Sunday, April 16, 2017

Which systematic theology textbook?

There are many textbooks on systematic theology. So if you are new to this subject, you may wonder which one should you get? 

I cannot survey all the available books on systematic theology out there, but here is a brief guide that I hope you will find helpful. I have also limited the list to text written by modern theologians, so no mention of classical works like John Calvin's Institute of the Christian Religion.

Over the years, I have noticed that there are two types of systematic theological text that serve very different purpose.

Introductory Systematic Theology
The first type is introductory text. These books come in handy to provide basic information about Christianity in an orderly way. By orderly, I mean their content is organised according to doctrine like 'God', 'sin', 'salvation', 'Jesus Christ', etc (some of them like to use the technical term like 'theology proper', 'harmatiology', 'soteriology', 'Christology', etc).

Usually books in this category are published in one-volume. Due to its introductory function, the scholarship in them is not very broad. They are more substantial than catechism but less scholarly than journal articles.

Inevitably, the discussion on each doctrine touches only the surface, which is alright as long as the author leaves the discussion open and direct readers to other substantial works.

What I don't like in some of this systematic theology is that they give cocksure answer by way of prooftexting to very debatable theological questions. So I do not recommend Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Zondervan, 1994), which is very popular among evangelical seminaries, unfortunately.

Alister McGrath's Christian Theology: An Introduction (currently in its 6th edition published by Blackwell in 2016), is a good example of this type of systematic theology. Its coverage is very wide, from history to doctrinal controversies to key theologians to contemporary theological trend. It reads like a theological travel guide. Very handy to new theological students.

Other good ones are Anthony Towey's An Introduction to Christian Theology (Bloomsbury, 2013) and Richard Plantinga, Thomas Thompson, Matthew Lundberg's An Introduction to Christian Theology (Cambridge University Press, 2010). But these two texts have not received wide recognition among local Christians.

Other introductory one-volume systematic theology which do not cover as wide but provide good discussion over doctrinal themes are Michael Horton's The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Zondervan, 2011), Michael Bird's Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Zondervan, 2013), Millard Erickson's Christian Theology (Baker Academic, 3rd edition 2013) and John Frame's Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (P&R, 2013). These four systematic theologies are more suitable for sermon preparation and relevant to the general church people.

For those who has a liking for a more philosophical-theological approach, Anthony Thiselton's Systematic Theology (Eerdmans, 2015) is the text to go to. Thiselton is renowned for his work on philosophical hermeneutic, so his discussion has a continental philosophy flavor.

While those who want an introduction to the historical development of doctrines can benefit from Roger Olson's The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform (IVP, 1999). If you find Olson's work too laborious, you can always turn to Jonathan Hill's highly readable The History of Christian Thought (Lion, 2003). 

And those who are Pentecostal, you may be interested in Simon Chan's Spiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life  (IVP Academic, 1998).

Constructive Systematic Theology
The second type is constructive in nature. This type aims to generate discussion by asking new theological questions, proposing new ways of asking those questions, setting unexplored trajectory, and/or re-vitalise forgotten theological approach.

These texts casually presume readers to have background over the subject matter. The scholarship is more substantial than the introductory type. There is one-volume constructive theology text such as Rowan Williams' collection of essays On Christian Theology (Blackwell, 2000), but usually they come in multi-volume. For examples, Robert Jenson's 2-volume Systematic Theology (Oxford University Press, 1997-1999); and Jurgen Moltmann's 7-volume Systematic Contributions to Theology (Fortress, 1981-2012).

However, not all multi-volume texts are constructive. For instance, Norman Geisler's 4-volume Systematic Theology (Bethany House, 2002-2005) is an introductory type. On each doctrine, Geisler lists out the Bible verses (often in prooftexting manner), quotations from church fathers, and syllogism that support his position on the doctrine. Who and who say what, and that is that. Hardly any constructive discussion, new questions being raised, or trajectory set.

On the other hand, shorter text doesn't mean more elementary. Jenson's 2-volume is less than 600 pages, but it is for readers with deep familiarity with the theological discourse in both western Roman tradition and eastern Greek religiosity. The language is loaded and technical. How many of us understand Jenson's discussion on Holy Spirit in the following extract:

"Is invocation of the Spirit anything distinctive over against invocation simply of God? Is Pentecost a peer of Easter or does it merely display a meaning that Easter would in any case have? The first position has been endlessly pressed on the West by Orthodoxy; in the judgement of the present work, rightly." (p.146)

20th century saw the publication of noted works such as Karl Barth's 14-volume Church Dogmatic (recently reissued as 31-volume by T&T Clark, 2009), Wolfhart Pannenberg's 3-volume Systematic Theology (Eerdmans, 1991-1998), Paul Tillich's trilogy (University of Chicago Press, 1973-1976), and Herman Bavinck's 4-volume Reformed Dogmatics (translated and published by Baker Academic, 2003-2008). 

There are 3 on-going projects in the present century that deserve the attention of theological students: Veli-Matti Karkkainen's 5-volume A Constructive Christian Theology for the Pluralistic World (Eerdmans), Sarah Coakley's 4-volume with the 1st setting out a contemplative-ascestic approach on Trinity, gender and sexuality (Cambridge University Press), and Katherine Sonderegger's 3-volume with  the focus on the oneness of God (Fortress). Each deals with very different motif, pointing new ways to discover and express divine truth.

Is there something in between Introductory Systematic Theology and Constructive Systematic Theology?
Some of you, who are well-acquainted with the first type of text, are looking for bridging text to go into constructive systematic. There are two edited books that fit this category: Oxford Handbook to Systematic Theology, edited by John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance (Oxford University Press, 2009), and Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, edited by Colin Gunton (Cambridge University Press, 1997).

What I have listed here is not exhaustive. As I have mentioned above, there are a lot of books on systematic theology. Each reader has his/her unique theological inclination. Some prefer Reformed approach, some historical, some Pentecostal, some Eastern Orthodoxy, etc. 

Nevertheless, I hope the two types of systematic theology text as categorised here would help you to decide which text to get and plan your own trajectory of theological development.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Blessed Good Friday 2017


Good Friday is probably the only event in the world that celebrates the death of a harmless person, calling it "good".

People might be more willing to cheer for the death of an evil person, but a harmless one?

Of course, Jesus was not actually harmless to all, as he questioned, criticized, & sabotaged the powerful religious authority of his day.

Jesus threatened the most respected & highest official in his community, the High Priest Caiaphas.

As a result, the authorities plotted & had him captured, prosecuted, & sentenced to death.

However, on Jesus's own decision, he didn't defend himself at the trial. He desired to be sentenced to death, believing that that was his destiny & there was a cosmic purpose following it. Thus, he was crucified.

His death left his followers confused. Many of them went back to their business as usual, defeated.

Then some time later, his followers regrouped and began celebrating his death as if it was a victory. They came to understand why Jesus desired to die. They saw the cosmic significance attached to it. As one of them later wrote:

"Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:7-8)

The dramatic shift from being defeated to being victorious owed to the followers' experience of Jesus being risen 3 days later.

That is why this Friday is "good". Blessed Good Friday to all.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Not Debate, But Muslim-Christian Dialogue: Responding to Nurul Haqq Shahrir

I read the article by Nurul Haqq Shahrir (a member on the panel for Islamic law transformation under Majlis Dakwah Negara) with much interest and optimism. He has rightly pointed out the resistance among people from different religion to engage each other in respectful exchange. I sympathise with his lament. 

Adding to Nurul’s observation, I would like to highlight two other conditions that severely discourage, if not undermine, Muslim-Christian interaction in this country. 

Absence of Levelled Platform 
The local demography and religious landscape are not fertile for interfaith engagement. This is partly due to the positioning of Islam by the authorities over the past five decades that has made it an extremely sensitive matter for non-Muslims to interact with the religion. 

The recent controversy over Hadi’s Private Bill, the “RUU355” motion, has shown how unacceptable it is for many Muslims to see non-Muslims expressing their thoughts and concern over the issue. Non-Muslims were told not to discuss it. Those who talked about it were criticised and chastised. 

Nurul himself has written an important article on the RUU355, and has received much derision from fellow Muslims. Now, if a Muslim like Nurul is not spared from criticism, one can imagine how much more worse it is for non-Muslims who talked about it. 

Siege mentality and the sense of religious superiority have led many local Muslims to perceive non-Muslims’ engagement on that issue, or any other Islamic topics, as threat to their akidah, their religious rights, and the position of Islam in the country. 

This situation has been so for a long time. One can recall the mob demonstration eleven years ago that abruptly ended the peaceful forum over Article 11, organised by 13 NGOs, including the Malaysian BAR Council and the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism. 

Such dismal condition is due to the absence of a levelled platform for all religious communities to engage one another. As long as the authorities continue to ignore their active role to provide such platform, genuine and constructive interfaith interaction will always be intimidated and thus deterred. 

Top-Down Prohibition 
The other condition that discourages interfaith interaction is the authorities’ active dissuasion for such activity. The authorities not only failed to provide levelled platform, but are extremely resistant toward high-quality public interfaith initiative. 

There are occasional closed-door academic discussions, but there seems to be an unspoken rule that such interaction is prohibited in the public. 

A case in point is the cancellation of the international “Building Bridges” seminar in May 2007. The year-long preparation involving 30 renowned Muslim and Christians scholars and leaders around the world was suddenly called off by the authorities just one week before the event. Our national leaders’ talk about the importance of interfaith interaction has always been mere lips-services. 

The reality is that the authorities take an active role in prohibiting different religious communities learning from one another, especially the Muslims from the Christians. Malay Muslims who want to read the Bible cannot even access the book in their own mother-tongue. The authorities deem that having access to the Malay Bible would confuse the Muslims. Again, being perceived as a threat to their akidah

The only type of interfaith interaction that is allowed in the public is the type that Nurul described as having “skilled debaters” employing deceit rather than rational argument to “win.” Thus, our country is plagued by confrontational and aggressive form of interfaith relation that leads to nowhere but continues to inject antagonism, suspicion, and fear among the religious communities. 

Way Forward 
Despite all the obstacles against Muslim-Christian interaction in Malaysia, Nurul’s article brings about a sense of hope, that there are still Muslims in this country who want to see constructive relation between the two religious communities to happen. 

While we continue to hope that the authorities would finally come to their senses, stop paying lips-service to interfaith interaction, and encourage constructive Muslim-Christian relation, we can begin small through our own sphere of influence. 

One of the most fruitful interfaith exercises that we can do is “scriptural reasoning,” promoted by higher-learning institutions like the University of Cambridge. It is about reading and studying each other’s scripture together. I had once been in a scriptural reasoning group consisted of Ibadi and Sunni Muslims, Anglican and Presbyterian Christians, and Orthodox and Reform Jews. 

We gathered for the sole purpose of learning from one another; how we understand our own religious text, how others understand theirs, what others can teach us about our own, what we can contribute to others’ understanding of their own text. Without pretension, deceit, and sense of superiority. We were there for constructive interfaith interaction. Perhaps, Nurul can suggest to the Majlis Dakwah Negara to initiate similar exercise. 

It is not a dismal situation that each religious group has much to learn from others. The important thing is the necessary attitude for religious people to seek knowledge and understanding. We can appreciate the encounter between apostle Paul and the members of Areopagus in Athens, recorded in the New Testament. The apostle tirelessly engaged with people of other religions, to even cite the works of their scholars, Epimenides and Aratus to bridge understanding. (Acts 17:28) 

Instead of futile debates, energy and resources should be channelled for fruitful Muslim-Christian dialogue that seeks after genuine interfaith learning and build relations across communities.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

NCCS’s Advisory on 'Beauty and the Beast'


Many have talked about the National Council of Churches of Singapore's (NCCS) advisory. Here is my reflection on it.

Disney’s “Wholesome Values”
The advisory states that Disney “has always been associated with wholesome values”. The “nice, exclusive gay moment” in the remake is “totally unnecessary and signals a marked departure from the original 1991 Disney classic.”

A friend, Mr. Smith highlighted that Disney is first of all a business. They profit from telling and animating story.

Thus, their “wholesome values” evolves according to what is perceived to be or should be wholesome in their targeted market by the story-tellers and film-makers at certain point in time.

Case in point is the original Fantasia made in 1940 that featured dark-skinned characters slaving for white characters, highlighted to me by Mr. Goh. This scene was edited out in its subsequent releases from 1960s onward, after the American civil rights movement against racism. Some may think that this edit is unnecessary

Disney’s “wholesome values” evolve according to the market’s prevalent values, not set on stone. Thus, it is misplaced faith to expect Disney creating works featuring only values agreeable to us all the time.

Besides, as I re-watched the 1991 animation Beauty and the Beast, I saw that Belle said “I love you” to the Beast without knowing that he was actually a man under spell. 

In fact, Belle was shocked at the Beast’s transformation back into a man (as seen in the photo above). As far as she was concerned, she fell in love with a beast, not a man.

What is NCCS’ and the advisory’s supporters’ take: Does Christianity teach that having human-romantic-love to non-human is “wholesome”?

If it is not wholesome, then on what basis can we say that Disney and the 1991 Beauty and the Beast are associated with “wholesome values”?

Duty To The Young
The advisory noted that some Christian leaders are “deeply concerned about the LGBT representation” in the remake as it is “an attempt to influence young children and socialise them at an early age into thinking that the homosexual lifestyle is normal.”

Regardless of the subject, be it right or wrong within the boundary of civility, we can commend each community leader to alert their members of perceived negative influence.

Be it the NCCS on the movies, Muslim authority over pop culture, or humanist groups on mission schools and religious-oriented co-curriculum activity, all have the duty to alert their respective members over values contrary to their ideology.

So no problem with this right of duty.

Singling Out and Magnifying Homosexuality
The problem comes when the message to “exercise discretion,” be “attentive to the entertainment choices,” and to “engage in meaningful conversation with [children] as they seek to make sense of the world” with the singling out and magnifying homosexuality.

It is as if the Christian’s value-radar is extremely sensitive over same-sex issue. It just beeps at other transgressions but sounds the fire alarm over homosexual content.

Such elevation dangerously turns the same-sex issue into a litmus test for orthodoxy, which divides between the tolerable and the non-tolerable that further stigmatises gay people in the society.

This hyper-sensitivity could be a reaction towards a perceived prolonged LGBTQI aggression that poses threat to civil toleration. Indeed, the public sphere is not cordial to all. 

Nonetheless, Christian’s witness in the public sphere is not to replicate such intolerance. This is especially so when we recognize that it is civilly unhealthy for the society, not least the church.

Thus, it would be more constructive for church leaders to see homosexuality in the same way they see other religions. Not saying that other religions are like same-sex act. Just saying that if Christian leaders do not see people of other religion and their religious life as threat, then they can likewise do the same with regards to homosexuality. Of course, I’m here assuming that other religions and homosexuality are deemed as against the teaching of Christianity.

Besides, in singling out and magnifying homosexuality, we unwittingly elevate same-sex act as ‘super sin’ from other sins. (For e.g., focusing on homosexuality and overlook beastility, as noted above.)

We therefore need to ask, why churches are so concerned over sexual sin? Why can’t Christian leaders be tolerant towards gay element as how they are being tolerant over Islamic or Buddhist element?

This is not to suggest that therefore church leaders should issue advisory or encyclical on every matters deemed sinful. Rather, this is to suggest that Christians should extend the same cordiality they have on other non-Christian element to homosexuality.

If Christians have no issue with people practicing other religion, then we can likewise do so with homosexuals. Of course, this doesn't apply to all things deemed un-Christian, only those within the boundary of civility.

In the end, we have to ask ourselves, what are we influencing our children for? To further stigmatises gay people? And sosialises them to be people who prejudge others based on their sexuality, religion, and wealth? Or, we want them to be adults who can contribute to the civility of a pluralistic society?

Socialising the young to know that people should not be discriminated based on their sexuality (or religion or race) is something all peace-seeking society needs.  As an article states (emphasis added):
“[It] would have been a huge help for [children] to see gay characters in movies when they were young — that they might have become more sensitive and accepting towards gay peers, or better able to grapple with their own sexuality. Studies have suggested that seeing gay characters in popular entertainment can decrease prejudice towards those groups.

“There is no doubt that kids seeing positively portrayed gay characters could have a significant effect that would contribute to such children’s learning about the world and who is in it,” said Edward Schiappa, a professor of comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Churches can strengthen the cohesion of a pluralistic society by encouraging the type of parenting that socialises children not to be prejudicial over people based on sexuality.

Christian leaders can help to build a world that no longer stigmatises gay people.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Why are Christians criticising LeFou being gay?

3 thoughts on Christians' condemnation of LeFou being portrayed as gay in Beauty and the Beast:

• Take a step back, ask ourselves, why do we react critically against that while not at all at the enchantress casting a spell that turned a man into a beast, which is wrong in using witchcraft to overturn divine order of creation (man into beast)?

• If we say that enchantment is not real while gay lifestyle is, then isn't this show that we are secularised in our worldview by the rationalism of the 18th-century Enlightenment, that Charles Taylor calls the "immanent frame", that we take for granted there's no enchantment anymore?

• If so, shouldn't we likewise take for granted there's no sacredness or divine-orderliness in heterosexuality? If we persist to take for granted one and not the other, shouldn't we need to account for such inconsistency?

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

MCA's Tan Chuan Hong’s Unfounded Accusation Against Penang State Government

(Photo taken from Tan Chuan Hong's Facebook)
Penang Malaysian Chinese Association's (MCA) secretary Tan Chuan Hong has recently alleged that Penang Institute received scolding from the chief Minister Lim Guan Eng due to their honest presentation of Penang’s declining economy.

According to Tan, Penang Institute’s latest report shows that “during DAP’s rule of Penang, the state’s GDP growth from 2009 to 2015 was lower (than the percentage) nationally.” 

On his Facebook, Tan wrote, “[A]fter DAP leading Penang government, Penang's GDP growth of year 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 were lower national.”  He specifically highlighted the year 2009 when Penang’s GDP decreased by 10.5% as compared to the national rate of 1.5%. Tan concluded that this data is the reason for the chief minister’s warning to Penang Institute.

These allegations are not only unfounded but on their own expose much misinformation and the unfortunate ignorance on Tan’s part.

Tan’s Outdated Data
The so-called “latest report” that Tan showed to the media and posted on his Facebook is actually dated. It was taken from Penang Institute’s magazine Penang Monthly, issue January 2015, page 61. In that issue, Penang’s GDP increase of 5.7% compared to the country’s 5.8% in 2014 was calculated projection.

After federal government has announced the 11th Malaysia Plan, Penang Monthly has published the official figure in the July 2015 issue, page 37. The official figure stated that Penang had 7.4% increase in GDP compared to the country’s 6% in 2014.

Penang’s GDP vis-à-vis Malaysia 2008-2015, from Penang Monthly, July 2015 issue:


2008
2009
2010
2011
2012
2013
2014
2015
(projection)
Penang
5.5%
-10.5%
10.4%
3.9%
5%
4.6%
7.4%
6.2%
Malaysia
4.8%
-1.5%
7.4%
5.2%
5.6%
4.7%
6%
5%

As shown, Penang’s GDP is higher than the country’s in 2008, 2010, 2014, and expected to perform similarly in 2015. The economy fluctuated in the past 8 years, not consecutively declined as alleged by Tan.

Instead of the most updated data, the Penang MCA secretary has exploited outdated figures as misrepresentation to make false allegation against the chief minister.

Penang’s economy in 2009
Tan questioned DAP’s ability to govern in view of the state’s -10.5% GDP decrease in 2009, attributing the fall to the party: “It even fell more than 10.5% in 2009, compared to the national drop of 1.5% in the same year. This has caused people to worry about the ability of Penang’s state government to govern.”

This exposes Tan’s ignorance over two very important factors that caused Penang’s GDP steep decline in 2009.

The first factor was the global financial meltdown in 2008 that caused economic recession in the country. This has significantly affected the manufacturing sector in Penang, which was 47.7% of the state’s overall economy.

As acknowledged in the Department of Statistics’ reportGross Domestic Product (GDP) by State 2009’, Penang’s GDP contraction in that year was “resulted from a sharp decline in the Manufacturing sector” due to the “global financial crisis.” 

The second factor was the failure of the previous state government under Barisan Nasional to diversify and upgrade Penang’s economy. This has thrown the state into the “middle-income trap”.

This is noted in the research jointly-published in 2010 by Khazanah Nasional and the World Bank. The recession in 2008-2009 has shown that Penang is, “A victim of its own success, its competitiveness in traditional areas is falling as wages rise. At the same time, it has not developed an environment where innovation can flourish to yield higher profits and wages.” 
(Homi Kharas, Albert Zeufack and Hamdan Majeed, Cities, People and the Economy: A Study on Positioning Penang (Malaysia: Khazanah Nasional Berhad, 2010), 10. Emphasis added.)

These two factors are evidence that the GDP plunge in 2009 was not due to the DAP and the present chief minister.

Tan’s false accusation exposes his own ignorance of the complexity surrounding the economic state of Penang at that time.

It is deeply deplorable that the MCA secretary has produced such nonsensical accusation by misrepresenting data and making severely ignorant allegation against the state government.

(An extract of this statement appears in Free Malaysia Today: http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2016/07/18/seagates-closure-zairil-says-penang-will-bounce-back/)

Friday, May 13, 2016

Still a long way ahead for the country

Took this picture when I was on my way in between polling stations to check on reported electoral irregularity.

It was my first time managing not 1 but 2 constituencies (Serian and Kedup). Both places have limited data coverage, which is a huge challenge as we can't maintain constant communication and can't use Google map/Waze at a foreign terrain.

This is especially so when there were 3 to 6 rallies happening simultaneously at various unfamiliar locations which are far from each other.

The mobilization of manpower (with my support team, esteemed speakers, volunteers, and local coordinators) and logistics (with limited cars and equipments), and the coordination work between party's headquarters in Kuala Lumpur and Kuching and the two local constituencies were straining.

The publicity efforts involving giant billboards, banners, responsive flyers, and paraphernalia under extremely tight schedule and budget were demanding.

There was also the need to give political speech in a language not natural to my tongue.

Daily work hours averaged at 16 to 19. No day off. It was an eventful 3-weeks.

After all that have been done, we lost. Mostly to money politics, and secondarily to other sociopolitical factors.

I seldom think that I've done my best, but I believe I had for this one.

As the picture shows, it's a long road ahead. For the country.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Zakir Naik an expert on comparative religions?

The controversy over Zakir Naik, who is highly esteemed by many, led me to watch his video. To my disappointment, in one video, Naik who talked about "Trinity" without showing any basic knowledge about it. 

He uttered very uninformed statement like: the doctrine of Trinity is false because the word "Trinity" is not in the Bible. (Not to mention the very clumsy handling of topics such as the canonization of the Bible and issues such as textual criticism.)

That is not how the concept of "Trinity" came about. But we can't blame him because many Christians are also not sure about this.

Nonetheless, we expect Naik to at least demonstrate some knowledge based on doctrinal research about the core belief of Christianity, as he is noted to be an expert in comparative religions and the President of Islamic "Research" Foundation.

Although many may find it daunting to learn about Trinity, there are accessible resources available for the task.

Stephen Holmes's The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History, and Modernity published in 2012 by IVP Academic is one such resource. Holmes is a theologian at University of St. Andrews, Scotland.

The book gives wide overview of the important debate within Christianity about the doctrine. It tells us how the doctrine arises largely as a response to the "exegetical pressure" of various verses in the Bible (p.53-54: 1 Cor 8:6, Matt 28:19, 1 Cor 12:4-6, 2 Cor 13:13, Gal 4:6, Eph 4:4-6, Rev 1:4-5).

Holmes shows us that the concept of Trinity is still very much debated even among Christians. In the first chapter, Holmes summarizes all the big ideas among the great twentieth century theologians, namely Karl Barth, Karl Rahner, John Zizioulous, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jurgen Moltmann, Robert Jenson, Leonardo Boff, Miroslav Volf, Cornelius Plantiga, Richard Swinburne, Michael Rea, and Brian Leftow.

Thus, it should not surprise Christians that non-Christians express doubt over Trinity. But that is not the point.

The point is a heuristic one: If Christian theologians are still debating about the Trinity, then anyone interested in comparative religions should ask, how did this whole debate come about, especially when the word Trinity is not in the Bible? 

The concept of Trinity is one of much nuance that non-experts may find fumbling when learning about it. Take for instance, this sentence in the book:
"Barth's denial of a Logos asarkos, Rahner's insistence on the identity of the immanent Trinity with the economic Trinity, and Pannenberg's and Moltmann's desire to see God's life as open to the gospel history, all reach their most extreme, and most coherent, expression in Jenson's theology." (p.24)
However, readers should not to be intimidated by the above sentence for Holmes does explain what it means.

Thus, Christians must learn about their core belief as much as non-Christians who are expert in comparative religions should.

Inter-faith dialogue and understanding in the world, not only in Malaysia, deserves better experts whose working knowledge is based on real research on theology.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

The movie Spotlight on Roman Catholic Church's systemic evil

The film 'Spotlight' which won this year's Oscar for Best Picture is based on the true story of how a team of journalists exposed the Roman Catholic Church's systemic cover-up of their priests' sexual abuse of children.  

It shows how clergy and devout laity can blindly conspired to conceal evil out of their misplaced sacred sense of allegiance or religious obedience (and also perhaps wrong theology). 

I am particular affected by the depiction of the regular church-goers, of which some were the rich and power people in Boston, whose loyalty to their church has pulled them so far away from the hurt and injustice suffered by the abused victims. When confronted by the journalists, they simply dismissed or remained silent about the issue.

To them, what really matters was the fact that the church had been doing so much for the community, thus nothing should tarnish the reputation of the religious institution even though the lives of hundreds of children are destroyed and its truth is swept under the carpet.

'Spotlight' shows us that (metaphorically) demons do come in the form of middle-age people with loving family who serve as active cell-group leaders in a local church.

The film ends with the statement that says, "249 priests and brothers were publicly accused of sexual abuse within the Boston Archdiosese and the number of survivors in Boston is estimated to be well over 1,000," and a list of over 200 other cities around the world where "major abuse scandals have been uncovered."  

As one character in the movie said, "If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse them."  

After the exposure, Cardinal Bernard F. Law who was responsible for the cover-up resigned from his Archbishop position in Boston. Then Pope John Paul II appointed him as Archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore (one of the four Papal Major Basilicas in Rome). 

This film brings out the reality of how individual and structural evil takes their form in a contemporary religious institution.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Christians and Madonna's Concert: Living with grace, kindness, and openness in pluralistic society

http://www.metroweekly.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/SP_RodFUVQyfFiuM1NqFkx-xTk9BsVDMxf5lFf5mtE.jpg
Madonna's concerts have been subjected to public scrutiny especially by Christians for acts that are deem offensive to Christianity.

Top Roman Catholic leaders from the Philippines, Singapore, and New Zealand have voiced strong objection against the singer's performance.

Singapore's Anglican leader has likewise issued a public statement about this. And leaders of other churches like the Presbyterians amd Methodists made internal memo about the matter too.

All of the leaders share the same objection: The singer's performances insult, mock, and/or offend Christians.

Some condemn her, some want the local government to ban her, some call for boycott, and some want all of the above.

It is disconcerting to see Christians living in plural society under secular governance to have such reaction.

A friend recently shared about a social survey done among non-Christians in a Singapore university on their impression of Christians. The general impression is this: "Christians are known to stand against things, but no one knows what Christians stand for."

This is the symptom pointing to the gap in Christians' understanding of what it really means to live in such context.

Christians need to think hard over their theology and religious sentiment in relation to the social space that we are in.

In pluralistic society, there are different ideas and sentiments toward religion, the ultimate reality, or God. In fact, according to the prominent sociologist Peter L. Berger, there are two pluralisms that we need to reckon with:
"If one is to understand the place of religion in the pluralistic phenomenon, one must note that there are two pluralisms in evidence here. The first is the pluralism of different religious options co-existing in the same society. [...] The second is the pluralism of the secular discourse and the various religious discourses, also co-existing in the same society."
(The Many Altars of Modernity: Toward A Paradigm For Religion In A Pluralist Age [Berlin, Germany: Walter de Gruyter, 2014], 53.)
That means in a pluralistic society, there are some who think that God is Trinity, and many who do not, some who think the natural world is all there is, and some who think that there is no need to entertain such thought, and the fact that all of us are living and sharing the same social space.

Given such setting, it is obvious there will be clashes of perspectives on the divine and the world.

Thus, the crucial thing in such setting is in how the myriad of individuals with various views on God and the world respond to differences among ourselves.

We can choose to respond with hostility and objection. Or, we can choose to react in grace, kindness, and openness.

The Christian leaders mentioned above have chosen the former. And that is a big problem. It begs the question on consistency: how consistently hostile can they be towards views that are different, contradicting, and even blasphemous to them?

Will these Christian leaders similarly seek the condemnation and banning of texts such as the Qur'an, Vedas, sutras, the Book of Mormon and teachings by other religions' leaders because they contain views that are different, contradicting, and blasphemous to them?

Or, we could turn the table around: how will these Christians feel when others seek to condemn and ban their Bible and sermon as they contain perspective that are different, contradicting, and blasphemous to them?

For instance, how would Christians feel if Muslims, Jews, and atheists condemn, lobby with MPs, and ask for the banning of the upcoming movie 'Risen' as it goes against their religious and irreligious sentiment?

One may defend the Christians' hostility towards Madonna's performance by distinguishing her from inter-religious differences, with the former as irreligious mockery and insult while the latter is religious difference.

This view expresses the symptom highlighted above, a gap in understanding the nature of our society. As per Berger's observation, there are two pluralisms in a pluralistic society: the multi-religious and the irreligious (secular) discourses.

The distinction that sees Madonna's performance as irreligious insult from inter-religious difference has excluded the irreligious as part of the pluralistic society. It is as if that the views held by the irreligious are to be judged differently from views held by the religious.

How do Christians come to decide that the irreligious views be considered offensive mockery to Christianity while other religions' teachings that reject Jesus Christ as God and blaspheme even the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:31) are simply differences?

Unless one could provide answer to this question, the distinction between the irreligious and religious is not only a wrong sociological assumption but fundamentally an unjust and discriminatory position which is also theologically hollow.

Only by comprehending the plurality of the social space that we are living in can we be hesitant to perceive perspectives that are different from ours as "insult" to our idea of God and offend us so much so that we need to lobby for their banning. 

In such space, all parties are welcomed to share their perspective (for e.g. to have Madonna share why she does what she does?). Yet to lobby for one perspective to be held supreme over another to the extent of affecting changes in the public space requires a more guided and disciplined way of discourse.

Therefore, Christians need to think hard over such matters, and not simply perceive different things as "insult" and "offensive". Along the way, we can choose to react to irreligious and religious differences in grace, kindness, and openness.