Saturday, February 27, 2010

What do I think about homosexuality?

More than a month ago on 23rd January 2010 I asked a friend, who is a mother of three, this penetrative question, "How would you react if you found out that your own children are homosexuals?" This is the same question that I have asked myself and others when I want myself and others to imagine a bit of of being in the emotional excesses facing families or individuals who are going through this issue.

Three years ago, in April 2007, I have participated in a very long discussion on homosexuality through an e-group. I have argued that if the legalization of sexual norm is based solely on mutual consent, then bestiality and pedophilia should be legalized together with homosexuality. I was NOT saying that homosexuality is equivalent to bestiality and pedophilia. What I mean was that, if sexual norm in the eye of a country's law is being considered based solely on mutual consent regardless of moral value and socio-political implications, then bestiality as well as pedophilia, heterosexual's anal sex, and homosexuality should also be legalized. So I was not making a moral statement on sexuality, but on a certain jurisprudence or a philosophy of law. And by implication, my statement wonders if jurisprudence can be done without reference to the issue on morality or what is "good".

While on whether what did Christianity in its early stage said about homosexuality, I wrote that the fact that Jesus didn't say anything about homosexuality doesn't make it okay for us to assume that Jesus is fine with it.

If the precedent Jews before Jesus rejected homosexuality and if the early church rejected it too, very likely Jesus shared the same presumption as them. This is known as the 'double similarities' criteria. If there was a precedence and a sequence that is similar, very likely the historical milieu in between these stages does not differ much, if differ at all. If Jesus was positive on homosexuality, it is improbably that the early church would have reacted in negative manner on this issue. St. Paul, Jude, the Didache, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Tertulian, Novatian, Cyprian of Carthage, Eusebius of Caesara, Basil the Great, and Augustine denounced homosexuality. Add to that Jesus was a TORAH-observant Jew, then it is unlikely that Leviticus 18 and 20 did not shape Jesus' perception. I'm not saying that our ethical discourse is confined by historical knowledge, but merely pointing out the difficulty of domesticating Jesus to simply endorse this or that view.

What do I think about homosexual relationship? Whenever I asked myself this question, my first thought is always the awareness that I am not a homosexual. This first thought keeps me in a sexually, emotionally, and psychologically biased position. Therefore before even attempting to answer that question, I was being charged with the crisis whether can I really answer? (Not to mention being aware of Rowan Williams' 1989 provocative essay The Body's Grace).

Given my sexual orientation, I have to reflect over Martin Rochlin's questionnaire before any hasty response (HT: Jack Rogers):

The Heterosexual Questionnaire was created back in 1972 to put heterosexual people in the shoes of a gay person for just a moment.

1. What do you think caused your heterosexuality?

2. When and where did you decide you were a heterosexual?

3. Is it possible this is just a phase and you will out grow it?

4. Is it possible that your sexual orientation has stemmed from a neurotic fear of others of the same sex?

5. Do your parents know you are straight? Do your friends know- how did they react?

6. If you have never slept with a person of the same sex, is it just possible that all you need is a good gay lover?

7. Why do you insist on flaunting your heterosexuality... can’t you just be who you are and keep it quiet?

8. Why do heterosexuals place so much emphasis on sex?

9. Why do heterosexuals try to recruit others into this lifestyle?

10. A disproportionate majority of child molesters are heterosexual... Do you consider it safe to expose children to heterosexual teachers?

11. Just what do men and women do in bed together? How can they truly know how to please each other, being so anatomically different?

12. With all the societal support marriage receives, the divorce rate is spiraling. Why are there so few stable relationships among heterosexuals?

13. How can you become a whole person if you limit yourself to compulsive, exclusive heterosexuality?

14. Considering the menace of overpopulation how could the human race survive if everyone were heterosexual?

15. Could you trust a heterosexual therapist to be objective? Don't you feel that he or she might be inclined to influence you in the direction of his orher leanings?

16. There seem to very few happy heterosexuals. Techniques have been developed that might enable you to change if you really want to.

17. Have you considered trying aversion therapy?

So after all these reflections, what do I think about homosexual relationship? I think we cannot undermine any genuine and loving relationship between two single individuals. Nonetheless, whether homosexual or heterosexual, faithfulness to the other partner in the relationship is essential and non-negotiable on moral ground.

On homosexual marriage. First, I think heterosexual monogamous marriage is an inheritance received from Christianity. That means marriage is religious in origin. Therefore if a country has acknowledged this religious ceremony and legally institutionalized it, then the country must not attempt to fiddle with it. That said, nonetheless, the country has the liberty to stop institutionalizing such ceremony and leave it back to the religious community's own purview. Civil partnership regardless of sexual orientation can be the country's replacement for marriage. Yet this also has its socio-political implication depending on each country's different context. So there should not be a one-for-all global approach to this sort of social arrangement.

On church's response to homosexuality, I'll just point to what Tan Kim Huat has wisely said. He does not agree with the idea of setting up a homosexual church just as he does not agree with the setting up of a heterosexual church. Although churches should continue to have dialog on this issue, yet any Christian churches should go beyond this issue instead of getting stuck at sexuality. Add to that, I'll just repost this story I extracted from Joe Dallas's How Should We Respond?':

"Soon, gay people started showing up at [a pastor's] church...sometimes in pairs... The congregation got nervous. They said, "Pastor, the homosexuals are coming! They're coming down the aisles by twos! What are we going to do?"

[The pastor] said, "Well I guess they can take a seat next to the idolaters and the gossips and the fornicators and the whoremongers. Make room.""

Finally I want to say that I can be very wrong in my perception in this post as a heterosexual person and someone who struggles much with the broad theological and philosophical issues surrounding this matter. Do contribute on aspects which you think I lack.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Comment on Ephesians

An assignment to comment briefly on the Epistle to the Ephesians:

The letter started with a very strong emphasis on God’s glory (1.11-14). Paul perceived the people of God as those who are chosen to be ‘holy and blameless’ (1.4) for the praise of God’s glory (1.12). This state of chosen-ness is the very project that the creation is being developed for. Therefore it is not an arbitrary vision of God or a historical accident. The creation is engineered for this chosen-ness to take place, serving as the blueprint for it.

Individual’s conformity, as well as the community as a whole, to this state of chosen-ness is therefore necessary for holiness and blamelessness. Christ is the reference to which how such process is carried out (1.5). Despite the fragmentation and brokenness in life, the security of the readers’ position in the entire cosmic plan of God is established and affirmed. Therefore their lives are to be oriented according to this state of chosen-ness with the persistent consciousness that our fragmentation and brokenness have already been brought under this one united state through Christ (1.10). Hence the starting point of theological ethic in this letter is this theology of chosen-ness. Chapter one grounds the entire subsequent chapters on piety, individual well-being, ecclesiology and social order within this awareness of being chosen. Paul was seemingly answering the question, “what does it mean to be chosen?” in chapters 2-6 of the letter. These latter parts elaborate further on how such state of chosen-ness is like and what do holiness and blamelessness mean.

This state of chosen-ness is an inheritance passing on from generation to generation (1.11). However, this grand project was previously a mystery. It is until the time of the apostles and post-Christ prophets that such project remained concealed (3.5-6). This state of chosen-ness meant to include all God’s people through Christ regardless of race or ethnic group. That is to say that it has been all this while the blueprint for the state of chosen-ness to be ethnically inclusive. All are chosen to be ‘holy and blameless’. Yet being holy and blameless is for a higher purpose. The state of chosen-ness is meant to serves as the dwelling place of God (2.21-22). That means before the foundation of the creation, this state of chosen-ness was conceived as a project to inaugurate God’s presence into the creation. The letter to the Ephesians plays out this process from stages to stages.

What is remarkable is that the state of chosen-ness pervades through each level of civic life. At the level of the believing community, each individual is expected to regard one another as belonging to the same sovereign, and so treating one another with due manner (4.1-5.21). At the level of a nuclear family, members with their roles are placed into perceptive order. Each role is to relate to another in certain way and vice versa (5.22-6.4). There is certain order also at the level of socio-economic (6.5-9). All these levels have their place in the state of chosen-ness. Paul had a macro-level view over the divine project. He recognizes that the presence of God if to be available at all in the creation, it has to be available at these strata of human constitution.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Grand-aunt, Buddhism's karma, and Christianity's eschatology

(My grand-aunt on the right side with a piece of tissue in her hand)

During the fourth day of Chinese New Year, my family visited my late grandma's younger sister who is now staying in an old folks home. That was my first time visiting her there. From what I gathered, every time whenever someone visit my grand-aunt, she will complain about her second son, Ah Meng. Grand-aunt has six children, and Ah Meng is the one that has never visited her, not even during Chinese New Year.

Grand-aunt always cry whenever she talks about Ah Meng. Among all her children, Ah Meng is the most wealthy. However he is the least caring for her. All her children share the monthly fee for the old folk home except Ah Meng. Most of her children are well to do. One of them own a house with 4 bedrooms with only one child, yet they prefer to send her to stay in the old folks home. Grand-aunt mourns over the fact that although she has 5 sons and 1 daughter, yet none of them welcome her to stay with them, to be taken care by them. As she told us, her hand with a piece of tissue was busy wiping away the tear from her eyes.

She is living through a very disappointing and sad experience.

On our way back home, my dad being a faithful Buddhist who believes in karma, said that in the future Ah Meng's children will treat Ah Meng in the same way how he treats his mother. This is a karmic cycle.

Hearing that, I then suggested that if that is the case, then grand-aunt must have mistreated her own parents last time since she is now ripping her own bad karma. Both my parents went silent. Their silent was not unexpected because my suggestion detached their sympathy from grand-aunt. I unveiled to them that the doctrine of karma turns their object of sympathy, my grand-aunt, into an object of just-punishment. When grand-aunt's current predicament is seen as the effect of her own bad karma, an alienation came between love and justice. It is as if grand-aunt does not deserved to be sympathized anymore since she deservedly ripping her own karma.

What is obvious in this conversation is human's longing for justice. All major religions talk about justice. Buddhism views it as karmic cycle while Christianity anticipates God as the final judge who has restored justice and love through Jesus Christ. Christians able to condemn the mistreatment of grand-aunt and therefore enable us to feel for her and sympathize rightly. Our perception of justice guides humans' relation to one another. Relational emotion such as sympathy and love are upheld in this perception. Christian eschatology binds alienated humans to each other through the finished work of Christ. While the doctrine of karma alienates human from human, upholding justice by breaking down human's relation to each other.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Reflecting on the National University of Singapore Buddhist Society's statement


The National University of Singapore Buddhist Society (NUSBS) came out with a statement to clarifies the misconceptions about Buddhism circulating among non-Buddhists, particularly those from Rony Tan's presentation. As an ex-Mahayana-Buddhist myself, not least an ex-monk, I think it is well for me to reflect over NUSBS's brief correspondence.

Altogether the statement listed 7 misconceptions followed by a reply on each. I shall reflect only a few that are more prevalent rather than all.

Misconception 1: Pastor Rony commented about Buddhist chanting: “One could chant ee-ee-oo-ah-ah, ting-tang-wala-wala-bing-bang, it doesn’t mean anything.”

Answer: Buddhist chanting is not meaningless babble. In Buddhism, chants have definite meanings, contrary to what Pastor Rony’s interviewee claimed. For instance, the chants may refer to the practitioner’s wish to radiate loving-kindness to other beings. Chanting is also an aid to meditation. By focusing on the act of recitation, chanting helps to stop the mind from wandering and instead cultivate inner happiness.

Buddhist's chants are not meaningless babble in the sense that there is meaning in the words and sentences. But whether does the chanter understand the meaning is a different matter. So although the chants are meaningful, often they are not intelligible to the chanter. Hence Buddhist's chants are meaningless babble to those persistent chanters who do not understand what they are chanting in the same way as Shakespeare's works are meaningless babble to a local Singaporean who keeps reciting them without any working knowledge of medieval English literature and prose.

Most Buddhist chanters do not understand the sutras they are chanting. The claim that this practice helps them to meditate and to cultivate their own inner happiness is as dubious as saying that a loveless bore can be turned into a romantic casanova by simply chanting Sonnet 18 repeatedly even without understanding its meaning.

If it is the chanting practice that helps the chanter to focus ("stop the mind from wandering") and has nothing to do with the intelligibility of the chants, then one can chant anything from newspaper write-ups to advertisement catchy phrases repeatedly to keep one's mind occupied and focused (without the need to understand what is being chanted).

Buddhism teaches that there are supernatural functions intrinsic within the chants that can be invoked through chanting (see Jonathan S. Walter, "Chanting Practices", in Encyclopedia of Buddhism, ed. Damien Keown, Charles S. Prebish [UK: Routledge, 2007], 210-211). If this supernatural function can be invoked even when the chanter doesn't understand the meaning of the chants, then Buddhist's chanting is in a way similar to Harry Potter who vocalizes some magical codes like Crucio and Petrificus Totalus to invoke magical power even if they don't understand the meaning of those phrases. The chants are like magical codes that perform supernatural function regardless whether those phrases are intelligible to the chanter. Hence the chants' meaning is found not in the intelligibility of the content but on its supernatural function. So the meaning of 心经 (Heart Sutra) is not found in the text but in its function to cultivate inner happiness to the chanter. Hence it is not wrong to say that such practice is meaningless babble because its meaning is not understood in the text but in its function in similar way as Crucio and Petrificus Totalus. A common example is the Pure Land Buddhism's practice of repeatedly chanting salutation to Amitabha Buddha "Namo Amitabha". Literally, this mean submitting oneself to Amitabha Buddha. Yet most chanters do not really know what does it mean to submit oneself to Amitabha, not to mention the meaning of "Namo".

Misconception 2: Pastor Rony said, “The teaching is this, everybody is potentially a god … and you can be above God and be even more powerful than God.”

Answer: Buddhism does not subscribe to the theistic concept of God that is common to the Abrahamic faiths. We believe that everyone has the potential to develop into a Buddha – a perfected being free from hatred, anger, and ignorance.

NUSBS rightly noted that Buddhism does not acknowledge the existence of God as the sovereign being who created and govern the entire cosmos. Instead, Buddhism has devas. Devas are non-human beings who enjoy higher bliss than humans but they are not the sovereign and creator of the cosmos. When Mah-Brahm claims itself as the sovereign and creator of the cosmos, Buddha dismisses it as ignorant (see The Dhamma's article). Nonetheless non-Buddhists like Rony misses this point when they assume that Buddhism's devas as identical to the Christian God. On the other end, the Buddhists and the Buddha himself miss the point if they assume devas as identical with the Christian's Trinity.

Misconception 3: Pastor Rony’s interviewee (a former monk) didn’t know what Nirvana was, and said that his fellow monks didn’t know either, implying that Buddhists don’t know what they’re talking about when they refer to Nirvana.

Answer: Nirvana is not a meaningless entity. In conventional language, the best approximate we can say is this: Nirvana is the freedom from the underlying cause of all suffering – the illusion of being a separate self. The word ‘Nirvana’ literally means ‘blowing out’, like the extinguishing of a flame. It’s the extinguishing of all delusions, leading to extraordinary clarity and peace. It is a state that defies conventional language, and belongs to the realm of spiritual attainment, not logical understanding. So we may know what Nirvana is logically, but not know what it is on the experiential level. It is like knowing the possibility of zero-gravity but without the actual experience of weightlessness in space.

NUSBS doesn't engage Rony's misconception (if it is really a misconception). Nirvana is the end of rebirth, when one consciousness managed to released from the vicious cycle (see Richard P. Hayes, "Nirvana", in Encyclopedia of Buddhism, ed. Damien Keown, Charles S. Prebish [UK: Routledge, 2007], 558-559). Some said that Nirvana is a peaceful and supramundane state with no suffering (see John Powers, A Concise Encyclopedia of Buddhism [UK: Oneworld, 2000], 153) but no one knows what such state really is. The emphasis of Nirvana is the extinguishing of all delusion, however what if Nirvana itself is a delusion since no one really knows what it is? Compared to Christian's belief in the final resurrection, at least the first disciples of Jesus experienced and encountered first-hand what resurrected life really is through Jesus' bodily resurrection.

Misconception 4: Pastor Rony said, “If something bad [happens], they say it’s because of your karma … If somebody falls sick, oh it’s because of your karma. It’s so easy to explain… It seems that you cannot do anything about the bad things that are happening.”

Answer: The doctrine of karma does not entail fatalism. The word ‘karma’ literally means ‘action’, and refers to our intentional mental actions. What we are now is determined by our thoughts and actions in the past, and similarly, what we will experience in the future is influenced by our thoughts and actions in the present. Karma doesn’t mean that we’re dealt a fixed destiny that we have to passively accept. Our karma continuously changes depending on how we think and act now. By changing our thoughts and behaviour, we can definitely transform the quality of our lives for the better.

The doctrine of karma in Buddhism is perhaps the most puzzling. It holds that one's current experience in life is the result of the deeds we sow in the past or in the pre-rebirth lives. Hence the implication is that we have to sow good deeds now to secure positive karmic effect for our future or post-rebirth lives. It is best understood as natural "sequence of causes and effects"(Damien Keown, "Karma", in Encyclopedia of Buddhism, ed. Damien Keown, Charles S. Prebish [UK: Routledge, 2007], 437). However Buddhism distinguishes karma from niyati (deterministic fate). In the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha doesn't think that current experience are the consequence of previous action. "Individuals are free to resist previous conditioning and establish new patterns of behaviour." (Ibid, 438).

Buddhism teaches that the Buddhist's ultimate pursuit is to be released from samsara (vicious cycle of rebirth) which depends on individual consciousness' karma. So one has to pursue positive karma in order to be released. Yet karma is not deterministic, hence life is not fatalistic. So doctrine of karma does not entail fatalism.

But here is the question. If karma is not deterministic, how then in the first place does one's persistence in samsara dependent on karma? Either karma determines or does not. If it does, then it is fatalism. If it does not, then one's persistence in samsara is not dependent on karma. If that is the case, then acquiring positive karma is not necessary for one to be released from samsara. Neither does producing negative karma necessarily bind one in samsara. On this point, the doctrine collapses.

I'm not defending Rony in this post but to show that these 4 conceptions exist not because non-Buddhists misunderstood them. Rather, it is because these doctrines are questionable and hence need further clarification from the Buddhists. The NUSBS's statement is important for inter-religious understanding. By such correspondence, everyone from every sides may avoid being "obstinately misapprehends what he himself has known, seen and felt; insisting on that alone [and says] 'Only this is true, anything else is wrong.'" (Maha-kammavibhanga Sutta: The Great Exposition of Kamma, 136)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

15 year-old Kenneth Lin petitioning to ask MM Lee to apologize

Read about this news from The Termasek Review:
"..Kenneth Lin started an online petition against Singapore’s strongman Lee Kuan Yew for his disparaging remarks on Singaporeans made during his interview with the National Geographic Magazine...

The remarks in contention from the article are:

Over time, Singaporeans have become “less hard-driving and hard-striving. That is why it is a good thing that the nation has welcomed so many Chinese immigrants (25 percent of the population is now foreign-born).

and

But taking a typically Darwinian stance, the MM describes the country’s new subjects as “hungry,” with parents who “pushed the children very hard.” If native Singaporeans are falling behind because “the spurs are not stuck into the hide,” that is their problem.

He added that it is especially deplorable that such insensitive remarks can be issued forth from the very person responsible for the social engineering of Singapore to the state of being it is today:

By forcing through dubious policies that have largely tanked, such as the Stop At 2 policy, Graduate Mothers scheme, Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s irresponsible attempts at altering the demographics of our society have left the present leadership no choice but to import foreign workers in such large numbers in such a short period of time in order to make up for the shortfall in labour requirements. This has led to widespread disgruntlement and social unrest in amongst the citizenry.
Is the boy stupid, rebellious, or just doing what he thinks is right to do? Or, as some suspect, the boy is being manipulated by grown-ups to do that? I don't know. But he made a valid point that the current declining local Singaporean demography, hence the shortage of local talent, is the consequence of MM Lee's administration. So does that mean if MM Lee's remark to the National Geographic is true, then it is only possibly so due to his own making?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

4 groups in public theology

There are 4 observable and differing groups within the local Christian community in the area of public theology. Hence there are 4 different theologies.
Apathetic Group:
Christians in this group do not care about public issues at all. Even if they care, their concern are driven by individual's immediate needs and wants rather than a theological vision. The churches belonging to this group emphasize on the individual congregant's well being. Hence most, if not all, of the Sunday services are accompanied with sermons that have nothing to do with public issues. Rarely one hears sermon about social inequality, unjust treatment, and other public topics. The theology within this group does not grasp the full implication of God's cosmic-renewal project. Preachers and Christians in this group limit theology of "new creation" to individual and failed to include its implication to the entire cosmos out of ignorance rather than conscious decision. That means they simply do not know there is such an aspect in Christianity. This is the "boh chap" group (literally: heck care).

Wanna-be Group:
Those in this group are Christians that managed to grasp the full implication of God's cosmic-renewal project. They theologically advocate the Christian community to participate in public affairs. The theologians, pastors, and Christians in this group are generally informed over the connection of Christian faith with public issues. However this group has a serious lack. Although this group realizes the call to seek the welfare of the society, they do not know how to do it. Therefore this is the group that often mis-portrays Christians as militant fundamentalists who are trying to establish Christendom in current society to the public. They have good intention but lack ingredients like good framework, theology, and strategy to engage the public. Usually members in this group are educated lay Christians and informed church leaders such as pastors and elders. It is not too stretching to label this group as "kia su" group (literally: fear of losing).

Trumpeting Group:
This third group possesses the ingredients like good intention, framework, theology, and strategy to engage the public, but they lack boldness. This suggests that they know what they can and should do, but they do not have to courage to do it because they are afraid to invite public scorn over their involvement. They are content to trumpet about the call to engage public issues but they do not want to get themselves dirtied. So when real issues with social and political implications occurred, they would usually just talk among themselves or conduct closed-door meetings to talk about it. This group enjoys encouraging individual Christians to engage public issues as an individual and do not want to strategize concerted effort for it. Most of them are bought into the secular polity that believes in the possibility to engage the public square as a "citizen" and not as a "Christian". No doubt this is a hollow and uncritical perception, but it is the safest one. Usually members in this group are theologians and informed church or denominational leaders. Compared to the "kia su" group, this is more like a "kia si" group (literally: fear of threats & death).

Activist Group:
This group is theologically informed over the inter-weaved connection between Christianity and public affairs. They are not afraid of losing nor threat and death. The possibility of imprisonment is scary but not constraining. They are able to conduct public discourse in manner understandable to those who do not belong to the Christian community. Due to this, often this group is caricatured as the "liberals" within the religious community although they are theologically informed. Though they are passionate to engage the world yet they are not fundamentalists who blow themselves up for their cause. They pursue their cause in respectful and tolerant manner. Members in this group consists of lay theologians to professional theologians. Philip Blond and Rowan Williams are living examples. Dead ones are apostle Paul, Jason (Acts 17.6-7), and William Wilberforce. A dramatized example which is based on a real historical person is Gustav Briegleb in the movie Changeling.
So which group do you belong to???

Friday, February 12, 2010

Singaporeans have a low view of Internal Security Department?

After posting my observation on what can we deduce from 'Rony' saga about politics, society, and religious community, I received feedbacks that I would be in trouble with the Singapore's Internal Security Department (ISD). That is very puzzling indeed.

I don't think ISD, an intelligence agency, is so unintelligent to think that my observation is a threat. I didn't say whether do I condone nor against Rony's action in the post. Neither did I fan any fire of militantism or fundamentalism or invite anarchy or chaos. In fact I wasn't concern at all with the feat that Rony pulled. My observation is a view on the current state of affair and its implications.

Some thought that I was trying to push for Christendom over Singapore's society. Come on, those who learn the history of the Church or Christianity would know how unpleasant that was. Among informed historians, they know that the moment emperor Constantine presided over religious issues and subsequently emperor Theodosius I pronounced Christianity as the state's religion, that is the beginning of the fall of the church.

Some thought that I was criticizing many local churches. On this, yes, I acknowledge that I did and still do. Many churches need to be critiqued. They are not fallible. Among all else, these churches should be the ones that are able to handle society well. Only if they equipped themselves with their own two millennial worth of history and theology.

Throughout the years, most churches have forfeited themselves over this. Untrained pastors and church leaders are prevalent. Rony's case is just one manifestation of such calamity. AWARE saga is another. The list goes on. Christian theologians on the other hand are going around beseeching Christians to work together with the government to promote the welfare of the nation. Yet when it comes to deal with real issues, they backed off (I know of a local prominent professional theologian who is like this). Saying that that might invokes the wrath of ISD.

There are others, on the other side, that is going around haunting any Christians' effort to seek the welfare of the country. Whenever someone identifies him/herself as a Christian, immediately the person will be thought of as militant and thus discredits his/her contribution to the society (then threatening the individual with ISD). Grow up! Locals don't want foreigner's opinion over local politics. They should extend that to the milieu as well, not merely the opinion. Stop adopting foreign milieu to deal with similar issue in local context. Here is not America nor UK. Show to Kishore Mahbubani that indeed locals can think.

I don't know why locals would think that the ISD would implicate them, not least me. I think ISD is intelligent enough to understands my post as well-mannered and not harmful.

Such paranoia over ISD only exists among those who have a low view on the department. Departments dealing with internal security is a given in all country to keep peace and order. In Malaysia, it's called 'Special Branch'. In fact Singapore's ISD was known as the 'Special Branch'. It is precisely I think highly of ISD that I shared my observation, not because I think less of them. Locals should hold higher regards for their ISD than a foreigner.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Singapore Daily misread and mislead


Sze Zeng: What does ‘Rony’ show us? [GCF defends Rony Tan] [Thanks YKWYA]

My post on Rony's case has been linked at The Singapore Daily. When I saw that, I was really curious whether did the Daily read my post or got what I mean.

I’m not representing GCF and neither my post is the official statement on behalf of GCF. And besides, I am NOT defending Rony at all. Goodness, I wonder anyone from the Singapore Daily learned hermeneutic? Perhaps they can benefit from hermeneutic classes at theological colleges, if not university's philosophy or literary studies department.

If The Singapore Daily really so desperate to politicize my view, they can do it the right way. At least takes the effort to understand what the post is about. Bad press for the press. Irony.

However I commented on their website, "If The Singapore Daily’s mission and vision is to mislead their readers due to their incompetency, then you may stick it there and don’t have to change a thing."

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

What does 'Rony' show us?

[Updates 11 Feb 2010: Due to their incompetency, The Singapore Daily misrepresents my post.]

Rony Tan, the senior pastor of a mega-church Lighthouse Evangelism, is now busy salvaging himself, his career, his congregation and the religion he is representing from bad press. He has been preaching about Jesus saving all of us over the years, and now he is saving himself.

The video clip which has him and one of his congregation member ridiculing Buddhism is still around although Rony has petitioned to have it taken down. "I urge those who have posted those clips on the YouTube to remove them as well." (from the news column at http://www.lighthouse.org.sg/. Accessed 10 Feb 2010).

Rony was warned by the Internal Security Department for the remarks that he made. He was not arrested.

Four statements below are from Straits Times website.

Statement from Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng:
DEPUTY Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng told The Straits Times he was heartened that the religious leaders had met to resolve their differences.

'What Pastor Rony Tan said and did at his evangelism sharing sessions was clearly offensive to Buddhists and Taoists,' he said. 'In fact, it has angered even Singaporeans who are not Buddhists and Taoists.'

'I am also heartened to learn that the Buddhist and Taoist leaders, while understandably upset with the incident, have accepted Pastor Tan's apology and have urged restraint on the part of their religious communities. This is also the right thing to do.'

Mr Wong added that nobody should be allowed to exploit and escalate any issue to whip up emotions and tensions between ethnic and religious groups, and when problems arise, they should be resolved rationally and constructively.

'Religious leaders especially, must lead and set the right example in this regard,' he said.
Statement from Pastor Rony Tan's family:
'We understand the gravity of the issue. We have taken steps to resolve the matter, and would like to put this behind us and focus on promoting religious harmony.'
Joint statement from Singapore Buddhist Federation and inter-Faith Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO):
'WE HOPE HE HAS LEARNT A LESSON.'

'Pastor Tan has apologised to us in person. We accept his apology, and hope he has learnt a lesson from this experience. Here on, we will stay in touch to work on promoting mutual understanding between us. We want to clear up any misunderstandings.'
Statement by the National Council of Churches of Singapore in response to comments by Pastor Rony Tan:
Some of Pastor Rony Tan’s comments were insensitive and offensive to followers of the Buddhist and Taoist faiths. We are glad he has made a public apology, and has promised that such insensitivity will never happen again.

We support the statement made by the Ministry of Home Affairs to Pastor Tan that “he must not run down other religions, and must be mindful of the sensitivities of other religions.” In a guide on inter-religious relations issued to our member churches in 2008, the Council had advised Christians that as they carry out evangelism in a multi-religious society they are “not to denounce other religions” and that they “should always be respectful of the beliefs of others, careful not to create or sow ill-will.”

The Council is committed to continue its efforts in promoting religious understanding and respect while we go about practising and sharing about our Christian faith. We trust that Christian groups that are not our members will also share our values.
What do all these tell us about Singapore's politics, society and religious community?

1) The State has authority over religious practice, personal opinion, and religious doctrine when it comes to social order and harmony. If you really think Buddhism or Christianity are nonsense, you may do so as long as no outrage is caused in the society. So it is okay to allow books that condemn or ridicule religions like those by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Dan Brown and Sam Harris to be sold at public bookstores since there is no disorder caused by them.

2) Religious leaders are submissive to the State to the extend of allowing the State to determine what can they say and what can't they say. This is due to the fact that local religious leaders are more concern over social order rather than their religious beliefs. If their religious belief informs them that other religions are nonsense, they have to either suppress that information or change it. For eg. Muslims who think that the concept of Trinity is nonsense have keep that to themselves and not allow to express it. If not, they will end up like Rony, who has to apologize for what he sincerely believes as true: Buddhism is nonsense. So they can sign their doctrinal statement but must not produce it to the public.

3) Social stability is the constant concern for everyone, from politicians to pastors. In this setting, truth must conform to this aphorism. Individuals are allowed to have their own opinion and belief as long as no conflict is caused. If an individual's opinion when expressed can cause conflict, then the person must not express it even if it can be expressed in a well-mannered and respectful way. So there is no such thing as "agree to disagree" in this context. All just have to agree outwardly although inwardly we don't agree at all.

4) Society are taught to be hypocritical given the above 3 observations. It is like putting on a smile even if you hate the person you are talking to. You are free to stab each others' back as long as not doing it in front. Stabbing from the back might cause death, but definitely no conflict because the victims do not know who stabbed him or her. So it is not surprising that people stab each others' back in offices, not to mention churches and temples. Conflict is worse than death.

5) Death has taken a whole new meaning. Death is rendered insignificant, and hence the dying person became insignificant. There is no dignity in death. Death is not a closure anymore. It is not the determining factor of how well one's life is lived. Conflict is the measure. You may commit suicide but not create conflict. A culture that makes suicide more tasteful and delightful as a way of escape. And when death changes its meaning, life changes its meaning. Life is not organic any longer. Life became mechanic. Life became meaningless as no more senses are needed to be made out of it. Life is lived mechanically: wake up, work, eat, shit, sleep and die. The quality and value of life became determined by the quality of the person's bed, office, food, toilet bowl, and coffins. So life's pursuit is to get the best quality bed, office, food, toilet bowl and coffins. Consumerism and individualism prevail. It is not determined by the organic relationship among human beings anymore. In fact organic aspect of life became peripheral.

6) In parallel, conflict has also taken a whole new meaning. Difference is not appreciated as much. Conformity is the norm. No disagreement, hence no conflict, hence no point having discourse or debates, hence no creativity. In the end, no need to communicate. Conflict became a worse sin than death. Death is more acceptable than conflict. You must not have conflict, but you can die. It's better to abort a child than having conflict. Again, a culture of suicide.

7) Communication took on new meaning. It is not meant to express oneself or one's own thought, but to command. No point to express oneself because all are conformed. So communication functions only as commandment, when we speak, we are not expressing ourselves but to command. Hence bureaucracy became a given. In order for us to open our mouth to communicate, we have to be on top of the hierarchy since communication is only commandment. Space for creativity is abandoned. Not only that there is no such thing as thinking out of conformity, but no such thing as thinking out of the box too.

8) In the end, thinking is not thinking anymore. Thinking is reduced to mere reminding and not conceiving or perceiving anymore. Human life is not governed by thoughts but by conformity. Not governed by rationality but by superstitious. When human mind can't think anymore, the society is dead. There is no more life. There are only conformity, commandment, suicidal, and the Gross Domestic Product index. Anything more than these is irrelevant. And religion is either nothing more than conformity, commandment, suicidal and GDP, or as an irrelevance. Rony has show us that it is the former. This is more clearly so when seen through the statement of the National Council of Churches of Singapore.

So why the society is unfriendly, consumerism-driven, individualistic with persisting ugly politic in offices and churches, and among circle of friends? Why the rise of abortion, suicidal and divorce rate even among Christians? Why a materialistic culture? Why today's children as well as working adults are so stressed up? Why do people rather stay in their office until late night than doing something else? Why so many hypocrites in the churches?

Simply because everyone, including pastors and churches, is worshiping this false god. And they dare to profess their faith in Jesus Christ. They dare to profess the Apostle's Creed. They dare to partake the holy communion. They are really daring when it comes to idolization.

Agree or disagree???


Tuesday, February 09, 2010

New approach to Chinese New Year


Chinese community has the tradition of buying new clothes (cars or gadgets) as a way of celebrating Chinese New Year (CNY). It is not merely a preparation to celebrate the new year but the practice of consuming attire unnecessarily has become part of the celebration. It is as if Lunar New Year includes the buying of new stuffs. Hence every retail shops are having sales promotion during this period.

I remember spending SGD$300 for CNY clothes in Singapore once, about 4 or 5 years ago. That was the most that I have ever spent for my wardrobe in one go. Since then I have lessen my spending. However, this year I want to go a step further by not spending at all.

When I open my wardrobe last week, I saw about 7 shirts that I seldom wear (I have about 15). Last week, I wore one of those shirts which I had never wear for the past 2 years. It was still in good shape and color. At that instant, I know that I don't need new clothes. Nonetheless, I had to face the temptation of buying new clothes. I acquired new clothes for CNY for the past two decades of my life, so to stop getting at least one this year is rather radical. It's engaging the culture that I've grown up with. Culture meant to give meaning to life, not to place people under bondage. Culture needs to be constantly checked and engaged.


"Only once a year..."

"There is promotion going on now..."

"It won't hurt to get just one..."

"You can afford it..."

"Everyone is doing it, what's wrong?"

"Your friends, family members, and even strangers are into it..."


All these came to mind. The fact that these voices appearred is a sign that this is not merely an engagement with culture, but with an entire worldview and tradition. It is unexpectantly lonely to not go along with the mass. Fortunately I have some close ones who share the same thought as me. One is my mother, the other is Joycelyn. They told me that they are not getting any clothes for this new year. Not because they don't have the money, but because they know that they don't need to spend unnecessarily.

However, if anyone has this urgent urge to spend during this CNY, you can consider sending the money to the needy, for eg. through agencies like Worldvision in Singapore and Malaysia. Make this a special way to celebrate Chinese New Year. Celebrating it in a style that is not only different but meaningful. Meaningful because you are begining the new year not by buying stuffs that you don't need, but by helping to fulfill the physical needs of others. Especially those who are less fortunate.

Meanwhile, I'll keep resisting the temptation. You may too. Let not the new year starts by us being the victims of consumerism. Let the new year marks a new approach to participate in God's project to bring true joy, peace and justice to earth. Happy Chinese/Lunar New Year.

Monday, February 08, 2010

I'm not a follower/disciple of Jesus... I am a 'τινα'

During cluster vesper last week, uncle Tan asked us this terrifying question and want us to meditate over it: Who do you think Jesus is?

All of us were stunned. Not that we are not similar with this question in Mark 8.29, but because we are too familiar with it. So we are asked, our familiarity was challenged. And that is the stunning part.

I re-looked at Mark 8 and saw that the question was framed in an urgency. It is a demanding question as much as it is a Christological one. Jesus was not merely asking that question out of nowhere as a chit-chat topic. He was asking his disciples, those who have experienced life together with him.

They saw and had participated in what Jesus did. They heard the most of what Jesus said. Now they are asked who do they think this person whom they have been observing all this while is. The most intriguing part is that after Peter had answered rightly, Jesus immediately warned them not to tell anyone, knowing well how deadly their answer was.

The scenario went this way:
Jesus: Who do people say I am?

Disciples: Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.

Jesus: But what about you? You have followed me around, saw what I did, heard what I said, and experienced life together with me, so who do you think I am?

Peter: You are the promised Messiah who has come to liberate us and the people. And we pledged to fight for you and with you, to participate in your revolution! You are our commander!

Jesus: Shhhhhhhhhh.. Don't let others know! I'm on a covert mission.
Everyone at that time know that the Messiah (a.k.a Christ) is the promised agent who will overturn the empires of the world, to restore the chosen people of God to preeminence. Letting outsiders know that you are the Messiah will only disrupt your mission, as every revolutionists know. Besides, the leaked information will not only jeopardize the mission but will also led the revolutionists to execution if caught. The mission was deadly. Jesus knew it.

After sharing this in the vesper, I naturally confessed that I am not a disciple of Christ. I am too cowardice to call myself a Christian. If I am to follow Christ, I would have stop studying at theological college since all that we are learning are from books. We can learn through books! Theological college is not necessary. The reason why I am here is to get certified; a license known as Bachelor of Divinity (hopefully also a master's degree and a doctorate). A social and public recognition that warrants quality. To facilitate comfortable living hood. Make life convenient. (Mother Teresa does not have a Bachelor of Divinity)

But is not Jesus' mission a covert? Covert doesn't go along with public recognition. If not, Jesus wouldn't have silenced his disciples. He would had ask them to go around and tell everyone that he is the promised Messiah; let everyone recognize him and his disciples as the group that will bring revolution to the land. He did not do that. He knew his mission was deadly. It's dangerous. And he knew that it is stupid to allow this to jeopardize his mission.

Therefore I'm not a disciple nor a follower of Christ. I'm too cowardice to participate in this covert mission. I am scared to be executed. Others thought that being a pastor or a theologian is just another job, to live a middle-class life, to settle down with status quo. But that is furthest from the truth. Jesus and his disciples did not have any of that. Someone once remarked that Jesus came to proclaim the arrival of the Kingdom of God, but the church arrived. There is a lot of observation and subversion in this remark.

Yes, I see Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. I'm not an atheist nor an agnostic. But neither am I his follower. It is not because I do not recognize who Jesus is but precisely because I recognize who he is, how deadly was his mission, and how revolutionary he was. I'm too cowardice. So what am I?

I'm a 'τινα'. It is pronounced 'tina', meaning 'someone'. It is a Greek word from Mark 9.38: "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us."

I'm in the category of that someone, a tina. He was not recognized as belonging to Jesus' group and did not follow Jesus like his disciples did. Yet he recognized Jesus as the Messiah and was carrying out works in his name.

To such tina, Jesus remarked: "Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us."

I'm not against Jesus and his disciples, I'm for him and his disciples. But I don't belong to the group. It is too dangerous. I have no balls to join them.

Hopefully such consideration is contemplated with utter seriousness by everyone who consider to be a pastor. Those who are already working as a pastor have to remind others who want to be a pastor about the deadliness of the mission of Jesus and his disciples. When your congregation member approaches you to tell you that he/she has a calling to be a pastor, your first response can be, "Shhhhhhhhhhhh... do you know what does that mean?"

Saturday, February 06, 2010

?Ministry?

Finally finished writing an essay on the relationship between the marketplace and theological institution. This is not an assignment but a no-pay voluntary effort for the upcoming Lausanne's conference at Hong Kong. A friend who is involved with Lausanne asked me to write something, and so I did. He asked me to join him in Hong Kong but I can't because no money for that. I have spent my savings acquiring books that are not found in TTC's library.

Spending 5 days writing the paper helped me to think through this issue at another level. Certainly there are a lot of Christians talking about marketplace ministry but usually what they really meant is setting up cell-group at offices to pray and do Bible study together. At best, this can be a place to consolidate Christians together in offices to pray for one another's job promotion; at worst, further deepening the gap between the marketplace and theological institution.

Setting up such cell-groups is no less good. Consolidation is needed for scattered Christians at offices to support each other. However, that alone is not marketplace ministry. We don't find Home Ministry setting up cell-groups at offices to merely console one another over policing failures. Neither do we find Defense Ministry setting up cell-groups for officers to merely read and discuss about the security manual and commit their lives to it every week. We have to regain the meaning of ministry in the Christian community. Unless we do that, marketplace ministers are just duplicating church-services in their offices and nothing more.

In my essay, I asked the question where is the place for Christian ministry in the marketplace? Although I didn't really wrote that question down, but the entire essay is driven to answer that question. Though it is about marketplace theology, yet it is more on the broader theme on providing a theological and philosophical framework to ground Christian works from within the marketplace and theological institution. And in that way, able to build a more clear picture how churches (as theological institution) should relate to the marketplace ministry, and vice versa.

When I finished the essay, I became more open to Christian ministry. Previously I do not favor at all to do ministry, as how the term is being popularly used within the Christian community: gateways for people to pray more and do Bible study more so that they can go heaven.

If ministry is not what contemporary Christians make it to mean, then I would look forward to be in it: context for which people bring heaven to earth.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Jean-Luc Marion on 'love'

"Even for a gaze aiming objectively, the pupil remains a living refutation of objectivity, an irremediable denial of the object; here, for the first time, in the very midst of the visible, there is nothing to see, except an invisible and untargetable (invisable*) void." (p.81)

*[Translator's note: the French invisable signifies "that at which one cannot aim" (viser, "to target," "to aim at").]

"Freed from intentionality**, love in the end would be defined... as the act of a gaze that renders itself back to another gaze in a common unsubstitutability. To render oneself back to a gaze means, for another gaze, to return there, as to a place for a rendezvous, but above all to render oneself there in an unconditional surrender: to render oneself to the unsubstitutable other, as to a summons to my own unsubstitutability - no other than me will be able to play the other that the other requires, no other gaze than my own must respond to the ecstasy of this particular other exposed in his gaze. But to render oneself other, to surrender this gaze to the gaze of the other who crosses me, requires faith." (p.101)

**["Intentionality renders consciousness intentional of something other than its own lived experiences, namely the object itself. The very fact that the intention most often oversteps intuitive fulfillment confirms the fact that consciousness aims at more than it lives, thus that it aims at an object that is definitely other than itself. Consciousness, by and with its polarized lived experiences, becomes always consciousness of an other, consciousness altered by alterity itself, intrinsically alienated consciousness. Hence, just as the interpretation of love on the basis of the immanence of lived experiences to consciousness brought to light the self-idolatry of passion, its interpretation on the basis of the transcendence of the intentional object should lead to the thought of its authentic alterity." (p.78)]
The texts are from Jean-Luc Marion. Prolegomena to Charity. Translated by Stephen Lewis. USA: Fordham University Press, 2002.

So, what is love?

A different kind of prayer

"What seem our worst prayers may really be, in God's eyes, our best. Those, I mean, which are least supported by devotional feeling. For these may come from a deeper level than feeling. God sometimes seems to speak to us most intimately when he catches us, as it were, off our guard."
(C. S. Lewis, as quoted in James B. Simpson, Simpson's Contemporary Quotations [USA: Houghton Mifflin, 1988], p.191)


"The event of prayer, certain acts called prayer, the very word ‘prayer’ have gathered such ridiculous associations... When I write that my own situation [during my illness] in those months of pain and decision can be described as prayer, I do not only recall that during that time I sometimes read the Psalms and they became my psalms, or that, as I have also mentioned, I occasionally cried ‘Jesus’ and that name was my prayer, but I mean that I also at times would shout ‘Fuck!’ and that was no obscenity, but a most earnest prayerful utterance."
(William Stringfellow, A Second Birthday: A Personal Confrontation with Illness, Pain, and Death [USA: Wipf and Stock, 2005], p.99, 108-109)

How do you pray? Somehow like this, "Oh Father God... thank you, Father God... Father God... Holy and almighty Father God... Father God who provides abundantly... in the most holy and precious name of Jesus Christ. Amen"? As if talking to the Father Christmas who dressed in red snowsuit. Or, when overdoing it, it seems as if God needs us to remind God that God is holy and almighty and that the name of Jesus is holy and precious. Obscenely fictional.

Well, that is not the only or the best way.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Ancient social identity shedding light for today's urban Christians 2

"Kindliness is their nature. There is no falsehood among them. They love one another. They do not neglect widows. Orphans they rescue from those who are cruel to them. Every one of them who has anything gives ungrudgingly to the one who has nothing. If they see a traveling stranger they bring him under their roof. They rejoice over him as a real brother, for they do not call one another brothers after the flesh, but they know they are brothers in the Spirit and in God. If one of them sees that one of their poor must leave this world, he provides for his burial as well as he can. And if they hear that one of them is imprisoned or oppressed by their opponents for the sake of their Christ's name, all of them take care of all his needs. If possible they set him free. If anyone among them is poor or comes into want while they themselves have nothing to spare, they fast two or three days for him. In this way they can supply the poor man with the food he needs."
(Aristides, Apology 15, dated circa 125 AD. Quoted in Brain J. Capper, "Jesus, Virtuoso Religion, and the Community of Goods," in Engaging Economics: New Testament Scenarios and Early Christian Reception, ed. Bruce W. Longenecker and Kelly D. Liebengood, [USA: Eerdmans, 2009], p.75-76)

The most intriguing and penetrating part is the last two sentences. The Christians at that time do not fast so that God will answer their prayers. How many pastors today are encouraging their members to fast to get their prayers answered? It is stupid to think that we can compel God to work according to our desires. The other reason that Christians apprehended to fast is for themselves to focus on God, like a Zen monk: Don't eat, just meditate. We are told that fasting helps us to focus on prayer and God. Clear sign of a religion that teaches individualism spirituality.

How many local Christian leaders are encouraging their congregations to skip meals, to stop shopping for more clothes, to stop buying latest gadgets, and to cancel annual vacation trips so that they can send money for relief work or to those who are in dreadful need?

Not many, if not none. Why so? Perhaps pastors do not want to be hypocrites because they themselves do not want to go into such social practice. So without preaching this, they save themselves from being accused of not doing what they preach.

Or could it be that pastors do not want to upset the congregations, make the members' middle class lives less comfortable? But is that a pastor's calling, to shove along by the members' lifestyle? I wonder if during job interviews, are pastors to be hired be told that they must not encourage anything that reduces the comfort level of the congregation (the hiring churches are afraid that they will lost their members to other churches since there are so many churches around for Christians to hop about)?