Friday, September 10, 2010

Roland Chia: Life as a systematic theologian in Singapore

I've conducted an interview with Roland for this blog. He is currently the Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine and Dean of the School of Postgraduate Studies at Trinity Theological College, Singapore. His doctoral studies was done at King's College London under the supervision of the late Colin Gunton.

Roland is best known for his recent works in bioethics. So far he has published three books on this topic: The Ethics of Human Organ Trading, The Right to Die? A Christian Response to Euthanasia, and Biomedical Ethics and the Church: An Introduction.

He has also written widely on Christian theology. He has published a book on eschatology, 'Hope for the World: A Christian Vision of the Last Things', one on sermon on the mount, 'Radical Discipleship: Reflection on the Sermon on the Mount', one on the Ten Commandments, 'Laws of the Heart: The Ten Commandments for Christian Living', and one on the thoughts of Balthasar and Barth, 'Revelation and Theology: The Knowledge of God in Balthasar and Barth'. He is also currently serving as a contributing editor of Cultural Encounters: A journal for the theology of culture.

Many may have read his books and articles on various newsletters, academic journals and Christian magazines. I hope through this interview, we'll discover more of Roland as a theologian and a person rather than merely a walking theological encyclopedia:

How old were you when you are sufficiently convinced that your calling is to serve in the field of theology? And how did you discover that calling?

My first foray into theology took place when I was 16 or 17. My parish priest at the time (I was a Roman Catholic until I was about 20 years old) loan me his copy of the first volume of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles possibly to stop me from asking too many questions about Roman Catholic beliefs and practices. I remember reading it with some excitement although it left me with unequal measures of illumination and bewilderment.

I began formal theological studies when I was 25 years old (this time as a Methodist) after deciding to devote the rest of my life to serving God and his Church. The burden to leave my job for full-time Christian service developed over a number of years and in the course of very trying circumstances.

Karl Barth once wrote in his diary "I made the bold resolve to become a theologian: not with preaching and pastoral care and so on in my mind, but in the hope that through such a course of study I might reach a proper understanding of the creed in place of the rather hazy ideas that I had at that time." What are your thoughts on Barth's statement in term of one's decision to serve as a theologian?
I must say I only partially agree with Karl Barth’s statement. Of course I believe that theological studies and reflection is important if we are to be steeped in the Christian Faith. But I do not think that achieving clarity on the teaching and significance of the creed is the only reason to become a theologian.

I believe that a theologian is first and foremost a servant of God, who serves him by serving the Church. A theologian should not hermitically seal himself from the life and witness of the Church, cloistered in the impenetrable fortress of his ivory tower, keeping the rest of the world from entering. Some of the most significant theologians in the history of the Church – Irenaeus, Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Augustine, Maximus the Confessor – did not lead idyllic lives as academic theologians, but were actively involved in the life of the Church and the society.

Barth understands that quite well, and it is evident in his works and also in his life. It must be remembered that Barth discovered ‘the strange world of the Bible’, and through it the orthodoxy that his first theological teachers shunned or truncated when he was ‘forced’ to preach from the Bible as a pastor. Furthermore, Barth was actively involved in the political developments of his time.

One of your major project was on Karl Barth's and Hans Urs von Balthasar's understanding of God. What attracted you to them, and particularly their theological epistemology?
When I started to study theology formally in 1985, I was introduced to a number of significant theologians in the twentieth century – Brunner, Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Otto, Bultmann, Moltmann, Pannenberg, Weber, etc. One of the most fascinating theologians that I came across was Karl Barth.

I first encountered Barth through a very late work of his, Evangelical Theology, which is a collection of lectures he delivered when he visited America. This book led me to Barth’s Dogmatics in Outline and Commentary on Romans. Eventually I arrived at the Church Dogmatics after becoming more or less accustomed to his writing style, and after I’ve read a few secondary works that introduce his thought.

It was through the Barth scholars that I was introduced to Hans Urs von Balthasar, whose approach to theology was so unique that it fascinated me. Since both these theologians are ‘theologians of revelation’ (among other things), I naturally drawn to their epistemologies when I was exploring a dissertation topic.

These two theologians led me to a number of new and exciting theological vistas. Barth, of course inspired a deeper appreciation of the Reformers – especially Luther and Calvin – in me. But it was von Balthasar who opened the doors to modern Roman Catholic theology to me by introducing great theologians like Henri de Lubac, Romano Guardini and Joseph Ratzinger. He also introduced me to philosophical aesthetics and the importance of Plato, Plotinus and Aristotle for theology. Von Balthasar also led me to read the writings of the mystics like St John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila.

Both Barth and von Balthasar sparked my interest in Patristic theology (an interest that continues to grow), and both of them in their own ways introduced me to medieval theologians like Anselm, Aquinas and Bonaventure.

Since that major project, whose works and which area are you currently engaging with? Still Barth and Balthasar?
Since returning to Singapore from London in 1995 after completing my doctoral studies at King’s College, circumstances have led me to attend to many different theological issues. Of course, my basic theological studies and doctoral studies have generated many interests in me that went beyond epistemology and the two German theologians I discussed in my dissertation. Theology has led me to philosophy, music, and aesthetics.

But after I returned to Singapore, my involvement with Trinity Theological College (TTC) and the National Council of Churches has led me to explore the relationship between theology and science, medical ethics, moral philosophy, political theory, and most recently the social teaching of the Church. I do believe that specialisation is inevitable today; but I also believe that a theologian must develop wide inter-disciplinary interests.

I am of course not suggesting that theologian should present himself as a pseudo-expert in these other fields. The theologian who thinks in this way is deluded and immature. But I think a theologian should have enough familiarity with these broader topics to reflect on them intelligently and theologically.

This of course requires much effort and time (the latter being a very scarce commodity indeed). But I believe that a theologian must make this investment in effort and time if he is to be of service to the Church. I think Rowan Williams, Wolfhart Pannenberg and Robert Jenson are the kind of theologians I have in mind who because they are steeped in theology and philosophy are also able to address other issues, like politics or the economy, thoughtfully.

What are the biggest challenge and fear that you face as a theologian in the theological arena? What do you think is the biggest challenge to contemporary Christians in Singapore?
As a theologian of the Church, I prefer to reflect on the challenges that the Church faces because they will have direct bearing on my work. I think that the Church in Singapore is truly blessed with many talented and influential members who can make really significant contributions to both the Christian community and society.

But I think much more can be done to improve the theological literacy of Christians so that they can be more thoughtful about how their professed convictions as Christians relate to their professional lives and their active participation in society.

The concerns that theologians like David Wells and historians like Mark Noll voiced concerning evangelical Christians in the US are those that I have for Christians in Singapore. Here, I think pastors and theologians, the Church and the theological institutions can work together more closely and creatively to help Christians be more deliberately reflective about their faith has to say about the concerns of society.

I think Trinity Theological College is doing quite a good job in addressing this concern by making theological education available to all Christians through the courses conducted by the Centre for the Development of Christian Ministry and through its Master of Theological Studies programme. We have never taken the elitist or exclusive view on theological education. TTC is also working very closely with the Churches, with most of all our faculty members actively involved in a wide variety of ministries across the denominations. And, of course TTC has always served as a resource to the National Council of Churches by helping it to respond to important issues ranging from medical ethics to inter-faith relations.

But, of course, much more can (and should) be done. And we pray that the students that graduate from the College will as pastors have the depth and the moral courage to lead their churches to a greater appreciation of the rich theological and liturgical heritage of the Church as Christians take a deeper interest to learn and perform the Faith that was handed down to the Church by the Apostles.

What is your take on the popular 'Health and Wealth' or 'Prosperity' gospel in this region?
I think that the Health and Wealth Gospel is a serious distortion of orthodox Christianity. (Incidentally, I will be giving a talk on the Prosperity Gospel at St Andrews Cathedral on 2 November this year at 8 pm.)

How has your theological knowledge edify you at the lowest point of your life? (i.e. certain theological works that you find helpful when you were going through the worst days)
F. F. Bruce was once asked what books he would bring with him if he were marooned on an isolated island and allowed to bring only a few books from his vast library. His choice is quite interesting (given the fact that Bruce was a Brethren) and quite close to my own if I were asked the same question. Bruce said that he would bring his Bible, the Book of Common Prayers and Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (See In Retrospect: Remembrance of Things Past). I would add to this mini-library the United Methodist Hymnal – the older edition, before the rude intrusion of inclusive language.

But in trying times, I prefer turn to Scripture, reading familiar passages afresh and reflecting on them speak to me and to my situation afresh. I have also found praying the Book of Common Prayers a very enriching experience, particularly in times of difficulties and trials.

What would be your best advice to theological students?
My advice to beginning theological students is simply to learn the Faith, to allow themselves to be tutored by Scripture and Tradition, so that they can truly love and serve God in their lives. This quest to drink deeply from the well of the Christian Faith must continue with them throughout their lives. Learning the Faith requires must effort, patience and persistence. Theological students must try to develop this discipline from the start.

Helmut Thielicke has written a delightful book entitled, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians that describes the perils and promise of a person beginning to study theology. I think this book should be compulsory reading for all first year students! In a particularly humorous passage, Thielicke describes a condition, which most seasoned teachers of theology would have observed in some of their students, where there is a discrepancy in the intellectual ability of the student and his or her spiritual maturity:
There is hiatus between the arena of the young theologian’s actual spiritual growth and what he already knows intellectually about this arena. So to speak, he has been fitted, like a country boy, with breeches that are too big, into which he must still grow up in the same way that one who is to be confirmed must still grow up into the long trousers of the Catechism. Meanwhile, they hang loosely around the body, and this ludicrous sight of course is not beautiful … Speaking figuratively, the study of theology often produces overgrown youths whose internal organs have not correspondingly developed. This is a characteristic of adolescence. There is actually something like theological puberty.
The beginner theologian should take their time to allow abstract truths and concepts to come alive in them and to impact their lives (Kierkegaard). There are simply no shortcuts! And there certainly can be no place for pride!

But all students of the Faith – the beginner as well as the advanced – should pray and embody the beautiful and moving prayer of Anselm as he closes the Proslogion:
O God, I pray, let me know and love you, so that I may rejoice in you. And if I cannot in this life [know, love and rejoice in you] fully, let me advance day by day until the point of fullness comes. Let knowledge of you progress in me here and be made full [in me] there. Let love for you grow in me here and be made full [in me] there, so that here my joy may be great with expectancy while there being full in realisation. O Lord, through your Son you command – or rather, you counsel – us to ask; and through him you promise that we shall receive in full. O Lord, I ask for what you counsel through our marvellous Counsellor; may I receive what you promise through your Truth, so that my joy may be full. God of truth, I ask to receive it, so that my joy may be full. Until then, let my mind meditate upon [what you have promised], let my tongue speak of it. Let my heart love it; let my mouth proclaim it. Let my soul hunger for it; let my flesh thirst for it; let my whole being desire it until such time I enter into the joy of my Lord, the triune God, blessed forever. Amen.


Alex Tang said...

Sze Zeng,

Thank you for this interesting interview with Roland Chia. It is good to have systematic theologian who venture into practical and public theology.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Alex,

Thank you for commenting. Yes, there is an urgent need for theologians to come out to engage in these areas. Hence it is really good to know that you are doing this in your particular area of medical ethics.