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Being a Christian without a Christ?

Exploring John Shelby Spong’s concept of ‘Christians in exile’

J R Kriel


There is a clear disjunction between the paradigms and theories in contemporary theological and biblical research and the theories and paradigms underlying the church’s conventional liturgy and preaching. There is greater tension between theological science and traditional Christian faith than between ‘science’ and ‘religion’. The science-faith conflict thus goes deeper than the science-religion debate. But while the science-religion debate gets a lot of attention, there seems to be no attempt by the church universal to integrate theological science in its exegesis, preaching and teaching. The books of Marcus J Borg, John Shelby Spong and others have brought the results of theological research to the attention of church members. This article contains my attempt to relate my understanding of scientific research in the natural and social sciences, theology and biblical sciences to my Christian faith. Using John Shelby Spong’s concept of ‘Christians in exile’ and Stephen Patterson’s proposal of an ‘existential Christology’, the possibility of being a Christian without a Christ is suggested.

We should realise that if we are victimised by a discourse, we are in need of a new discourse and that we are ourselves responsible for creating a liberating language which structures the world in which we live in a new way.
J Degenaar 1997

The universe consists of stories — not atoms.
Muriel Ruckeyse

Introduction: a biography of a problem

I am a specialist physician, what in the USA is called an Internist. So why am I trying to write on fundamental issues in Christian theology? I started my academic career reading philosophy at the University of Stellenbosch in preparation for studying theology and entering the ministry of the Dutch Reformed Church. Our exposure to the Dutch phenomenologists Gerhardus van der Leeuw and J H van Peursen by Professor Johan Degenaar was a paradigm-changing experience. It took one year at the theological seminary for me to realise that my new outlook was incompatible with a career in the church.[1] I started medical studies. During my medical career I had to sort out the conceptual conflict between the scientific worldview and what I was reading in the Bible. Carol and I did a correspondence bible study course through a bible school, but it did not address our questions regarding the ‘truth’ of the biblical stories.
We then both registered for the three-year course in Biblical Studies at the University of South Africa (Unisa). This brought us into contact with the person and work of the late Old Testament scholar, Ferdinand Deist. The scientific approach of the Department of Old Testament Studies at Unisa enabled me to bring my studies in philosophy and science into a meaningful relationship with biblical readings. [2] However, it was soon clear to us that this method raised fundamental issues regarding our Christian faith. [3]
The work of the Jesus Seminar came to our attention through the works of Crossan (1991; 1994) and Borg (1995). But long before this, I had already come to the conclusion that my conventional Christian framework was incompatible with the findings of ‘scientific theology’ and the modern scientific worldview. John Shelby Spong (1997; 1998) and Stephen Patterson[4] (1998) gave me the conceptual tools to integrate my understandings of philosophy, scientific theology, natural science and Christian faith.
My outlook on Christianity has further been affected by my training as a clinician in the biological sciences, my exposure to literary theory through Carol’s work and studies (Kriel, C 1999a, 1999b), and my contact with friends and colleagues from other religious traditions (Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism). The purpose of this article is not to make a contribution to theological science. Nothing in it is original. These perceptions of the Christian framework have been around since the beginning of the Enlightenment. But Spong and Patterson have enabled me to acknowledge their validity without alienating myself from my faith, tradition and community. It is my attempt, in conversation with professional theologians and church leaders, to make sense of the new knowledge that constitutes the modern world. I start by developing a model of medicine and Christianity as social institutions and explore the relationship between science and practice in these institutions.

Medical science and theological science

Modern scientific medicine is a very complex social institution. One can simplify it to two major fields of activity: medical science and medical practice. Medical science, through biological and pharmacological research, generates new medical knowledge in the form of biological and pharmacological theories regarding the mechanisms of disease and therapy. It takes place in research laboratories, in the wards of academic hospitals, and through epidemiological research among large population groups. Medical practice takes place in consulting rooms, hospital wards and clinics, performed by general practitioners and specialists.
Two aspects of the relationship between these two fields of medicine are relevant to this article. First, research in medical science has as its purpose not only the development of medical knowledge, but in particular the application of this new knowledge in medical practice. Numerous mechanisms exist to ensure the rapid transfer of the findings of scientific research to clinical practice. Second, the two fields function with the same paradigm, which is known as ‘the biomedical paradigm’. Clinicians regard themselves as practitioners of ‘scientific medicine’ and as applying the scientific knowledge generated by medical research in clinical practice. [5] The social institutions that control clinical practice actively demand a congruence between the fields of research and practice.
The above model of medicine can be applied to Christianity as a social institution. The scientific domain I refer to as theological science. [6] Theological science is practised by researchers in faculties of theology and religion or departments of biblical studies at universities. The research generates and validates new knowledge in the form of theories using the methodologies accepted by the community of theological and biblical scientists. The field in Christianity that resembles medical practice I call church practice. It constitutes the formal and informal practices in the life of the church: liturgy, preaching and teaching, and ‘the life of faith’ of the church members.
As social institutions, medicine and Christianity differ markedly in the nature of the relationship between the scientific and the practice domains. Theological research and theorising take place without the clear aim of the insights being applied in church practice. [7] There does not seem to be any paradigmatic congruence between theological science and church practice either. Theological and biblical research has developed a body of knowledge and a paradigm which is very different from the paradigm on which the church’s teaching and preaching is based. The insights of theological science are ignored, or even purposely kept at bay by the administrative bodies that control the churches.
The medical profession has developed many mechanisms to ensure the rapid transfer of knowledge from medical research to clinical practice. They are not relevant to this article. However, the popular press plays a significant role. Many patients in first world countries confront clinicians with knowledge that they have gained from popular journals and magazines. Continuous professional development and recertification have become an integral part of professional medical practice. This places the responsibility on the practitioner to remain in touch with developments in medical science. I am not aware of any organised professional process for the transfer of knowledge from theological science to ecclesiastical practice.
Theological and medical researchers publish articles in scientific journals that are inaccessible to the public, who are therefore not privy to the academic debates generated by these articles. However, most eminent theologians and biblical scholars also publish their theories in books. The issues that are raised in theological research are rarely if ever raised in church practice. If they are mentioned, it is usually to denounce the new research and developments as unChristian, unbiblical, or unscientific. Theological scientists who promote different views in terms of the church’s paradigm are often censured by the church authorities. [8]
Jonker (1997) has characterised the gap between professional exegetes and ordinary Bible readers with the terms ‘relativism’ and ‘objectivism’. Bible readers read the Bible within an objectivist framework. The assumption underlying their reading is that the meaning of biblical texts can be determined by appealing to a permanent, ahistorical matrix ‘normally the conviction that the Bible is the inspired Word of God which teaches the believing reader certain universal truths’ (Jonker 1997:70). Biblical scholars generally maintain ‘that there are many meanings in a Biblical text, and that no one of these meanings can, or even may, claim priority because all these meanings form part of a groundless web of interrelatedness’ (Jonker 1997:71). Church practice is based on the assumption that there are objective truths in the biblical texts that can be accessed directly by ‘ordinary reading’.
The same hermeneutical problem arises in teaching literature at school, where pupils (and many teachers) believe that a poem has only one true interpretation. If this meaning is not immediately clear in the case of a ‘difficult’ poem, then the one true interpretation can be obtained by reading the interpretation of a literary expert (Kriel, C 1999a). This view of truth is clearly influenced by the view of the natural sciences in which it is assumed that there can only be one true interpretation of a phenomenon. Jonker therefore correctly attaches the label ‘positivism’ to the objectivist framework. Deist (1990) has argued strongly that the school curriculum is an expression of a positivist understanding of ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’.
Patterson says that there has been a conscious avoidance of the task of making the results of the work on the historical Jesus relevant for theology (Patterson 1998:490). This avoidance is a ‘privilege’ of theologians and ecclesiastical authorities. Ordinary churchgoers have an existential need to integrate the various aspects of their lives. In the rest of this article, I wish to indicate how I have attempted to integrate my understanding of scientific theology, and my understanding of the natural, human and social sciences. In a sense, it is a pseudo-article. Articles are written with the intention of publication. I started writing it because I felt a need to formulate clearly, for myself and those nearest to me, my position. It is more a position paper, or loss-of-position paper. I chose the format of an article because it is a genre within which I feel at home and, perhaps, because its seeming objectivity gives some protection against the anxiety involved in such a loss.

Conventional Christianity

Marcus Borg sets out a model of the conventional Christian framework in his book The God I never knew (1995:18). The model may seem a simplistic representation of the Christian faith, but it represents the conceptual framework of most Christians. It definitely represents the point from which I started my intellectual journey.

Borg summarises the conventional Christian faith as follows:

My model of God was supernaturalist and interventionist. God was ‘out there’, had created the universe a long time ago, and now watched over it. Occasionally God intervened in the world, especially in the events reported in the Bible.
The Bible
The Bible was a divine product. As the inspired Word of God, it came from God as no other book did. It told us what God wanted us to believe and how to live. It was the ultimate authority for both faith and morals.
Though created in the image of God and loved by God, we were sinners because of our disobedience. Sinful and guilty, we deserved punishment. But God had provided a solution, and this was where Jesus fitted in.
As God’s only son, Jesus was the means of our salvation. Born of a virgin and being both human and divine, he was also sinless. He died for us, and his death was the sacrifice that made forgiveness of our sins possible.
The way of salvation.
Faith in Jesus was the only way of salvation, which made Christianity the only way. This left a lot of people out, but that’s why we had missionaries to reach the millions of souls who were perishing, lost in the shades of night.
Faith meant strong and correct belief. It meant believing what God wanted us to believe, as disclosed in the Bible. Faith as strong belief meant that doubt was the opposite of faith. Faith as correct belief meant believing the right things. For me, that meant believing as we Lutherans believed. This also left a lot of people out.
The afterlife
Heaven and hell were central. Salvation meant going to heaven, but some people would go to hell. So fundamental was this notion that if somebody had been able to convince me that there was no afterlife, I wouldn’t have had any idea why one should be a Christian. It was all about going to heaven.

The various concepts highlighted in Borg’s model are closely linked and are mutually interdependent for their meaning and justification. This is part of the conceptual and emotional power of the Christian conceptual framework. But it means that questioning one aspect immediately activates questions regarding all the other concepts.
I cannot argue every point in detail. It would require a book. So every section that follows takes the form of a simple statement as to how I currently understand the central concepts of my Christian faith in the light of my understanding of the theories generated by theological research, and my understanding of the nature of the world as modelled by the natural, social and human sciences. I then discuss the other concepts identified by Borg and end with the question whether I can still call myself a Christian.

The Bible

Passages in the Bible claim to reflect what God had said to individuals. Within the worldview of the biblical writers, it was accepted that God communicated with humans by means of visions, dreams, and the spoken word. This was true of all religious systems in those times. [9] In the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, [10] the authors of most of the texts make no claim to divine origin for their writings. They present themselves as completely human writings. The claim of divine origin is made on their behalf by the Judaic and Christian traditions. The reports in these texts of God communicating with Moses, the prophets, Jesus and some of his followers, do not mean that divine authority is claimed for the text as a whole.
The claim that the Bible is literally ‘the Word of God’ makes no sense to me. [11] I also cannot accept that God communicated to people in biblical times in a manner that we today can identify as ‘of divine origin’. Like most people, I experience moments of creative insight. These insights are generated by the complex system that is the conscious brain. The human imagination is the creative aspect of the human mind or consciousness (Degenaar 1992). The human imagination has the ability to generate new intellectual and scientific insights, as well as poems, stories, philosophical systems, building plans, paintings, music and other expressions of creative genius. All of this enables us to describe reality and create a human world. We may experience these flashes of insight as if coming from outside ourselves, but they are the creations of the faculty of imagination of the complex system that is the human mind.
The books of the Bible contain the interpretations by ancient Israel and the early Church of their life experiences, as individuals and groups, in the light of their faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses, the Prophets and Jesus of Nazareth, to name but a few of the protagonists of the faith in JHWH. The Bible contains numerous literary genres: theologically interpreted histories of individuals and groups, legends, poems, myths, genealogies, love stories, sagas, fairy tales, letters, parables, eschatologies, proverbs, legal documents, etc. To use the content of these varying literary types as a justification for statements beginning with the claim ‘God says ...’ or ‘God wants us to ...’ is, to say the least, an extremely problematical hermeneutical exercise. At best, biblical exegetes may say: ‘I interpret this to mean this or that.’ Such a statement is open-ended. It invites dialogue. The statement ‘God says ...’ closes any further prospect of dialogue. Unfortunately the church has not educated its members to understand the very complex hermeneutical activity involved in reading the Bible (see Labuschagne 1978: Grollenberg 1978). Liturgy and preaching are based on the assumption that the word and the will of God are directly accessible by ‘simply reading the Bible’. The problem of differing (often conflicting) readings by different traditions is solved by declaring them ‘wrong’.
How did the Gospel stories come to life if they are not literally true? I find Spong’s use of the insights of Michael Goulder (Spong 1997) to explain the Gospel stories as midrashic expansions of themes in the Hebrew Scriptures for use in synagogue worship to be very convincing. [12] He summarises Goulder’s insight as follows:

Goulder documented for me the midrashic connections between the Gospels and the Jewish scriptures in mind-boggling ways, and he opened my eyes for the first time to the possibility that the Jewish liturgical calendar, far more than history or the memory of eyewitnesses, had determined both the shape and much of the content of the Gospels (Spong 1997:x).

Spong suggests that at least the synoptic Gospels were developed as readings for the synagogue as part of the Jewish liturgical year. They are not biography, history, or any other kind of literary genre. The early Christians were convinced that Jesus’ life and death were fulfilments of the scriptures. Before they were expelled from the synagogues, they took themes from the Hebrew scriptures and expanded them into stories regarding Jesus’ life and death. They did this according to the prophecies, or what they considered to be prophecies, so that these could be read as an integral part of the synagogue services. The themes of the Jesus-stories paralleled the readings from the Torah. Within their religious and cultural tradition and worldview, this type of midrashic expansion was rational and meaningful.

We are not reading history when we read the Gospels. We are listening to the experience of Jewish people, processing in a Jewish way what they believed was a new experience with the God of Israel. Jews filtered every new experience through the corporate remembered history of their people, as that history had been recorded in the Hebrew scriptures of the past. If we are to recover the power present in the scriptures for our time, then this clue to their original meaning must be recovered and understood (Spong 1997:37).

If the stories in the Bible are literalised, they stretch the modern imagination beyond breaking point. One way of understanding the meaning of the stories about Jesus is to see them as midrashic elaborations of God-revealing moments in Israel’s past. Stories about heroes of the Jewish past ‘were heightened and retold again about heroes of the present moment, not because those same events occurred, but because the reality of God revealed in those moments was like the reality of God known in the past’ (Spong 1997:37).
This does not mean that I deny any normativeness to the Bible in issues of church practice. By committing myself to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, [13] I also commit myself to accepting the Bible as a normative document for understanding the tradition, myself and my world. But this normativeness is dependent on a decision by the community of believers that is justified by the relevance of what is found in the stories for the life of the community, not by an assumed divine origin of the texts.
The normativeness of the Bible is therefore limited. The bearers of the tradition today must give new content to the biblical tradition in a radically different world with radically different challenges from those faced by biblical writers. In daily church practice not every book or chapter of the Bible is considered equally relevant. Spong refers to this as selective literalism (Spong 1997:16). In this respect the Rabbinical and Catholic traditions are correct — they have recognised additional writings to be as important as the canonical scriptures.
The normativeness of the biblical stories, even those stories that present themselves as historical accounts, does not lie in their historical correctness in a modern sense, but in their ability to give new meaning to life today. We cannot interact with biblical texts in terms of ‘truth’ in a historical or natural science manner. We have to interact with them in terms of their meaning, in terms of their existential truth. The meaning of the term ‘truth’ is context dependent. It does not have an abstract meaning independent of the language game in which it functions (Brummer 1981). Scientific texts are not the only bearers of truth. The natural science context is but one of the many contexts within which we talk about truth. The classification of a text as fiction does not mean that it is not the bearer of truth. Science is just one of the many stories that we humans tell one another about ourselves and the world we live in. What Thomas Thompson says of the Old Testament is true of the Bible as a whole:

Why is an understanding of the Bible as fictive considered to undermine its truth and integrity? How does historicizing this literature give it greater legitimacy? Why, in fact, does a literary work as influential as the Bible need further legitimation? (Thompson1999:5).


The modern scientific understanding of the universe and the brain-linked understanding of consciousness makes the traditional theistic concept of a personal (conscious) God, in its monotheistic and triune forms, extremely problematic. That the Bible functions with such a concept of God is simply an expression of the worldview of the time in which the texts were written. Their model does not have any absolute, coercive authority in our time. I believe that our modern understanding of the nature of consciousness and personhood, and of the nature of the cosmos, makes the theistic view of God extremely problematic.
But I am not an atheist. I am acutely aware of the limitations of our intellectual constructs, including our scientific constructs, of reality. The world is, and always will be, more than we can imagine even with our scientific imagination. I am personally convinced of the reality of a transcendent dimension to the world, not only epistemologically (the world is more than we can know), but also ontologically (there is a transcendent reality which is more than the world[14] ). I therefore share in, and find meaningful, the most ancient of all human intuitions, one that probably occurs only in our species, namely the intuition of a transcendent reality. For this reality Homo sapiens has used many metaphors, including that of the forbidden name JHWH. Jesus used the metaphor of Father to refer to the God of the Jewish tradition. It represented his understanding of the ultimate reality of that tradition. The metaphor was not foreign to that tradition, but was apparently not used in his time among the Galilean peasants. It was a metaphor that empowered them to cope with the suffering caused by their extreme poverty and the oppressive economic, political, and religious regimes of the time.
The three major monotheistic traditions not only think of God in terms of person-metaphors, but also in terms of male-metaphors. The exclusive use of male imagery does not have biblical support (Borg 1997:57-83). The Bible talks of God in many metaphors — of which some are even impersonal. The validly of female metaphors is now generally agreed to by theologians, even though some traditions are still struggling to recognise women as officers of the church or the synagogue!
I no longer find the metaphor of a personal theistic God useful in understanding transcendence. Its main value was in expressing the conviction that the divine is not an impersonal force, but a reality to which the human consciousness can relate, and which is involved in and with the world. Perhaps the Mosaic notion that forbids the use of any metaphors ‘of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters under the earth ‘ (Exodus 20:4 KJV) best captures the mystery of that reality.
So how should the mystery of the divine be conceptualised? What metaphors should we use? How should we relate in life and liturgy to our experience of the mystery that envelops our lives and the world? I have no idea! I find the concept of panentheism interesting (see for example Borg 1997; Peacock 1993). Don Cupit (1998) seeks for more adequate terminology in Heidegger’s philosophy of being. Intuitively it seems to me to be a fruitful route to follow. I am convinced that we will not find a satisfactory understanding of either the phenomenon of consciousness or of the reality of the transcendent within the present ‘basic-building-blocks’ view of what is real. Based on a nineteenth-century physical science worldview, this ontology postulates that ultimate reality resides in physical particles, which secondarily interact to form systems. John Searle formulates the ontology that undergirds the modern worldview as follows:

We live in a world made up entirely of physical particles in fields of force. Some of these are organised into systems. Some of these systems are living systems and some of these living systems have evolved consciousness (Searle 1995:7).

This article is not the place to critique this worldview. I have suggested elsewhere (Kriel 2000) that the post-modern sciences of complexity indicate that ultimate reality does not reside in ‘parts’ that secondarily interact to form ‘wholes’. Ultimate reality resides in complex systems that seem to be organised into a hierarchy in which the different levels of complexity are separated by ontological gaps. Reality is complex systems. A part has no reality apart from the system from which it derives its nature and its being.
Spong (1998:56-70) has made a consistent and intellectually honest attempt to explicate the implications of a non-theistic view of God for the Christian tradition. In this debate we cannot ignore the input of modern science, whether it be the science of the ultimately small (quantum physics and molecular biology), or the science of the ultimately big (cosmology), or the science of the living (biology). Neither the natural sciences, nor the theological sciences can develop an adequate framework of understanding in isolation (see Murphy & Ellis 1996; Van Huysteen 1999).
The evolving human religious tradition that we call Christianity is looking for new metaphors to express its experience of the reality of the transcendent. Spong takes seriously the situation of an increasing number of Christians who can no longer accept the conventional metaphors, concepts and meanings of the tradition, but still feel themselves committed to the person and way of Jesus of Nazareth and the fundamental values of the tradition. He refers to their situation as ‘the experience of exile’.

In this exile period all ideas of God are open for debate. The definitions of God are not consistent; they invite exploration. There is no body of agreed upon data that fills this word and no coercive attempt to impose. Objective truth has disappeared. The language of an ever-changing journey has replaced it (Spong 1998:65).

By and large the urgency and the legitimacy of these questions, and the power of the evolving answers are ignored by the institutions controlling ecclesiastical practice.


The conflict between Christian faith and the natural sciences is often depicted as a conflict about the origins of humanity that is a creationist versus an evolutionist view of the origin of the human species. But the conflict goes deeper than diverging views regarding the biological origin of humanity. It involves our views regarding the true nature of the species, which evolutionists call Homo sapiens sapiens and the theologians call the image of God.
The works of Galileo, Newton, Charles Darwin and Einstein have left the worldview that informs all the biblical texts in tatters (Spong 1997:3-21). As a physician, trained by Professor Philip Tobias in anatomy, I am an evolutionist, not only in terms of biology, but in my view of the basic processes of reality. The cosmos is a cosmos in evolution. [15] Whether the theory of evolution as propounded at present is correct in every aspect is irrelevant. The theory of evolution, like the whole of science, is a theory in evolution! The glee with which creationists greet every scientific criticism of the evolutionary theory is completely misplaced. The theory of evolution is as firmly established within the worldview of science as Copernicus’s heliocentric theory.
Homo sapiens is an animal species with purely animal origins. We have a remarkable linguistic form of consciousness that gives us vast powers to construct our conscious worlds. Our form of consciousness also gives us remarkable powers over the natural world, for good and for evil. But we are a subset of the set of conscious mammals (with the primates, whales, lions, elephants, hippos, cats and dogs, to name but a few). Conscious mammals are in turn a subset of the set of conscious animals.
We are self-conscious animals. We do not consist of a body and a soul. [16] Self-consciousness is a language-dependent phenomenon. Language gives humans the ability to objectify their experience of themselves, to talk about themselves and their bodies. Influenced by Plato via Bishop Augustine of Hippo, the Christian tradition has objectified the self-experience of consciousness into ‘an immortal soul inhabiting a mortal body’. This has led to a profound misreading of biblical texts by the early church, a mistake that was not made by the rabbis.
If this is my view of the human person, I obviously cannot accept the concept of an after-life, of eternal judgment and of heaven and hell, [17] or of the so-called Second Coming of Christ. I cannot imagine on what mechanism a conscious life after death could be based. Consciousness is a biological phenomenon. It does not exist without brains. [18] Judaism has sustained a dynamic faith in JHWH without a concept of heaven and hell and of resurrection. I do not agree with St Paul that if there is no resurrection, then we have believed in vain (1 Cor 15). I trust God to be God both in life and in death.
I also find meaningless the concept of the inherent sinfulness of humanity. I do not deny the reality of human evil, and the mystery of seemingly senseless suffering in nature. But human evil is a product of the human consciousness. It is not a product of original sin, or the responsibility of a devil. [19] In Rabbinical Judaism the story of Adam and Eve was never interpreted as indicating an entity called original sin. ‘Jewish people did not relate to sacred history as if it were an objective description of literal events’ (Spong 1997:5). Although I share St Paul’s experience that the good I want to do, I fail to do, and the bad that I want to avoid, I sometimes cannot resist, I find the whole Christian discourse surrounding the concept of original sin of little use in understanding myself, my society and the world I live in.
Suffering entered the universe with the phenomenon of consciousness. Before conscious living beings appeared, there could be no suffering in the world. The greater the complexity of consciousness, the greater the scope and intensity of possible suffering. The fact that consciousness was retained in the evolution of life, in spite of its inevitable shadow of suffering, means that consciousness must have great survival value. Suffering should not simply be equated with the experience of pain (Degenaar 1979). With the evolution of complex forms of consciousness, animals can suffer even in the absence of pain. This is especially true with the appearance of Homo sapiens. But other conscious animal species can and do suffer, especially under the conditions that we impose on them in abattoirs, research laboratories, zoos and their ever-shrinking natural environment.
There seems to be much suffering in nature, but there is no evil. Animal behaviour is largely determined by genetic behavioural programmes. Animals cannot be evil, they can only act out their behavioural programmes. Sir Karl Popper (1987) distinguishes between closed and open behavioural programmes. Closed programmes determine the animal species’ behaviour in the minutest detail. Open programmes allow for choices to be exercised. As consciousness increased in evolutionary complexity, so the behavioural programmes became more and more open. The power of the human form of language-based consciousness lies in the tremendous openness that allows humanity to escape all natural mechanisms that control animal behaviour and so limit damage to the total system. The open programming also allows for evil, which is the deliberate imposition of suffering on other living beings. But open programmes also allow for love, self-sacrifice, and compassion. [20] The possibility for good and for evil finds its greatest expression in Homo sapiens sapiens with its language-based consciousness and open behavioural programme.
Human evil is a human responsibility. It involves genes, brain physiology, social influences, human psychology, human freedom and moral responsibility. It is an immensely complex human phenomenon that defies clear-cut, simplistic explanations — of which the concept of original sin is one example. Biological determinism is another. We are not eternally guilty regardless of what we do. So we do not need eternal salvation regardless of who and what we are. But neither are we the predetermined product of our genes (see Rose et al 1990). We have open genetic programmes. We can make real choices. We are responsible for what we are and do, and for the suffering that we cause to our own and other species.
This does not mean that as a species we are self-sufficient, that we do not need the relationship to the transcendent being in whom, from whom and to whom we have our being. All religious traditions are witness that as humans we reach our full humanity only by relating to that which we perceive as being greater than we are. Unfortunately that same religious intuition can also lead to total dehumanisation, as is seen in religious wars and other religiously motivated atrocities. Homo sapiens sapiens is the only animal species that needs salvation. But it is not salvation from eternal damnation by a vengeful God. It is salvation from the unbridled will to power that is the source of the suffering and destruction that our species inflicts on our fellow humans and the other living beings dwelling on the earth. The Christian tradition, as I understand it, claims that this can only be done by submission to that transcendent reality whose nature is love. Jesus of Nazareth lived out such a submission in his situation. It cost him his life.


The Christian interpretation of the person and role of Jesus is the crucial point of division between Judaism and Christianity. Christ is the Greek translation for the Hebrew word for Messiah. The term Christianity can be transcribed as ‘the religion of the Messiah’. Christians claim that Jesus is ‘the promised Messiah’, and blame the Jews for not recognising this ‘fact’ regarding Jesus.
The Messianic expectation was a late development in Judaism. The Messiah was not ‘promised by God’, however. The Messianic figure that appears in post-exilic biblical texts is the literary expression of a religious expectation that arose in late Judaism. It was motivated by the historical events that seemed to belie the concept of Israel as a chosen people, and the expectation of the re-establishment of the Davidic kingdom. The Messiah was a religious expectation generated by social and historical events, a hoped-for agent to bring about God’s political agenda for Israel. God would vindicate Israel’s faith at the end of time by sending a divinely chosen agent, the Messiah. Judaism never saw the Messiah as a divine being, as being ‘God incarnate’. The Christian construct of the Messiah as God incarnate is a non-biblical, Graeco-Roman corruption of a Jewish hope. Jesus, being a devout Jew, could not have understood the Messiah as the Christian church developed the idea. It could not have entered his mind.
No Jew could conceive of a human being as sharing in the divine nature. For them it is a blasphemous thought. But the idea of a human being sharing in the nature of the gods was common within the worldview of the Greeks and the Romans.

For ancients, the idea that a human being might be essentially divine made sense. In a worldview in which gods sometimes mated with human beings, the offspring of such a conjugation, a divine human being, was a distinct possibility. Today of course no one believes this. But many still believe that Jesus was essentially divine, accepting this as an article of faith, even though the mythic framework within which such belief might have made sense has long passed from our cultural consciousness ... it is a claim without much meaningful content in the modern world. It is perhaps the centrepiece of a modern Christianity that has been drained of most of its content and meaning (Patterson 1998:498).

For me, Jesus’ ‘divine nature’ as a ‘member of the Trinity’ has been drained of all content and meaning. Jesus was a first-century Jew. He might have been an example of a shaman (Davies 1995), and thus have represented a specific faction within Judaism. But he was a Galilean Jew, born of Jewish parents, who died on a Roman cross (see Vermes 1983a, 1983b; Crossan 1991, 1994). He was not conceived by the Holy Ghost, or born of a virgin. He was a believing Jew. He taught and acted in terms of his faith, and many among the Jewish peasants found in him a new way of experiencing the power to live their lives in an oppressive society. Today’s Christian faith would have been totally impossible for Jesus.
That the Gospel writers thought of Jesus as fulfilling the scriptures does not mean that they thought of Jesus as divine. My reading of the early writings of Paul in for example the Letters to the Thessalonians have convinced me that he initially saw ‘Messiah Jesus’ (translated as Christ Jesus) in accordance with the Jewish Messianic expectation, namely as a human agent who was elected to fulfil God’s agenda. Paul did not see this agenda as a political one, but as a spiritual one. It was only later (under Hellenic influence?) that he developed the idea of the ‘cosmic Christ’ and started talking in metaphors that suggested a divine pre-existence.
There are suggestions in the literature that the conflict between Paul and the Jerusalem Church was more profound than simply a conflict about the necessity of non-Jewish converts to The Way being circumcised and expected to follow Jewish dietary laws. The Jerusalem Church, under the leadership of Jesus’ brother, may not have seen Jesus as divine and as initiating a new religion. They may have seen themselves as following a new way entirely within Judaism.

The resurrection

Borg does not mention the resurrection as a central article of the Christian faith. For most Christians, Easter Friday may be the liturgical remembrance of the central event for ‘saving our souls’, but the resurrection is seen as the essential guarantee of Jesus’ divinity and thus of the efficacy of the events of Good Friday. The resurrection proves that Jesus is God. Within this framework Jesus’ resurrection becomes nearly automatic. Long after I had rejected the birth narratives as historical accounts of Jesus’ conception and birth, I held on to the physical resurrection as central to my understanding of Christianity. But like the birth narratives, the resurrection narratives are very problematic within the gospel accounts as well as in the writings of Paul and the other New Testament writers (Borg 1997:92-98; Spong 1997:217-219; Spong 1998:277-279; Patterson 1998:496).
Patterson points out that resurrection was a confessional element of most ancient religions (Patterson 1998:496). To claim that someone was raised from the dead was not a remarkable claim within their worldview. The question in that time would not have been whether there was a resurrection, whether such a thing as resurrection of the dead was possible. Most people in Jesus’ day believed that the Emperor Augustus had been raised from the dead. The question would have been why that specific person on whose behalf the claim was made would be raised by God from the dead. What was remarkable about the claim by the followers of The Way was that Jesus was resurrected. ‘He was not powerful, but the victim of power. He did not believe in the Empire, but proclaimed another Empire, the Empire of God’ (Patterson1998:497). This empire focused on marginal people, making them the centre of God’s concern.
Jesus did not rise from the dead, but the manner in which he mediated the presence of God, whom he called Father, was so real to his followers that they experienced his continued presence in their daily lives. Spong suggests that Easter with its story of the resurrection can be transformed and carried with us into a post-exilic future. But then it must be divested of the miracles of physical resurrection, angels who roll away stones from tombs, and bodies that appear out of nothing and disappear into thin air.

But life that transcends every human limit is a powerful portrait. Death, which opens all things to new possibilities; love which triumphs over hatred; being which overcomes non-being — those are the truths to which Easter points, and those are the truths that emerge when God is met on the edges and at the limits of our finite humanity. That is what the stories of the resurrection are all about (Spong 1998:190).

Being a Christian without a Christ

A large body of theological writing is undertaken on the basis of the same paradigm that controls church practice. This is written by ministers as well as theologians at theological institutions affiliated with specific denominations. However, the argument of this article is that there is a paradigmatic break between theological and biblical science and church practice. Most Christians are unaware of the discontinuity and the tension. Those who are, handle this discontinuity in different ways:

  • Denial: The validity of the findings of the scientific theological discourse and the premises on which that discourse is undertaken are simply denied. This is true of those in charge of the ecclesiastical bureaucracy that controls church life. They have several mechanisms to ‘protect’ church practice against what they consider the undermining effect of theological science. Pastors, priests and professional theologians have been defrocked and excommunicated from the community of faith. Fortunately modern political systems no longer allow burning at the stake.

  • Dualism: Many modern Christians live in two worlds — the world of science (both theological and natural science) and the world of faith and church practice. No attempt is made to integrate the two. Ministers who were trained by theological scientists of integrity and repute are forced to practise a dualistic approach. Patterson describes this situation at the end of what he calls ‘The new quest for the historical Jesus’, as follows:
    Professional theologians had a bit of knowledge they did not know what to do with. They knew that the Gospels were not history .... And yet, just to explain this problem to a lay audience would itself be difficult and troubling. Theologians, and the pastors they trained, shuddered to think of how one might effectively break the news to an ordinary congregation that the gospel stories they had come to treasure were not history, but fiction (Patterson 1998:489).

    One way of handling the problem is that of narrative theology. Patterson describes it as an approach by which ‘authoritative texts could provide a solid normative foundation for a linguistically based theology of story’ (Patterson 1998:489). I understand this to mean that the biblical stories are analysed for their possible meaning today without addressing the problem of their historical nature. The sermon can thus become meaningful for those hearers who believe in the historicity, and those who do not. The problem is that the question keeps raising its head: ‘But are these stories really true?’ What is required is official recognition of the validity of the view that they are not historically true. Then the pastor can at least answer: ‘That is for you to decide — it depends on your understanding of “truth”.’ Ultimately we will have to face the findings of theological science and its implications for exegesis and preaching.

  • Rejection: In his book Liberating the gospels, Spong gives a moving account of his relationship with New Testament scholar Michael Goulder. Goulder identifies himself as a non-aggressive atheist (Spong 1997:xii). Spong describes Goulder’s work as ‘the most exciting New Testament scholarship reading I had ever done in my life’ (Spong 1997:x). Goulder was at one time an ordained priest in the Church of England. However, progressively finding the Christian belief system inadequate in the light of his scholarship, he resigned from his ordination and ceased to identify himself as a Christian. People have many reasons that it is impossible for them to integrate the findings of the sciences with their Christian belief. Subsequently, they do not see their way open to remain professing Christians. Such a decision should be respected.

  • Integration: There are numerous ways in which Christians try to harmonise the natural sciences with theological science. Harmonising theological science with church practice has received much less attention. These attempts at harmonising the seemingly conflicting paradigms of theological science and church practice usually take the form of a defence of the traditional framework.

    Spong clearly and with great consistency sets out the inherent intellectual problems with the Christian belief system. It is a system that depends for its credibility on an out-dated worldview. [21] He starkly delineates the incompatibilities, and tries to create a space for those who cannot identify with this out-dated foundational worldview by his term ‘Christians in exile’.

    So while claiming to be a believer, and still asserting my deeply held commitment to Jesus as Lord and Christ, I also recognize that I live in a state of exile from the presuppositions of my own religious past. I am exiled from the literal understandings that shaped the creed at its creation. I am exiled from the worldview in which the creed was formed (Spong 1998:22-42).

    For Spong, Jesus was ‘a God presence, a powerful experience of that Ground of Being undergirding us all at the very depths of life’ (Spong 1998:221). He therefore has no hesitation in calling Jesus both Lord and Christ.

    The burning God intensity was so real in him that I look at his life and say, ‘In you I see the meaning of God, so for me you are both Lord and Christ’ (Spong 1998:221).

    I have no problem with the concept of Jesus as Lord. Patterson (1998:495) suggests that to confess Jesus as one’s Lord is simply to ask ‘What am I to do in the service of Jesus?’ It does not imply a commitment to a metaphysical divine nature ascribed to Jesus. I find the concept of ‘Christ Jesus’ (Messiah Jesus) extremely problematic. Jesus himself found it problematic and consistently refused to be called the Messiah. He does not fit into the Jewish Messianic expectation of a political restorer, or into the meaning given to the term by the Christian tradition where it is used to indicate his divine nature and membership of the Trinity.
    We tend to hear a reference to Jesus’ divine nature as part of the Trinity in the title ‘Son of God’ given to Jesus by his followers. That was not what was meant by the title. Jesus incarnated an experience of the God of Israel for his oppressed fellows. According to Patterson (1998:498) they did not sense in him a different essence, a palpable divinity.

    When they said of him, ‘Behold the Son of God’, it was not because they had seen a halo circling his head. It was because they had heard him say and seen him do certain things ... They heard in his words profound truths about the world, about human nature, and about God. They experienced in his actions what an authentic human being can and should be like. In his life they experienced a depth of meaning that tapped into what they knew to be true, ultimately true. Such truth is called in normal human parlance, God (Patterson 1998:498).

    Jesus incarnated this experience within the conceptual and action possibilities of the Jewish tradition. He pushed the possibilities of that tradition to its limits, to the point where it was in conflict with the political and religious system of his time, a conflict that eventually caused his death. This is an incarnation of the divine that we are also called upon to be for our fellow humans — if we wish to confess Jesus as Lord. Jesus revealed God to his fellow women and men in a way in which we too can reveal the divine reality. But then we must be prepared to follow Jesus into the depths of meaning of this tradition, and the life-for-others that it entails.

    Patterson’s existential Christology takes the basic experience of the early Christians as the foundation of the Christian faith.

    In their experience of Jesus, the followers of Jesus had experienced God. In his followership they had found the true meaning of their lives ... Christian faith began with a decision to see in Jesus’ words and deeds the deepest of all truths, the truth of God. This is what Christian faith was, and must become, if it is ever again to have meaning in the modern world (Patterson 1998:497-499).

    In this I can follow the earliest followers of Jesus of Nazareth. I hope I can also follow them in exploring, in the light of Jesus’ words and deeds, the depths of the tradition into which Jesus was socialised. Times have changed radically. We also need to seek other resources for thinking, faith and action. One of these additional resources to which Christian theology and practice must return, is the Judaic tradition as it developed over the past twenty centuries. Other resources include the insights of the natural, social and human sciences, philosophy, other religious traditions, [22] creative arts, etc.
    I believe that the frameworks created by Spong and Patterson allow me to consider myself a Christian even though I cannot ascribe the title Messiah or Christ in any meaningful way to Jesus of Nazareth. It seems to me to be possible to integrate the domains of theological science and ecclesiastical practice in the term ‘being a Christian without a Christ’.
    In spite of the powerful scientific, philosophical and theological arguments against it, the story of a God who ‘loves me and died on the cross for my sins to save me from eternal damnation’ has a strong emotional and intellectual appeal for Christians from varying sociocultural, economic and educational backgrounds across the world. It is a source of spiritual empowerment that transforms lives and has, in the past, transformed societies. The question is, can an understanding of Christianity which removes this central metaphor from the conceptual framework still support a meaningful spirituality, a spirituality that can give meaning to individual lives and continuously reform and transform society? Although this will not be argued further in this article, I believe it can. After all, Judaism has done just that without that metaphor for many centuries.
    I do not share Spong’s conviction that traditional Christianity is about to die. It is also impossible for the church to accept such a complete revision of its working paradigm as proposed by Spong. As Kuhn has pointed out, paradigms are not changed by argumentation. Paradigm changes in periods of scientific revolution are periods of intense conflict and emotional turmoil among natural scientists. I see no chance of a major change within church practice in the near future. Too much has been invested in money, energy and lives in the present paradigm. But for individuals who remain committed to the truths of the tradition, while rejecting the literalised presentations of those truths, Spong’s model of being ‘Christians in exile’ makes sense. I am suggesting that one way of describing this life in exile could be that of ‘being a Christian without a Christ’. This concept need not alienate the person in exile from the usual church practices and life in Christian community, provided that the church authorities are prepared to see it as a valid form of being a Christian in the modern world.
    Jonker suggests that commitment to discourse structured around the theme of competent Bible reading could be a means of moving beyond the dichotomy of objectivism and relativism. He suggests that it could ‘alleviate the antagonism between biblical scholars and lay Bible readers and it could stop their mutual labelling as objectivists and relativists’ (Jonker 1997:76). Such a discourse would, however, have to address the fundamental positivist understanding of truth and knowledge which forms the taken-for-granted worldview of a large part of the ‘western’ Bible reading public. It would also have to address openly the findings of theological research regarding the historical Jesus and the nature of the New Testament documents.
    If my argument in this article has any validity, then the tension between scientific theology and church practice is more than just a methodological tension between an objectivist and relativist view of the meaning of biblical stories. Theological science and biblical science are suggesting the necessity for a complete revision of the church paradigm. This revision requires:

  • the recognition of the inevitable relativistic implications of the insights of modern hermeneutics regarding the nature of human understanding

  • the recognition that the biblical worldview is incompatible with the modern scientific worldview and that the content and meaning of biblical stories cannot be transposed directly into the modern worldview — we need to look for the meaning behind the stories

  • the recognition that we have to revise the content of the church’s dogmatic framework in the light of the findings of theological and other sciences.

    This does not mean that the modern worldview is the ultimate standard and context for meaning. I agree with Borg (1994:14) that the modern worldview is pervaded by a ‘flattened sense of reality’ that has lost every sense ‘that reality might indeed be far more mysterious than we suppose’. He suggests that this flattened sense of reality is challenged by ‘the central claim of the Jewish-Christian tradition (and most religious traditions): that we are surrounded by an actual, even though non-material, reality charged with energy and power with which it is possible to be in relationship’. However, I would suggest that we cannot come to a transformed view and experience of reality by returning to a pre-modern worldview, or by ‘adding on’ to the modern reductionistic worldview. It requires a transformed understanding of what is real, and how animal consciousness and human linguistic self-consciousness fit into that reality. [23]
    I mentioned above that such a paradigm revolution is probably not possible within a social institution such as the church. I recently read the story of the clash between Professor du Plessis and the Dutch Reformed Church regarding his support for higher criticism as a scientific method of biblical analysis and his very minor revisions of the classical Christology and soteriology (Malan 1933). Bishop Colenso’s clash with the Anglican Church is another case in point. The mindset of the church in South Africa and internationally has not changed significantly. I am amazed at the tolerance shown towards Spong by the Episcopalian Church in the USA.
    The present relationship between theological science and church practice would be analogous, in the medical model, to medical practitioners practising their profession with near total disregard for the findings of medical scientists. In medicine such a situation is unthinkable. If a practitioner did practise with disregard of established medical knowledge, he or she could be charged before the Medical Council for malpractice and before the civil courts for negligence. Surely it is equally important for ‘the soul’ that the established findings of theological and biblical science be made available to the church-going public?
    I do not believe that Christianity will die, as the title of Spong’s book suggests, if it does not change. Paradigms, even obsolete ones, have tremendous staying power. What can legitimately be expected in the short term is that church authorities will take note of what is coming out of theological research. Church members must be educated in this regard. The legitimacy of alternative models of the Christian life and faith must be recognised, both for the sake of church members who wish to live integrated lives, and for the sake of those ministers who are theologically sophisticated. The two paradigms can mutually inform and enrich each other, much as the Newtonian and the quantum mechanical paradigms have enriched our understanding of the physical world. The question is therefore: will the church be able to allow alternative options within the body of followers of Jesus of Nazareth and his Way? Only time will tell. This seems to me, though, to be a legitimate goal for which Christians in exile can strive. In order to do so we need to demonstrate that the exilic framework can give meaning to life, and direction to action, in these perplexing times. [24]


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    Borg, M J 1997. The God we never knew. Beyond dogmatic religion to a more authentic contemporary faith. San Francisco: HarperCollins.
    Brummer, V 1981. Theology and philosophical inquiry. London: Macmillan.
    Conradie, E, Jonker, L, Lawrie, D, & Arendse, R 1995. Fishing for Jonah. Different approaches to the interpretation of the Bible. Bellville: University of the Western Cape.
    Crossan, J D 1991. The historical Jesus: the life of a Mediterranean Jewish peasant. San Francisco: HarperCollins.
    Crossan, J D 1994. Jesus. A revolutionary biography. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
    Davies, S l 1995. Jesus the healer. Possession, trance and the origins of the Christian faith. London, SCM.
    Degenaar, J 1992. Imagination and myth. S Afr J Philos, 11(3):67-74.
    Degenaar, J 1979. Some philosophical considerations of pain. Pain: The Journal of the International Association for the Study of Pain, 7/3:281-304.
    Degenaar, J 1997. Religious discourse, power and the public. Neotestamentica. Journal of the New Testament Society of South Africa. 31(1):39-58.
    Deist, F E 1990. The hermeneutic of the sacred and the task of Biblical Studies in a secularised world. Scriptura 33:6-15.
    Deist, F E 1994. Ervaring, rede en metode in Skrifuitleg. Pretoria: HSRC.
    Draper, J A Hermeneutical drama on the colonial stage. Liminal space and creativity in Colenso’s Commentary on Romans. Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, 103:13-32.
    Foss, L & Rothenberg, K 1988. The second medical revolution. From biomedicine to infomedicine. Boston: New Science Library.
    Grollenberg, L 1978. Modern bijbellezen. Baarn: Ten Have.
    Jonker, L C 1997. Bridging the gap between Bible readers and ‘professional’ exegetes. Old Testament Essays, 10/1:69-83.
    Kriel, C 1999a. Stilistiese analise van gedigte in/en die klaskamer. ‘n Onderrigmodel. Ongepubliseerde navorsingsartikel, Departement Literatuurteorie, Universiteit van SA (Unisa).
    Kriel, C 1999b. Traces of war in Joan Hambidge’s Nuwe liedjie op ‘n ou deuntjie. Paper delivered at the PALA International Conference, Potchefstroom.
    Kriel, J R 1985. Jonah: the story of a whale or a whale of a story? Theologia Evangelica XVIII(2):9-17.
    Kriel, J R 1986. Esther: the story of a girl or the story of her God? Theologia Evangelica, XIX(2):2-14.
    Kriel, J R 1998. Viagra and the mind-body problem. Philosophical Implications of a pharmaceutical innovation. Institute for Reformational Studies, Study Pamphlet no 372. Potchefstroom. Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education.
    Kriel, J R 2000. Matter, mind, and medicine. Transforming the clinical method. Amsterdam: Rodopi. Value Inquiry Book Series 93.
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    Malan, F S 1933. Ons kerk en Prof du Plessis. Cape Town: Nasionale Pers.
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    Patterson, S J 1998. The historical Jesus and the search for God. Hervormde Teologiese Studies, 54:476 Value Inquiry Book Series 93. 504.
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    End Notes

    [1] I passed the first year at the Theological Seminary of the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) at Stellenbosch and still have a letter from the Secretary of the Curatorium, Professor P A Verhoef, stating that I was welcome to return should I change my mind about not becoming a minister! Carol and I both left the ‘white’ DRC in 1976 to join the ‘black’ DRC of Africa. The moderator of the DRC at that time, the Rev Koot Vorster, brother of Prime Minister John Vorster, refused to allow us formally to transfer our membership to the DRC of Africa, even though the DRC and the DRC of Africa were ‘sister churches’. We resigned from the DRC. On moving to Johannesburg we became members of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa (UCCSA).
    [2] See for example Kriel 1985 and 1986. I now realise that these were one-dimensional, literary and historico-critical attempts at interpretation. Conradie et al 1995 present a comprehensive framework that demonstrates the complexity of every act of interpretation, including that of ‘reading the Bible’.
    [3] Deist once mentioned to me that he was concerned about the effect of their course on the faith of the students. He felt that the students had to be specifically assisted in working through the implications of the methodology of Biblical Studies for their Christian faith. (See also Deist 1990.)
    [4] We were introduced to Spong by the minister of our congregation. Carol has for many years subscribed to the journal Hervormde Teologiese Studies, in which Patterson’s article appeared.
    [5] I will be using the term ‘paradigm’ rather loosely to indicate the set of existing theories, as well as the methodological and ontological assumptions in terms of which any research is done, regardless of the nature of the scientific activity. For an analysis of the problems associated with the identification of the ‘clinical paradigm’ with the ‘scientific paradigm’, see McWhinney 1986; Foss & Rothenberg 1988 and Kriel 1996, 1998, 2000.
    [6] To what extent theology is a science is not of importance for this article. With Schwartz and Wiggins (1988:147) I accept as scientific ‘any human activity that rigorously adopts a critical attitude [and] seeks as much evidence as can possibly be obtained regarding the phenomena in question’. One could refer to this field as academic medicine and academic theology.
    [7] Deist points out that biblical scientists did not draw the theological conclusions of their exegetical work and that this led to an estrangement between the biblical sciences and the church community in South Africa (Deist 1994. Quoted by Jonker 1997:80). The reaction of the church community to the work of Bishop Colenso of the Anglican Church (see Draper 1999) and Professor Du Plessis of the DRC (Malan 1933) must have contributed to this estrangement.
    [8] A well-known case is that of the Catholic theologian Hans Küng. The late Ferdinand Deist is a local example, but several South African academics are at present ‘under investigation’ by their denominational authorities.
    [9] Many Christians believe that it still happens to them today, and act on this belief.
    [10] By Christian scriptures I mean the books of the so-called New Testament. Although Christianity also claims the Hebrew scriptures as part of its scriptural base, they are read in a different manner from the way they are read within Judaism. The two traditions could as well be reading different scriptures!
    [11] This is an essay in paradigm change, and it deals primarily in ‘meaning’ and ‘loss of meaning’ of concepts within paradigmatic frameworks. I am not saying that the traditional concepts of the Christian faith are meaningless. They convey great meaning to millions across the globe. Within the context of church practice they change lives. Believers are prepared to die and, unfortunately, also to kill for them. Loss of meaning of concepts is not foreign to the Christian tradition. The Catholic concepts regarding Mary, the mother of Jesus, are extremely meaningful to Catholics, but not to Protestants. Conversely the Protestant view of the Eucharist as a ‘meal of remembrance’ is meaningless to Catholics.
    [12] Midrash is a hermeneutical tradition that originated with scholars during the period of the Second Temple (fifth century BCE to 70 CE). It ‘purports to penetrate the “spirit” of the verse and derive interpretation which is not obvious’ (Rosten 1968:247). For Spong, the midrashic style of the Jewish storyteller ‘is not concerned with historic accuracy. It is concerned with meaning and understanding’ (Spong 1997:36).
    [13] I have serious misgivings about the term ‘Judaeo-Christian tradition’. Although many values are shared, I am not so sure that my Jewish friends see any real continuity between the two traditions. The Christian tradition negates some of the fundamental Mosaic concepts and insights. The assumption of continuity expressed by the term may be yet another example of Christian theological presupposition and insensitivity.
    [14] As Spong puts it: ‘I believe that there is a transcending reality present in the very heart of life. I name that reality God’ (Spong 1998:220). Borg (1994:14) refers to the ‘flattened sense of reality’ that pervades the modern worldview and suggests that we should consider seriously the central claim of most religious traditions ‘that we are surrounded by an actual, even though non-material, reality charged with energy and power with which it is possible to be in relationship’.
    [15] This does not mean that everything is automatically getting better and better. Complex systems evolve towards greater complexity because more complex systems tend to have more complex resources to deal with the problems of existence in a hostile environment.
    [16] This insight is now generally recognised by theological science, but church practice still takes place largely in terms of ‘the salvation of our immortal souls’.
    [17] These concepts do not make sense in terms of modern cosmology either.
    [18] This does not mean that I consider consciousness to be ‘nothing but brain processes’. This is a vast topic that falls outside the scope of this article (see Kriel 1998 and 2000 for my views on this problem).
    [19] The figure of the Devil as an antagonist of God developed in Judaism in the so-called inter -testamental period. It is not known in the Hebrew scriptures. The snake in Genesis is not the Devil in animal form. It is simply a talking snake.
    [20] I have no problem in acknowledging that these characteristics have ‘biological roots’ and can be recognised in various animal species, as is claimed by sociobiologists.
    [21] The biomedical model is also dependent on an outdated scientific worldview. Serious attempts are being made to change the underlying paradigm on which biomedicine is based. See for example Engel 1988; Foss & Rothenberg 1988; Kriel 2000; Von Uexküll 1997.
    [22] Should we not, therefore, also take seriously those aspects of our own tradition which are framed in terms of an outdated worldview. We should. But what we should take seriously in our own and other religions traditions is not the literalised worldview, but the meanings the writers were driving at, in so far as we can comprehend those meanings.
    [23] See my comments above on ‘reality’ and ‘the theory of complex systems’ (p 10). (Check page number once article has been set.)
    [24] Just as the ‘synagogue-paradigm’ enabled the Jews in exile to retain their faith — and, following the destruction of the Second Temple, actually saved Judaism from being destroyed with the Temple.

    Hierdie artikel het verskyn in “Religion & Theology. A Journal of Contemporary Religious Discourse” 8/3-4 [2001]: 298-326. Die tydskrif word geredigeer deur ’n komitee van die Fakulteit Teologie en Godsdienswetenskap aan Unisa en uitgegee deur Brill Academic Publishers van Leiden.

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