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UNISA Symposium of New Testament and Early Christian Studies
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9/19/2016 to 9/21/2016
When: Monday, September 19, 2016
Where: Department of Biblical and Ancient Studies, University of South Africa
South Africa
Contact: Pieter Craffert

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The following is a call for papers for the Eighth UNISA Symposium Of New Testament and Early Christian Studies, which will take place at the Department of Biblical and Ancient Studies, University of South Africa, Pretoria, 19-21 September 2016. The theme is "Where do we stand on the supernatural? An interdisciplinary exploration."


There are certain concepts that will not disappear from our vocabulary. Supernatural is one of them! The term is often used, also in the Judaeo-Christian tradition and scholarship. One can hardly read a scholarly book on New Testament and Early Christian Studies where the term supernatural does not appear. It is not only the miraculous elements, such as the resurrection and the miracles in the New Testament, but also numerous aspects in the early Christian tradition that are labelled supernatural while the notion of the “supernatural” is presupposed in Christian theistic theologies. Supernatural is used to describe entities, such as, gods, demons, ghosts and spirits but also for events, such as, healings, exorcisms witchcraft and miracles and for unusual experiences, such as, apparitions, visions (revelations), out-of-body experiences (soul journeys), contact with the dead and trance. One of the features in New Testament and Early Christian Studies is the remarkable absence of a systematic and critical reflection about the concept. It has achieved the status of a common-sense concept and its everyday usage presupposes that there is no need to define and demarcate it.

One of the reasons is, as Raverty states: “In its Christian sense, the nature/supernature dichotomy is fixed and foundational to a systematic theological anthropology” (2003:188). Traditionally modern scientists ignore the social reality of supernatural phenomena but its cross-cultural distribution  and impact on all societies call for a reconsideration.

In recent years the concept supernatural has been subjected to various critical analyses and scholarly debates in a number of different fields. In a publication some ten years ago the anthropologist Roger Lohmann wrote the following:

‘Supernatural’ is a word that conjures spine-tingling feelings of mystical awe, fear, and joy. Does it exist as a concept, or as a phenomenon, however, among all peoples? What does it mean as a cultural construction and as a response to reality? What is its relationship to religion and spirituality, to experiences of ghosts and ideas about gods? What part of the ineffable world that informs cosmologies is captured by the term ‘supernatural’, and what is distorted or left out when we use it? Why is it such a contentious term in anthropology, vigorously condemned by some, championed by others, and blithely used by the rest? (2003:117).

The above was written as an introduction to a critical analysis of the term in anthropological research. These, and many more questions, haunt several other disciplines concerned with the human condition. Some argues that religion as such cannot be defined without reference to the concept “supernatural”: “It is my contention that the supernatural is the key concept of religion” (Hultkrantz 1983:231). Others contend that it is a uniquely Western category: “I contested the term’s presentation as a universal analytic category following field research among Sulawesi peoples with ancestral traditions, and comparative research on other non-Western cosmologies” (Aragon 2003:131). Yet, for Bosco it is a useful cross-cultural and analytical concept because it does not belong to a single culture-bound perspective. That does not mean that the boundary between natural and supernatural is fixed; in fact, that boundary is shifting (Bosco 2003:148). It is, therefore, a contested concept.

Besides the definitional and conceptual debates about the supernatural and our understanding of religion, the concept is also drawing attention from the cognitive science of religion, neurosciences and neuroanthropology, among others. Here the focus is on the recurring patterns of supernatural beliefs and attempts to find interpretive and explanatory models to deal with them. If the supernatural is so ubiquitous, what are the interpretive models that inform debates about it? Ilkka Pyysiäinen, cognitive scientist of religion, argues: “knowledge about the cognitive architecture of the human mind can help us understand the nature and spread of beliefs about both human souls and spirits and supernatural agents such as gods” (2009:3) while Michael Winkelman and John Baker, neuroanthropologists, suggest: “It is natural to think about the supernatural. This does not mean that all of the ‘otherworldly’ things that religions talk about actually exist. Rather, we believe that it is a natural condition of human beings to have religions, which we talk about as beliefs, and we do as rituals” (2010:xxii). Neuroscientists focus on the neural structures and processes that contribute to the creation of supernatural entities, agents and experiences. For example, some highlight the role of dreams in creating such concepts (see McNamara and Bulkeley 2015) while others focus on religious experiences as the source for supernatural agents  (see Jeeves and Brown 2009; Pennycook, et al. 2012). The “supernatural” and the “natural” are pulled into a variety of discourses that differ from those that gave birth to the concept in the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

All in all this is an exciting time to think about the supernatural. It is no longer the reserved terrain of scholars of religion and theology but the playing field for the interdisciplinary study of one of the most fascinating aspects of the human condition. Cognitive psychologist Joseph Bulbulia says: “Lots of us believe in supernatural realities—gods—and why this is so presents one of the most fascinating and underexamined questions in the naturalistic study of our species” (2006:87). It can be added, what it is, is capturing the imagination of scholars from many fields. In evolutionary terms, James McClenon suggests that supernatural phenomena have physiological and genetic bases that can account for the origin of religion as well as folk beliefs in souls, spirits and life after death (McClenon 2006). Ethnographic, cross- cultural, neuroscientific, cognitive scientific, science of religion, cultural studies and other insights come together in exploring the “ineffable” (Lohmann 2003) and thinking about the miraculous, the anomalous and the “natural” in human life in a holistic and integrated way. The supernatural becomes embodied in the understanding of what it is to be human and is, so to speak, domesticated in new ways.

Therefore, today there is an opportunity to rethink the concept and to reflect about the variety of interpretive tools available to explore the supernatural as a cross-cultural feature of the human condition. The focus is no longer primarily on the natural – supernatural dichotomy (supernatural versus natural) but include notions, such as, supernatural as natural, supernatural as cultural, supernatural as natural and cultural phenomenon.

Papers are called for in any of the following areas:

  • What is the supernatural?
  • What are supernatural events, agents and experiences?
  • Why does the supernatural exist?
  • How do we deal scientifically with supernatural events, agents and experiences?
  • Supernatural phenomena and the human condition

Submit a title and abstract of 250 words before 15 July 2016 at or


The cost to register for the symposium is as follows: Academics: R 1200, Students: R 400


The symposium will take place at the Muckleneuk Campus in Pretoria (Preller Street, Muckleneuk, Pretoria).


For all queries before and during your stay please contact:

Pieter Craffert, Tel. +27 83 324 4485, /
Itumeleng Mothoagae Tel. +27 83 504 4345,

Address: 128 Murray Street, Brooklyn, Pretoria, South Africa, 0181

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