Thursday, June 30, 2011

The child of secularism: The myth of religious violence

William Cavanaugh argued strongly against the myth of religious violence, exposing their origin as a political rhetoric:

"My hypothesis is that religion-and-violence arguments serve a particular need for their consumers in the West. These arguments are part of a broader Enlightenment narrative that has invented a dichotomy between the religious and the secular and constructed the former as an irrational and dangerous impulse that must give way in public to rational, secular forms of power. In the west, revulsion towards killing and dying in the name of one's religion is one of the principal means by which we become convinced that killing and dying in the name of the nation-state is laudable and proper. The myth of religious violence also provides secular social orders with a stock character, the religious fanatic, to serve as enemy. Carl Schmitt may be right--descriptively, not normatively--to point out that the friend-enemy distinction is essential to the creation of the political in the modern state. [...] The danger is that, in establishing an Other who is essentially irrational, fanatical, and violent, we legitimate coercive measures against that Other."
(William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence [USA: Oxford University Press, 2009], p.4-5)

Further commenting on what is written,

"Today in the West, killing for Jesus or for Christianity is universally considered repugnant, yet the worthiness of killing for one’s country or for an ideal such as “freedom” is generally taken for granted."

Since violence is a given in human society, to set up the religious as the epitome of violation of peace and civility is very much an employment of excessive rhetoric.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

How's it like after two years in a theological college?

I noticed a significant change in my disposition towards academic studies as a whole and the discipline theology itself. I notice this change by re-reading the past posts archived in this blog.

There are posts that I have written to which I now disagree with. Then there are those that I feel embarrass when reading them again. Then there are some that I feel angry with myself to have written them back then. In fact I noticed a shift in my blogging pattern too. I notice that the shift subtly took place late last year, in my third semester (I'm going to the fifth semester now).

One particular subject that I've learned to appreciate more is the importance to understand the Church. Since the last semester, I began to capitalize the word 'Church' whenever I use it (unless I'm referring it to the name of an organization or when I quote from others).

My Protestant background has not been placing much significance in this area. It is admissible that local Protestant Churches in general do not have a robust theological understanding of the Church. The practice of the Christian faith has always emphasize on individual's spirituality which is often a sacralized form of individualism.

To give an example of what I mean: It is common in the Protestant community to champion the pursuit of the Kingdom of God without asking where's the place of the invisible Church in this pursuit?

Protestants often speak of the Church as 'community' and 'fellowship', two words that are not incorrect by themselves as description of the Church. However, these words dissociate the visible/physical Churches from the invisible Church too easily.

The invisible Church is the theological concreteness of the physical Church where Sunday services and all other Church-related activities are held. If the physical Churches are the architectural product, the invisible Church is the blueprint.

The absence of robust ecclesiology has caused Churches to function merely like any other corporation with their vision statement, mission statement, goals and strategy planning to sustain themselves for the sake of sustaining themselves.

The issue is not that Churches should not operate like a corporation but to continuously inquire with their Master not only what is their role but also how should they function and what is their status at this point in history.

Being in the council of a local influential Christian network and participating in many other informal activities among the educated class of the society, I'm privileged to meet many influential Christians in high positions.

And by 'high', it often means all the way up there. Take for example, I just met a director of one of Asia's leading financial institutions over the weekend and talked about marketplace theology. At the end of our conversation, he invited me to do some research in that area with a group which he is part of.

Everyone that I met through these gatherings are very fervent God-loving Christians. Each one's life is filled with stories and theological struggle that are very encouraging and honorable.

Nonetheless, I find that many of them hold suspicion towards the Churches and pastors for various reasons. The most common ones are (1) the pastors are irrelevant to marketplace and the secular world, (2) academic theologians have lost touch with the real world, and (3) seminaries and Churches are teaching non-practical things.

Some of them make that point by sharing the story that Martin Luther locked his Church's door from Monday to Saturday as a symbol to tell his congregation to live their faith as Christians not only in the Church during Sunday service, but in their workplace during the weekdays.

And often these laities do not share their suspicion with pastors and academic theologians out of pleasantry and courtesy, or simply have not cross their mind to raise this issue when they meet.

One may attribute the cause of this suspicion to the individual's expectation of the Churches. And the cause of this expectation lies, may I suggest, in the lack of robust understanding of the invisible Church.

The exposure to ecclesiology guides me to approach this disparity between the Churches, the non-Church/para-Church organization, and the seminary. It has to do with how one answer the question: where is the place of the invisible Church in the pursuit of the Kingdom of God?

As how John Calvin in his quoted Cyprian of Carthage:

"I shall begin then, with the church, into the bosom of which God is pleased to gather his children, not only so that they may be nourished by her assistance and ministry while they are infancts and children, but also so that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and reach the goal of faith. "For what God has joined together, no one shall divie." (Mark 10.9). For those to whom God is Father, the church shall also be their mother."
(Quoted in Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction [Singapore: Blackwell, Fifth Edition 2011], p. 383. The italic is added to indicate the quotation of Cyprian of Carthage. See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by Henry Beveridge [USA: Hendrickson, 2008], p. 672.)

To even hint on a possible answer requires an essay with length and depth that a blog post cannot afford to provide (or perhaps just my incapability to produce such post). However, this is just to point out a particular subject that marks a significant shift in my two years of theological studies.

Regarding how this shift took place, I have to acknowledge the course that I took under Daniel Koh on ethics. Through the course, I was introduced to two important books that the class used: Malcolm Brown's 'Tensions in Christian Ethics: An Introduction' and Samuel Wells' and Ben Quash's 'Introducing Christian Ethics'.

The course requires us to submit a 10-pages essay either on the debate on capital punishment or the relation between moral formation and the Christian community. I chose to write on the latter. And it was through my research for this essay (which largely following the trails pointed out in the two mentioned books) that the shift was made.

At the end of the essay, I learned that ecclesiology enables a more coherent perspective on the relation between the individual Christian and other spaces in this world like the state, other religions, corporation, intra-Church communities and para-Church organizations.

How's it like after two years of theological study?

I find myself appreciating nuance more in studies, conversation as well as perception. I also find myself to have developed deeper admiration for the faculty members at Trinity Theological College for their works which unfortunately are often not known among the local Christian community.

Many laities and local pastors have the impression that local academic theologians are not relevant, but I wonder if that is because they are not expose to their work?

Laities prefer to read books or websites from the west and pay very little attention to those from one's own context and then suspect the local theologians are not doing anything 'practical' or 'relevant'. This is of course not the fault of the laities (nor the academicians). This is just what it is at this point in time, where the local atmosphere is still very much entrenched with its post-colonial history and present experience of globalization.

Nonetheless, the laities and pastors shouldn't be too quick to judge the local theologians as insipid. Likewise, the laities shouldn't hastily see the pastors as irrelevant. Each person has his/her professional demands to meet and various responsibilities to look into.

Living in the college allows me to witness some aspects of the life of local theologians and the works that they have been doing that others don't usually see. Participating in many Christian gatherings among the educated class in the society allows me to understand their expectation and desire for the Kingdom of God that pastors usually are not able to attend to. Being around with pastors and pastors-to-be afford me to know firsthand the straining expectation that are expected from them and the limitation that they have which they seldom talk about and laities are not really interested or have the time to know.

The laities, pastors, and academic theologians are all creatures of the invisible Church. In this case, the first step to reconcile each group to one another is to re-learn what does it mean by Church?

Be open to learn and see before passing judgement is an important lesson that I've picked up.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Holy Spirit helps us to understand scriptures?

Yes, Holy Spirit helps us to understand scriptures. Yet this claim can easily be abused. Here is an interesting and humorous remark made by Kristen M. Swenson:

Now, I know that many Christians, relying on biblical texts, maintain that the Holy Spirit will make the meaning of biblical texts clear to believers. And I don't deny it, but maybe you know this story:

The Church decided to establish a monastery in a wild, rural area. Some time later, the bishop paid a visit, to see how things were going. After reviewing the buildings and activities, the bishop wandered admiringly in its lovely gardens. To the monk toiling there, he said, "My, my! The good Lord and you have made a beautiful place." The gardener monk replied, "You should see how it looked when the good Lord was taking care of it by himself."

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Potshot at Rowan Williams, Singaporean style

It is quite common to read about western mainstream media and local tawdry bloggers taking cheap shots at Rowan Williams. Today I come across someone highly educated doing that.

I just came back from an informal forum featured a speaker who has two doctorates in natural sciences. At one point the speaker, who throughout the session implied that he was a biblical Christian representing the Christian orthodox position, commented that the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams is not a Christian. He alleged Williams to be ruining the Anglican Communion and distorting the scriptures on some issues.

After listening for a while, I raised objection. I told him that I have read Williams' biographies and his works, and I disagree with his assessment of Williams.

The speaker admitted that he has not read Williams' works. (Of course, there are people who still condemn Williams after they read his works. Yet to condemn someone without knowing what the person's stands are and how he got there is completely unacceptable.) That was before the speaker said that Williams joined pagan druidism prior to his election to the seat of Augustine of Canterbury.

Honestly, I was taken aback.

Williams was once a Presbyterian. He contemplated Roman Catholicism at certain period of his life before committed his life to the Church of England. He was never into pagan druidism.

However, the speaker assured us again and again that Williams did joined druidism. He asked us to check the news.

And check I did.

I found out that in July 2002, BBC reported that Williams was inducted as an "honorary druid" at the National Eisteddfod's Gorsedd of Bards.

However, there is nothing paganistic about the group and the event. National Eisteddfod is actually an organization to "honour the literary achievements of Welsh poets and prose writers" with an annual festival featuring the cultures of Wales.

Wales is a country in the United Kingdom (which comprised of four countries: England, Scotland, North Ireland, and Wales) with its own cultural expression, such as their own language (Welsh) and the Celtic heritage. Williams is a Welsh.

The difference between Welsh and English is something like the difference between Malay and 'orang asli' (aborigines) in Malaysia. Just as it is difficult for a non-Malaysian to distinguish Malay from aborigines (unless he/she study the subject), it is difficult for us to distinguish between Welsh and English (unless we study it).

Therefore to say that the fact of Williams' participation in the Gorsedd of Bards is an evident that he was and still is a pagan is akin to say that Malay Christians' participation in Malay culture such as wearing 'baju melayu', speak Malay, enjoy Dangdut, and celebrate Hari Raya are evidents that they were and still are pagans.

Given that Williams is an accomplished poet (who has published 4 collections of poems), it is only expected that he is honored by the National Eisteddfod, an organization that honors Welsh culture.

To say that Williams' acceptance of such honor as participating in a pagan religion is akin to saying a Malay Christian who accepts a recognition for his publication of poems as participating in a pagan religion.

The speaker's potshot on Williams tells me more about the speaker himself rather than about Williams. One doesn't need two doctorates to make sweeping statement. A mouth and an overblown ego would do.

Did I mention about my previous encounter with the speaker? He is that Dean of Biblical Studies.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The canonical collection of scriptures as 'library' among early Christians?

Craig A. Evans has posted a piece that suggests that the collection of literatures written by the apostles and earliest followers of Jesus were perhaps served as a library to be referred to by the community.

Evans' suggestion came by the appropriation of George W. Houston's research over,

"fifty collections and libraries (mostly) from the second century BCE to the third century CE. These were libraries and collections that were thrown out intact and centuries later recovered more or less intact. In addition to literary works were dated correspondence, notes, and commentaries that have made it possible in many cases to determine when manuscripts were copied and how long they were in use before being replaced or discarded. Houston finds that literary manuscripts were in use anywhere from 150 to 500 years, with the average usually 200 to 300 years."

If this is indeed the practice of the ancient Church, then that means the original writings, the autographs, were highly probably still in existent up till the third century A. D. This is significant because if this is true, then the transmission gap is much narrow than some presumed.

There are two implications. First, the content of the scriptures were more stable and less likely to be corrupted through the hand of the copyists because the original writings were still around for reference up to the third century A. D. That is Evans' point.

Second, which is my conjecture, is that the canonization process can be traced through this 'libraries' and hence explains the exclusion of other writings like those found in Nag Hammadi. These other writings were not recognized as canonical simply because they were not in those ancient collection.

If these two implications are correct, then it is not only that the transmission of the scriptures is stable but the collection of the canon itself existed very early and persistent.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Human uniqueness and the 'image of God' in relation to biological similarity and differences with other creatures

It is undeniable that human beings share significant biological similarity with other non-human creatures on earth. Besides the intricate physical system that keep us alive, humans participate in a range of activities such as eating, drinking, sleeping, excreting, and reproducing like other creatures.

These observations present a reason for us to constantly revisit the idea of 'image of God', the imago Dei, through the scriptures and how the Church has been negotiating for a better understanding of this concept throughout the ages.

Given that humans have both remarkable similarities and stark differences with other creatures, it is too superficial to apply the category of 'animal' to describe non-humans to the exclusion of humans from this category on one hand, and too presumptuous to simply categorize humans as mere 'animal' as if we are essentially identical with non-human creatures on another hand.

Without adopting the problematic human-animal distinction, a possibly better way to inquire into this would be to ask what is the uniqueness of human beings in relation to other creatures?

Here is a suggestion given by J. Wentzel van Huyssteen on how we can go about it:

Personhood, when reconceived in terms of embodied imagination, symbolic propensities, and cognitive fluidity, may enable theology to revision its notion of the imago Dei as an idea that does not imply superiority or a greater value than animals or earlier hominids, but might express a specific task and purpose to set forth the presence of God in this world. I would therefore call for a revisioning of the notion of the imago Dei in ways that would not be overly abstract and exotically baroque, that instead acknowledges our embodied existence, our close ties to the animal world and its uniqueness, and to those hominid ancestors who came before us, while at the same time focusing on what our symbolic and cognitively fluid minds might tell us about the emergence of an embodied human uniqueness, consciousness, and personhood, and the propensity for religious awareness and experience.
(J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, 'What Makes Us Human? The Interdisciplinary Challenge to Theological Anthropology and Christology,' in Toronto Journal of Theology 26/2, 2010, p. 149-150. Emphasis added.)

On a specific trait that marks human different from other creatures, van Huyssteen cautiously and modestly points out that:

Our very human capacity for self-definition can most probably be seen as one of the crowning achievements of our species. As we all know today, however, no one trait or accomplishment should ever be taken as the single defining characteristic of what it means to be human.
(J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, 'What Makes Us Human? The Interdisciplinary Challenge to Theological Anthropology and Christology,' Toronto Journal of Theology 26/2, 2010, p. 145-146. Emphasis added.)

These excerpts are taken from a paper van Huysteen prepared for workshops held at the University of Toronto in February 2010, co-sponsored by Emmanuel College and the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology.

Van Huyssteen first shared these notions when he delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures in 2004 at the University of Edinburgh. The lectures have since been published as 'Alone In The World?: Human Uniqueness in Science and Theology'.

To van Huyssteen, the uniqueness of human being lies in the given mission to present the nearness and realness of God through the person's life in the world.

I think this suggestion equates the image of God merely on function. Does that mean those who are incapable, due either to natural or accidental disability, to "set forth the presence of God" do not have the imago Dei?

Does this also mean that those who rebelliously choose not to "set forth the presence of God" not created in the image of God?

Would this then mean that one's status as bearer of the imago Dei is momentary and not ontological, as in a person is only in God's image when he/she performs the God-given task?

If this is so, how then should we make sense of the idea that human beings are created in the image of God since the word 'created' does sound as if humans are ontologically bearer of imago Dei regardless whether they are performing any task?

Though harboring these questions to van Huyssteen's project, his approach still seems to me a possible first step to revisit the appropriation of imago Dei, especially in his highlight of humans' capacity of self-defining.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Article on apostasy in Islam is now published on the World Reformed Fellowship website

Those who are interested may access the article here.

It is very encouraging to read the email from Samuel T. Logan, Jr., the International Director of the World Reformed Fellowship who is also the President Emeritus at the Westminster Theological Seminary and the Special Counsel to the President of Biblical Seminary:

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Singapore mainstream media generally anti-religion, particularly anti-Christianity?

Not sure about others, but I find that the official news agencies in or of Singapore often portray religion, particularly Christianity, in the negative especially when it concerns government-related or public matters. Here is one example:

Notice the title of this news report by Channel News Asia, dated 18 May 2011, written by Christine Ong. It states that the 'Catholic Church in Philippines wages war against reproductive health bill'. (Emphasis added.)

Isn't this very manipulative of human's emotion by implicating religious body with violence (in this case, religious institution starts war) that goes against an central aspect of humanity (in this case, 'health')?

When the reproductive health bill is approved, we don't see Channel News Asia published the news with headlines like 'New reproductive health bill wages war against Catholic Church's values'.

One may say that such negative portrayal sells because it is controversial.

But I think that is not the case at all. If being controversial is the main aim, then a headline with title something like 'Parliamentary oppressive bill forces Catholic Church into action' can be as controversial.

The kind of title that I've suggested will not be used because it will put the parliament/government in the bad light for they are being portrayed as bully while religion as the victim. Hence there is something more to it than simply for the sake of controversial.

From the way the government-owned-news-agency describes the Catholic Church in Philippines, it is obvious that the government wants to impress on readers that religious institution is violent warmonger while the 'secular' parliamentary approved bill is humane since it is related to 'health' and nothing violent about it. When portrayed in this way, the government hence is seen as an innocent victim of the warmongering Church. What is worse is that it subtly impresses on the readers that the Church wages war against humanity.

Is this not bad journalism with an anti-religion political agenda?

One may also say that it is a given that news agencies are bias, so there shouldn't be any big deal about it.

Of course, every news agency is bias. Yet the problem in local media is not that it is bias per se, but is such bias justifiable in a world that urgently needs solidarity and mutual respect rather than divisiveness and demonisation that causes deep mistrust and animosity?

The constant negative portrayal of religious communities especially when it concerns government related matters is not helping to foster civility and social cohesion.

Here is another example:

The Strait Times titled the news, written by Yen Feng and published on 26 May 2011, as 'SGH warns against evangelising', with subtitle 'Christian volunteer told to leave after complaint by a Taoist patient's son'.

The sign at SGH reads 'At SGH, we respect the religious and ethnic beliefs of Singaporeans. No staff, patient, visitor or volunteer is allowed to impose their religious beliefs on another.'

It is clear that the sign says that SGH is against the imposition of any religious beliefs on one another, not particularly 'evangelising' which is generally understood as Christian proselytisation.

So why is the Strait Times giving the impression to the public that Singapore General Hospital's warning sign is specifically directed to 'evangelising' (an explicit Christian terminology) and not all types of proselytisation?

One may say that the report's title is fair since it all started with the case involving a Christian volunteer, a Taoist man and his son, who is identified as Mr. Chan.

But besides the title of the news, one hardly can conclude from the report's content, which is reproduced at SGH's website, that what has taken place was indeed 'evangelising'. Let me quote the report at length:

"The move to spell out guidelines on proselytising follows an incident involving a Christian volunteer and an elderly patient who is a Taoist. The patient’s son wrote to the Health Ministry last month seeking an explanation, and the ministry asked SGH to investigate the matter.

The patient’s son, who would only give his surname as Chan, said the volunteer had approached him and his father on April 2, asking if they wanted to learn origami. The volunteer is a member of the Church of Praise in Lavender Street.

Mr Chan, 38, said: “I told her no, then she started asking me about my father. That was when she told me she’s a stroke patient and that the Lord saved her.” She began talking about her faith, he added.

In a statement to The Straits Times, SGH said the incident was “isolated” and it has asked the volunteer to leave. It added that all volunteers are expected not to impose their religious views on anyone. “Any volunteer who breaches this code of conduct will be asked to discontinue their involvement with the hospital,” it said." (Emphasis added.)

How is talking about one's experience with one's own religious faith in how it has helped the person amount to imposing religious views on another person?

Does Mr. Chan has the tendency to interpret a person's describing his/her experience with his/her own religious belief as imposition of one's religion to another?

Do the Health Ministry and SGH share the same tendency to interpret such activity as imposition of one's belief to another?

Does the Strait Times also have the exact tendency?

When PM Lee Hsien Loong revealed to Charlie Rose in an interview, which took place in April 2010 (an excerpt is published with the title 'PM Lee on nepotism and his father's legacy' in the Strait Times dated 16 April 2010), that Singapore is governed by "basic Confucian precept", does any organization in Singapore put up warning signs and local media publishes the news with title that PM Lee is imposing religious beliefs on everyone in Singapore?

"The whole of our system is founded on a basic concept of meritocracy. You are where you are because you are the best man for the job, and not because of your connections or your parents or your relatives.

And if anybody doubts that I as Prime Minister am here not because I'm the best man for the job but because my father fixed it, or that my wife runs Temasek because I put her there and not because she's the best woman for the job, then my entire credibility and moral authority is destroyed because I'm not fit to be where I am.

And it is a fundamental issue of fitness to govern.

First, you must have the moral right, then you can make the right decisions. It's a basic Confucian precept." (Emphasis added.)

PM Lee was describing his experience with a religious belief as how it has helped him to do his job, that is in managing a country. Now, why didn't Mr. Chan write to the Prime Minister's Office seeking for an explanation?

One may say that Confucianism is not a religion and so it is not a case where one is imposing one's religion to another.

Those who say that are either unfamiliar with Confucianism or ignorant of the nature of religion, or simply both.

Xinzhong Yao, the Honorary President of the Confucian Academy of Hong Kong and the Director of the China Institute at King's College London, has this to say in his book on Confucianism:

"Confucianism is a humanistic religion because the Confucian understanding and conception of the Ultimate, of the imminent power, of the transcendent, of the world, life and death are all related to, and based on its exploration of human nature and human destiny. Human life is meaningful and invaluable, not only because it is a way of fulfilling human destiny, but also because it is the only way of bridging this life and the beyond, the limited and the infinite, the temporal and the eternal, which is well illustrated by Confucius in his reply to the questions of how to serve spiritual beings and how to understand death: 'If you do not yet understand life, how can you possibly understand death?' (Lunyu, II:12)."
(Xinzhong Yao, An Introduction to Confucianism [UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000], p. 46. Emphasis added.)

In the terms of sociology of religion, Confucianism is recognized as a religion alongside Taoism in Chinese civilization:

"In one sense, the emperor was the high priest of the state religion. The worship of deities was a matter of state business, while ancestor worship was required of all social classes. […] In this sense Confucianism was a state theory which institutionalized filial piety as the core duty of religious activity. Confucianism tolerates both magic and mysticism, provided they were useful instruments for controlling the masses. […] We can reasonably regard Confucianism as the state religion of the literati, and Taoism as the popular religion of the masses."
(Bryan S. Turner, 'The Sociology of Confucianism' in The Oxford Handbook of the Sociology of Religion, ed. Peter Clarke [UK: Oxford University Press, 2009], p. 92. Emphasis added.)

Confucianism is reckoned as a religion at the present as well as in the past.

While the Christian volunteer was only describing her own experience which hardly an imposition of her faith to anyone, PM Lee was making a public statement that his government is employing Confucian precept to manage the entire Singaporean society without regard to each citizens' and each politicians' religious belief.

I think the word 'imposition' is more appropriate as a reference to PM Lee's administration than to the Christian volunteer who merely shared her story about her own religious experience to Mr. Chan. I think the eloquent editors of the Strait Times wouldn't disagree with me on this.

Hence it puzzles me why Mr. Chan and those who share his tendency to interpret one's talking about one's experience with a religious faith as imposing one's religious belief on another do not also extend their enthusiasm to PM Lee?

To be fair and consistent, they should. But of course, that is if they are indeed fair and consistent to begin with, and not merely picking on the Christians and Christianity. Yet as we have observed in this case it is not clear that they are.

Let me be clear that I'm not questioning PM Lee's decision or his experience. Only he knows the constant pressures and demands required of him as the nation's leader, and so he has all the rights to decide which religious belief assists him best in doing his job.

What I'm questioning is the puzzling reaction displayed by Mr. Chan, the Health Ministry, SGH, and the Strait Times in dealing with one particular incident. An incident that has unfortunately mis-presented Christianity in a unjust manner.

Is this not an evident of anti-Christianity on the part of Mr. Chan, Health Ministry, SGH, and the Strait Times? Perhaps.

It is reported at by Paul Revoir on 1 June 2011 about an interesting survey carried out at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). The survey was conducted as part of the BBC’s ‘Diversity Strategy’ and involved 4500 people, including some BBC staffs. Here are some of the findings:

"According to viewers, Christians are badly treated with ‘derogatory stereotypes’ which portray them as ‘weak’ or ‘bigoted’.

It was suggested that there was a bias against Christianity and that other religions were better represented.

The consultation concluded: ‘In terms of religion, there were many who perceived the BBC to be anti-Christian and as such misrepresenting Christianity.’

It added: ‘Christians are specifically mentioned as being badly treated, with a suggestion that more minority religions are better represented despite Christianity being the most widely observed religion within Britain.’" (Emphasis added.)

This makes me wonder if local news agencies like the Channel News Asia and the Strait Times would be interested to conduct similar study? May be a better wonder would be if the local media even willing, not to mention dare, to conduct such study?

Individual's consciousness, like that of Mr. Chan, feeds on the mainstream media's constant negative portrayal of the Christians and Christianity in relation to government-related or public matters. One can only hope that the news agencies can be more alert to the implication that their news reporting has to the society. Subtly (consciously or unconsciously) fuelling discrimination on the religious communities via the public media is not helpful to nation building and the fostering of social harmony.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Book Review: 'Pilgrims and Citizens: Christian Social Engagement in East Asia Today', edited by Michael Nai-Chiu Poon

This book is a collection of essays presented at the 'Seek the Welfare of the City' conference held at Trinity Theological College Singapore, with the National Council of Churches of Singapore and Tyndale House Cambridge as co-sponsors, in August 2005.

Altogether there are sixteen articles with the 'Foreword' written by Singapore Methodist Bishop Robert Solomon, 'Introduction' by Singapore Anglican Archbishop John Chew, and 'Editor's Introduction' by Michael Poon, the Director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia.

The essays are grouped into five parts:
  • Preliminaries
  • Biblical Studies
  • Historical and Theological Studies
  • Contemporary Engagements
  • Concluding Reflections

For the 'Preliminaries', two political leaders contribute their perspectives on the relation between the government and the various religions.

Lim Siong Guan, who was the Head of the Singapore Civil Service and the Permanent Secretary of Singapore's Ministry of Finance, examines whether are religions positive or negative factor in Singapore. He prefaces his presentation that it is purely his "personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the government." (p.3)

Lim's main point is that the only role religions can play in society is in the building of people whose morality is motivated by fear. In his words:
"Where the conscience in the individual is strong and where people have the fear of God---which very often is a fear of divine retribution and of what may happen to them in this life or after they die---people will behave responsibly even when there is no one to catch and punish them. The weak society is where people need to be forced to do things, and lose their sense of concern and responsibility for their fellowman. This is where religion plays the role only it can play, of bringing to people a consciousness of god, even a fear of god, that will cause them to do what is right and good even when there is no law to force them to do so, or no policeman around." (p.13-14. Emphasis added)
Religions, by playing this role, help to preserve social harmony and stability in Singapore. Lim ends his essay by raising this concern: "How can we make religion a positive factor?" (p.16. Emphasis added.)

Lim's concern assumes that religion is something that can be made into something some parties desire. If this is the case, then religion is just a manipulative tool employable for hegemonic purposes or national interest.

Yes, we cannot deny that religion has been employed in such way before. Yet to say that religion is meant to be used in that manner does not contribute to the understanding of religion and hence impede on the effort to relate it to the society.

Besides, whether is a religion "positive factor" depends on whose interest the religion serves. This makes ambiguous Lim's assumption that religion is perceived primarily for its manipulative characteristic.

The second Preliminary essay is written by Ye Xiaowen, the Director-General of the State Administration of Religious Affairs of China. He presents China as a country that seeks harmony but not uniformity as it is one of the Chinese people's national characteristic.

Ye assures us that China's "respect for freedom of religious belief is sincere and consistent." (p.22) He cites quotations from the Qur'an, Bible, Buddhist sutra, and Confucian literature to point out the message of peace and harmony in each religion.

The diplomatic tone in the essay somehow gives a sense of superficiality underlying its message which fundamentally shares the same mistaken assumption on religion with the previous essay by Lim.

Next, entered the 'Biblical Studies' part where Bruce Winter, Tan Kim Huat, and Paul Barnett, three accomplished scholars on the Christian scriptures, explore historical precedences that illuminate the challenges to live as a follower of Christ in the present world.

Winter examines the early Christians' paradoxical perception of being a citizen yet at the same time a foreigner in their social environment. He noted that the early disciples as citizens "devote themselves to the doing of good deeds in all human activities in the private as well as the public spheres of life." (p.33) However, as foreigners, they "must withdraw from the self-indulgent lifestyle of their contemporaries." (p.32)

Tan writes a substantial article detailing the contributions of the diaspora Jews to the cities of their dwelling between 323 B.C. to 66 A.D. Tan highlights the types of Jewish participation in civic life and individuals like Philo of Alexandria who are highly regarded and trusted among the Gentiles.

Tan points out a remarkable discovery where Jewish names are found among Greek participants in the gymnasia. "The inclusion of Jews in these ephebic lists demonstrates that they were numbered among the elite. Jews did not shy away from enrolling in the gymnasia even when it was clear that their being circumcised might expose them to ridicule in a place where males trained naked." (p.45)

Tan argued that we do not need to conclude that these diaspora Jews apostatised from their tradition or syncretised into their surrounding pagan culture. He thinks that:
"What might be a better explanation is that they have managed to negotiate the intricacies of diaspora and learned to live and let live, to contribute and also to receive. [...] What we have established thus far is that Jews were very much aware of the kind of cultural ethos they were encountering and were also either contributing to it, being part of it or milking it." (p.48)
Tan's essay ends with further list of five different areas the Diaspora Jews have contributed to their cities, namely moral, military, administrative and fiscal, and benefactions.

Barnett's piece looks briefly into Jesus' relation to the Roman state, and how his followers up to the fourth century A. D. have since tried to imitate his example.

By looking into Mark 12.13-17, where Jesus proclaims the rightness to "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's," Barnett shows that Jesus "repudiates zealotry and theocracy." Furthermore,
"In effect, then, Jesus attributes all authority to God, demanding due recognition of his deity and sovereignty. Beneath that sovereignty, however, Jesus located a rightful role 'Caesar', that is, for the state. In the divine order, Caesar is to provide an infrastructure for the welfare of his citizens." (p.68)
Barnett concludes his article with six reflection pointers to direct present followers of Jesus to pick up as they engage in the society.

Oliver O'Donovan's probing essay that unpacks the complexity of the Christian proposition "All authority is from God" graces the opening of the third part of the book on 'Historical and Theological Studies'.

In this essay, O'Donovan demonstrates not in one but in two areas how political authority when pursued without reference to theology---when secularised---is fundamentally ungrounded. Political authority is similar yet profoundly different with two other authorities we are familiar with, namely authority of the wise or experts, and authority of a parent over a child.

Political authority in the former sense only possible on "matters and occasions for which it has functional use" while in the latter sense it is "a simple givenness" that "can persist in the face of startling failures of wisdom and virtue on the part of those who exercise it." (p.85)

However, political authority "having no natural basis on the one hand" (unlike a parent's relation to the child) and "no basis in achievement on the other"(for politicians' failures in being wise and virtuous), "seems to float in the air without support. It is ungrounded." (p.85)

O'Donovan inquires further, "Since human beings have no natural sovereignty over one another, by what sovereignty are they authorised to dispose of one another's lives in the service of justice [for eg. when policeman shot down a running suspect, or countries exercising capital punishment]?

He points out that the notion of social contract employed to justifies sovereignty of the government over citizens cannot do the job:
"The central Western myth of the social contract has imagined citizens contracting with one another to make their lives subject to a form of government that they set up. But not only is it impossible to imagine such a contract---how would you make such a contract where there was not even the most vestigial notion of what contracting and promising meant?---it is not clear how such contract could introduce a right of government. I may perhaps agree to surrender my goods and liberty and life to the judgment of the state; but can I agree to surrender yours? Or my grandchildren's?" (p.87)
O'Donovan is not hesitate to assert that "the Western tradition can offer no answer. The Christian answer is: 'all authority is from God.'" (p.87)

Michael Poon's essay, drawing from the works of Jaroslav Pelikan, suggests that the "non-Western world to learn again from the early church, to establish a canonical frameworks that can enable them to become a confident Christian society for today." (p.106. Emphasis original.)

Here, I need to emphasize that Poon does not mean to establish a Christian state, but a community that "by demonstrating in its own life the welfare of the heavenly city would it be able to discern the needs of the wider society, and find fresh initiatives to seek for its true welfare." (p.106)

At another place, Poon writes similarly that the "Christians in East Asia need to move out of an entrenched understanding that they are local agents of mission societies and movements. They need to recover the vision that the Christian community itself assumes a public form; its manner of life creates a social reality that contributes to the true welfare of people and nations." (p.104)

Hwa Yung, the Malaysian Methodist Bishop, produces an inquiry into the formation of civil society. First, he expounds from Ernest Gellner's work that the characteristics of a 'civil society'
"excludes all forms of centralised authoritarianism, whether Marxist or otherwise, as well as the stifling communalism of segmentary societies,"
while possesses
"an effective central state which, while acquiring such great power, nevertheless did not pulverize the rest of society, rendering it supine and helpless. A society emerged which ceased to be segmentary---either as an alternative to the state, as a mode of efficient state-lessness, or as an internal opposition to the state or in part its ally---yet capable of providing a countervailing force to the state." (p.110. The latter paragraph is a quotation from Gellner's work.)
Hwa probes into Islamic and Chinese tradition to see if both can materialize the said civil society. By looking into the achievement of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Rachid Ghannoushi, and Abdolkarim Soroush, Hwa concludes that though there are many strengths in
"classical Islam on issues of justice, rule of law, human rights, and so forth, in and of itself it did not and could not produce civil society as defined here. Indeed for Islam to come to terms fully with civil society, people like Soroush must be taken seriously. But it is far from certain that this is where the majority of Muslims wish to go at the present." (p.117)
On Chinese tradition, Hwa looks into the works of Hu Shih, Lee Kuan Yew's appeal to Confucian tradition and Goh Chok Tong's observation. He sums up that "despite the elements that can contribute to civil society found in Islamic and the Chinese traditions, civil society did not emerge from within these or any other culture apart from the West [in the form of liberal democracy at its best not at its worst], shaped as it is in large measure by its Christian heritage." Therefore, "if we are serious in wanting our own nations to become civil societies, it would be wise for us to ask how that came about in the only one place where we meet it in human history." (p.120. Emphasis added.)

After Hwa's piece, we have an article examining theological metaphors best describe Christians in East Asia by theologian-ethicist Daniel Koh. He wonders if the metaphor 'resident aliens' popularized by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon appropriate since it "has given support, perhaps unintentionally, to those who take an explicit stand that Christian should not be socially engaged." (p.127)

Besides, by adopting 'resident aliens' as identity metaphor in the East Asia context that often misunderstands Christianity as an alien religion "will only give further credence to the already suspicious Asians that the faith we hold an our belief in Jesus Christ is an adoption of a foreign faith that supports the political and commercial agenda of the Euro-North American powers." (p.141)

Koh affirms that there is "no denying that Christians are citizens of two cities, but we do not have to overemphasise that identity by displaying the 'resider aliens' membership card." (p.142)

Nonetheless, taking "such a stance [...] is not being anti-West. What we are asking for is that in as much as we should be critical in our social engagement in the local public arena, we ought also to be critical in our engagement with the Euro-North American world. This is not endorsing the status qou or glorifying all things Asian." (p.142)

In replacement, Koh proposes the metaphor of 'salt and light' that are "associated with food and energy" and hence might be better understood and appreciated. (p.143)

The fourth part of this book on 'Contemporary Engagements' comprises four essays. Two focus on China, one on Singapore, and one on Roman Catholic perspective on social engagement.

The first article in this section by Cao Shengjie, President of China Christian Council, is overlaid with angst over imperialistic injustice done on China. For example, this paragraph:
"Undoubtedly some [Western] missionaries were sincere in their beliefs and made some contribution in East-West cultural exchanges. However their missiological outlook was not in accordance with the truth of the gospel. They harmed the interests of the nation to which the Chinese believers belong, and separated them from their own compatriots. Their presentation of the 'gospel' made the majority of Chinese people reject Christianity and regard it as 'an alien religion'." (p.148-149)
For that, the author gives the impression that Chinese Christians reacted by combining nationalism with their Christian faith. For instance, Cao endorses this remark made by former Anglican Bishop Kuang-hsun Ting, who was the Chairperson of Three-Self Patriotic Movement and Cao's predecessor in the China Christian Council:
"'[T]he cosmic Christ bestows his grace to all people in the world'; 'there also exists truth, kindness and beauty outside of the church'; and 'Chinese Christians shall combine two 'Cs' together, namely Christ and China.'" (p.150. Emphasis added.)
This seems to me to be the logical end of the mistaken assumption that I have underlined in Lim Siong Guan's paper above. When religion is perceived as meant to be made as (Lim's words) "positive factor" for hegemonic purposes (in the case of imperial West) or national interest (in the case of China's angst over its colonial experience), the religion will be distorted to serve whoever that claims patronage over it. For the China Christian Council, Christ and China are to be combined.

I wonder isn't this the exact mirror-image of the distortion of Christianity made by Western imperialists that combined the gospel with imperialistic goals, which summed up in the phrase 'God, Gold and Glory'?

Apparently, the Chinese Christians in their reaction have assumed exactly in the likes of those they loath towards.

Nonetheless, Cao makes a good point that the notion that "Christian lives only for his own benefit in order to go to heaven after this world and that too much care about this world will weaken commitment to God" as "obstacles" for Christian social works. (p.152)

The following essay by Zhuo Xinping, the Director of the Institute of World Religions of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, details the Christian contribution to China prior to 1949. Zhou lists four areas where Christian contributions are evident: (1) the spiritual cultivation of the Chinese people, (2) public education, (3) development of news and publication, and (4) social welfare and philanthropy.

Zhou recognizes that "Christianity should or could not be interpreted or represented by political images [i.e. imperialist aggression], which are at best partial. [...] [W]e can still discern or discover its light behind the political shadows." (p.167)

Richard Magnus, a Senior District Judge in Singapore, provides a framework based on local historical precedences of how Singaporean Christians can contribute to the society.

First, Christians' loyalty to the nation is "unquestioned". (p.172) Second, Singaporean Christian's work "is also to preserve the good gifts of a good creator: marriages, families, work and leisure, friendships, the inter-racial and inter-cultural community, the arts and our environment which enhance our quality of human life." (p.172) Third, Christians support national leaders by praying for them. Fourth, Christians should promote justice.

Fifth, Christians should encourage reconciliation and peace. Sixth, helping dysfunctional individuals. Seventh, promoting the sciences by participating in bioethics discussion. Eighth, helping societies in other countries, and ninth contributing to the society in love in instances like helping to deal with "social fallout and offer counseling for people with gambling problems" after the government decided to approve the building of two casinos in Singapore. (p.177)

I find Magnus's proposals puzzling, not least the last point. It gives the impression that the government expects the Churches to help clean up the mess it caused. And it is surprising that Magnus does not note whether the Churches obliges without giving a stern warning to the government of the severity of its decision.

Fr. Kenson Koh, the current Dean of Studies at St. Francis Xavier Major Seminary, offers the Roman Catholic perspective on Christian social engagement. He argued for a critical appraisal of globalisation which very much affects the economic and social landscape of Singapore.

Fr. Kenson focuses on the common good, subsidiarity and solidarity that form the Catholic's response to the present society. He emphasizes the need for "inculturation", a "dialogical process between the cultures and the ecclesial community for the growth and enrichment of persons," and the need to be vigilant that this process does not lead the Churches to end up either as arrogant or syncretic. (p.188)

The 'Concluding Reflections' contains three write-ups. The first one is by Oliver O'Donovan on the necessity of the Church's continuous effort in "testing, questioning and examining" the discourse on the relation between the Church and the society.

The second write-up is by Zhou Xinping on the role of Christianity in the construction of a harmonious society.

The final article is by Daniel Koh, that asserts the necessity for the state to know its place that it is not a religious authority that should trespasses into adjudicating the Church's concerns, implying that this should be the case even on issues that the Church disagrees with the decision of the state. On this basis, Koh questions some of the points made by Lim and Ye in their respective essays.

Overall, this is a relatively small book (206 pages) covering a huge discourse comprising various perspectives. It is unfair to view the author of each essay as a product of their profession, yet it is not difficult to sympathize with the author's concern if we associate it with his job. Those who hold or held government post (Cao, Lim, Magnus, Ye, and Zhuo) are expectedly not critical on their professional establishment or their ethos. At times, their essays give the impression that they are the publicist for the government. Hence contributions by others like O'Donovan, Koh, Hwa, and Poon are valuable not only for the points raised but also for their differing perspective from the former group. Nevertheless, all the articles are worth collecting as each presents a significant point of view on the relation between the Christians and society in a contextually sensitive manner.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

What does it mean to be a follower of Christ in Singapore?

Here is a nuance suggestion offered by Daniel Koh, Lecturer in Ethics and Pastoral Theology at Trinity Theological College, Singapore:

"The Singaporean followers of Christ are not persecuted, nor are they targeted for discrimination in this plural Asian society, the way Christians in the early church history were discriminated. While it is true that all Christians are 'resident aliens' in the theological sense that we are citizens of God's Kingdom, and therefore our ultimate loyalty should be to God and the demands of his Kingdom, we are also citizens of the world which is God's creation and his gift to humanity. Needless to say, the theological understanding of our identity as 'resident aliens' should remind us not to place too much trust in the principalities and powers of this world, or the status quo, yet it does not require of us to denounce the world or to be preoccupied with a 'hard difference' that emphasises on the peculiarity of our identity. Even in time of undeserved discrimination, Christians were advised to 'do good,' not within the confines of the Christian community, but also for the sake of others who are not Christians. Properly understood, one cannot 'do good' without intentional participation and active engagement in fostering societal well-being, as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ."
(Daniel K. S. Koh, 'Resident Aliens and Alienated Residents', in Pilgrims and Citizens: Christian Social Engagement in East Asia Today, ed. Michael Nai-Chiu Poon [Australia: ATF Press, 2006], p.140-141. Emphasis added.)

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Book Review: 'Adam Smith as Theologian', edited by Paul Oslington

This book is a collection of eleven essays which were presented at the Royal Society of Edinburgh Conference Centre on the 12th and 13th January 2009, during the Templeton Advanced Research Symposium 'Adam Smith as Theologian'.

The eleven essays are grouped into two parts. The first part 'Smith in Context' discusses "social imaginary" (as used by Charles Taylor to mean "the ways people imagine their social existence [not just theories about it but 'the images, stories, and legends' that help them make sense of the world], how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations [which create a 'widely shared sense of legitimacy']," p.53, n.13) in which Adam Smith lived.

The second part 'Analysis and Assessment of Adam Smith's Theology' examines the various theological notions found in Smith's works.

To talk about Smith's theology may seem unconventional, if not shocking, to many as the general education system and media portrayal of him as the father of modern economics.

The Preface of the book written by Anthony Waterman, who researches into Christian theology and political economy, clarifies that the title of the book is an anachronism. "Adam Smith was not a theologian." This is understandable, yet the following sentence may be surprising to some: "Nor was he an economist." ( Waterman explains that 'theologian' and 'economist' as commonly understood today do not resemble the kind of work that Smith was doing in the mid eighteenth century.

On top of that, Smith's career was the Professor of Moral Philosophy at University of Glasgow, not particularly in economics nor theology as we have them at present. One can sense that all the essayists in the book are well aware of this and used this as the framework to read Smith.

Harvard economist Benjamin M. Friedman points out that Smith's context sees politics and theology goes along together. Hence it is natural that Smith and his contemporaries are interested in the theological-political discussion of their day, and Smith works are products of "ongoing changes in religious thinking" of that time. (p.23)

Smith's deep admiration of pastor-theologians is evident in this passage found in Book 5, Chapter 1 of 'The Wealth of the Nations': "There is scarce perhaps to be found anywhere in Europe a more learned, decent, independent, and respectable set of men than the greater part of the presbyterian clergy of Holland, Geneva, Switzerland, and Scotland." (p.20)

John Haldane, Director of the Centre for Ethics,Philosophy and Public Affairs at St. Andrew's University, uncovers the ethical theory found in Smith's 'The Theory of Moral Sentiments' and observed that it is a form of natural law ethics characterized by its appeal to human sentiment--without revelation--influenced and in response to David Hume's works.

Haldane critiques Smith's ethical theory as "right to make a connection between value and approbation, but wrong, I believe, to treat sentiment as constitutive of ethical requiredness: approbation is a response to value, not a foundation to it." (p.31)

Princeton University's Professor Eric Gregory draws the similarities and differences between Smith's and Augustine's theology of desire, and how it helps us to understand present-day consumerist culture.

Joseph Blosser, who is a doctoral candidate at University of Chicago, highlights the pervasiveness of John Calvin's theology of human freedom in Adam Smith's thoughts. Blosser is clear that he is not suggesting that Smith was advocating Calvin's thoughts or even a direct link between both, but to point out the Calvinistic conception of freedom as the milieu that shapes Smith's own understanding of freedom.

Australian economist Paul Oslington, who is also the editor of the book, contributes a robust interpretation of the "invisible hand", the famous metaphor used by Smith, as a reference to the doctrine of providence. He studies how the metaphor is used in three of Smith's works 'History of Astronomy', 'Theory of Moral Sentiments', and 'Wealth of Nations'.

Oslington remarks that the hand language is derived from Isaac Newton's discussion of providence in natural theology. "[R]eading the passages against the background of the Newtonian theology of divine action and providence leads us to an invisible hand which is special providence, operating against, although ultimately supporting, general providence in the economic realm." (p.66. Emphasis added.)

Oslington's essay marks the end of the first part of the book.

The second part, which examines theological themes in Smith's works, begins with Oxford University's Peter Harrison's treatment of intellectual background of Smith, particularly the development of natural theology and natural science. Harrison sees a parallel between the discourse of natural theology and Smith's conception of moral philosophy and social ethics.

James Otteson, a philosopher and economist at Yeshiva University, studies the famous metaphor Smith used in his ethics theory: the "Impartial Spectator". This metaphor represents the imaginary neutral observer who we can consult to make a decision. Some interpret this as the voice of God, some interpret it as conscience.

Otteson concludes that the Spectator is not the voice of God because "[I]t is an all-too-human construction whose worth is judged by its effectiveness, which itself is measured by human beings against human goals." (p.96) However, there are reasons to "consider the voice of the Impartial Spectator as a human approximation of divine intention, if not itself a direct representative of the Divinity." (p.97)

Brendan Long, Senior Adviser to the Australian Cabinet Minister for Human Services, writes on Adam Smith's theodicy. He examines Smith's conception of evil and his proposal to deal with it. Long mentions that Smith is a product of his time, hence his optimism over human flourishing, where his theodicy is a "negative theodicy: a denial of theodicy, a theodicy that says that we can ignore theodicy." (p.103)

From this, Long concludes that this opens up an opportunity for dialog between theology and economics philosophy as the current state of economy seldom discusses 'evil' in the form of negative unintended consequences.

The Lecturer of Politics at University of Kent, Adrian Pabst, writes an essay that summarizes many of the themes covered by other articles in the book with emphasis given on Smith's proposal to transit from civil economy to political economy. Pabst argues for Smith's "theological debt to Newtonian divine physics, coupled with elements of Jansenist Augustinianism and Leibnizian theodicy" that "underpins his whole moral philosophy and political economy". (p.121) Hence Smith's works are best read and examined theologically.

When assessed in this way, Pabst finds Smith's claim that market exchange should be exempted from interpersonal relations is questionable as it presumes the artificial division between individual and collective sphere.

Ross B. Emmett, the Professor of Political Economy and Political Theory & Constitutional Democracy at Michigan State University, brings out the significance of social transformation by contrasting the two literary figures found in Smith's works: "man of public spirit" and "man of the system".

The book ends with the article by Paul S. Williams, who presides the David J. Brown Family Chair of Marketplace Theology and Leadership at Regent College, that lists out the contemporary lessons we can learn from Smith.

Williams shows the differences between Smith and "modern proponents of utilitarian economic orthodoxy" or "liberal capitalism", arguing that the former's "vision for humanity is not the amoral utility maximizing hypermobile free individual but rather one in which persons strive toward an ideal of neighbouliness, directed by the conscience of the impartial spectator which has been trained through prolonged relational attachment." (p.137)

In my reading, Williams' essay is at odd with part of Adrian Pabst's observation. The latter argues that Smith isolates interpersonal relations from market system, as seen in Smith's writing:

"[S]ociety may subsist among different men, as among different merchants, from a sense of its utility, without any mutual love or affection; and though no man in it should owe any obligation, or be bound in gratitude to any other, it may still be upheld by a mercenary exchange of good offices according to an agree valuation."
(Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments [USA: Prometheus, 2000], Part 2, Section 2, Chapter 3, p.124. Quoted in Pabst's 'From Civil to Political Economy: Adam Smith's Theological Debt' in Adam Smith as Theologian, ed. Paul Oslington [UK: Routledge, 2011], p.119)

As seen here, there is no "strive toward an ideal of neighbouliness" in Smith's vision for humanity as worked out by his proposal of the market system. If this is correct, then at best we can say that Smith's vision for humanity is correct, but the mechanism (i.e. market system) he proposed to realize this vision contradicts the vision itself.

Hence the proponents of utilitarian economic orthodoxy are not incorrect in their reading of Smith's vision of humanity if they examined the mechanism he proposed. Desiring the society to live happily is one thing. Distributing hallucinatory drug to everyone in order to create the illusion of happiness is altogether a different thing. Williams' essay wants to make Smith consistent in an aspect where Smith contradicts himself.

Overall, all the essays have many overlapping treatments with each focusing on particular aspect in the majestic works of Smith. I'm not sure how many are convinced that the best way to read Smith is to read him theologically. Neither am I sure how many are convinced there is a theological aspect to Smith's works. Yet after reading this book, one finds it hard to accept that Smith could have written what he had without the theological context and influences that constitute the social imaginary he lived in.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Book Review: 'The Quest for Covenant Community and Pluralist Democracy in an Islamic Context', by Ng Kam Weng

The main portion of the book comprises Ng Kam Weng's three public lectures delivered at Trinity Theological College, from 25-27 October 2006, organized by the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia. The book includes responding articles by Ibraham Abu-Rabi, Robert A. Hunt, and Peter G. Riddell.

Ng organized his thesis into three parts: (1) Pluralist Democracy and Spheres of Justice: The Quest for ‘Complex Equality’ in an Islamic Context, (2) Religious Dialogue and Democratic Deliberation, and (3) Religion and Moral Citizenry: Whose Morality? What Law? Which Moral Community?

In the first part, Ng laid out the Malaysian context from which his thesis came forth. The context is characterized by Islamic hegemony that is motivated by a strong optimistic social vision. The ruling Malay majority has through the years attempt to disregardingly assimilate other ethnic and religious groups under one socio-political framework, the Syariah.

Ng thinks that social assimilation does not take seriously the given plurality in every society, even within the Muslim community. He points to the observation made by Isaiah Berlin and Michael Walzer that "much cherished values of liberty and equality, fairness and welfare" or "principles of justice" which reckoned as intrinsic goods often are pluralistic despite possessing overlapping features.

Therefore, to Ng, "Acceptance of plurality is a vital prerequisite for building overlapping consensus among citizens with different ideologies and religious beliefs. In this respect, the goal of a pluralist democracy is to provide manageable platforms for the resolution of differences among citizens." (p.24)

Next, Ng suggests that pluralist democracy is not an alien political structure to both Christian and Muslim community as it is found within each respective religious tradition. At first, one may get the impression that Ng is using religious tradition to legitimatize his preferred political framework, yet upon further reading, it is the other way around. To Ng, the concept of covenant is fundamental to pluralist democracy:

"Covenant politics adopts a realistic expectation regarding how the body politic should be run. Political power results from compromise by all interested parties and is exercised by fallen human beings. There should therefore be limitations to political power. Such awareness is the source of separation of powers in modern constitutionalism. That is to say, covenant is the moral prerequisite for the formation of a Constitution." (p.26. Emphasis added.)

"An awareness of the concept of entrusted authority given by all parties of the covenant also entails a rejection of dominance by any particular community upon others. Equality and mutual dependence is necessary because common justice is not achieved by elevating the interest of any one community. Common justice is a negotiated balance which give equal consideration to the benefits and responsibilities of each community." (p.30)

What is interesting is in Ng's demonstration that such concept is found in Islamic tradition. He points to the 'Charter of Privileges' and the 'Constitution of Madinah' where "equality that was accorded to every person in these covenants in contrast to how later Islam reduced non-Muslims to the much inferior status of Dhimmis. Such awareness only emphasizes the urgency for Muslims to recover the open spirit of early Islam to help overcome the torubled and sometimes violent relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims today." (p.32. Emphasis original.)

In the second part, Ng posits two points. First, covenant politics requires all to fight for equal rights for everyone, and second, the process of Ijtihad is necessary to prevent the transformation of Malaysia into Islamic State.

Ng critiques John Rawls' "conversational restraint" that discourages the raising of concrete differences among citizens for the sake of neutrality. He disagrees with Jürgen Habermas' expectation for moral agreement through a universalized rationality.

Nonetheless, Ng affirms the need for constant inter-religious dialog that is open to each participant's tradition, for each to "demonstrate that it has the resources necessary to build an inclusive society that is just and moral." (p.56) Ng goes on to list three benchmarks for dialog.

Next, Ng referred to the groundbreaking works written by Ustadh Mahmoud Mohamed Taha and Abdullah An-Na'im as suggestion that there can be a reformation within Islam that is more open to equality and common justice.

Ng spends a section in this second chapter in the book on Christian's response to Islamic hegemony. He quoted from J. Philip Wogaman:

"When Christians mistakenly allow the denial of their basic civil rights (such as freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of worship, freedom from abitrary arrest and detainment, and the right to vote), they weaken such rights for others. For democracy to function, it is important to insist upon the rights of all, including oneself."

For this, Ng writes that, "What ought to be without controversy is the necessity for Christians to take active measures to preserve the democratic freedom which they enjoy." (p.65) He continues that point out that Christianity is just as comprehensive as a way of life as Islam. Therefore Churches in Malaysia should not privatize their faith as if their faith has nothing to do with the social challenges facing the nation.

In the final chapter, Ng addresses the challenges faced and opportunities available in the modern contemporary Malaysia. He begins by highlighting the fact that the idea of an Islamic State is the product of British colonialism in Malaya. He then gives a list of reported cases where individual rights are violated and cultural expression are curbed by the ruling Muslim majority.

Related to these cases, Ng points out that moral policing should not be the way to build a moral society, which is the assumption of the hegemonic Muslim authority. Instead of moral policing, Ng suggests that moral formation is best developed through the community, "Moral knowledge is not a matter of casuistic reasoning but a social practice and communal norm. Moral action does not consist of unconnected decisions based on situations but decisions more or less consistent with a set of moral values."(p.92)

Concerning the development of social structure, Ng thinks that "If we recognize the possibility of human goodness despite its fallenness, we would seek to develop a social arrangement that places safeguards that will limit human sinful abuses, while strengthening institutions which foster human relationships and community building." (p.93)

Overall the book is quite a comprehensive guide written by a Malaysian theologian for Christians presently living in Malaysia, or those wanting to learn the current state of the relationship between Christianity and Islam in Malaysia. There are relevant discussion of historical events, religious traditions, legal disputes, socio-political theory, and practical theology that equips one's understanding of how to be a Christian within the given social reality.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Academic excommunication and what Michel Foucault can do about it

The June issue of 'Christianity Today' magazine has generated a lot of coverage over the internet due to Richard N. Ostling's article on the historical Adam and Eve.

There are many matters covered in Ostling's article, and I want to focus only on one in this post that has to do with a practice that seems to me like an academic excommunication.

In the article, Ostling listed Christian teachers who unexpectedly and unfortunately invited trouble on themselves for (a) being open to the possibility that God creates through the macro-evolutionary process, or (b) being open to the possibility that Adam and Eve are not as historical as the event that I brushed my teeth this morning, or (a) + (b).

Here are the mentioned few:

Daniel C. Harlow and John R. Schneider:
"As a result of their writings [published in September 2010 journal 'Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith'], a personnel panel [at their working institution, Calvin College] has been investigating whether they violated the doctrinal standards that the college's sponsoring Christian Reformed Church requires of faculty. (The investigation follows procedures that were established when Calvin astrophysicist Howard J. Van Till stirred an earlier ruckus over creation—though not Adam and Eve—with his 1986 tome The Fourth Day.) Harlow and Schneider could face discipline from the board of trustees, and revived denominational debate about evolution seems inevitable."

Peter Enns:
"Peter Enns, whose interpretation of the Old Testament led to suspension and eventual departure from Westminster Theological Seminary in 2008 (though the Adam-and-Eve question was not at issue in that case). To Enns, a literal Adam as a special creation without evolutionary forebears is "at odds with everything else we know about the past from the natural sciences and cultural remains." As he reads the early chapters of Genesis, he says, "The Bible itself invites a symbolic reading by using cosmic battle imagery and by drawing parallels between Adam and Israel.""

Tremper Longman III:
In a video interview done with BioLogos, Longman III said that, "I have not resolved this issue in my own mind except to say that there is nothing that insists on a literal understanding of Adam in a passage [Gen. 1-3] so filled with obvious figurative description." On Paul's reference to Adam as historical person, Longman III remarked that, "it is possible, even natural, to make an analogy between a literary figure and a historical one."

"After BioLogos promoted Longman's views in a video last year, Reformed Theological Seminary ended Longman's role as an adjunct faculty member."

Bruce Waltke
"The administration [at Reformed Theological Seminary] abruptly accepted his offer of resignation due to a BioLogos video in which Waltke remarked that "if the data is overwhelming in favor of evolution, to deny that reality will make us a cult. Waltke began teaching at Knox Theological Seminary this year."

The purging of academic staffs, whose allegiance to the establishment's creed is suspect, does not happen only at seminary or theological college. This same pattern of inquisition and excommunication take place in non-Church-related institution as well:

In September 2008, Michael Reiss had to resign from his post as the Director of Education at Britain's most prestigious scientific body, the Royal Society, for saying in public that teachers shouldn't dismiss students' question on creationism. (Other report here and here.)

In August 2010, James Enstrom, a research professor at University of California Los Angeles, was reported to be "denied appointment" because his works "ran against conventional wisdom" and "not aligned with the department’s mission."

In Ortober 2010, Gavriel Avital was fired "from his position as chief scientist in Israel's ministry of education due to his denial of evolution and global warming." (Other reports here and here.)

In January 2011, University of Kentucky paid $125,000 to astronomer Martin Gaskell for him to drop civil action against the university for discriminating his job application not based on his outstanding curriculum vitae but his religious belief. (Other report here.)

From this we observed that the purging of teaching staffs, whose allegiance to the establishment's creed is suspect, be it religious or non-religious, is common in the academia. There is no difference whether it is a Christian organization or not.

This reveals that each community has its own norm of tradition and practices. When members of the community is suspected to have breached the tradition, he/she is seen a heretic. Not a different person who is really the strange Other, who can never be the same as us, yet created no lesser in degree of quality than the rest of us.

These institutions that participate in academic excommunication may jeer at the Spanish Inquisition or the suicide bombers who are religiously motivated. But I wonder if the jeer is actually a confession that we don't know what to do with strangeness?

Thus the best way is not to deal with it, not to even face it. Hence need to get rid of it. Terminate it.

Then we go on wondering why the 21st century global civilization still facing the threat of fanaticism, fundamentalism, extremism, etc. Just as academic excommunication is a given, so are the problems facing the current world.

Michel Foucault has observed this givenness decades ago and drew the connection between epistemology (in terms of the notion of truth) and politics (relation between agencies):

"Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its regime of truth, its 'general politics' of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true."

Then Foucault went on to highlight a constructive way of how to deal with this problem without going into academic excommunication:

"The essential political problem for the intellectual is not to criticise the ideological contents supposedly linked to science, or to ensure that his own scientific practice is accompanied by a correct ideology, but that of ascertaining the possibility of constituting a new politics of truth. The problem is not changing people's consciousness---or what's in their heads---but the political, economic, institutional regime of the production of truth."
(Michel Foucault, 'Truth and Power', in From Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology, ed. Lawrence Cahoone [UK: Blackwell, Second Edition, 2003], p. 252-253.)

A better way to deal with the strange Other is not to excommunicate them. According to Foucault, what we can do is to draft the strange Other into the political-economic relation with us to produce not a new truth, but a new approach to truth.

I think this would make redundant academic excommunication, which in my conviction is not really a good representation of the academia (be it religious or not) as the center of intelligible living.

Besides, this sort of excommunication exists not only in the academia. If we look hard enough, it is found also in the Churches, companies, societies, and families.