Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Penang State's Non-Muslim Exco: Prospect is in the questions

It was announced on 16 February 2011 that the Penang State Government has set up a new executive council (exco) to manages non-Muslim religious issues. The Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng himself heads this council that is governed by "co-operation not confrontation, mutual respect not tolerance, and understanding not ignorance."

He emphasized that, "Unlike the federal government’s Committee for the Promotion of Inter-religious Understanding and Harmony, this [new council] is not a committee but a full exco portfolio and reflects the state government’s genuine concerns on all religious matters."

The Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) was encouraged by the initiative, while PKR and PAS had no issue with it.

Thomas Lee Seng Hock welcomed the initiative and wisely recommended four areas that the new exco should look into:

1) "Should draft a code of interfaith relationship, listing out the various areas where religious leaders can jointly work together, and the sensitivities of each religious faiths."

2) "Should appoint a panel of religious experts to monitor the state of interfaith relationship in Penang."

3) "Should hold an annual interfaith conference over one weekend, inviting respected world religious leaders to share and talk on issues of common universal religious-moral values and practices."

4) "Should embark on an information cum education campaign among the people by publishing a weekly state government newspaper to let them know what the state government is doing. The mainstream media have not been fair to the Pakatan Rakyat-controlled states, and have been ignoring important messages by the elected leaders of the state. For example, Guan Eng’s Chinese New Year was not given any coverage in the mainstream newspapers."

As expected, the Federal Government (BN-UMNO) officials reacted in most unreasonable ways.

For example, the former Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said that the initiative is not necessary. Come think about it, what exactly does he know about what is necessary or not given his disappointing track record in handling religious matters.

The former Chief Minister of Penang Dr Koh Tsu Koon remarked that the initiative is a publicity stunt, while Mukhriz Mahathir said that it is an insult to Islam in Malaysia despite the fact that the BN-UMNO led Perak has the same initiative.

Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng has since responded to all of them.

My take is that such initiative is a positive sign that the State Government is taking religious communities seriously. Not only that, more importantly, this shows that the State take 'religion' seriously.

It is expected that the new exco will raise a few questions for themselves in order to get it functioning. Some of them I hope will include the following:

1) What is the perimeter that the new exco should have? To be more specific, what kind of issues are under the exco's purview? Only those of which their subject matters are related to ritual such as the question of environmental ethics in relation to burning hell-money in the public, the question of interfaith ethic in relation to offering prayer to people from other faith in the public space, and etc?

Should issues related to communal practices be located within the perimeter of the exco? If yes, then the exco would need to take into consideration of the various communal practices that involve the public facility such as holding proselytization event at a commercial (eg. convention hall) and government building (eg. schools, university, colleges).

Should also issues involving religious and non-religious party be handled? How would the exco sees those who do not profess any religious faith? What place does this group have among the religious ones? This is important in cases where the faithful and the faithless clashes with one another, for eg. the construction of a religious building may cause some changes to a neighborhood to which the latter find offensive.

2) How much and what kind of power should the exco has? Should it acts only as a verbal moderator among the religious communities? Or should the exco plays also the role of legal moderator where it has the authority to adjudicate between different religious groups? And in the context of Malaysia, there is this issue of Islam. How should this new exco deal with the Islamic institution in the Penang State in cases like cross-religion conversion?

As I see it, this new exco plays a significant part in relating the religious communities with the secular yet religion-friendly government (contrast other secular governments that are hostile to religion). This initiative will bring both groups closer together. And so the religious communities need to learn the secular language in order to communicate with the government. While the secular government needs to learn religious language to communicate with the faithful. And I think it is the responsibility of the exco to formulate and facilitate two-way communication not only between the government and the religious, but also between the religious with the religious.

All these questions, in my view, command the very prospect of the exco.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Here & there

It has been two weeks since Chinese New Year holidays back home. One of our courses received a new lecturer as the previous one has to take a long medical leave. The new lecturer brought in new dynamics into the class.

We can see the huge contrast between the new and the previous lecturer. Probably it is not apt for me to write about the general experience of the class with the two lecturers. To be as politically correct as I can, I'll just say that both take on very different approaches to deal with the subject and the class.

If we are to write a theological reflection over the changes, it will be an ugly one. It's a distasteful piece of thought even though it is theologically valid, as a postgraduate student confirmed when I told him about it. Enough said.

On another note, last Sunday, a Theravada Buddhist friend of mine asked me what is the difference between theology and philosophy. If you are me, how would you answer?

As I was negotiating the traffic, I had to negotiate my thoughts to explain in layman terms what is theology and philosophy before I can explain what's the difference. And here's what I came up with:

Philosophy is our approach to make sense of our experience. So we develop some skills, such as deductive and inductive logic, to help us in that regard.

Theology, on the other hand, is our approach to make sense of our experience in relation to our origin and purpose. So theology has this additional regard to consider.

I hope I managed to clarify to my friend. How about you, do you think that is clear? How would you explain that?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

'Head knowledge' means only one thing: Hypocrisy. It is not about abstract academic works or learning.

Have you heard of the phrase "head knowledge"? Yes.

Where? Every where, from home to school to church, in books, and in the press.

What does it mean? It means a form of knowledge that is metaphorically located "in" the head. The emphasis is on the "in". It is seen in two different manifestations:

Manifestation 1: It exists only in the "inner" part of our being where there is no exterior material or physical manifestation of this knowledge. Hypocrites fall into this category. This is alienation on the individual-personal level.

Instances of authors who are actually referring to hypocrisy when they use the phrase "head knowledge" (probably to soften their rebuke):

"Satan knows that as long as you are content with merely having head knowledge of the Word, you are not much of a threat to his plans. But as soon as you get serious about making some changes in your life, he will fight you tooth and nail."
(Rick Warren, Rick Warren's Bible Study Methods: Twelve Ways You Can Unlock God's Word [USA: Zondervan, 2006], p.37. Emphasis added.)

"By true religion Wesley meant our knowledge of our spiritual relationship with God. [...] Wesley was overwhelmed by the courage and faith of his fellow passengers, the Moravians. [...] Wesley could hear the Moravians singing and praising God. He realized in that moment that although he had head knowledge of God, he had no real living faith."
(Richard J. Foster and Gayle D. Beebe, Longing for God: Seven Paths of Christian Devotion [USA: IVP Press, 2009], p.185. Emphasis added.)

"This same trust factor is that which changes any of the roles from being just head knowledge into practical, relational experience."
(Allan Coppedge, Portraits of God: A Biblical Theology of Holiness [USA: IVP Press, 2001], p.372. Emphasis added.)

"Growing in Christ doesn't mean that we acquire a bunch of head knowledge. It means that we grow in areas such as moral excellence, intimacy with Christ, self-control and discipline, perseverance, godliness, kindness, and love."
(Rory Noland, The Heart of the Artist: A Character-Building Guide for You and Your Ministry Team [USA: Zondervan, 1999], p.37. Emphasis added.)

"John's qualification for being a child of God by believing on His name means much more than just head knowledge. It is not just giving intellectual assent to the fact that the name Lord Jesus Christ is the label attached to the person. It means to rest in Jesus, to put all of our trust on Him alone for forgiveness and salvation."
(Anne Graham Lotz, Just Give Me Jesus [USA: Thomas Nelson, 2009], p.25. Emphasis added.)

"So the end of theology is not the acquisition of mere head knowledge. The goal rather is heart transformation. Our knowledge of God leads us to faith and repentance, motivates us to adore and worship him, and prompts us to serve him out of love and devotion."
(James R. Estep, Jr., Michael J. Anthony, and Gregg R. Allison, A Theology for Christian Education [USA: B&H Publishing, 2008], p.22. Emphasis added.)

I bet many of us have encountered preachers rightfully preaching against such "head knowledge" (i.e. hypocrisy). I have.

Manifestation 2: It exists only within a group. Those who do not belong in the group do not have access to that knowledge. And "access" does not necessarily mean only material or physical access but includes also cognitive access. For instance, only those who are familiar with the relevant discussion understand a recent article by Peter Scott titled ''Global Capitalism' vs 'End of Socialism': Crux theologica? Engaging Liberation Theology and Theological Postliberalism'. This is alienation on the group/class level.

Given the significant nuance of each manifestation, there is always a risk of misunderstanding the phrase "head knowledge" when it is used without qualification, be it on the pulpit or in conversation. Due to this, often there is a negative connotation of the phrase.

What is the negative connotation? It is hypocrisy in the first manifestation, while irrelevance in the second.

With these negative connotations, why then people still use the phrase on others? When used in the first manifestation, it is to encourage praxis. While used in the second manifestation, it is to discriminate the disagreeing others, stamping them as "irrelevance" for their defiance. It is a class struggle, of course. It is a rhetoric used to discriminate those who disagree with us so that we can ignore and dismiss them regardless of the standing of their say.

But what about those impractical "head knowledge" exercises like speculating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? I see this sort of exercise belongs to the second manifestation. Its relevance belongs within certain groups. On the issue of impracticality, we have to ask 'impractical to who?' Practicality depends on the relevance of such exercises to which group. To some, they wouldn't care to note what is the role of Jacques Derrida's "différance" in his idea of deconstruction. While to others, they spent significant portion of their lives learning it, teaching it, hold conference and organize seminar concerning it, and write books about it. An entire market is established due to such execises that are based on some knowledges that are deem impractical to others. So what is practical or impractical is really a question on relevance. And the question on relevance is a question on the dynamics of group interest.

But we do have cases where people, especially academicians, talk in ways that others do not understand, you know? Yes, I know, but that is not an issue of "head knowledge" but an issue on communication. Each of us are exposed to limited amount and genre of vocabulary and prose in our interaction with literature and people. Hence when we are exposed to literatures written in ways that are beyond our reckoning, it is not that the author is engaging on "head knowledge"; just that we do not share the same experience and hence also "wavelength".

So the next time we encounter anyone uses the phrase "head knowledge" on others not as a reference to hypocrisy, we should be open to the possibility that it could be a Marxist's class-struggle rhetoric to mask one's inferiority.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

New catch from Penang

Joseph M. Fernando. The Making of the Malayan Constitution. Malaysia: Malayan Branch of Royal Asiatic Society, 2007.

The Nut Graph. Found in Malaysia. Malaysia: ZI Publications, 2010.

Anthony Milner. The Malays. Malaysia: Blackwell Publishing, paperback edition, 2011.

Gordon P. Means. Political Islam in Southeast Asia. Malaysia: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 2009.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Four reflections....

Writing down the thoughts reflected in the past few days:

1) While I was picking up the ashes of my deceased aunt, the question of who is now my second aunt came to mind. Previously, when I used the term 'second aunt', it was a reference to a material correlatable person that I can see and talk to. And what lied before me while I was kneeling down at the crematory parlor was a group of crushed bones. So when I utter the term 'second aunt' now, does it refer to that group of crushed bones? Or a person who is now a piece of a familial memory?

Or, has it always been the case that whenever I use the term 'second aunt', I am referring not to a material correlatable person but an everlasting being whose reference is not fixated on a body or our memory but an objective existent that derived its objectiveness before an eternal reality (that is God)?

2) Yesterday while chit-chatting at Starbucks, Steven and Eugene raised the question 'what is power?' Steven mentioned, along the lines of N. T. Wright in one of his speech about one of England's Deputy Prime Minister, that there is still a sense of lack in power to effective make any changes when a person reaches a high political position. He said that circumstances have so much bearing on one's position that one does not really have much freedom to exercise his/her power, assuming that power really exists in the first place.

What is power? I think that is not the right question. What should be asked instead is what power for what? Almost everyone has power to do something. The most obvious one is economic power. With money, I have the power to bring about happenstance in mine and others' lives, like affording a cup of Starbucks coffee for everyone. So what kind of political power for what political purposes? That will limit the scope of our questioning over the ontology of power and help us to see the powers around in order that we can manipulate them effectively.

3) How should one lives one's life? I realized that I am a bummer at this point of my life. Most of the activities that I am involved in do not generate any economic gains (assuming life's purpose is to be economically productive despite all the talk about loving God and neighbor). And I realized that I do not have much passion to strive for what is known as a 'stable' livinghood by our society (having a stable job, house, car, money for parents, etc).

And I realized also that I have became slothful not because I am lazy but because of what I have been taught through my parents' philosophy, especially my mother's. Since young, I have been told the brute fact of life that one day everyone will die. And in death, everyone is equal, no matter how great the person is while alive. Kind of nihilistic. Yesterday, I told my mom about my reflection (1) above. She replied that life is like that. That's why there is no need to strive too hard in life.

Hence it became inherent to me that the only one reason for me to do anything is utilitarianism. Procure pleasure and avoid pain. Anything beyond that requires a lot of motivation; for example, if I want to earn more money, I will need to be really convinced that there is good reason to earn more.

4) Soteriology and missiology. Before my second aunt died, her younger sister (my third aunt who is a Roman Catholic) tried to convert her into Roman Catholicism. The younger sister brought a priest to speak and pray for her while she was very sick. They asked her if she wanted to convert. My second aunt felt very stressed by their approach and confided to her husband. That's what my mom told me before she asked me, "Is this a common practice among Christians to convert people on their deathbed? Isn't this very opportunistic?"

I didn't give my mom an answer because I understand her perspective as well as my third aunt's concern. The former is a staunch Buddhist who feels awkward over such evangelistic approach, while the latter is a staunch Christian who cares for the eternal well-being of her dying sister. Both are valid in their perspective.

This episode showed me how theology affects a person's action. In this case, how soteriology affects missiology. If a person really believes that those who are not converted in this life will end up not in heaven, then he/she would rather be seen as awkward or even condemned as long as he/she manages to convince people to convert. When condemned, he/she would probably adopt the 'martyr syndrome' and interpret the condemnation as a persecution for God's glory. I am not judging here, but just pointing out what I have observed.

Hence it is worth asking, how sure are we that people will end up not in heaven if they do not convert to Christianity in this life? The Bible says so? Really? Others say that unless this is so, we cannot make sense of the Church's mission (the "great commission"). This brings into question themes such as the criteria to be the 'people of God'. Does one's identity as the people of God merely confessional, that is based on the utterance of a few words? How does one's salvation relate to one's identity? And what role does the Church play in relation to these two questions? I think that as long as these questions have not been grappled with, we are not in the position to conclude who will end up in where. Neither are we able to discern the Church's mission.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

20 most brilliant Christian college professors

(The Collège, an academy set up by John Calvin in 1558/1559, at Geneva, to promote what are currently known as Christian education and liberal arts.)

College Crunch listed 20 most brilliant Christian professors (H/T: Michael Bird):
Peter Berger, Professor Emeritus of Religion, Sociology and Theology at Boston University

Benjamin S. Carson Sr., Professor of Neurosurgery, Plastic Surgery, and Pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University

Simon Conway Morris, Professor of Evolutionary Palaeobiology at Cambridge University

Louise S. Cowan, Professor of English at Dallas University

William Lane Craig, Research Professor of Philosophy at Biola University

Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University

Kenneth Knuth, Professor Emeritus of the Art of Computer Programming at Stanford

Robert Jackson Marks II, Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Baylor University

Michel W. McConnell, Richard and Frances Mallery Professor of Law at Stanford University

Alister E. McGrath, Professor of Theology, Ministry and Education at King's College, London

R. Albert Mohler, Jospeh Emerson Brown Professor of Christian Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Martin Andreas Nowak, Professor of Biology and of Mathematics at Harvard University

Alvin Plantinga, John A. O'Brien Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame University

John Polkinghorne, ex-President of Queen's College at Cambridge University

Marilynne Robinson, a lecturer at Iowa University

Henry Schaefer III, Graham Perdue Professor of Chemistry at Georgia University

Charles Taylor, Emeritus Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at McGill University

John Suppe, Blair Professor of Geosciences Emeritus at Princeton University

James Tour, Chao Professor of Chemistry at Rice University

N. T. Wright, Professor in New Testament and Early Christianity at St Andrews University
I don't know what are the criteria for one to be listed here, but it seems that it is quite arbitrary. Does one's brilliance measured solely by the recognition of one's works among the Christian community or include the secular academia? Or solely the secular academia?

On the other hand, if we are to create such a list for Southeast Asia academics, who will be in there and what are the criteria? Any suggestion?