Two new theology books
Below is my report on the interesting presentation today at the Theology Faculty. I'm rallying my thoughts and will post a response within the next few days. I did, however, buy a copy of "Geloof sonder sekerhede" after the talk, and look forward to reading it. Instead of buying online, I went down to the local Afrikaanse boekwinkel and supported them. When I got home, I saw the copy I had was autographed, which was a great let-down, as I was hoping to meet Prof Van Niekerk under the guise of autograph-hunter and then ask him a few questions. Hopefully, when I find a copy of "Doodloopstrate van die geloof" (they were sold out at Protea) I won't be so preempted.
A group of about 25 folk gathered in the auditorium of the Theology Faculty (University of Stellenbosch) on Tuesday morning, 2006 October 10, to listen to discussions of two recent books, "Geloof sonder Sekerhede" (Faith without Certainty) and "Doodloopstrate van die Geloof" (Dead-ends of Faith).
The meeting was hosted by Dr Ben du Toit, who welcomed the audience and explained the programme, commenting that this get-together was the initiative of Dr Coenie Burger & Dr Cas Wepener. First, Prof Anton van Niekerk would speak about his book and Stanley du Plessis would offer some reflections. Then, Prof Jaap Durand would speak, after which Rev. Auke (!) Kampaan would add his comments.
Around 09:15, Du Toit handed over the microphone to Prof Van Niekerk, who in his engaging and powerful way set out some of the reasons that led to him writing the book. He emphasised that he has great respect for Reformed theology, has no axe to grind with the NGK (Dutch Reformed Church), but noted that "reformation" implies an on-going process, and that his book is intended as a contribution to the discussion surrounding the nature of the Christian church.
He noted that, over time, thoughtful reading of the Bible established certain patterns of interpretation, giving particular meaning to parts of the text, which are then taken up as part of Church dogma. These idiomatic memes "resonate with the times", and van Niekerk wonders which of these metaphors still have the power to reach us modern people.
He takes particular issue with two doctrinal teachings: the idea of Christ's virginal birth, and the doctrine of original sin ("erfsonde"). He characterized these as being of primary importance ("hoofsaak"), noting that there are other doctrinal controversies that are second in rank. His conclusion is that the teachings of virginal birth and original sin do not resonate with modern life.
He ascribes to the definition of theology as faith trying to understand ("geloof wat probeer verstaan").
In discussing the second chapter of his book, which poses the question: How does one read the Bible?, he notes that this is an issue of great importance. He gives a definition of "the Bible" as the written witness of God's great work. The authors of the various books, he holds, were not intentionally writing The Word of God, but were giving an account of what they had experienced. The meaning of God's Word lies within the meaning of the text, and we understand the Bible only from within our particular historical and experiential background.
He then set out his conviction that a de-emphasis on the rational is called for, suggesting that, in the end, we can't really understand all that much about God. Faith is a matter of the heart, and not the cerebrum, and praxis (translating ideas into proper action) should play a bigger role than theory. "God/Faith" should be a verb, rather than a noun, he said.
Regarding science and religion, which makes up chapter 8 of his book, he noted that science says what is, while religion says what the meaning of it is ("wetenskap sę wat die geval is, terwyl geloof sę wat die sin van die geval is").
His final comments were about death, which is the topic of chapter 10 of the book.
Then it was the turn of Stanley du Plessis, a statistician, who reflected on his reading of van Niekerk's book. He noted that too much of theology generates dogma, which is the contrast to praxis. He characterised van Niekerk's book as an attempt to develop an understanding of faith.
Du Plessis' presentation ended at 10:00, after which Ben du Toit introduced the next two speakers, commenting that hermeneutics (the correct interpretation of scripture) was a central theme thus far.
Prof Jaap Durand spoke eloquently about his book, "Dead-ends of Religion", reiterating that he wrote it for very personal reasons. He said that as a modern man, he is exposed to the virtually overwhelming assault of modernity, and its child, secularism. He also has to endure the message of meaninglessness of a world-view that denies the transcendent.
"Look around you, in South Africa, read the newspapers," he says, where you will find many examples of attacks on Christianity, mentioning in particular the writing of George Claassen in Die Burger newspaper.
He notes that we have come to live in a world where the mind is the final arbiter of what is true or not.
He said that, after many discussions with Biblical scholars, he has reached the conclusion that meaningful discourse with them is not productive. Thus, he set about examining the theoretical bases of their arguments, and finds that Reformed theologians are, in essence, modernists (and not even post-modernists).
The new reformed theology ("Nuwe Hervormers"), he says, currently emphasizes spirituality, fostering a sense of gnosticism, but this, he points out, is nothing new, rather, it is simply 18th century modernist thinking.
He points out that the role of the transcendent which is a part of all religions is important to the discussion, and that in trying to remove transcendency one would find that only Buddhism would be feasible. A world view without the transcendent is a closed world, he maintains.
The affable Rev. Auke Kampaan [my, what a handsome name!] spoke next, noting that Durand's book was insightful and moving, noting that it would have been good if George Claassen had read this book. Presumably, he implies that had Claassen read Durand's book, he wouldn't have attacked Christianity in the newspaper he writes for.
I noticed that around 10:30, Mr Pieter Pelser joined the audience.
Kampaan said that Durand points out that there are two broad categories of assailants of the Christian faith. On the one hand, there is popular criticism, typically by younger people, often phrased intuitively, sometimes flippant or just plain irrelevant. On the other hand, there is the attack by the new reformers, who are typically older and make more academic-type criticisms. Durand then goes on to show that the common thread found in these two disparate groups is that of modernity, which he characterizes as a 'closed world view'. The new reformers say they are searching for a post-church spirituality, but Durand notes that in reality they are just modernists with a Gnostic gloss, and are bringing nothing new to the table.
Kampaan points out that Durand succinctly explains the development of philosophical thinking in his book, and that for this alone, it is worth reading.
Kampaan's closing remarks included a call for the Church to present a believable/feasible ("geloofwaardige") cosmology, because one cannot ignore the findings of science.
A short tea-break followed, kindly provisioned by the Theology Faculty, after which the four speakers were lined up, ready to take questions. The first was from Dr Bernard Ficker, regular letter writer to Die Burger and general busy-body when it comes to being vocally anti-evolution. He pointed out that it was rather odd that there were books dealing with the uncertainties of faith, and suggested that someone should write a book about "Faith with Certainties". Prof van Niekerk thanked him for his question; part of his reply was to point out that one doesn't merely understand something in a vacuum, understanding is within a frame of reference. This contributes to the difficulty contemporary laymen have in reading and understanding the Bible.
Van Niekerk went on to say that religion can not be uncertain in the way that science has to be. Certainty plays a very important role in faith, but cautions that one must guard against too much certainty, because this leads to fundamentalism.
Numerous other questions were asked and answered, and some of the responses I recorded only fragmentarily. Mr Pelser finally got a question in near the end, but not before he carted out a list of scientific fables, which included evolution, and the Big Bang. I didn't take any notes.
Some of the response-fragments that I did find useful included:
Jaap Durand: discussed the struggle with doubt experienced in one's Christian life.
Auke Kampaan: "... these things [experiencing God working in my life] make life worth living; otherwise, I may as well be dead."
Van Niekerk: "Finding the balance between certainty and uncertainty is part of Christian life part of all life, really."
Van Niekerk: "Science does not talk about the meaning of it all; but religion per se is that intellectual disposition that strives to make sense of it all."
Richard Dawkins came up again in the discussion, and Van Niekerk expressed his view that Dawkins doesn't understand the relationship between science and religion.
More on George Claassen and his controversial writing in Die Burger can be found on Nathan Bond's blog "TART Remarks".
If you really are feeling brave, you could read an article about Claassen on the Answers in Genesis website, but be warned. The people from Answers in Genesis are a sad bunch. These dudes believe the Universe is about 10,000 years old, based on their reading of the Bible and wholesale rejection of science. I attended a presentation by one of their celebrity hucksters, Dr Carl Wieland (of AiG in Australia) you can read my report on his show.
You may also be interested in reading my report and comments on another presentation at the Seminary, "The Search for a Post-Church Spirituality", held on August 24.
Geloof sonder sekerhede: Besinning vir eietydse gelowiges
Author: Anton van Niekerk.
Publisher: Lux Verbi BM
Published: 2005 November
Doodloopstrate van die geloof 'n Perspektief op die Nuwe Hervorming
Author: Jaap Durand
Publisher: AFRICAN SUN MeDIA
nothing more to see. please move along.