Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Conference: Christianity in Contemporary China: Socio-Cultural Perspectives


China’s religious revival in recent years is a poignant indication of the significant role religion continues to play in the lives of many Chinese. As China globalizes and persists in its modernization effort, the various religions and spiritual movements are often compelled to engage in intricate negotiations with an officially atheistic ruling party that seeks to maintain hegemonic control over society. According to a number of surveys, Christianity has become one of the fastest growing religions in China. This international conference aims to provide an interdisciplinary platform for scholars to examine the complex ways in which Christianity shapes, and is shaped by, China’s contemporary social and cultural developments.

Given the increasing transnational flows of capital, ideas and personnel in and out of China these days, findings from the conference will shed important light on the shifting contours of China’s civil society as religion becomes an important element in its society and culture.

Go here for more information:

Keynote Speakers

"Signs and Wonders: Christianity and Hybrid Modernity in China”

Professor Richard Madsen, University of California, San Diego

"From 'Christianity in China' to 'Chinese Christianity': Changing Paradigms and Changing Perspectives”

Professor Peter Ng, Chinese University of Hong Kong

Invited Speakers

"Trying to make sense of history: Revivalist Christianity in China and their theological political interpretation of past and present history"

Tobias Brandner, Chinese University of Hong Kong

"Images of Jesus in contemporary Chinese popular culture"

Common Chan, Chinese University of Hong Kong

"Civil Society and the role of the Catholic Church in contemporary China"

Seguire Chan, Hong Kong Baptist University

"Calvin, culture and Christ? Developments of faith among Chinese intellectuals"

Fredrik Fällman, Stockholm University

"A Weberian Approach to urban/rural dynamics in Christianity in contemporary China"

Huang Ke-hsien, Northwestern University

"The house-church identity and preservation of Pentecostal-style Protestantism in China"

Kao Chen-yang, National Chengchi University, Taiwan

"The emergence of Christian subcultures in China: Beginnings of an inculturation from the grassroots?"

Katrin Fiedler, China Information Desk

"Saints, Secrets, and Salvation: Emergence and Development of Spiritual-Religious groups in the PRC after 1978"

Kristin Kupfer, Freelance researcher

"Co-optation and its Discontents: The Seventh-day Adventism in China"

Joseph Tse-Hei Lee, Pace University, New York

"The religious pattern of relationship structure in contemporary China: on the case of relationships between Buddhist and Christian"

Li Xiangping, East China Normal University

"Re-mapping Boundaries: Christianity and community formation among the minority nationalities"

Francis Lim, Nanyang Technological University

"Multiple Tensions and Dualistic Structure: A Sociological Study on Religious Market Theory and China’s Rural Christianities"

Liu Fang, Fudan University

"Christian Identity as Disobedient Narratives during China’s Post-Communist Transition"

Ma Li, Tongji University

Li Jin, Tongji University

"Three-Self Protestant churches, the local state and religious policy implementation in a north-eastern Chinese city"

Mark McLeister, University of Sheffield

"Making Sense of China’s State-Society Relations: Protestant House Churches in the Reform Era"

Teresa Wright, California State University, Long Beach

Teresa Zimmerman-Liu, California State University, Long Beach

"Christian Ethics and Business Life: an ethnographic account of overseas Chinese Christian entrepreneurs in China’s economic transition"

Joy Tong, Purdue University

"Unifying the Nation: Protestant Reactions to the Chinese Communist Party’s Nationalist Agenda Inside and Outside the Official Religious Associations"

Carsten Vala, Loyola University, Maryland

"Towards a public theology with Chinese characteristics: Prospects for engagement of the church with the civil society"

Paul Woods, Singapore Bible College

"Sino-Christian studies in contemporary China: A public interpretation"

Xie Zhibin, Shanghai Normal University

"The religiosity of popular Chinese cinema and its implications for contemporary Christianity"

Yam Chi-Keung, Chinese University of Hong Kong

"A church on the second-floor: a case study of a Protestant congregation in a residential building in Hong Kong"

Gustav K.K. Yeung, Chinese University of Hong Kong

"Beyond religion, politics, intellectuality and territory: How is Christianity transforming China?"

Yu Ying, Nottingham University

"Migration, Church and State: Migrant Christians and Migrant Churches in Wenzhou, “Chinese Jerusalem”"

Zhu Yujing, Chinese University of Hong Kong

Public lecture: Islam and adaptation to a western secular society

Gospel @ Areopagus first meeting

The report is up. Finally I managed to write the proceeding that took place about three weeks ago. Go to G@A website to check it out.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Vinoth on 'real' missionaries and 'real' mission fields. And why I think he is wrong on both counts.

Vinoth Ramachandran recently blogged about his critical sentiment over the emphasized role of the "pastors or "fulltime" workers in para-church organization." He perceived such emphasis as a weakness of churches in general, the recent Lausanne Congress’ speakers in particular.

He sees this weakness as a cause of the mistaken notion of polarizing and prioritising between the verbal preaching of the gospel and Christian social work:
"All the plenary speakers at the Congress were either pastors or "fulltime" workers in para-church organizations. They are not representative of the vast majority of Christians around the world who serve God as artists, engineers, lawyers, farmers, mechanics, biologists and a host of other "secular" occupations. They are the real "missionaries" of the Church, engaging with non-Christians on a daily basis, and whose work raises ethical issues that are at the cutting-edge of mission. As long as their voice is marginalized at such conferences, we shall continue to have such meaningless debates about "priorities"."

We see clearly here that Vinoth thinks that the Christians in "secular" workforce are "real" while the "pastors or "fulltime" workers" are less-real in term of carrying out God’s mission in the world.

In an earlier post, Vinoth wrote about this same point in his reflection on the Edinburgh 2010 conference:
"Perhaps the most divisive barrier we face is the one between pastors/clergy and the rest of us so-called "laity". All the speakers who addressed us during this conference were Bishops and senior pastors, seminary professors or leaders of Christian institutions. This perpetuates the massive "blind spot" concerning mission in our churches. Surely the primary way the church impacts the world is through the daily work of Christian men and women in offices, schools, factories, village councils, research laboratories, company board rooms, and so on. These are the contemporary sites of Christian mission." (Emphasis added)

Here, Vinoth identifies himself as part of the "laity", the group that is at the real mission field.

Three observations here:

First, to Vinoth, everyone who are serving fulltime in church or para-church organization are less-real missionaries as compared to the laity because they are not impacting the real mission field (the "offices, schools, factories, village councils, research laboratories, company board rooms, and so on").

Second, as reflected in the first point, we know that Vinoth assumes that there is a clear distinction between the real mission fields and the less-real ones. Therefore those who serve in the real mission fields are the real missionaries, while those pastors and fulltime workers are less-real missionaries.

Third, as reflected in the second point, Vinoth assumes that he knows who are the real Christians and who are not the real Christians. Therefore those "Christian men and women in offices, schools, factories, village councils, research laboratories, company board rooms, and so on" are the real ones. They all have their theology, personal struggles and issues sorted out, and are always ready to impact the world in the 'real' mission fields. While those Christian "pastor and fulltime workers" are not 'real' Christians because they still have not sort out their theology, personal struggles and issues (such as they have no idea where is the "real" mission field). The 'realness' of the missionary work is dependent on the 'realness' of the mission field.

My critique on Vinoth’s critiques is simply on the third point which grounds his second point, of which grounds his first point.

Vinoth’s clear distinction between those who are the real Christians and those who are not is highly questionable. No one knows for sure, according to the Parable of the Weeds (Matthew 13). Until Christ comes back again, we will always have the weeds and the wheat together. Augustine has expounded this in his City of God, Book 18.

That means the churches will always have weeds, that is the non-Christians who profess to be Christians, around. This applies to both the clergy as well as the laity. Therefore the internal politics at some churches are as challenging as secular organizations, if not worse. And there are laities who profess to be Christians but behave like pagans out there.

In a world where weeds and wheat cannot be distinguished, how then can we say that those who work in the churches are not facing issues that are common in the secular organizations? I have heard pastors and fulltime workers who said that their office politics are exactly like the secular workforce. I have heard of professing Christians who have indulged in nonsense like non-Christians in their offices, schools, factories, village councils, research laboratories, company board rooms, and so on. There are even clergies who do all kind of nonsense within the churches!

Vinoth highlights only those laities, like John R. Mott, who did great missionary works. But such an one-sided view seems more likely invoked just to elevate himself (a laity) as superior (more real) than pastors and fulltime workers.

The fact that he negates the highlights of those in the latter group who contributed as much as, if not more than, laity in missionary works is telling. It is too short-sighted of him if he couldn't think of any. Or, Vinoth has an inferiority complex or some sort of ego problem where he constantly need to justify himself, a non-clergy, as more superior than clergy so that he is in the position to teach the clergy since they are less-real?

Perhaps, Vinoth has not yet come across these situations. If that is the case, then it is not Vinoth’s fault that he came to such an incorrect perception about the world and missiology.

In such a world, the churches and the rest of the world is a mission field, where missionaries are needed to constantly reach out to people regardless of those who profess to be Christians or not. We need missionaries to reach out to missionaries in many cases. Of course, to those who are already professing, the outreach to them is slightly different from those who have not. But the point is that there is no such thing as the secular world is the real mission field while the churches are less-real.

When we don't fall into Vinoth's mistaken category, we will have a clearer picture of God’s mission in the real world.

As for the prioritizing of preaching over social works, I think Vinoth is right that there should not be a hierarchy. But saying that this hierarchy is due to the inferior position of the "pastors and fulltime workers" as compared to the laities is unfounded. Both preaching and social works go hand-in-hand.

I am, like Vinoth, against (1) preaching without social works, and (2) social works without preaching. But the difference between us is that I think in certain context, prioritizing is needed to balance the two. For instance, in context of scenario (1), social works need to be prioritized, while in scenario (2) it's the other way around. These adjustments do not mean one is more important than the other, but to balance the two, making sure they go hand-in-hand.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Shadow writer as the latest and least detectable way in academic fraud. And what does this mean to us?

Jonathan highlighted a piece of news about a job known as shadow writer. What they do is that they write for other people.

Not ghost writers like those hired by rich politicians or celebrities to write their memoir. Shadow writers are hired to write your undergraduate and post-graduate assignments. It's a whole new level of cheating.

It's not plagiarise where you take people's ideas as yours without giving them credit. The work of shadow writer is to write an entirely new piece of work with citations and all.

This phenomenon should shock the entire academia as much as it did to Scot McKnight.

Here's the except of the confession of a shadow writer from the Chronicle of Higher Education website:

I've written toward a master's degree in cognitive psychology, a Ph.D. in sociology, and a handful of postgraduate credits in international diplomacy. I've worked on bachelor's degrees in hospitality, business administration, and accounting. I've written for courses in history, cinema, labor relations, pharmacology, theology, sports management, maritime security, airline services, sustainability, municipal budgeting, marketing, philosophy, ethics, Eastern religion, postmodern architecture, anthropology, literature, and public administration. I've attended three dozen online universities. I've completed 12 graduate theses of 50 pages or more. All for someone else. [...] I'm a hired gun, a doctor of everything, an academic mercenary. My customers are your students. I promise you that. Somebody in your classroom uses a service that you can't detect, that you can't defend against, that you may not even know exists. (Emphasis added)

Not only that. What's more shocking is that the shadow writer reveals that he is hired by seminarians too!

I do a lot of work for seminary students. I like seminary students. They seem so blissfully unaware of the inherent contradiction in paying somebody to help them cheat in courses that are largely about walking in the light of God and providing an ethical model for others to follow. I have been commissioned to write many a passionate condemnation of America's moral decay as exemplified by abortion, gay marriage, or the teaching of evolution. All in all, we may presume that clerical authorities see these as a greater threat than the plagiarism committed by the future frocked.

An interesting point made is that the job of this shadow writer is more than someone who just write paper for students. He became more like a "personal educational counsellor."

This kind of works are undetectable as long as the students who employed such services remain docile and quiet. At Trinity Theological College, we have a lot of students who are working adults. They are given up to seven years to complete their undergraduate degrees, taking their modules slowly according to their free time. Any one of them could simply engage such services to graduate.

Full time students are under closer watch as they spend more time with the lecturers. The lecturers might know the competency of the full time students by more interaction. But as I have said, as long as the students remain inconspicuous, he or she will be fine.

Anyway, isn't such news a big blow to the ego of the academia, especially in societies that chase after education certificates? On one hand, we have scientists and academicians who provide fraud reports and unreliable findings (for eg. "as much as 90 percent of the published medical information that doctors rely on is flawed"). On the other hand, we have shadow writers who are doing all the works for possibly many upcoming academicians in the future.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Sermon, seminar, or lecture?

Once I delivered a short sermon about 15 minutes to a group of youth. In the sermon, I related Ruth from the Old Testament with four modern revolutionaries: Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Jean Paul Satre.

After the brief sharing, a youth came up to me and said, "Thank you for the lecture." I remember that I delivered a sermon, no?

That's my experience in preaching. I haven't had the opportunity to do preaching proper until early this week at Jubilee Church.

Last year Siow Hwee, one of the pastors at the church and a fellow blogger, invited me to be their speaker for this year's youth camp. I agreed.

So I asked Siow Hwee what are the topics they have for me? Here was his reply:

Three one-hour long sermons on (1) ethics of power, (2) ethics of wealth, and (3) ethics of religion. And one 30 minutes long sermon on Isaiah 2.1-5.

My first response was, "WHAT? Those are the topics for youth camp?" He then told me that that's the way they manage their church. They teach the congregation what seminaries teach their students.

I found out later that they are using books like John Goldingay's trilogy on the Old Testament in their Bible Studies syllabus. (And their library is comparable to the local seminaries. And they have very very impressive worship teams!)

After the camp is over, I still think it is rather bold on Siow Hwee's part to invite an inexperienced guy like me to speak at their youth camp.

As a reflection, I did really bad on the first one-hour long sermon: bad time management, points were all over the places, didn't get the message through.

Then came the night sermon on Isaiah 2. I stumbled at the beginning because I wasn't really sure if the message was appropriate as it was a very dark one. It is so dark that I didn't feel comfortable with the thought of sharing it to other people, not to mention to a group of youths.

Then I told to myself, "Heck it, worst scenario is that Siow Hwee will come onto the stage to drag me out." (Like what happened to Ignatius, the ultimate youth pastor. See the Youtube clip below.)

So I held my breath and read out all that I have written for 30 minutes. Then I ended it with a prayer and walked down from the pulpit with my head held down. Didn't dare to look up in case someone give me a finger or worse.

Then when I reached my seat, Siow Hwee gave me a thumb-up. Relieved... I was really glad that I wasn't dragged out from the church.

The following morning hour long sermons went all right. Not great but all right. Though it was lullaby to many, yet I managed to get my points through. I can live with disappointment as long as I have did what's within my capacity (which in turn shows how little I have).

I am glad it is over. I am especially encouraged when one of the youths, who is studying geography, approached me to express her appreciation for the second on wealth of which I shared about the philosophy of money, the ideology of wealth, and consumerism culture. She told me that she can relate to that as those are what she is studying.

Overall, I am very grateful for Siow Hwee for his critical comments after my first session. Those have really helped me a lot. From these experiences, I have learned more about my own homiletics and those assigned subjects.

Monday, December 20, 2010

What place is there for the freedom of conscience in PAS's Islamic State?

"Islamic state is the best, not just for Muslims but also for non-Muslims," so said PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang.

Neither should we agree or disagree with Hadi's statement at this moment. What we need is explanation, as requested by Hadi. May be PAS really has a good Islamic political theology to offer for Malaysia's context. Unless they explain and we listen, this matter will stay stagnant.

So yes, PAS should be given time to explain what they mean by that statement.

On the side of the non-Muslim Malaysians, we have to learn to listen with open ears and solidarity with the awareness of the limitation expressed in the past Islamic political theology, especially when it concerns the liberty of individual's conscience (the freedom to convert out of Islam).

Personally, I do not think multiculturalism, as broadly defined, is feasible. The logical end of multiculturalism is extreme individualism where individuals are endowed with legal rights to claim privatized culture at the cost of common good, for example the allowance of consented cannibalism.

I do not endorse the idea of 'programmatic secularism' as well. Such secularism lacks the moral authority to govern and police. The state under such program will end up with (1) violent and arbitrary policing over religious communities, and hence (2) provoke the rise of extremist terrorism.

On one hand, people need to be empowered to avoid tyrannical oppression. On the other hand, rulers need to be empowered to avoid being overruled by democratic follies.

If these two poles cannot be compromised, does that mean we need a third authority to negotiate the tension between the two? And who in our society can be entrusted with such great power?

From a Christian perspective, the third authority lies (surprisingly?) in the Christian vision of time. What time is it now?

At present, we are inhabiting in a world full of ambivalence and ambiguity. Augustine calls the present time as the saeculum, where the restrainment of executive authority of rulers as well as people lies in the anticipation of the arrival of the finality of history. (Augustine, City of God [UK: Penguin edition, 2003], p.46)

It is this restrainment that prevent a tyrant and a group of fools from destroying each other. The created space out of this restrainment enables the cohabitation of both the tyrant and the fools, and so allows the freedom of conscience for all concerning religious conviction.

So it is still to be seen what kind of polity does PAS has for us Malaysians.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Unexpected busyness

I am caught in an unexpected busy schedule this month. Internship + part-time work + 3 church camps + a new initiative + a website for a TTC faculty member.

Internship needs me to report everyday from Tuesday to Friday, sometimes Saturday and Monday. I need to complete this to get a credit for my course. It's compulsory. During my off-day which usually fall on Monday or Saturday, I will offer to help out doing part-time at a bookshop. Previously I told them that I can help out in the month of December because I was not expecting this month to be so full.

Yet stuffs seem to work out fine. My internship supervisors are kind to take my service at another church camp as part of the internship.

On top of that, I have been busy launching a new initiative together with a few classmates. It's a network to encourage continuous learning among those who are preparing or already working full-time at church. We organize meetings where individuals are assign to present on topics to be discussed and learned from. Seminars, debates, and conferences are what we do too. This is also a book club as well as a network, fellowship and learning group. The bottom line is simply two:

1) Unity among Christians: A visible initiative where Christians from different denominations come together to converse over challenges, opportunities, and personal knowledge/experience that are related to the Kingdom of God. Our first session on last Thursday noon was on Kingdom of God. There were three presentations (Kingdom of God and Church Leadership; A Pentecostal's Perspective on Kingdom of God; Twentieth Century Theological Discussion on Kingdom of God).

2) Ever-learning/growing: None of us know it all. So this network keeps those who participate informed of other knowledges/experiences that they are not aware of. We get inspiration for this initiative from Gospel Coalition,, and We realize that those who are in ministry often get too molded by daily routines and sometimes our creativity get confined. Hence, we want to encourage people to daringly come out with ideas. Therefore the subtitle of the initiative is this: Scripture + Tradition + Praxis + Ideas.

This was planned before the break started. I took time to execute the plan during break. While I designed and solidified the framework of the initiative, the website, and organized the first meeting, my classmates slogged to prepare their insightful and very helpful presentations to share with us. I'm eager to blog about their presentation (they were really good) on that website, but that would have to wait until after next week. I'm grateful to my classmates who are willing to share their findings. If you are interested to take a look, go here: Gospel@Areopagus

I have also came out with a website for one of the faculty member. The faculty has brought up the website to TTC's Principal to see if he wants to do that for all the faculty members. They are still discussing about it so probably it's good for me not to share it here now.

In the midst of busyness, I am conscious and aware of what God's telling me: A busy person does not mean he or she is important. And a person's value or importance does not depend on how busy the person is.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Rowan Williams on 'Christ & Culture'

How in today's Church may we continue to maintain the dialogue about Niebuhr's insights: Christ above culture, within culture, against culture and beyond culture?

Archbishop's answer:
For those who don't know [Richard] Niebuhr's great book on Christ and Culture: those are the categories that this very distinguished German-American theologian proposes for understanding the relations between Christ and culture: the Church can work from within, it can work against, it can have an oppositional minority stance, it can seek to penetrate the structures of its society. And as chance would have it, I've just been reading a very interesting American book which questions the whole basis on which Niebuhr's analysis works and says that it's too artificial and slanted towards Niebuhr's own preferred conclusions, unsurprisingly. So I think that we probably need to step back a bit from too many generalizations about it and say that it's not so much about Christ and culture, it's about the community of Christ in its distinctiveness and worshipping practice and its study of the Bible, Eucharist and Baptism: that kind of community, relating to a variety of cultural institutions, with no such thing as culture in general, but cultures, with the question always in the Church's mind, 'How does our engagement with this particular context, this kind of politics, this kind of art, advance the Kingdom of God in some ways?' How do we in our encounter with whatever our society throws at us, seek to set forward that kind of humanity which God wills as his purpose for us all?
(Italics original; bold added)

To read the entire Q&A session, go to the Archbishop's website.

To listen to the MP3, go to University Chichester's website, where the Q&A session was held.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A conversation on the place of theology over the weekend

A friend (AF): Why didn't God make everything clear to all humans when he created them? Why did he wait until so long to disclose himself to his creatures?

Sze Zeng (SZ): May be at that time, humans were not ready to receive such knowledge. I'm not God, so I'm not speaking for him. Just a "may be." It's like we have to teach our children ABC before showing them the Nicene Creed.

AF: I don't understand why theologians need to write so many books just to talk about simple things like God's love for humans. God is just so simple. He just want us to know and love him and that's all. We, especially the theologians, are the ones that complicate things. We make up theologies to complicate our lives.

SZ: Well, it is simple because we are receiving what have been passed down to us. And those traditions that have been passed down were not that simple initially. For example, the doctrine of the Trinity was the articulation resulted from almost four centuries of prayerful debate and arguments among theologians.

When Jesus was around, the Jews at his time were astounded as to how should they, being monotheist, relate to this new reality that seemed to them as representing the one they worship. From there, theologians over a few centuries worked out a conception that has been passed down until our time. We have taken all these for granted and think that these are easy. But there were not so in the beginning.

Nah, here is a book that record how difficult it was in that time to come out with something that we take for granted (passed a copy of R. P. C. Hanson's The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381 to AF).

AF: What I don't like about books written by theologians is that they seldom, if at all, refer to the Bible in their writings. That's why I stop reading Alvin Plantinga's God, Freedom, and Evil after going through half the introductory chapter.

SZ: People like Plantinga wrote those works by taking the Bible and other established Christian beliefs for granted. Their works are building on what many other theologians have done in the past thousand years. Even the Bible itself is taken for granted nowadays. Initially there were so many manuscripts that theologians in the past had to work hard to sort out the canon.

AF: I see. Okay, I will read up and we'll talk again next week.

SZ: Enjoy reading ya.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

"Scientific findings are factual"?

Often we hear people say "scientific findings are factual." In fact I assumed that statement almost without reservation. "Almost" because I also know that that statement is not true. Hence though I often assumed that, yet I do not usually claim to be scientific.

The statement "science is about fact" or "scientific findings are factual" betrays one's ignorance in "science." Since Kuhn and Lakatos, we have Feyerabend.

And since the time of these three late prophets, we have a number of high profile misconducts in science (recently Jan Hendrik Schön, Woo-Suk Hwang, Marc Hauser, and Anil Potti) that simply prove the instability and unreliability of "science." (Those who disagree say that the expose of frauds in science shows that science is a self-correcting enterprise. But "self-correcting" is itself problematic as it is self-contradicting as shown below.)

When asked about the pressure to perform that scientists face, Ulrich W. Suter, the investigator on scientific misconducts appointed by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, remarked, "Some of the greatest scientists, such as Lamarck or Galileo, most probably have cheated a little. A scientist makes huge demands on himself. He wants to create something which lasts. If he doesn’t, he doesn’t want to feel like a failure." (Emphasis added) In other words, Suter is saying that it is not uncommon for scientists to cheat due to internal and external stresses.

On the other hand, science itself celebrates self-contradiction. The more foundational it contradicts itself, the more appreciated the contradiction is. For example, the latest discovery from the Large Haldron Collider:

"The findings have surprised physicists as they contradict the accepted view of what happened in the immediate aftermath of the creation of the universe – that the Big Bang threw out a superheated gas that clumped together to form matter. [...] Brian Cox, a particle physicist at the University of Manchester and presenter of the forthcoming BBC series Wonders of the Universe, said [...] "These experiments are providing us with a new energy regime so to see unexpected behaviour is very exciting. These findings are very interesting."" (Emphasis added)

Scientists, like Brian Cox, get excited when science get contradicted (how many Nobel prizes are given to scientists who contradicted earlier scientific findings?).

It is true that they are excited that they found better understanding, but who knows if this is really a "better" understanding, and not merely one among equally false understandings (not even "best inference") given the nature of the scientific enterprise?

In science, every understandings are just waiting to become false understandings. Its own nature of self-correcting demands it. So what exactly do we mean by "factual" or "fact" in an enterprise which seeks after, excited and celebrates its own self-contradiction?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Why scientists have to always present themselves as having explanation and answer on the origin of life?

Paul Davies, Director of BEYOND Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, wrote:

"Many investigators feel uneasy stating in public that the origin of life is a mystery, even though behind closed doors they admit they are baffled. [...] There seem to be two reasons for their unease. First, they feel it opens the door to religious fundamentalists and their god-of-the-gaps pseudo-explanations. Second, they worry that a frank admission of ignorance will undermine funding, especially for the search for life in space."
(Paul Davies, The Fifth Miracle: The Search for the Origin and Meaning of Life [USA: Touchstone, 2000], 17-18. Emphasis added)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A philosophical exploration of evolution: The apparent urgency to accept macro-evolution and evolution worldview as part of our identity?

Recently Thomas Jay Oord ended his post on Christian's relation with evolution with this normative, "Evangelicals: accept evolution!"

There are at least two positive ways to see the relation between God and macro-evolution.

1) God exists.
2) Macro-evolution is what has happened and what is happening in our world.
Conclusion: God and macro-evolution are realities that we need to accept. So our work now is to examine the relationship between them.

1) God exists.
2) Macro-evolution is one of the interpretation of what has happened and what is happening in our world.
Conclusion: God is reality while macro-evolution is still not entirely convincing. So the furthest we can say is that macro-evolution could be one of God's mechanisms in the world.

Oord obviously belongs to the first group. Both God and macro-evolution are realities to him.

Both groups affirm that God exists while the first group affirms also macro-evolution in the same or almost similar degree of certainty as the affirmation of God's existence.

The second group holds that God's existence as more certain than macro-evolution.

I belong to the second group. In fact I'm okay if we don't know how the species around us came to be what they are now. That is I can live without knowing life's origin as in how we came to be.

Knowing that God exists is sufficient to give sense to life and how we relate to other lives. The story of our origin perhaps can never be exactly told in our life time and, you know what? That is okay.

Macro-evolution is a sub-category of a broad worldview of evolution, the belief that materials are on an ever-changing and never-ending process. This worldview can be popular today but not so tomorrow.

Some theories lasted only a short while before it wane into oblivion, like phrenology that was popular for about thirty years (though I see similarities of that with some neuroscientists today who think that neuroscience can explain morality). Some lasted a long time for a few thousands years, like Aristotle's infinite time until the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation in 1964. And some others like Newton's framework lasted a few hundred years.

The notion of evolution is potentially a pervasive one, like Newton's mechanical worldview. Back then, everything makes sense and predictable by assuming that everything function in a mechanistic way; with right tools and right measurement, we will get the correct picture of everything.

Nowadays, not many people buy into the mechanistic worldview. First, Einstein's (who is no friend to quantum physics) general relativity replaces Newton's notion of gravity and so delivered a deadly blow to the worldview. Then quantum physics came and shattered the leftover confidence in a mechanistic world. At least for now.

'Evolution' is gaining fame like that of Newton's mechanistic worldview. Some like David Sloan Wilson thinks that the evolution framework should be applied in all other studies like "dance, literature, and religion in addition to political science, psychology, and sociology." (Emphasis added) He states that it is a great loss to us if we do not include this framework in all our fields. "...we handicap ourselves when we attempt to study our species without reference to genetic and cultural evolution."

If to go along with Wilson's reasoning, our notion of God is not only in the evolving process (à la Robert Wright) but also the result of the long chain of cosmic evolution (à la J. Wentzel van Huysteen). This does not necessarily pose problems to the belief of God's existence.

However, this does mean that the notion of evolution itself is the product of the cosmic evolution and by itself will one day evolve itself out of existence. If it does not evolve, then it defeats itself as a worldview. If it does, then it is contingent and therefore is not necessary.

The idea of God's reality is not like the evolution worldview which is fundamentally grounded in contingency. Besides, our relation to God is at best a Kierkergaardian leap, a dialectic that is contradicted by our attempts to grasp the ungraspable divine reality. And such "leap" is shunned as a methodology in science, although on hindsight we now know that some phrenologists, Aristotelians, and Newtonians approached their respective fields with plenty of leaps.

It requires another hindsight to show us that the evolution framework is not that dissimilar with the rest which are now in oblivion. Until that hindsight appear, it is certainly okay to accept macro-evolution as a reality, like the phrenologists, Aristotelians, and Newtonians in their own epoch.

For those who are not in a hurry, it is okay to know nothing about life's origin, as in the 'how' question. God still exists and lives still go on. Yes, we have human's genetic code mapped out. This might help us to find more efficient and effective ways to cure this and that sickness, yet the map makes no contributions to the most important questions asked of human "What makes us human?" and "What is a good life?"

Some say a long and painless life is the mark of a good life, so we need to map out genetic code to find cure for the diseases and extend lifespan. Really?

Sophie Scholl only lived up to 21 years before she was executed by Hitler's army for distribution newsletters criticizing the regime. Her life is less good simply because hers is shorter and more painful compared to those with longer and less painful lives?

Does or can evolution worldview contribute to these important questions? Perhaps in this way: People like Scholl gave up their lives for the sake of the common gene pool, to ensure the survival of the species. And this is good?

If yes, so all our language of morality has been reduced to materiality, as in 'moral' is simply a mask to make sense of the contingency of materials? Existence precedes essence? Materiality as the ground for the transvaluation of all values, in order for the emancipation of the Übermensch?

These questions are now more urgent than ever, especially when "human beings can now be rebuilt from top to toe with artificial parts." How and where would be the place for humanity in the evolution framework where contingency of the materials is a perennial reality? Humanity is simply a blip on the radar of the long chain of cosmic evolution?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Legislation is a moral business

Previously I posted a piece on the police force and its moral business.

Here is one on the moral nature of legislation written by Micah Watson, the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Affairs at the James Madison Program at Princeton University, and the Director of the Center for Politics & Religion at Union University.

He wrote that, "...every law and regulation that is proposed, passed, and enforced has inherent in it some idea of the good that it seeks to promote or preserve. Indeed, no governing authority can in any way be understood to be morally neutral. Those who think such a chimerical understanding is possible could hardly be more wrong. For, in fact, the opposite is true: You cannot not legislate morality." (Emphasis original)

Another good point:
"What is the law for? The answer at some point will include a conception of what is good for the community in which the law holds. The inversion of the question makes the point even more clearly. What would provide a rationale for a law or governmental action apart from a moral purpose?

The “good” here in question is not merely the product of passing fads or idiosyncratic preferences. When something is wrong, it is not wrong merely because it offends someone’s personal taste. The governing authority’s power to pass and enforce laws takes account of the beastly side of human nature while holding that some wrongs are so fundamental that they demand a robust and coercive response. If there are truly deeds that are gravely morally wrong, then it follows that there must be an authority established to command that such deeds be avoided and to punish the transgressors who commit them."

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Ian Lyons, bio disc, scalar energy and party trick = Lies, con job, cheating consumers

Three years ago, I posted on Bio Disc. Here is the video how the inventor of Bio Disc is using party trick to convince people that his product generate 'scalar energy'. This is an outright lie!

First video: Ian Lyons demonstrates scalar energy.

Second video: The same trick used at parties without Bio Disc. has a scientific explanation for this trick:

The "Finger Lift" is a fairly common party trick. It's used by primary school kids doing sleepovers, high-school students trying to impress each other, and many people trying to push a spiritual barrow. The Finger Lift also goes under the name of "Stiff As a Board, Light As a Feather".

Once you've seen it, your memory of the marvellous event is quite precise — and utterly wrong. The subject was seated in a chair, or on a table, or lying down on the floor.

Then four of you gathered around, and were told to try to lift the subject using either just one single finger, or your two index fingers joined into a single lifting unit from your two clenched hands. As you would expect, you couldn't lift them (either with a single finger, or with two fingers joined together).

Then, the voodoo magic began.

First, you were told to chant a song, or rub your own two hands together, or to pile all eight hands of the potential lifters one at a time on top of the head of the subject, or to press on their shoulders — or something.

It didn't matter exactly what it was — there was always some kind of silly ritual that didn't seem to make any sense.

Then you were instructed to count to some number, or to chant a song, and then at a certain point, to try to lift. And then — lo and behold — your fingers acquired magical strength and you could lift the subject effortlessly into the air.

Why is it so?

There are three answers — timing, poor memory, and the natural underestimated strength of your fingers.

First, the timing. There are lots of videos of this Finger Lift on YouTube. One of them claims that "it's an old Romanian trick", while others have Chinese or Africans doing it.

But they all have the timing in common. For the first doomed attempt to lift the subject, there was no effort to get everybody to do the lift at the same instant. In fact, there was deliberate vague misdirection, along the lines of "so go ahead try to lift".

And in all of the videos on YouTube, you can see that the lifters are very much out of time with each other.

That means that for the brief instant each person is trying to lift the subject by themselves, they are fruitlessly trying to lift the entire 50–80kg weight of the subject on one (or two) fingers.

But for the second successful attempt, the timing is very precise.

The purpose of the chanting of the numbers, or the prayer, or song is not to Unleash the Power Within — it's really to synchronise the four potential lifters into one single lifting unit.

And there is usually a countdown to the final lift. So all four lift as one, and so each one has to lift only 12–20kg with the chosen finger or fingers.

The second factor is the very fallible human memory. Every person who has described this to me has described the strange mystical power that gave them the ability to not only lift the subject into the air, but also, to effortlessly hold them there.

But every time I have seen it done, the lifters just barely lifted the subject, and could not hold them there, and in fact, almost dropped them in their haste to get them down to the ground again.

And that is what you will see on YouTube.

And the third and last factor is that your fingers are actually very strong. Louis Cyr, the old-time French Canadian strongman (1863–1912) could lift 553lb (250.2kg) with a single finger (his right middle).

The old-time American strongman of the early 1900s, Warren Lincoln Travis, lifted 560lb (254kg) on his 50th birthday with a single finger.

The Finger Lift party trick has made it into popular culture with appearances in South Park (the "Marjorine" episode) and the film, The Craft. In each case, it was associated with exotic witchcraft, not prosaic timing

These simple explanations are really giving the finger to the myth.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The issue of 'contextualization'

Last week in a meeting, a friend mentioned that our group can produce our own educational materials that are contextualized to local context. I raised my question over his suggestion.

I affirmed the need for relevance in issue and language in our context. That simply means that we need to raise issues that have immediate concern to us (eg. immigration issues in Singapore) and not those which are not (eg. Tea Party movement in America).

I objected against the idea of 'contextualization' if that means we always have to keep looking for new identity for ourselves or make our case distinct for the mere sake of new identity and being distinct.

The idea of contextualization is not to be abstracted as a tautology that everyone in this part of the world must conform to if to be genuine to our situation and location. Our reasoning, response, and engagement are not confined by contextualization. If brought to the extreme, contextualization became individualization, where context is being pushed onto the individual.

This simply ignores the commonalities that we share and alienate individuals from individuals. In the end, we have nothing but fragmentation and anarchy.

I do not deny the good will of folks who pioneered the idea of contextualization. They were aware of colonial imposition and weary that this would repeat itself. So they pushed for contextualization so that the locals able to articulate, evangelise, and celebrate the faith in their own expression.

Their reason is for locals to emancipate into authentic embodiment of the Christian identity rooted in their 'culture', distinguishing themselves from others; asking different questions and giving different answers.

The moot point here is obviously the word 'culture'. All knows that 'culture' is not stagnant. Culture is parasitic. It can not survive on its own. It lives on those who embodied it. Without a host, there is no culture. 'Ang Pow' ceases to be a cultural expression when no one is giving or receiving it.

Contextualization therefore is not a project to distinguish identity in this world where culture is fluid. In a global village, where the 'world is flat', the questions that we face are limited in variety, and the answers that we have converge from time to time.

The questions we asked might have been asked by our counterparts. The answers we thought of might have been provided.

If we don't have new questions or encounter an entirely new situations, we don't keep looking for new identify for ourselves or make our case distinct for the mere sake of identity and being distinct.

If we don't have new answers to old questions, we shouldn't use 'contextualization' as an excuse to distinguish ourselves from those who already provided the answers, as if we are the pioneer who respond to these questions simply because we answer them in our context.

And besides, "To be a Christian is to learn to live in a story you haven't chosen." Rightly said by Stanley Hauerwas. The Christian identity is not something pre-culture that is waiting to be contextualized or culturated by us. That identity itself is already embodied in a particular culture in the 1st century Palestine, whether we like it or not.

Besides, 'contextualization' could simply be another manifestation of colonialism. We are told to contextualize so that what we say or do will not have to be considered or taken seriously by those who told us to contextualize as they have a different context than ours.

But of course, given the time limit in that meeting, I didn't say all that is blogged here. In fact, I didn't say much. The bottom line is that if 'contextualization' is simply to draw out and address immediate concerns, then it is fine (as no one exist without context). Anything more than that is suspect.

After the meeting, the chairman and I spoke while on our way to the elevator. He re-emphasized the need for us to contextualize. With a smile, I replied cheekily, "The idea of contextualization was introduced to us by those from the West through certain institution, scholars, and books. So if we adopt it, we are defeating the idea itself."

The elevator came.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Freedom of Speech at different places

The phrase 'freedom of speech' has, however, been politicized to the extend that anyone who wants to be seen as someone reasonable, someone who is for humanity and human rights, invoke this phrase like a mantra. Yet we know that different countries have their own idea of what constitutes 'freedom of speech'.

So how do we differentiate one from the other who invoke this phrase?

Concerning that question, Larry Hurtado heard this from his friend:
What’s the difference between the Russian Constitution and the American Constitution? Both give freedom of speech; but in the US you get freedom after speech too!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Scot McKnight's three categories of theory of history in relation to historical Jesus research

"Neoliberal historical Jesus scholars think they tell the truth because the Gospels are not what happened.

Ecclesial Jesus scholars, like [Martin] Kähler, it is well known, and his more recent incarnation in Luke Timothy Johnson, tell the truth, whether it happened or not. The truth, they say, transcends what happened for it is the significance of what happened that is the truth.

Modernistic historical Jesus historians, some of whom would be Evangelicals, often believe that the Gospels tell the truth about what happened, and what happened is the truth, which, as is also well known, puts a big twist in their knickers if they discover that what they thought was the truth--that is, what happened--was not what happened, for it is therefore not the truth."
(Scot McKnight, "Telling the Truth of History: A Response to James D. G. Dunn's Jesus Remembered," in Memories of Jesus: A Critical Appraisal of James D. G. Dunn's Jesus Remembered, ed., Robert B. Stewart and Gary R. Habermas [USA: B&H Academic, 2010], 51. Emphasis original; paragraphs added.)

I see these three examples are basically different in degree of confidence over the text's description of historical realities. My position is unashamedly the third one when it comes to the four gospels. Why? I'll need to write a trilogy myself to attempt an answer!

But broadly and briefly, I think we cannot settle the problem of how much degree of confidence should we confer onto the gospels by merely analysing the texts. We need to widen our textual analysis to include literatures contemporary with the gospels, like what Richard Burridge did. There is also a need to analyse the immediate reaction towards these literatures, like what Richard Bauckham did with Papias' relation to the transmitted tradition about Jesus.

There is no short of the need to understand the various facets of 'memory' in the ancient world like oral history, eyewitness testimony, cultural memory, etc. Then the debate over metaphysic (supernaturalism or naturalism?) is inevitable as the gospels contain accounts that were surprising even to their first readers. Following from that, the studies on the philosophy of science has to follow as it will always came up whether if the assumptions underlying the scientific enterprise contradict historical claims, even claims that are apparently scientifically incredible. Then, the discussion over contemporary epistemology is warranted when we have to justify various level of belief on these ancient literatures. These are just the few pertinent issues off my head.

Even if the trilogy made it to the printers, a few months later, assuming that the project is widely be accepted and has almost no dissenters (which is impossible), the appearance of some new discoveries in any one of the above mentioned areas will effectively place the project for reconsideration.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

If you're curious what I did on Sunday....

This is meditation from the Vipassanā tradition.

"Vipassanā, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India's most ancient techniques of meditation. It was rediscovered by Gotama Buddha more than 2500 years ago and was taught by him as a universal remedy for universal ills.

This non-sectarian technique aims for the total eradication of mental impurities and the resultant highest happiness of full liberation. Healing, not merely the curing of diseases, but the essential healing of human suffering, is its purpose.

Vipassana is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body, and that continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind. It is this observation-based, self-exploratory journey to the common root of mind and body that dissolves mental impurity, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion.
" (
"...brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things." (Philippians 4.8)

"...I will meditate on your wonderful works.They tell of the power of your awesome works—and I will proclaim your great deeds." (Psalm 145.5-6)

This meditation is difficult if you are a Kantian.