Geering, with heresy for his view of God and Christ.

The resulting trial captured the attention of the nation as few religious events have ever done. The trial engaged the entire population in a public debate on the issues that lie at the heart of Christianity as it struggles to deal with the insights of the modern world. It placed on full display the controlling and judging mindset of fundamentalism for all to see. It revealed the split in Christianity between mainline churches that have engaged modernity and can, therefore, no longer defend traditional religious claims, and those evangelical and conservative groups that have not engaged modernity and therefore shout their religious slogans to a world that isn't listening. Ultimately, Lloyd Geering was exonerated, but in the process something vital in New Zealand's Christianity died that has never come back. The trial enabled people to see what had previously been unquestioned church propaganda. The ability of churches to risk their lives for truth disappeared.

With their nerve cut, they began to drift into a dull mediocrity. Hard-line conservatives became more determined, more arrogant and more absurd, seeking to take over churches from those they regarded as non-believing liberals. As a result, more and more New Zealand church members walked away from church life. They were not angry. They were simply not attracted to a church that directed its energy to internal maintenance and that avoided the tough issues.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus