by Colin Morris.
Neil Richardson has proposed that instead of getting back to the Bible we should go forward with the Bible. Neil knows much more about New Testament studies than I do, but I’m not sure how far forward we can go with the New Testament, given that most of its writers believed their world was about to pass away. Surely, the New Testament authors did not imagine they were writing for the ages, but about something startlingly new? They thought they were on the verge of an explosive intervention into history that would transform or abolish it.
So over the centuries we have used homiletical and exegetical ingenuity to apply words and incidents from a world-view over two millennia old to societies that in succeeding centuries have lived through not one but several volcanic periods, including the Copernican, industrial and scientific revolutions, each with great intellectual and practical consequences.
Many of the great moral and social issues that affect our lives have taken us far beyond the Bible, sometimes in direct opposition to its teaching. The abolition of slavery, battles for liberty, democracy and human rights, especially those of women, the rise and consequences of systems such as capitalism, globalisation and climatic threats to the earth’s survival have become clamant as a result of rapid cultural, political and scientific changes.
Certainly, radical Christians have been and are on the front line in many of these battles, sometimes against the opposition of Church officialdom claiming the Bible’s authority for its status quo attitudes.
Granted, on the premise that human nature does not change, the conquest of evil and the need for redemption offered through the teaching and sacrifice of Jesus are as relevant as they ever were. The transformative power of divine love and forgiveness is perennial. The Bible is bang up to the minute about that.
But what if human nature is about to change or at least to be changed? I barely achieved School Certificate level Science, but from what I understand about what I read, we are in the early days of a cognitive revolution that will challenge key theological assertions implied in the Bible such as the nature of human identity and freedom of the human will.
Scientists are at work re-engineering the human brain by re-writing its genetic codes, re-wiring its circuits and altering its chemical balance. Projects devoted to the development of artificial intelligence, the dramatic extension of life expectancy and the manipulation of DNA to change human characteristics are under way. Perhaps the most revolutionary is the attempt to devise a direct two-way brain-computer interface. The aim is to download the entire contents of the brain onto the internet and use it to link several brains to each other, with unpredictable consequences for our understanding of human consciousness and identity. It is already possible to use brain scans that reveal a person’s choices or decisions before he or she is aware of making them, raising puzzling questions about free will.
We cannot console ourselves that such things are just fantasies or at least vague possibilities which lie far into the future, for scientists measure the future in decades and not in centuries. The internet went from one man’s bright idea to world-wide availability in less than 20 years.
The Biblical world fades further and further into the distance, and we probably know as much about Jesus of Nazareth as we will ever know, as an immensely significant historical personality, whose memory is constantly refreshed liturgically by our prayers, hymns and bible readings.
But Christianity has never depended on knowing Jesus as ‘he was at the time.’ Paul testifies to that. The Resurrection transformed the historical Jesus into the Christ of confessional testimony who, unlike the Galilean preacher, has never been historically confined, so that two thousands of years on, Dietrich Bonhoeffer could ask, ‘Who is Christ for us today?” with the implication that ‘Christ’ is the changing pattern of our relationship to the living God as the times change.
The American theologian Tom Driver described the Christ of the Church as ‘a composite of the experiences and expectations of all who gather in Christ’s name, and not only those who are priests, preachers, theologians and others gifted with office and fine words.’ (1)
As the Cognitive Revolution gains momentum we can barely imagine what form these ‘expectations and experiences’ of Christ might take. I hope that somewhere in academia there are suitably qualified scholars working on a Christology for the future.
(1) Driver, Christ in a Changing World, p 31, SCM, 1981