Sunday, May 29, 2011

There is Islam, and there is Islam: What is Malaysia's system of Islamic education producing?

Previously I have posted Shabbir Akhtar's revealing testimony about the state of Islamic education in Malaysia. Just a few days ago, Zan Azlee, a Muslim documentary filmmaker in Malaysia, wrote about his experience of the education system and cultural expression of his religion in the country. It coheres well with Akhtar's testimony.

Here are some of the highlights:

"I used to go to religious school in the evenings during my primary school years. There was no doubt that I learnt a lot in religious school. [...] What I definitely didn’t learn there was the religion itself. Well, to be fair, I did learn the Jawi text [...] But the school was really a place that was the death of true critical thinking when it came to understanding Islam. Let me give you an example of a typical classroom conversation I would have with the ustaz.:

“Ustaz, why can’t we touch dogs?” I asked.

“Because it’s haram.” the ustaz said.


“I know that. But why is it haram?”

“Because God says so.”


“Then why did God make it haram?”

“Because it just is.”

“There’s no reason?”

“Don’t think too much into what God says. It will make you go crazy! Now go back to your seat!”


Honestly, it’s freaking annoying. I cannot believe that Islam, my chosen faith, actually wants people to accept things blindly and never question anything.
"

If I was in his position, I would be as annoyed. Another incident:

"I’ve even met people who have told me not to ask and question too much about Islam because if you do, then you may be at risk of being blasphemous.

“Why would God punish a person for sinning if He has already determined that person’s fate?” I asked a friend whose skullcap was about to fall off.

“God has his reasons,” he answered, readjusting his skullcap.

“Yeah, but wouldn’t that be unfair since he already determined the person to sin?”

“Zan, stop questioning God. That’s blasphemy!""

Akhtar and Azlee are telling something important here: The 'Islam' as practiced and propagated in Malaysia is, in their view, is not only dumbing down Muslims, but threatening Islamic teaching itself.

There are many examples that reflect the version of Islam widely held in Malaysia. In this post, I'll point to three.

First, there is Zulkifli Noordin, the Member of Parliament for Kulim Bandar Baru, who made the following speech on 7 May 2011 at a forum titled 'Islam Under Siege: What Can We Do?' organized by the Muslim Organisation in Defence of Islam (Pertubuhan Pembela Islam, a.k.a. 'Pembela', which means 'defender'):



Transcript:

"Don't question our religion. What they [Christians] are doing now is questioning our religion."

"You know AlKitab... it is not even the Bible. Ianya hanya terjemahan separuh daripada apa yang dikatakan Bible. It is not even the Bible. Yang dia nak bising pasal apa? I bet you don't even know that AlKitab is not even the Bible. It's not a Bible."

(Translation: You know AlKitab [the Malay Bible] is not even the Bible. It is just a translation of half of what is said to be the Bible. It is not even the Bible. So why the big fuss [over the AlKitab issue]? I bet you don't even know that AlKitab is not even the Bible. It's not a Bible.)

"You cakap soal murtad tadi: Orang boleh pilih agama. Kita tadak masalah kalau you nak pilih agama. Kalau you nak keluar daripada Islam, keluar la. But don't challenge us. Jangan pertikaikan kita. Masalah dengan Lina Joy ni, dia nak keluar pi kahwin dengan Hindu kah, kahwin lah. Tapi yang pi question Islam tu pasal apa? Murtad is samakan dengan jenayah dalam Islam. Unless you are not a Muslim, you won't understand. Kami sebagaimana orang Kritian ini lihat paderi tak boleh kahwin itu hak dia. Bagaimana orang Hindu tengok hak ini untuk cucuk kepala dia, lidah dia, dada dia, macam itu la. Hak kita sebagai orang Islam. [...] Kita tengok orang yang murtad ini penjenayah. Kalau tak suka, that's your problem. The point here is, as a Muslim we believe that orang murtab ini penjenayah yang harus dikenakan tindakan mengikut prosedur yang ada di dalam Islam."

(Translation: Regarding your question on apostasy in Islam. We don't have problem with freedom of religion. If you want to leave Islam, you may do so. But don't challenge us. The problem with Lina Joy is that she questioned Islam. If she wants to leave Islam to marry a Hindu, she has the rights to do that. But why does she want to question Islam? Apostasy is akin to crime in Islam. Unless you are not a Muslim, you won't understand. It is our rights as Muslims to view apostates as criminals in the same way Christians and Hindus have their rights over their religious observance. So if you cannot accept Muslims' view on apostasy, then that's your problem. The point here is, as a Muslim, we believe that apostates are criminals that have to be dealt by measures according to the procedures in Islam.)

See my friend Ramanathan's well-written response to him.

It just amazes me that Noordin, who claims to respect the rights of other religious people and defend Islam, in the speech above neither showed respect to others' rights nor seemed to know about the religion he claimed to be defending.

1) He outrightly denied that AlKitab is the Christian Bible. The term 'AlKitab' is simply 'Bible' in the Malay language. AlKitab is the Malay translation of the entire Bible. Not a translated portion, as Noordin claimed. Denying another religious community the real meaning of their used language to refer to their holy scripture is not respecting their rights.

2) Lina Joy did not question Islam. What she wanted was for the civil court of a secular country to change the religious indication on her Identity Card from 'Islam' to 'Christianity' given that she has left Islam. Noordin chose to ignore the facts and re-interpreted Lina Joy's case as one that questioned and challenged Islam. He made a red herring out of the case.

3) Minus the mistake in his sentence, "Unless you are not a Muslim, you won't understand," Noordin is simply wrong that (1) Muslims necessarily deal with apostates with measures according to the procedures in Islam, and (2) there is such procedures in Islam.

There are two explicit instances where the Islamic Prophet and his companions dealt with apostates.

The first one is narrated by Jabir bin 'Abdullah as recorded in Sahih al-Bukhari, volume 9, book 89, number 318:

A bedouin gave the Pledge of allegiance to Allah's Apostle for Islam. Then the bedouin got fever at Medina, came to Allah's Apostle and said, “O Allah's Apostle! Cancel my Pledge.” But Allah's Apostle refused. Then he came to him (again) and said, “O Allah's Apostle! Cancel my Pledge.” But the Prophet refused. Then he came to him (again) and said, “O Allah's Apostle! Cancel my Pledge.” But the Prophet refused. The bedouin finally went out (of Medina) whereupon Allah's Apostle said, “Medina is like a pair of bellows (furnace): It expels its impurities and brightens and clears its good.”
(The Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement website: Translation of Sahih Bukhari, Book 89, Judgments [Ahkaam], http://www.usc.edu/schools/college/crcc/engagement/resources/texts/muslim/hadith/bukhari/089.sbt.html#009.089.318 [accessed 12 May 2011].)

Although the Prophet refused to recognize the bedouin’s apostasy, yet it is evident that there was “made no reference to any punishment at all, and the Bedouin, despite his persistent renunciation of Islam was left to go unharmed.” (Mohammad Hashim Kamali, Freedom of Expression in Islam [Malaysia: Berita Publishing Sdn Bhd, 1994], p. 94.)

The other instance was pointed out by Tariq Ramadan: the apostasy of Ubayd-Allah ibn Jahsh as recorded by Ibn Isḥaq, the first person who wrote the biography of Prophet Muhammad:

Ubaydullah went on searching until Islam came; then he migrated with the Muslims to Abyssinia taking with him his wife who was a Muslim, Umm Habiba, d. Abu Sufyan. When he arrived there he adopted Christianity, parted from Islam, and died a Christian in Abyssinia. […] [W]hen he had become a Christian, `Ubaydullah as he passed the prophet's companions who were there used to say: ‘We see clearly, but your eyes are only half open…’”
(Tariq Ramadan website: Interview with Ehsan Masood, David Goodhart, and Adair Turner for Prospect Magazine, dated 24 July 2006, http://www.tariqramadan.com/A-confident-modern-Islam-must.html [accessed 12 May 2011]. The Ibn Ishaq's text can be read at Answering Islam website: Ubaidullah B. Jash, http://www.answering-islam.org/Index/U/ubaidullah_b._jash.html [accessed 12 May 2011].)

These two instances show that there was no temporal punishment being executed by the Prophet and his companions on those who chose to leave Islam. No doubt there was refusal to acknowledge the person’s apostasy on the part of the Prophet, and rejection of the person’s integrity on the part of the Prophet’s companions, yet in both cases, there was no punishment inflicted on the apostate.

Neither does the Qur’an say anything about measures dealing with apostate. As how Selim al-Awa put it, “Qur’anic verses do not impose a temporal punishment.” (quoted in Abdullah Saeed and Hassan Saeed, Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam [UK: Ashgate, 2004], p. 81.)

Or, in Mohammad Hashim Kamali’s words, “The Qur’an prescribes absolutely no temporal punishment for apostasy, nor has the Prophet, peace be upon him, sentenced anyone to death for it.”(Muhammad Hashim Kamali, Islamic Law in Malaysia: Issues and Developments [Malaysia: Ilmah Publishers, 2000], p. 209.)

Shabbir Akhtar, in his recent book on political Islam wrote, “In Muhammad's day, private apostasy was commonplace; the Quran specifies no worldly penalty for it.”(Shabbir Akhtar, Islam as Political Religion: The future of an imperial faith [USA: Routledge, 2011], p. 280, n. 5.)

Besides the absence of scriptural basis in the Qur’an and historical practices in the life of the Prophet that sanction any temporal punishment on the apostates, there are Qur’anic passages—as understood by Islamic scholars who are no less Muslim than Zulkifli Noordin—that provide allowance for believers to leave Islam conscientiously.

The Grand Mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa, of the Sunni community, publicly announced that Muslims can chose to switch to other religion, “[T]hey can because the Quran says, ‘Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion,’ [Quran, 109:6], and, ‘Whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve,’ [Quran, 18:29], and, ‘There is no compulsion in religion.’ [Quran, 2:256].” (The Washington Post website: John Esposito, Apostasy and Religious Pluralism, dated 1 August 2009, http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/panelists/john_esposito/2009/08/apostasy_and_the_challenge_of_religious_freedom_and_pluralism.html [accessed 12 May 2011].)

Correspondingly, the Council on American-Islamic Relations released a public statement—drafted with the consultation of the Fiqh Council of North America—that made the same point: “Islam advocates both freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, a position supported by verses in the Quran [10.99, 18.29, 42.48, and 2.256].” (The American Muslim website: CAIR Calls for release of Afghan Christian: Islamic civil rights group says conversion a personal, not state matter, dated 23 March 2006, http://www.theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/us_muslims_call_for_release_of_afghan_christian_convert/ [accessed 12 May 2011].)

Sayyid Tantawi, the late Grand Imam of al-Azhar Mosque and Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar University, held the view that "a Muslim who renounced his faith or turned apostate should be left alone as long as he does not pose a threat or belittle Islam. If the Muslims were forced to take action against the apostate, he said it should not be because he or she had given up the faith but because he or she had turned out to be an enemy or a threat to Islam." (The As-Sunnah Foundation of America website: The Grand Imams of Al-Azhar (Shuyukhul Azhar), http://www.sunnah.org/history/Scholars/mashaykh_azhar.htm [accessed 12 May 2011].)

Irfan Ahmad Khan, President of the World Council of Muslims for Interfaith Relations, wrote: "[T]here are people who stand for freedom to change one’s religion only when someone is entering into their own faith community. These people would not allow the members of their own faith community to convert to any other religion - even if they would do so out of their own free will. From the perspective of ‘freedom to change religion’, their policy involves a double standard. A self-contradictory principle is inherent in this policy [...] It is a matter of principle that in choosing one's religion, every individual should be free of all external pressures and temptations. In fact, it is due to this freedom that one is responsible for what one believes. [...] Therefore, no one has any right to use pressure of any kind to make a person change or stop from changing his/her religion. An individual out of his/her own free will should himself or herself do entering into a religion or coming out of a religion." (Quoted at Mohammad Omar Farooq's Study Resources Page website: Irfan Ahmad Khan, Freedom to Change One's Religion, http://globalwebpost.com/farooqm/study_res/islam/apostasy/apostasy_irfankhan.html [accessed 13 May 2011].)

Ibrahim B. Syed, President of Islamic Research Foundation International, held similar conviction: "[T]here is no bigger misconception-strengthened with misunderstanding of Islamic beliefs over the years-other than the belief that Islam doesn't tolerate apostasy. [...] The Qur’an is completely silent on any worldly punishment for apostasy and the sole Tradition that forms the basis of rulings is open to many interpretations." (Quoted at Islamic Research Foundation International website: Ibrahim B. Syed, Is Killing An Apostate in the Islamic Law? http://www.irfi.org/articles/articles_251_300/is_killing_an_apostate_in_the_is.htm [accessed 13 May 2011].)

These other Muslims show that Noordin is simply wrong that (1) Muslims necessarily deal with apostates with measures according to the procedures in Islam, and (2) there is such procedures in Islam. This shows that Noordin is not defending Islam and the Muslims' rights, but merely his own religion that he gave the name 'Islam'.

It seems that Noordin neither knew about Islam nor other religions. What he knew perhaps was nothing more than these empty phrases stamped on his siege mentality: "Don't question our religion... don't challenge us... don't question our religion... don't challenge us."

I'm not criticizing Islam here, but pointing out how this great religion is being misused, manipulated, and distorted by some who claim to defend Islam. They are defending nothing but their own sectarian religion.

The other example that reflect the version of Islam in Malaysia is Siti Nor Bahyah Mahamood, a Muslim preacher. It is reported that in 2010, she made accusations on Christianity which are factually false:

"Siti had said in a television programme aired on TV9 more than a year ago, that “vices, going to discos and to be in remote place with a partner as Christian tradition.”

"She also called Valentine’s Day a Christian festival, claiming it started as a celebration to commemorate the fall of the Islamic administration in Spain." (Emphasis added.)

The third example is found in the same report on Siti:

"The Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim) said yesterday it will launch an anti-Valentine’s Day campaign, quoting a fatwa issued by the National Fatwa Council in 2005 which called it an immoral Christian celebration." (Emphasis added.)

Noordin, Siti, and Jakim claim to be representing Islam. Yet it is puzzling why should they give the impression that one needs to make up false accusation and statement on non-Muslims, and creating their own Islamic orthodoxy, in order to represent Islam.

Given Akhtar's and Azlee's testimony, it is not difficult to see these three examples as the natural products of Malaysia's Islamic education system.

Again, I need to emphasize that I'm not criticizing Islam here. All the references that I have listed here are taken from Muslims. I'm only pointing out how the current education system in Malaysia is a threat to Islam itself by allowing those who claim to defend Islam to misuse, manipulate, and distort the great religion.

How do they defend Islam when they themselves are the threat?

Friday, May 27, 2011

Reply to Benjamin Chew

I'm grateful that Ben Chew engaged with my post. It is only courteous for me to post a reply to him.

He wrote:

"As someone who knows where he is coming from, in a seminarian’s context, it is easy to agree with and applaud him for what he is exhorting. A cursory reading of the Scriptures will not do if one desires to delve deep into what the texts actually mean in its historical and cultural contexts."

I have no idea what is a "seminarian's context" and what it entails. From this paragraph it seems to suggest that "seminarian's context" entail the desire "to delve into what the texts actually mean in its historical and cultural contexts."

Does the concern for historical and cultural meaning of the Bible exist only in theological college and seminary? So cell groups, BSF, Churches or individual's reading of the Bible does not concern to understand what the Bible means in its historical and cultural context?

Besides, I have been interested in what the Bible means in its historical and cultural context way before I decided to study in theological college. So the "seminarian's context" certainly does not reflect my approach to the Bible since whether in or out of a seminary, my approach has remained the same.

Ben himself wrote that there are people who are in not seminary who do not adhere to Camping's approach to the Bible: "I know of numerous Christians, over the years, who were not trained in the biblical languages and who would never step into the hallowed halls of a seminary and yet they would not be deceived by people like Harold Camping."

This shows that whether one is in seminary or not is irrelevance to the desire to "delve into what the texts actually mean in its historical and cultural contexts." Those who are not trained in seminary yet do not follow Camping because they don't think Camping's reading of the text is correct. That assumes that they know what the text means and does not mean in its historical and cultural context. Ben seems to want to confine my approach within a context, while allow others the benefit to be less contextual, as in their reading is more universal hence applicable to many, while mine is strictly contextual hence only confined to those like me who are in "seminarian's context". But as I have shown from Ben's own post, this kind of categorization is simply arbitrary.

"As a SUPERNATURAL book from God to us, Christians have the moral right to believe that they can and will understand the words of Scripture enough to obey its commands and dictates, even without a seminary education!

"What is so literarily obstruse about loving your neighbour, humble yourself, put others before oneself, abstain from sexual immorality, pray always, endure hardships, faith without works is dead, turn the other cheek, etc? There are so many passages in the bible that can be easily understood to be obeyed!"

There is a logical gap between the first and the second paragraph.

Affirming the Bible as supernatural and "Christians have the moral right to believe that they can and will understand the words in Scripture enough to obey its commands and dictates, even without a seminary education" has no logical sequence to the fact whether one really understand the Bible or not.

In other words, saying and believing that "I can and will understand the Bible" does not mean I in fact do understand it. To give an example, imagine someone coming up to you and tell you that he can and will understand the linguistic principles in the Mandarin language. Does that says anything whether he does in fact understand it? No.

"Unless there is an agenda somehow, in the academia, to muddy the simple waters of truth so as to hide under an intellectual facade in their excuse of not being able to obey?

"As someone who is cerebrally orientated and who loves books, I used to think as Sze Zeng does until I realise that it is better to LIVE like Christ than to be able to give astute definitions of what it means to live like Christ. It is better to LOVE like Christ than to to be able to give accurate definitions of biblical love.

"I believe with all my heart that the truly dear ones in the Lord who will enjoy the greatest rewards in heaven would be the poor mother who anguishes every night for the salvation of her sons and the missionary wife who lost her children to disease and death than the highbrow theologians and scholars in seminaries who talk and think too much but never living the lives of genuine faith."

Here is where Ben's response seems to have furthest relevance to the issue discussed in my post. Instead of engaging the point I made, Ben went on to speculate whether are my thoughts reflected in the post an attempt to disobey what the Bible says.

I think for anyone who are interested to live rightly, he or she needs first to find out what is the right thing to obey or disobey. For example, imagine yourself attending a talk by a prosperity preacher who ask all the audience to give up all their bank-saving as tithe to be like "seed sown on good soil" so that all will receive back a hundred times more, based on Mark 4.20. Do you obey?

If you say that you obey, then I have nothing to say.

The point is that before obeying, one has to have the right understanding. Ben seems to be saying that we should "LIVE like Christ" (emphasis his) without first understanding what does living like Christ means. (What I suggested is not asking us to give a formal/grammatically correct definition of what certain passages in the Bible mean, but simply to understand what do they mean. Both are different thing. A person can be charitable without knowing how to articulate a precise definition for his charitable act. This is a given. So I'm not sure what's the relevance of Ben's point.) The prosperity preacher certainly thinks that living like Christ is to give up all of our bank saving and expect to receive one hundred times more. As you can see, this is really lumping up two very different matters together.

And I'm not sure why does Ben imply that I'm someone who is "cerebrally orientated" and hence use "intellectual facade" to disobey. I don't think that he needed me to publicize what I have done (with the poor, drug addicts, community services) and have been doing (with sick/bed-ridden patients, etc) in order to blog about hermeneutical approaches. Or does he?

Baseless gossip: "Trinity Theological College is liberal and filled with apostate lecturers"

This post is to revisit an age old yet persisting issue concerning the image of the college: "Trinity Theological College (TTC) is liberal and filled with apostate lecturers."

Before I enrolled into TTC, I have personally being told by different individuals at various occasions that it as a liberal institution.

One such occasion was at one of my favorite Christian bookshop. When the manager, who is also a friend, found out that I'm going to TTC, he cautioned me to practice discernment in my studies because it is a liberal school.

After enrolling, I still hear the same impression about TTC.

A Dean of Biblical Studies from another school told me that the education philosophy of the Principal of TTC are (1) to expose or bombard the students to all kind of teachings, and (2) leave the students to learn for themselves what is to be believed, what are the orthodox doctrines. The dean also said that the faculty at TTC does not guide the students which doctrines to believe. I have previously responded to him.

In the course of my research on the theological scene in Singapore in the first half of the twentieth century, I came across this impression of TTC by a Vietnamese:

"I came to the Trinity Theological College (TTC) in July 1999, and after studying there for one month I decided to go back home due to her liberal and modernist teachings."
(Hien Gia Nguyen, 'Remembering the Late Rev Dr Timothy Tow' in Bible Witness, vol. 9, issue 2, ed. Prabhudas Koshy [Singapore: Bible Witness Media Ministry of Gethsemane Bible-Presbyterian Church, 2008], p. 27. Bible Witness website: http://biblewitness.com/resources/magazines/Vol09_Iss02.pdf [accessed 27 May 2011]).

Besides that, a friend made a few passionate remarks about the college too:

"There are numerous seminaries today who are nothing but places of empty academia, where faculties hold to a very low view of Scripture and who espouse modernistic and humanistic theologies.[...] Many of these places started as God-honouring, Bible-believing and Christ-centred institutions but have succumbed to the appeal of academic respectability. Trinity Theological College in Singapore is one such damning institution. By trying to be academically respectable, it has compromised much in historic Christianity and the cherished doctrines of the Faith."
(Biblical Religion blog: Benjamin Chew, Questions to ask about a theological seminary, dated 7 May 2011, http://biblicalreligion.wordpress.com/2011/05/07/questions-to-ask-about-a-theological-seminary/ [accessed 27 May 2011].)

"Although Trinity Theological College (TTC) has one of the most stellar faculties in Singapore, it is an ecumenical institution that has succumbed to a fair amount of theological liberalism and modernism. If I remember correctly, it was in 2009 that they had a student exchange programme with Yale Divinity School. Yale?! It is an institution that is as apostate as any Word-Faith heretic."
(Biblical Religion blog: Benjamin Chew, Theological education in Singapore, dated 3 May 2011, http://biblicalreligion.wordpress.com/2011/05/03/theological-education-in-singapore/ [accessed 27 May 2011].)

In a recent post he expressed concern over my passion for God being "wax cold" after "attending classes led by apostate lecturers who don’t believe the very truths they profess to represent."
(Biblical Religion blog: Benjamin Chew, Yes you can understand your bible, dated 25 May 2011, http://biblicalreligion.wordpress.com/2011/05/25/yes-you-can-understand-your-bible/ [accessed 27 May 2011].)

He got the impression that I am "wax cold" based solely on his reading of this post alone, without regard to all the works that I have been doing (one example), not least the other blog posts which simply point to the contrary.

Tragically this is the image of TTC among certain quarters in the Christian community in this part of the world: It is a liberal institution filled with apostate lecturers.

As I surveyed these and other similar hearsay about TTC, I found out that all who hold on to the impression that TTC is a liberal college and keep spreading such impression share two similar characteristics:

1) They adopt the liberal-conservative distinction.

2) They see the academia and the Churches under the liberal-conservative distinction.

These two characteristics are simply mistaken for the following reason.

Basically there is no unanimous agreement over the criteria for something to be considered "liberal" and "conservative." The same with the categorization of "left" and "right." To give an example, what is considered "left" in Canada is "right" in U.S.A., while what is "right" in the former is "left" in the latter.

We find this same discordance when we put U.S.A. and U.K. side by side. The "right" in U.S.A. is the "left" in U.K., and vice versa.

Similarly among the Churches, what is "liberal" to a local community is "conservative" to another. So which one is "liberal" and which one is "conservative"? And who decides?

For someone to use this distinction, one has to first list out the criteria for both categories. Yet it is precisely because there is no unanimous agreement on which criterion should belongs to which that devastatingly undermines the validity of such distinction.

Besides that, such label is useless to indicate the truthfulness of one position over another. Label simply doesn't say anything about the truthfulness of anything. That is the reason why F. F. Bruce, who "is known worldwide as the dean of evangelical biblical scholars," refuses such category:

"I cannot remember a time when I did not hold this [Jesus' saving works] to be the essence of the gospel, but questions which attached themselves to it in earlier days have apparently resolved themselves. It is for this reason that I am always happy to be called an evangelical, although I insist on being an unqualified evangelical. I do not willingly answer, for example, to such designations as ‘conservative evangelical’. (Many of my positions are indeed conservative; but I hold them not because they are conservative – still less because I myself am conservative – but because I believe they are the positions to which the evidence leads)."
(F. F. Bruce, In Retrospect: Remembrance of Things Past [USA: Baker, 1994], p. 309. Emphasis added.)

In other words, the "liberal" and "conservative" distinction is nothing but the product of an arbitrary will and does not attest to the truthfulness of anything.

Hence, to force such an arbitrary category on others solely on the basis that the others are different from us is utterly disrespectful. In fact, that is how racism works.

For instance, the distinction between the Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda began as a class difference which later asserted as a 'race'. And the result is, as we all know, the Rwanda Genocide in 1994 where 800,000 people are massacred because of such arbitrary distinction.

As shown by the late historian Alison Liebhafsky Des Forges, who is recognized for her research on Rwanda history, the 'Tutsi' were actually pastoralists who were wealthy and influential while the 'Hutu' were the rest of the people who were less wealthy and so subject to the former.

The class distinction later being arbitrated as a race distinction where the Tutsi and Hutu are recognized by their physical features:

"Most people married within the occupational group in which they had been raised. This practice created a shared gene pool within each group, which meant that over generations pastoralists came to look more like other pastoralists—tall, thin and narrow-featured—and cultivators like other cultivators—shorter, stronger, and with broader features."
(Human Rights Watch website: Alison Liebhafsky Des Forges, Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda, http://www.hrw.org/legacy/reports/1999/rwanda/Geno1-3-09.htm#P200_83746 [accessed 27 May 2011]. Thanks to Edmund Koh for this reference in his essay on Rwanda.)

Due to the imposition of the forced categories on the people, "During the genocide some persons who were legally Hutu were killed as Tutsi because they looked Tutsi. According to one witness, Hutu relatives of Col. Tharcisse Renzaho, the prefect of the city of Kigali, were killed at a barrier after having been mistaken for Tutsi." (Ibid. Emphasis added)

The same arbitrary mechanism that fuels racism is the same that fuels the liberal-conservative distinction.

Following the above reason, we can now understand better why most of those who believe and propagate the mythic image that "TTC is a liberal college filled with apostate lecturers" are so ready to give in to the gossip.

Given the flimsy adoption of the liberal-conservative category, their standing to attest to anything true is seriously suspect.

To see more of this point, most of those who blindly believe the gossip have not (1) taken up any full-time courses, or (2) participated in the community life of TTC, or (3) both. I said "most" because I think there are a few who still believe the gossip after being part of TTC. However this is besides the point.

In the end, whether one is "liberal" or "conservative" is purely subjective to individual's arbitrary assessment. Of course, the individual may say that his or her assessment is based on the Bible.

Yet it is not difficult for anyone who exercises some degree of self-reflection/critique would realize that there is no such thing as "based on the Bible." It's always based on our understanding of the Bible.

No doubt the person can claim that he/she received revelation or some kind of special guidance (illumination) from God to know what exactly the Bible says. Well, so can everyone else. So in the end, everyone is liberal and heretical to everyone.

So who is the real liberal and heretic?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Harold Camping and Bible-thumping Culture


He predicted that the world will end in 1994, but it didn't. Later he predicted that the world ends over last weekend on 21 May 2011, but we are all still here. Now, he said that the actual date is 21 October 2011.

I wonder if he is delusional or simply stupid?

People quited their job, spent all their savings to publicize Camping's prediction, and Lyn Benedetto slitted her children's throat and wrist before slitting herself because all of them heard Camping. It worths asking why would anyone took him seriously?

The simple reason is that he claimed that his prediction is from the Bible. If Camping said that he got his prediction from a magic ball, probably no one would pay attention.

However, methinks Camping is simply a symptom of a larger problem. A problem that has to do with the Christian community's view of the scripture: There is an unwarranted overconfidence among Christians to believe in their own individual ability to interpret the Bible.

There are too many Christians in churches who think that they can simply read, understand, refer, and apply the Bible in life. The emphasis here is the word 'simply'. Hence this is not to question the clarity of the scripture and the possibility that it can be understood, however there are many qualifications attached to the attempt to understand, not the mention apply, the ancient texts.

Wayne Grudem has listed not one nor two, but seven qualifications to make sense of the idea that the scripture can be understood:

Scripture affirms that it is able to be understood but not all at once.

Scripture affirms that it is able to be understood but not without effort.

Scripture affirms that it is able to be understood but not without ordinary means.

Scripture affirms that it is able to be understood but not without the reader’s willingness to obey it.

Scripture affirms that it is able to be understood but not without the help of the Holy Spirit.

Scripture affirms that it is able to be understood but not without human misunderstanding.

Scripture affirms that it is able to be understood but never completely.

If taken all these criteria together, readers need to work on a few Ph.Ds in order to understand the Bible. Another few PhDs to learn how to apply it.

To really understand the scriptures, the least that one needs is a good grasp of Koine Greek, classical Hebrew, Aramaic/Syriac, old Babylonian, middle Egyptian, and modern English (to read contemporary scholarly works). That is only the languages.

Then one needs to be familiar with the ancient world. That means one need to read all the ancient near eastern texts. If one is not sure which texts to start with, one may consult the two excellent guide books by Kenton L. Sparks (for Old Testament) and Craig A. Evans (for New Testament) respectively.

But these two are merely guides and do not contain the actual texts in their entirety. They just contain names of those texts, brief introductory notes and summaries to them. The literatures are so vast that the Babylonian Talmud alone is about twenty volumes.

Let's say one managed to complete all the classical texts and obtained a few Ph.Ds and still alive, there is still the need to understand how these texts relate to the Bible. Which part of which ancient literatures correspond to or shed light on which part of the Bible?

Let's say one somehow managed to list down all the extra-canonical references that are related to the Bible and somehow able to develop an exhaustive annotation of each passages, one is still left with the task of how to make sense of the scriptures for today's world. It is a perennial struggle of how to appropriate a description to be a prescription.

And on top of all that, one needs the necessary guidance by the Holy Spirit.

But of course, one may bypass all that and stick with the last one: claiming that the Holy Spirit is guiding us to understand the scriptures.

If one opts for this, then there is no reason not to assume that we have many subtle 'Harold Campings' filling the pews every week. The difference between Camping and others is not in kind but in degree. (That's why theological colleges or seminaries are so important. They help to stretch the degree of difference.)

There are good reasons to be cautious of those who thump their Bibles and preface their sentences with "The Bible says..." when they speak.

Of course, the more subtle and common form is the practice of quoting verses from the Bible to instruct others or to answer every questions as if these verse are specifically meant for those usages. A culture generally known as "prooftexting." That's what Camping is doing in the photo above.

A vivid memory of doing that until about 5 or 6 years ago is still fresh. It was at Cineleisure. Having said this, I still refer to the Bible nowadays. Yet in a more tentative and cautious manner.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Monstrosity of Christology

Sorry if you are led to think that this is a post on the celebrated debate between John Milbank and Slavoj Zizek. It is not.

This is about how to think about 'Christology' through monsters (H/T: Peace Choi):

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Malaysia secondary school's History textbook and the historical sources of two religions

Recently there has been discussion over the 'History' textbook used in Malaysia's secondary schools. Upon review, there are plain errors and omissions that are politically-motivated.

In response, the Centre for Policy Initiatives has started 'Kempen Sejarah Malaysia Sebenar' (‘Reclaiming our truly Malaysian history’ campaign) to engage with the current textbook and produce alternative reference. One of those who are involved in the campaign was Dr Ranjit Singh Malhi, who worked as an author of 'History' textbook until 1996.

Here are some highlights of their first meeting (with emphasis added):

"While the general public is now aware that a whopping five chapters (out of a total of 10 in Form Four) are devoted to Islam, few realise that the other religions are given short shrift with a passing mention of only three pages. According to Ranjit, the amount of text related to Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, all added up, total a mere 832 words."
(Ranjit pointed out that 116 out of 284 pages or 41% of the current Form Four History textbook deal with Islamic history, while earlier textbook had only 39 out of 231 pages or 17% on Islamic history.)

"A joint report by the Centre of Malaysian Chinese Studies and Nanyang University Alumni Association found that the KBSM History syllabus has altogether 465 pages on the Malays (80%), 16 on Chinese and eight on Indians."

"Most tellingly, there are zero pages on the Orang Asli. How can the original inhabitants of the land ‘mysteriously’ disappear from what purports to be the authoritative history of Malaysia?"

In Ranjit's presentation, he pointed out this portion about Christianity from page 66 of the current 'Form 4' (parallels 'Sec 4' in Singapore) History textbook:

"Bagi penganut Kristian, agama ini dikatakan telah diasaskan oleh Jesus Christ yang berasal dari Jerusalem."

(Translation: "To the Christians, this religion is said to be founded by Jesus Christ from Jerusalem." This sentence can also be understood as "To the Christians, this religion is rumored to be founded by Jesus Christ from Jerusalem.")

I don't find anything wrong with this sentence IF the same is applied to other religions in the textbook, including Islam. Does the textbook state that "To the Muslims, this religion (i.e. Islam) is said (or rumored) to be founded by Prophet Muhammad from Mecca"?

I don't have the textbook so I can't tell.

Besides that, Ranjit also pointed out that there is no main teachings of Christianity is mentioned while the Qur'an is quoted on page 101 with other Islamic teachings and words--which are prohibited to be used by Christians (‘wahyu’, ‘nabi’ and ‘rasul’) under the various state enactments with regard to Non-Islamic Religions--are found in the textbook. The coverage of Christianity is reduced by 10% from previous textbook, while Islam is expanded by 24%.

Since this is a textbook on history, then it wouldn't betray any historical sense to say that both Christianity and Islam also mention Jesus Christ or Isa al-Masih (Islam's reference to Jesus).

It is also correct to say that the main difference from historical studies' point of view is that the preserved data about Jesus in both religions come from different times and places.

The Christian sources are dated to a period less than 30 years (Mark's account and Paul's letters) after his death, written in places geographically within Jesus' location.

The Islamic sources (Qur'an) that preserve data about Jesus is dated to more than 550 years after the time of Jesus, written in places geographically far from Jesus' location (more than 1200 kilometers apart; it's about the distance between Singapore and central Thailand).

Since the textbook is about history, and since both religions talk about Jesus, I think it is important to help students to understand the main difference between Christianity and Islam from a historical studies' point of view.


(A fragment from John's account of Jesus, dated to a period between 100 - 200 A. D., currently stored at John Rylands University Library)

Friday, May 20, 2011

Rowan Williams' split-second cheekiness

Here's a clip where Rowan Cantuar spoke to a group of students last year. Check out his cheeky expression after quoting Dennis Potter, "Religion is the wound, not the bandage." (at 1 min onwards)

The other time is at 2:54 min/sec when Elaine Graham mentioned the 'Archbishop'. Williams raised his brow as if he was saying, "Yup, that's me."




But of course, this clip is more than just about the split-second cheeky looks. There are some good sharing in it too. For one:

"If you talk very clearly and robustly out of the center of your Christian conviction, then somebody will say, "I'm sorry, I don't understand, you are just talking in jargons. It doesn't mean anything to me." If you try to talk in language you think the public will understand, the answer is, "What, you just sound like a politician. What's Christian about that?" [...] That's the catch: There are two different ways of sounding stupid if you are a cleric, especially if you are an Archbishop, talking to the media..." (10:38 min/sec onwards)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

What's your favorite Christian hymn?

Sometime ago, I was asked what's my favorite hymn or Christian song. I said it is this:



There comes a time
When we heed a certain call
When the world must come together as one
There are people dying
And it's time to lend a hand to life
The greatest gift of all

We can't go on
Pretending day by day
That someone, somewhere will soon make a change
We are all a part of
God's great big family
And the truth, you know love is all we need

[Chorus]
We are the world
We are the children
We are the ones who make a brighter day
So let's start giving
There's a choice we're making
We're saving our own lives
It's true we'll make a better day
Just you and me

Send them your heart
So they'll know that someone cares
And their lives will be stronger and free
As God has shown us by turning stone to bread
So we all must lend a helping hand
(**Note: Very high Christology here: Recognizing Jesus of Nazareth as 'God'. The 'so' is similar with what some theologians call 'incarnational mission'. It means we have to be like Christ who incarnated to be one of us to help us, hence we need to incarnate ourselves to be one of the 'Others' to help them.)

[Chorus]
We are the world
We are the children
We are the ones who make a brighter day
So let's start giving
There's a choice we're making
We're saving our own lives
It's true we'll make a better day
Just you and me

When you're down and out
There seems no hope at all
But if you just believe
There's no way we can fall
Well, well, well, well, let us realize
That a change will only come
When we stand together as one

[Chorus]
We are the world
We are the children
We are the ones who make a brighter day
So let's start giving
There's a choice we're making
We're saving our own lives
It's true we'll make a better day
Just you and me

What's your favorite hymn/Christian song?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Theological reflections that promote solidarity and communion in pluralistic societies

In responding to the divisive efforts of Perkasa and Utusan Malaysia, Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng quoted from German theologian Martin Niemöller's famous saying to rally citizens to work together, to look beyond racial and religious differences, to build a society marked by solidarity and communion:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out... because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out... because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out... because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me... and there was no one left to speak for me.

Over to the west, the British Prime Minister David Cameron attributed the positive role that Christianity plays in his society:

I think Churches, and religious organisations, have a huge amount to bring to the Big Society. I look around the room and I see Churches that are already running schools, I see Christians who want to start free schools, I see organisations deeply involved in civic society and providing great services. . . So I think the Big Society is something that people of all faiths, but particularly of the Christian faith, can get very involved in.

“Britain is a Christian country. Christianity has given a huge amount to our country, and continues to do so. As one of my colleagues, Said Warsi, put it . . . as a Government, we shouldn’t be fright­ened of, as she put it, doing God.

“I’ve never really understood this argument about ‘Should the Church get involved in politics? Yes or no?’ To me, Christianity, faith, religion, the Church, is involved in politics because so many political questions are moral questions. . .

“So I don’t think we should be frightened about having these debates, and these discussions, and frankly sometimes these arguments about politics in our country and what it means to be a Christian and what faith brings to our politics.

The 'Big Society' that Cameron referred to was an idea proposed by Phillip Blond, who previously was a lecturer in theology and philosophy at Universities of Exeter and Cumbria. You may look up for his brief explanation of the concept of Big Society here.

These two are instances where Christian theological reflection is working together with the rest in the public sphere for the betterment of the society. And of course, this is not confined only to Christianity. Other religions have similar capacity for just public development and should similarly strive to work for solidarity and communion.

Speaking from the Malaysia context, the divisive attitude of Perkasa and Utusan Malaysia stand condemned. They are embarrassment to their great religion, Islam, in the same way how Terry Jones is an embarrassment to Christianity.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Shabbir Akhtar on the quality of Islamic Studies in Malaysia

While researching for an assignment on Islam, I chanced upon Akhtar's testimony about Islamic education in Malaysia.

He was from Britain and took up a lecturing position for three years at the International Islamic University, Malaysia, in the mid 1990s. Currently he is an associate professor in philosophy at Old Dominion University.

Last year, he has published an academic book on the political aspect of Islam 'Islam as Political Religion: The Future of an Imperial Faith'. Previously, he has written other books on Islam: 'The Quran and the Secular Mind: A Philosophy of Islam' (2007) and 'A Faith for All Seasons: Islam and the Challenge of the Modern World' (1991). He earned his Ph.D from University of Calgary with a dissertation titled 'Religion in the age of reason: Faith and the apostasy of humanism' in 1984/5.

It's reported at Times Higher Education website that after accepted the job in Malaysia, "For the first time he found himself in a society where Muslims were in the majority and in power. Three years later he was heading back to Britain, angered and disillusioned by the religious intolerance he experienced. [He said,] "I would oppose any place where Islam became a political ideology and got into power - because I have experienced such a society.""(Emphasis added)

It is interesting to read his testimony about the quality of Islamic education in the country. I'll paste the entire piece below after some highlights of his view of Malaysia's Islamic education:

The antagonistic disposition towards Western world and an obvious absent of zeal to pursue knowledge:
"New lecturers must meet the Saudi-Kurdish rector in his opulent rooms on campus. He invites us to settle down into the comfort and security of dogma. It is us against the world; and the world, especially the western hemisphere, is very wicked. Believers, he tells us, having nothing new to learn. Western-style free inquiry is aimless. Besides, what is the point of free inquiry if God has already revealed to us the whole truth?"

"In Islamic settings we have devout students who have never thought critically about their faith. Despite being formally religious, Muslims are astonishingly reluctant to think about ultimate issues. I asked my senior students to debate the question of the providence of God. Every Friday, prayers rise from thousands of minarets, pleading for Muslim unity, food for the starving, freedom for the oppressed. Nothing happens; nothing changes. Is not the silence of God theologically puzzling? Almost all of them quickly dropped the course I was teaching."

"As the only philosophy department in Malaysia, we were under constant suspicion. One day, the rector declared, without consultation, that philosophy was an unIslamic discipline. All staff were to be transferred within 24 hours to the department of revealed knowledge; their research and teaching were to be Islamicised under decanal supervision. I was shocked to see my colleagues praise this decision. I was informed that I was no longer allowed to teach but could research on "a topic that has no implications about the truth of The True Religion"."

The sustained delusion among the faculty members and students (implicating the government agencies and political parties) on Arab history and it languages:
"The crucial intellectual defect with my Muslim colleagues in the faculty of revealed knowledge in my view was their total lack of a sense of history. These men accepted the Koran's patently unhistorical claim that there has been in every age since the world began an articulate and developed monotheism. More dangerously, they believed in the myth of an early Islamic utopia, a time of universal freedom, tolerance and moral perfection."

"Classical antiquity was actually full of brutality and squalor. Islam in its Arab origins was a revolutionary movement with the normal quota of bloodshed, compromise and hypocrisy. Apologists for every defeated civilisation speak of a return to a pure past. Their idealism is not only a factual error about a dead past, but a political tragedy about the living present. The past is paradise because the present is hell."

"Although the university is financed by the Malay government, the senate decided that modern Arabic should be a requirement for all students and lecturers. While a reading knowledge of classical Arabic is necessary for scholarly access to the Koran and Islamic literature, modern colloquial Arabic is unnecessary. The official argument was that the adoption of a single spoken tongue would unite the Muslim community worldwide - yet 23 Arab nations speak the same language without any signs of political unity. Iraq and Kuwait are not divided by a language barrier. Surprisingly, the senate's decision was welcomed by the Malays whose own language was dismissed as primitive. The international staff tolerated the ordinance with supine indifference. I condemned it as "Arab linguistic imperialism" and had my reservations minuted. My examination questions were henceforth subject to the rector's approval."

The ignorance and narrow-mindedness of faculty members:
"Among my friends were professors blessed with an encyclopaedic intimacy with the Koran, combined with a total ignorance of the Torah and the New Testament. I conducted an advanced class in comparative religion in which students had a chance, for the first time in their lives, to look at copies of the Judaeo-Christian scriptures in their original languages with parallel texts in English. The aim was to get Muslim students to identify and attack the presuppositions that made them feel so uniquely holy and special. Their academic advisers counselled them to drop this class as it "constituted a threat to their faith". Nothing must complicate the sublime simplicity of the true religion. Simplex sigillum veri (the simple is the sign of the true): some conservative Jews and Christians would concur. Narrow-mindedness at least is always ecumenical in scope."

Religious bigotry in the university:
"There was continuous and ugly sectarian controversy in the university leaving little time for research and teaching. Virtually everyone accused everyone else of heresy or disbelief. The Koran was quoted by all parties to a dispute, even when the claim was based on common sense. [...] Some granted women certain human rights; others saw in the Koran the most comprehensive charter for keeping women in their place. All were united in their hatred of the West where women's lives are scandalously free."

After reading Akhtar's testimony, I can finally make sense why some of Malaysian's most influential Islamic authority, the Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia (Malaysia Department of Islamic Development), has been perceived by some local Muslims as sectarian and have deviated from some of the official statements of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (which Malaysian representatives endorsed).

And also now, I can understand why some outspoken Member of Parliament like Zulkifli Noordin--who claimed to protect Islam and the interest of Muslims in the country--could be so ignorant of simple facts like Malaysian Christians do actually consider Al-Kitab as the Bible.

I'm not here despising Islamic studies as a whole. I'm much aware over the richness of Islamic theological/philosophical/jurisprudence discourse as carried out by many Muslim scholars around the world. Akhtar himself is one.

My point is that it's not difficult to see that all the idiosyncrasies in Malaysia as carried out by those who claimed to work in the name of Islam and the interest of Muslims (besides Noordin, we have Perkasa's Ibrahim Ali) have something to do with Akhtar's observation: the questionable quality and ethos of the Islamic education in the country as sanctioned by the UMNO-BN government.

The entire testimony copied from Times Higher Education website:

I lived in Malaysia for three years in the kind of uncertainty westerners face only in times of war. The five daily calls to prayer are the only predictable events in the capital city, Kuala Lumpur. The power cuts are frequent, the traffic jams continuous. Islam is the official religion, but materialism is the ruling creed.

Living in a state where Islam was empowered deepened and darkened my idealistic view of my faith and my people. Though born and raised partly in Pakistan, I had a second childhood in northern industrial England. Here I belonged to a powerless minority and a despised religion. Upon arrival at the International Islamic University, I joined the ruling Muslim majority. Before, when I was in the minority, it was easy to play the moral card.

New lecturers must meet the Saudi-Kurdish rector in his opulent rooms on campus. He invites us to settle down into the comfort and security of dogma. It is us against the world; and the world, especially the western hemisphere, is very wicked. Believers, he tells us, having nothing new to learn. Western-style free inquiry is aimless. Besides, what is the point of free inquiry if God has already revealed to us the whole truth?

I taught philosophy and comparative religion. It is, I think, an abuse of the podium in a university directly to encourage students either away from or towards personal religious commitment. But a good teacher should puncture the immature and incoherent religious beliefs of zealous undergraduates. In Islamic universities, students and faculty alike are obsessed with the defence of Islam against western Christian and secular liberal accusation. As a student in Cambridge in the late 1970s, my fellow philosophy students were youthful atheists aggressively dismissive of all religion, particularly Islam, as alien, obscurantist and hypocritical.

As a lecturer, I could never dismiss religious faith with the sherry party cleverness of my philosophy teachers. They mocked the virgin birth (endorsed by the Koran, too) and the resurrection. They said things like: "You are all old enough to know how babies are born. And remember. Dead people stay dead." A teacher's duty is not to use shock tactics, but rather to refine the simplistic faith of his flock. If some end up losing their faith, along with their virginity, so be it.

I am not so consumed by philosophical zeal as to seek to destroy the simple faith of simple people. But let us not spare university students. In western universities one meets immaturely cynical atheists who cover their walls with portraits of Marx. In Islamic settings we have devout students who have never thought critically about their faith. Despite being formally religious, Muslims are astonishingly reluctant to think about ultimate issues. I asked my senior students to debate the question of the providence of God. Every Friday, prayers rise from thousands of minarets, pleading for Muslim unity, food for the starving, freedom for the oppressed. Nothing happens; nothing changes. Is not the silence of God theologically puzzling? Almost all of them quickly dropped the course I was teaching.

The crucial intellectual defect with my Muslim colleagues in the faculty of revealed knowledge in my view was their total lack of a sense of history. These men accepted the Koran's patently unhistorical claim that there has been in every age since the world began an articulate and developed monotheism. More dangerously, they believed in the myth of an early Islamic utopia, a time of universal freedom, tolerance and moral perfection.

In the West, until recently, there was a similarly romantic view of the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome. Classical antiquity was actually full of brutality and squalor. Islam in its Arab origins was a revolutionary movement with the normal quota of bloodshed, compromise and hypocrisy. Apologists for every defeated civilisation speak of a return to a pure past. Their idealism is not only a factual error about a dead past, but a political tragedy about the living present. The past is paradise because the present is hell.

Among my friends were professors blessed with an encyclopaedic intimacy with the Koran, combined with a total ignorance of the Torah and the New Testament. I conducted an advanced class in comparative religion in which students had a chance, for the first time in their lives, to look at copies of the Judaeo-Christian scriptures in their original languages with parallel texts in English. The aim was to get Muslim students to identify and attack the presuppositions that made them feel so uniquely holy and special. Their academic advisers counselled them to drop this class as it "constituted a threat to their faith". Nothing must complicate the sublime simplicity of the true religion. Simplex sigillum veri (the simple is the sign of the true): some conservative Jews and Christians would concur. Narrow-mindedness at least is always ecumenical in scope.

My doctoral work was on the metaphysics and epistemology of Christian dogma. Working on these themes in an Islamic environment readily brought accusation and insinuation. Some said I was secretly a Christian; others hinted I was pro-Jewish, a serious charge since it could lead to instant expulsion from the university. We were a medieval community.

There was continuous and ugly sectarian controversy in the university leaving little time for research and teaching. Virtually everyone accused everyone else of heresy or disbelief. The Koran was quoted by all parties to a dispute, even when the claim was based on common sense. The scripture is plastic to our wishes: it has wise maxims elastic enough to cover the aspirations of all contenders. There are no illegitimate interpretations. What matters is the prestige of the interpreter: a brilliant interpreter can get away with anything. Some granted women certain human rights; others saw in the Koran the most comprehensive charter for keeping women in their place. All were united in their hatred of the West where women's lives are scandalously free.

Although the university is financed by the Malay government, the senate decided that modern Arabic should be a requirement for all students and lecturers. While a reading knowledge of classical Arabic is necessary for scholarly access to the Koran and Islamic literature, modern colloquial Arabic is unnecessary. The official argument was that the adoption of a single spoken tongue would unite the Muslim community worldwide - yet 23 Arab nations speak the same language without any signs of political unity. Iraq and Kuwait are not divided by a language barrier. Surprisingly, the senate's decision was welcomed by the Malays whose own language was dismissed as primitive. The international staff tolerated the ordinance with supine indifference. I condemned it as "Arab linguistic imperialism" and had my reservations minuted. My examination questions were henceforth subject to the rector's approval.

Islam is practised with ritual precision and with perfect reverence for its Arabian dimension. All Malays, including the royal family, look up to Arabs, the white men of the East.The Koran is not theologically Arabian, but it is ritually and behaviouristically Arabian through and through. It promotes Arab interests, sanctifies Arab culture and language, promotes an Arab-centred Islamic brotherhood and vigorously encourages the defence of Arab political rights in the Holy Land. With these privileges granted by God and never questioned by non-Arab Muslims, one can see why Arabs see themselves as patrons rather than mere adherents of Islam. If we allow for Semitic hyperbole in the Koran, Islam may have been meant solely for Arabs: its status as universal religion may be due to a misunderstanding of Arabic idiom.

Most of the literature in the university library was in English: there was virtually nothing of quality being published in the Islamic world. This modern movement of an endless intellectual curiosity about all things is one we owe to western man. In modern analytical philosophy, there is hardly anything in Arabic or any other Islamic tongue. Philosophical discussion is best conducted in English. Owing to the grammatical limitations of Arabic, it is impossible to express most philosophical claims with an acceptable degree of rigour and clarity. Moreover, Arabic is a devotional language lacking the vocabulary requisite for detached discussion of controversial matters.

As the only philosophy department in Malaysia, we were under constant suspicion. One day, the rector declared, without consultation, that philosophy was an unIslamic discipline. All staff were to be transferred within 24 hours to the department of revealed knowledge; their research and teaching were to be Islamicised under decanal supervision. I was shocked to see my colleagues praise this decision. I was informed that I was no longer allowed to teach but could research on "a topic that has no implications about the truth of The True Religion". The dean decided that I should be permitted to investigate the Dead Sea Scrolls.

I resigned, no longer a defender of the faith. Freedom is a precondition of profundity: no wonder philosophy has no place in the cultural life of Muslims. Religion is merely ritual without the spiritual introspection that philosophical insight brings. I still like mysticism and even concede the possibility of magic since I am a poet. But I cannot abandon rationalism for more than an hour a day. It is not the task of religion to seek to seduce us from the straight path of reason. Besides, we should be sceptical of any faith whose adherents are eager to offer themselves as models to the world.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Creator/creation temporal & economical distinction


A man tries to understand the nature of God and asked him: "God, how long is a million years to you?"

God answered: "A million years is like a second to me."

Then the man asked: "Oh I see... Then how much is a million dollars to you?"

And God replied: "A million dollars is like a cent to me."

Then the man asked: "In that case, can you give me a cent?"

God: "Sure, just a second, son."

""For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the LORD. "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.""
(Isaiah 55.8-9)

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Predestination v.s. Free-will: A fresh approach


The 'Presdestination v.s. Free Will' is a perennial debate. What follows is a perspective that I have developed concerning the issue.

First of all, the theological discussion on this topic is not primarily concern over objective truth per se, but subjective sensibility. Those who insist on the truthfulness of one position is in essence asserting one's subjective inclination for senses (i. e. meaningfulness) over the disagreeing party. To get what this means, one has to understand the rationale in both schools of thought.
Predestination-ism:
Those who are for predestination assumes that our appreciation for meaning of anything can only be derived from God's sovereignty. Therefore (a) the Creator's sovereignty is absolute and necessary, while (b) the creation's/creatures' are contingent or necessarily not necessary. Hence in order for us to make sense of anything, we have to affirm both (a) and (b).

Unless we affirm both, we (the subjects) cannot construe and possess any meaning in anything. And by 'anything', that includes our (subjective) appreciation of human's consciousness and decision. Hence, if the Creator's sovereignty is compromised, predestinationists believe that we have lost the ground to affirm our capacity to arrive at meaning; placing us in the position of not able to know or understand anything at all.

Free-will-ism:
Those who are for free-will assumes that our appreciation for meaning of anything can only be derived from human's consciousness and decision. Therefore (a1) human's consciousness and decision are absolute & necessary, while (b1) God's is contingent. Hence in order for us to make sense of anything, we have to affirm both (a1) and (b1).

Unless we affirm both, we (the subjects) cannot construe and possess any meaning in anything. And by 'anything', that includes our (subjective) appreciation of God's sovereignty. Hence, if human's consciousness and decision are compromised, free-willists believe that we have lost the ground to affirm our capacity to arrive at meaning; placing us in the position of not able to know or understand anything at all.

Understanding the rationale underneath both systems of thought reveals that the predestinationists and free-willists are driven to affirm what they affirm due to the very same reason: that is to secure the human's capacity to arrive at and appreciate meaning. In other words, to be sensible.

Therefore it is the subjective sensibility that grounds and motivates both groups to affirm what they affirm rather than their possession of objective truth for their conclusion (which they often claim to be the case).

Besides both groups' relentless desire to protect human's capacity to appreciate meaning, both sides also share the following three affirmations:

1) Ontological distinction between God and us. (God/human freedom, God/human sovereignty, God/human knowledge, God/human wisdom, God/human capacity).

2) Temporal distinction between God and us. (God/human relation to time).

3) There are passages in the scriptures that can be contextually and validly argued in favor of both groups. (If anyone is doubtful of this, consult some of the best literatures from both camps in the market. For examples, D. A. Carson, Simon Gathercole, G. K. Beale, and John Piper on the predestinationist side, while Joel Green, James D. G. Dunn, and Ben Witherington III on the free-willist side).

For these reasons, neither sides of the debate are warranted to assert certainty of their own theological preference over against the other, be it predestination-ism or free-will-ism.

This, I see as an approach that acknowledges both groups' theological integrity that promotes unity and mutual understanding without violating or dismissing each other's concern and tradition. Through this framework, a predestinationist can whole-heartedly affirm the theological integrity of a free-willist, and likewise, the latter can unhesitantly acknowledge the former.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

The Pope and Rudolf Bultmann


This has been circulating around the web. Thought that I should share it too. To get the joke, you have to know a bit about the theologian mentioned.

Bultmann's famous work was on the 'demythologization' of the Bible. That means he assumed that the Bible contains many fictional stories. The fact that these stories are fiction should not affect the faith because, to Bultmann, the commitment to Christianity is primarily existential. Bultmann remained a committed Lutheran theologian all his life.

Here's the joke:
One day the Pope received a phone call from an archaeologist in Palestine.

"Holy Father," the archaeologist said, "I'm not sure how should I say this... don't know if it's fortunate or not that we have discovered what prove beyond doubt to be the very bones of Jesus!"

Hanging up, the Pope immediately sought consultation with his closest Cardinals. After revealing the situation, he asked them for suggestion. One Cardinal spoke up, "Holy Father, I believe there is someone who might be able to help. His name is Rudolf Bultmann."

With haste, the Pope called Bultmann's office at Marburg University. "Hi Bultmann, I'm afraid we have quite a problem here, and we hope perhaps you can advise us. Archaeologists in the Holy Land have discovered the bones of our Lord Jesus!"

After a moment of silence, Bultmann replied with astonishment: "What... he lived?!"