Thursday, December 27, 2012

Non-Christian scientists on Richard Dawkins

Philosopher of science Michael Ruse famously said that Richard Dawkins made him feel embarrassed to be an atheist.



Ruse graced Alister McGrath's book with this blurb: "The God Delusion makes me embarrassed to be an atheist, and the McGraths show why."

Recently Peter Higgs, the scientist who theorized the Higgs boson particle in the 1960s before it was discovered this year, is reported to have said the same thing about Dawkins: 
"He agreed with some of Dawkins' thoughts on the unfortunate consequences that have resulted from religious belief, but he was unhappy with the evolutionary biologist's approach to dealing with believers and said he agreed with those who found Dawkins' approach "embarrassing".

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Book Review: 'Unapologetic' by Francis Spufford

This is a very rebellious book! It is no less an apologetic work, yet rebels against the standard approaches to defend Christianity. Rather than giving reason why Christianity is true, Spufford is defending Christian emotions "of their intelligibility, of their grown-up dignity." (p.23)

The book's main argument is that "belief is made of, built from, sustained by, emotions" which are the stuffs that make Christianity "real". (p.19) Spufford demonstrates throughout the book how the Christian doctrines such as sin, Christology, ecclesiology, theodicy, and grace makes good emotional sense. Of course, it is not that easy to go into the distinction between reason and emotion, but that's not the point of the book. 

This book is an attractive read. By that, I mean it is easy to read and witty. It is written in common language, which means it has all the words we don't commonly read in books arguing for Christianity. For instance, Spufford described the sinful human nature as HPtFtU, short for 'human propensity to fuck things up'. So, those who take offense at words like this be warned. 

Though this book is a defense of the Christian faith, some of its notes may not sound right to Christian readers; for instance the author doesn't believe in hell. (p.181-182) Nevertheless, it contains very good explanation of sin, which I can immediately identify with:
[Sin] need not be dramatic, though. It can equally well just be the drifting into place of one more pleasant, indistinguishable little atom of wasted time, one more morning like all the others, which quietly discloses you to yourself. You're lying in the bath and you notice that you're thirty-nine and that the way you're living bears scarcely any resemblance to what you think you've always wanted; yet you got here by choice, by a long series of choices for things which, at any one moment, temporarily outbid things you say you wanted most. And as the water cools, and the light of Saturday morning in summer ripples heartlessly on the bathroom ceiling, you glimpse an uflattering vision of yourself as a being whose wants make no sense, don't harmonise: whose desires, deep down, are discordantly arranged, so that you truly want to possess and you truly want not to, at the very same time. You're equipped, you realise, for farce (or even tragedy) more than you are for happy endings. The HPtFtU dawns on you. You have, indeed, fucked things up. Of course you have. You're human, and that's where we live; that's our normal experience. (p.28-29)
This book taught me that during the Second World War, when Randolph Churchill (son of Winston Churchill) read the Old Testament stories of plagues and tribulations, he said, "What a shit God is!" Yet more importantly, it also showed me how one can deal with such exasperation.

Spufford is a good writer (he is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at University of London), and the book is meant to present a fresh side of Christianity to those who seek ways to connect their intellectual admission with their emotion. To do that, the author repeatedly appealed to common experiences.

Monday, December 24, 2012

A reason to be merry, from Richard Bauckham


"The earliest Christology was already the highest Christology."
(God Crucified: Monotheism And Christology in the New Testament [UK: Paternoster Press, 1998), p.viii. Emphasis added.)

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Bibliophile curse...

Some day in the distant future when I hit mid-life crisis, and my wife came home horrified seeing this set on the shelves, I'll say, "Babe, others collect antique plates and telephones..."


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Book Review: 'A Fine-Tuned Universe' by Alister E. McGrath

This volume is the expanded version of Alister McGrath's 2009 Gifford Lectures. Its main thesis is that "certain facts are observed which are indeed "surprising." Yet we can easily imagine a standpoint from which they are not surprising and might even be anticipated. The Christian vision of reality, which has its own distinct evidential basis and intrinsic rationality, offers us a standpoint from which we may view the natural world and see certain things that others might indeed regard as puzzling or strange---such as fine-tuning---as consonant with the greater picture that the Christian has to offer." (p.xiii, emphasis original)

To put it simply, McGrath is arguing that Christianity can help us to make sense of the "anthropic principle" (the universe's intriguing friendliness towards life) holistically, comprehending it for its truthfulness, goodness, and beauty. However, McGrath emphasizes the modest scope of this attempt, saying that it is not a proof of the Christian belief in God, but more like a lens to perceive nature as an "authorized sign of the transcendent." (p.12) The book is separated into 2 major parts: A Trinitarian Natural Theology and Fine-Tuning: Observations and Interpretations

McGrath began by announcing the crisis of natural theology, saying that it has been marginalized by theologians. There are 3 reasons for this crisis. First, the classical natural theology is a product of modernity, out of the Enlightenment. (p.15-16) Hence it doesn't fit in the present era of postmodernity. Secondly, the ambivalence of nature leads "as much to natural atheology as to a natural theology." (p.18, emphasis added) Therefore it is seen as a failure to provide reliable foundation for belief in God. Thirdly, Karl Barth's devastating critique that natural theology is dictated by human rather than God has left a lasting legacy among theologians. (p.18-19) A Trinitarian natural theology is McGrath's remedy for this crisis.

By 'Trinitarian', McGrath meant an understanding of the natural world and our engagement with it as articulated by Christian orthodoxy, "a consequence of Christian revelation." (p.36) This renewed natural theology differs from Deism and Theism in that it "holds that God created the world, continues to direct it through divine providence, and guides the interpreters of both the books of nature and Scripture through the illumination of the Holy Spirit." (p72) It is through this Trinitarian natural theology that we can appreciate the truthfulness, goodness and beauty of the universe's surprising intriguing friendliness to life.

McGrath does not shy from acknowledging that this way of relating Christian revelation to our observation of the natural world is a circular explanation. This circularity set out as "A explains B while B justifies A." By drawing from Carl Hempel's philosophical discussion on science and examples of scientific explanations such as Peter Lipton's theory of cosmology, McGrath argued that, "There is nothing invalid or improper about this form of explanatory argument, which is widely encountered in scientific explanation." (p.52-53) 

The rest of the book is McGrath's application of this renewed natural theology to the anthropic principle seen in cosmology, biogenesis, chemistry, and the evolutionary history and complexity of life.

McGrath's project can be summarized as such: The sciences have produced some surprising and puzzling observation about the world, that is it is friendly towards life. And sciences can't tell us why is this so. Natural theology on the other hand, when renewed according to its Trinitarian orientation, can provide the framework to explain sciences' puzzling observation. This is not a proof for God's existence but merely a lens when used provides a clue to the divine. By relating the anthropic principle with the proposed Trinitarian natural theology, McGrath saw "potential to illuminate and enrich both science and religion," and "further the human quest for meaning in this often puzzling and bewildering universe." (p.221)

I have some questions to this volume. First, it has to do with McGrath's anachronistic categorization of natural theology that predates its emergence in the 18th century. If natural theology was recognizably as what it was only from 18th century onwards as "theology that seeks to prove the existence and attributes of God from the evidence of purpose and design in the universe" (p.12), how then could McGrath say there was natural theology recognizably as what it was prior to that?  

McGrath categorized Paul's "Areopagus address" and some of the early Church fathers' works as natural theology (p.11), yet if one wants to be categorically precise, these are at best proto-natural-theology and not natural theology.

Unless of course McGrath categorizes these proto-natural-theology as natural theology, which brings me to my second question. One of the main, if not the main, characteristics of natural theology is its contrast from "revelatory" or "revealed theology". For instance,
Natural theology is the practice of philosophically reflecting on the existence and nature of God independent of real or apparent divine revelation of scripture. Traditionally, natural theology involves weighing arguments for and against God's existence, and it is contrasted with revealed theology, which may be carried out within the context of ostensible revelation of scripture. For example, revealed theology may take as authoritative certain New Testament claims about Jesus and then construct a philosophical or theological model for understanding how Jesus may be human and divine. Natural theology, on the other hand, develops arguments about God based on the existence of the cosmos, the very concept of God, and different views of the nature of the cosmos, such as its ostensible order and value.
(Charles Taliaferro, 'The Project of Natural Theology,' in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, eds. William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland [UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009], p.1. Emphasis original.)
McGrath knows about this antithesis between natural theology and revealed theology. Any discussion of the former assumes its contrast from the latter as it is from this antithetical characteristic that each is known to the other. Any coercion of revealed theology into the category of natural theology, or vice versa, one creates a pseudo category. And this seems to be what McGrath has done:
What if natural theology is itself seen as a subordinate aspect of revealed theology, legitimated by the revealed theology rather than by natural presuppositions or insights? What is the authorization of natural theology is understood to lie, not in its own intrinsic structures, nor in an autonomous act of human self-justification, but in divine revelation itself? (p.20)
McGrath envisioned the project as a contribution to the "longstanding debate within the Christian academic community concerning the theological legitimacy and significance of natural theology" (p.xiv), yet ironically in his subordination of natural theology under revealed theology, he has unwittingly confirming and perpetuating its illegitimacy.

So, if classical natural theology is the opposite to revealed theology, and if McGrath's Trinitarian natural theology is "vision of reality articulated by Christian orthodoxy" or "way of looking at things" as "consequence of the Christian revelation" (p.36), then isn't his theology really a revealed theology? If yes, then what McGrath is doing is not so much renewing natural theology but renaming revealed theology.

McGrath distinguishes his Trinitarian approach from the classical natural theology, saying that the latter is 
merely one approach to natural theology, in this case shaped by the fundamental assumptions and agendas of the Enlightenment. Yet there are other approaches, such as that adopted and commended in the present volume: the attitude to nature that is mandated and facilitated by the Christian revelation. (p.19)
However, without the characteristic contrast from revealed theology, what is left of natural theology? And this brings me back to the point of McGrath's anachronistic categorization of natural theology: He transposes the renamed revealed theology unto Paul and the early Church fathers so that he can call their proto-natural-theology as natural theology.Besides, is there really other versions of natural theology which predates 18th century other than McGrath's anachronistic category? If not, how then could there be other approaches as claimed? If McGrath insists that his version is really a natural theology---not a renamed revealed theology---then he has not demonstrate what of it that is recognizably as one?

These questions should not overshadow the merit of the book. McGrath's insistence to interpret the natural world through revelation is a call to uphold the centrality of the scripture in Christian's engagement in the sciences. And McGrath has shown how this can be done in the second half of the book.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Theologies' flowers


Came across this...
You’ve heard of the Calvinist flower is the Tulip. But do you know what's the Arminian's flower?

It's the Daisy—He loves me, He loves me not, He loves me, He loves me not,…

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The latest 'Church and Society in Asia Today' deals with science

The Church and Society in Asia Today, vol.15, no.2 (2012) discusses the relationship between science and the Christian faith. It is a collection of 5 essays.

Roland Chia's article Science and the Christian Faith gives a broad coverage of the relationship between Christianity and science from history as a rebuttal to the charge that these two cannot go along together. He traces the present discourse back to the medieval West, when theologians deliberated on the relationship between reason and revelation. Even in this preceding form, "reason and revelation are consistent with one another." (p.72) To Roland, the approach to relate the two is through dialogue, which "recognizes important differences between science and religion, it rejects the view that the two are so distinct from each other that it is impossible to bring them together in constructive conversation." (p.83)

The second article Science and Technology is by L. T. Jeyachandran. About a quarter of the article is his identification of the 5 philosophical assumptions that enabled science, and how the Christian worldview supports them. In his concluding remark, L. T. introduces a "hierarchy of disciplines" which lists history as the most fundamental, then followed by theological reflection based on history that provides the philosophical ground for other disciplines like applied sciences, humanities and fine arts. (p.96) When we overturn this hierarchy, we overturn also our perception on technology, allowing it to depersonalizes us and posing ambiguity that, if unchecked, leads to destructive consequences.

Chew Wee's essay Christ and His Cosmological Gospel: Implications for Science and Technology highlights the need for Christians to reconceptualize the engagement in the sciences as an avenue to be "salt and light in the midst of secular scientism." (p.100) The reason for this is because the gospel message concerns not only individual's eternal destiny but also the "salvation of the whole cosmos." (p.104) Therefore, Chew Wee argues, we need to "develop new discipleship approaches" that "recover a biblically informed identity in Christ and to look at secular education and workplace culture through a biblical worldview, which would facilitate the renewal of minds and help Christians become effective witnesses and agents of change." (p.110)

Ng Kam Weng clarified the confusion surrounding Galileo and Christianity in his article Galileo's Trial on Trial: From Teleological Science to Mathematical Empirical Science. Those who reject Christianity in favor of science often brought up Galileo's trial as an example that Christianity is hostile to scientific advancement. This article contends that the "Galileo affair was not a battle between Christianity and science. It was a battle between old science (Aristotelian teleology) and new science (Galileo's mathematical, mechanical science)." (p.114) 

The article also notes that there was less than 10 astronomers who accepted heliocentric system between 1543 to 1600, that Galileo's theory that the earth moves was unacceptable until Newton's gravitational theory is developed in 1687, and Galileo's observation based on tidal phenomenon was dubious. The convincing proof for the rotation of the earth only came about in the "mid-1800s with the introduction of the Foucault pendulum." (p.116) Kam Weng highlighted how well was Galileo treated throughout his trial. After his stay in the palace of the grand duke of Tuscany, Galileo lived at the residence of the archbishop at Siena before he returned to Arcetri and was provided pension until his death in 1642. An appendix examining the famous Scopes Monker trial is included in this essay.

The final article A Scientific Spotlight on Naturalism is written by Perry Chan to highlight "the challenges faced by the church here when we fail to understand the basic underpinnings of science." Perry notes that most churches in this region has not critically examine the alleged conflict between science and Christianity promoted by naturalism in a secular culture. (p.129) So he demonstrates how to critic naturalism by pointing out the improbability for naturalism to generate the biological mechanism of DNA. With regards to equipping the churches to engage in this issue, Perry proposes the training of "clergy in philosophical logic and holding science and faith workshops in the seminary." (p.136) (Speaking of which, there will be a course on this at Trinity Theological College.)

This edition of Church and Society in Asia Today is informative, and I think would be particularly helpful to expose readers to the broad matters involved in the science-Christianity discourse. Personally, I had hoped that there was more attention given to the discussion on the philosophical criteria that define 'science'. Nonetheless, this journal serves as a significant reminder: "For the Christian, scientific knowledge is an important aspect of the providential grace of God. Christians therefore see science and its exciting potentials and promises as God's gift to humankind which, when properly appropriated and applied, would contribute to human flourishing." (p.66)

Friday, December 14, 2012

Local society's 'post-Christian' political expectation

Something came to mind when reading about news on Michael Palmer earlier this week. It's about our society's expectation of rulers' moral standing in term of marital fidelity.

In many civilizations in the past all the way to the present, we find societies seldom demand their rulers to have upright moral standing in upholding their own marital fidelity. Be it Caesars or Chinese Emperors or Henry VIII or some contemporary rulers (that I shall not name) of certain countries in Asia, their marital affair is seldom a factor to be considered when evaluating their political expediency. These rulers can have many wives or concubines, in the case of Nero some men too. As long as the rulers are governing well, there should not be objection to however their marital life is.

So I wonder how does the present consciousness to include marital fidelity as part of the evaluation of rulers (or politicians) come from?

Here I think it's relevant to hear Oliver O' Donovan: "The more the problem of our own modernity engages us, the more we need to see modernity against its background." (The Desire of the Nations, p.195)

From this, my very rough guess is that this consciousness is a sort of 'post-Christian' political expectation. By post-Christian, I mean it is not something recognizably Christian yet it is a plausibility enabled by Christendom in the past. The society's expectation for politicians to be morally accountable in their marriage is something that is inherited from the western Christendom. It is therefore not too surprising that this sort of consciousness is manifested much earlier in Europe and America (think of all the sexual scandals surfaced in the past decades), which are societies that have negotiated their sociopolitical consciousness with Christian scripture and history. They are the children or grandchildren of Christendom.

The local postcolonial society has inherited much of the sociopolitical structure in its own founding. This point was made by Wang Gungwu: "The new Asian states after 1945 did not, of course, haev to copy any of them. But they did seem to have taken them as guides, if not as exact models." (Nation-Building: Five Southeast Asian Histories, p.251-252) This, coupled with the exposure to the various scandals of western politicians through the media for the past 3 decades, has built the (to use Charles Taylor's phrase) "social imaginary" of what to be expected from rulers in the locals' political consciousness.

This is my guess why locals are demanding accountability of the rulers even in their marital affair on top of their public offices. This resembles the expectation of rulership of the church in 1 Tim 3:5, "If someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church?"

I may be stretching far, yet if my rough guess is not too wrong, then the local society's political expectation from politicians is no less a secularized form of ecclesial governance, like a shadow of the real.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Book Review: 'Seven Days That Divide the World' by John C. Lennox

I learnt about John Lennox through his debate with Richard Dawkins, organized by Fixed Point Foundation at University of Alabama in 2007. What draws me to Lennox's works is not so much his impressive academic achievement, but his gift in communicating the Christian faith to audience in secular setting that often pegs science against Christianity. This is largely not only due to his background as a Professor of Mathematics, Laing Trust Fellow in Mathematics and Philosophy of Science, and Pastoral Advisor at Green Templeton College of Oxford University, but also his experiences of working in the atheistic-communist environment of eastern Europe and a guest lecturer at Russia's Academy of Sciences. His three doctorates are from Cambridge, Wales, and Oxford.

Lennox's book Seven Days That Divide the World: The Beginning According to Genesis and Science (USA: Zondervan, 2011) explores how should we understand the creation account in Genesis in view of what we know from the ancient text, the present scientific knowledge, as well as the integrity of Christian discipleship. To Lennox, our understanding of Genesis is not merely informative but should affect the way our Christian life is lived. As he remarked,
It is one thing to wrestle with the meaning of the days of Genesis; it is another to understand, apply, and live the whole message of Genesis. And if we are not doing the latter, I am not sure that the former will profit us much. (p. 116)
This book comes in 5 chapters with 5 appendixes. The first chapter But Does It Move? A Lesson From History draws the Galileo affair to set the stage for the whole book. Lennox clarified that the 17th century controversy was not so much a competition between science and Christianity. Lennox demonstrated that Galileo himself did not see conflict between his scientific conjecture with his Christian faith. The conflict was between two "world-pictures", that is between the then pervasive Aristotelian-fixed-earth picture and Copernicus-Galileo-earth-moving picture.

The second chapter But Does It Move? A Lesson About Scripture highlights the nature of interpretation on the Bible based on the Galileo affair. What I find helpful is Lennox's clarification of the dubious category of "literal" and "metaphorical". He pointed out that what we mean by "literal" are sometimes more complicated. For instance, "the (literal) ascension of Christ is a metaphor of his (literal) assumption of universal authority." (p. 24)

To Lennox, the language of the Bible is "phenomenological" which describes what appeared to everyone. Therefore the Bible talks about the sun rising, which appeared to both scientists and non-scientists alike. This language does not commit the text to any position, be it fixed-earth or earth-moving view. It just describes what appeared to everyone. The guiding principle to interpreting the Bible is to figure out the "natural understanding of a passage, sentence, word, or phrase in its context, historically, culturally, and linguistically." (p.22)

Lennox cautioned us to avoid two extremes. On one hand, we should recognize the danger of tying interpretation of Scripture to prevalent scientific understanding. Those who disagreed with Galileo have tied their interpretation to the widespread Aristotelianism at that time. On the other hand, we should not ignore science as God has given us minds to relate the created world with the Bible.

The third chapter But Is It Old? The Days of Creation is the main gist of the book. In it, Lennox masterfully demonstrated how we can see the phenomenological language "day" used in Genesis chapter 1 to mean 24-hour day, and to believe that the universe is a few billions year-old. Such allowance is enabled by Lennox's note of the linguistic construction of verses 1 to 3. Those who are familiar with this discussion would recognize that Lennox's position is a variant of what is commonly known as the gap theory.

This theory contends that a long period (probably few million years) has transpired between what God did in Genesis 1:1-2 and God's creative activity from verse 3 onwards. Lennox's modification of this theory lies in his insertion of gap between each of the six days of creation. This means that the six days did not occur in one continuous week ending with God's rest in the seventh day. Instead, each day is separated by millions of years. The lack of definite article on day 1 to day 5 and the usage of perfect tense of "created" in the original Hebrew text are among the reasons Lennox marshaled as his justification. Hence, Lennox qualified his position as one that is reached "quite apart from any scientific considerations". (p.53)

The main objection against Lennox's view is that the ancient Israelites understood the six days as occurred in one continuous week, which ends with Sabbath as the seventh day. (Exodus 20:9-11) Lennox's answer is that we cannot parallel our regular week with the seven days of creation because they are not identical. The creation sequence happened only once, with God resting from the work of creating the world. This is different from our one-week sequence which is continuous through the years with us resting from our work for one day per week and then resume our work the next day after Sabbath.

However I find Lennox's answer not as strong as it seems. Exodus 20:9-11 clearly draws a parallel between the regular week with the six days when God created the world. This means that the ancient Israelites understood the six days as one continuous week. Historically and culturally, I think the ancient Israelites are nearer to the authors of the text of Genesis than both Lennox and I, and hence their understanding of what the six days mean is nearer to the intended meaning of the text. If this is so, then we should give priority to their understanding of the six days. 

This would go along Lennox's own principle that we should interpret the Bible according to the "natural understanding of a passage, sentence, word, or phrase in its context, historically, culturally, and linguistically." (p.22) So, I am not saying that ancient Israelites' interpretation of Genesis 1 represents how the text is meant to be understood. All I am suggesting is that if we employ Lennox's hermeneutical method, then that is probably the logical conclusion we should reach. Ironically, it is a conclusion which Lennox does not seem to prefer.

Chapter four Human Beings: A Special Creation? deals with the condition of humanity. Lennox wrote that the Scripture does not give us the exact dating of the age of humanity. He is particularly critical of Denis Alexander's interpretation that Adam and Eve were Neolithic farmers who were chosen out of millions others by God to receive spiritual revelation. This topic necessitates the discussion on the origin of sin, which Lennox does not shy away.

The final chapter The Message of Genesis 1 is Lennox' theological exposition on the relevance of the text to Christian life. It reaffirms the important implication of the doctrine of the creator God and the creatureliness of the creation.

The 5 appendixes supplement the main body of the book by engaging various pertinent topics such as the ancient near eastern background of Genesis, the recently proposed "Cosmic Temple" reading by John Walton, the convergence of Genesis and contemporary science, the relationship between Genesis 1 and 2, theistic evolution and the appropriation of the notion of God of the gaps. Overall, this is a small yet very resourceful book on this important subject. And Lennox has shown himself not only as an astute participant in this debate, but also a passionate disciple of Christ who desires to testify to the truthfulness of the inspired text through his own life.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Divine Promises from Crushed Hopes: The Theology of Tan Soo Inn

Many Christians in Malaysia and Singapore are familiar with Tan Soo Inn (TSI). Besides being a popular evangelical speaker at seminars and preacher for church's services, TSI is known and probably most influential through his weekly e-commentary. Many of these commentaries have been compiled and published in three books: Making Sense: 52 Meditations for Heart and Mind (MS), Travel Mercies: Reflections from the Road called Life (TM), and Thinking On The Run: Essays on Community, Vocation, Life, Death, Media and Other Stuff (TOR).

Many people, myself included, have been edified by these bite-sized yet lively and often humorous reflections. Readers of TSI's e-commentary or those who have attended his talk usually encounter a combined presence of crude realism and vivid idealism. For instance, one of the lessons he cherished from his reading of The Lord of the Rings (the eighth time by 2005) is this: "We live and die, but as we live in this world we all have the opportunity to make our contribution to the pages of history." (TM, 9, emphasis added)

In his manifesto for spiritual friendship, Friends In Broken World: Thoughts On Friendship From The Emmaus Road (FBW), TSI describes a realization of "a world that is so full of promise is also a world full of people with crushed hopes." (8, emphasis added) This convoluted sense is intriguing... almost unsettling. In his preface to TM, James M. Houston describes TSI's reflection as "vibrates with the breath of life, and it lives in the light of God's grace," since it comes from TSI's own life "full as it has been with suffering and redemption." (TM, viii, emphasis added) And I wonder whether can such presence be described systematically?

I'm here attempting to draft a map of TSI's theology by stitching together his various e-commentary, hoping to highlight the supporting theological structures of his reflection, and so systematically interpret his thoughts. An attempt which I suspect would be amusing to TSI himself. (Stop laughing already, Soo Inn!)

TSI's Theological Structure
I suspect that the present attempt to systematize TSI's theology would be an aversion to him. The reason is not that he is against the orderliness of systematic thinking per se but because life is often experienced not in tidy and neat manner. The prominent supporting structure of TSI's theology is this view on the circumstances in life.

To him, it is a given that life is messy. When it comes to making big decision in life---such as whether to emigrate or not---TSI reckons that, "Life is not that neat and tidy." (TOR, 187) Part of this messiness is the inevitability that life is bombarded by pain and sorrow. In his own words, "The reality is that we now live in a fallen world where pain is a given." (TOR, 94) And it is from such bombardment that one's insight into the deepest experiences of the human condition developed. As TSI writes:
Sooner or later, in one way or another, life disappoints us. [...] When you go through a major tragedy, your eyes  are changed. Suddenly, you see that all around you are people who are also hurting and broken. You realized that a world that is so full of promise is also a world full of people with crushed hopes. (FBW, 7, 8, emphasis added)
In the event when life seems to be smooth-sailing, TSI reminds us that death is awaiting for us:
...even if we are able to find some measure of joy in our relationships and in our work, we have to face the absurdity of death. (TM, 18)
Death is not foreign to TSI. Anyone who reads TSI's works recognizes that the turning point in his life was when he lost his first wife Hee Ling to lung cancer on 24 February 1993. That dark period is remembered as his "personal tsunami". (TM, ix; TOR, 127) In fact, he lost more than a wife in that tragedy; he lost himself. (unpublished e-Commentary: Graceworks — Promoting Spiritual Friendship, 5 October 2012) However, that tsunami was but the first. Subsequently, he lost his beloved father on 15 October 2003, his mentor Prem on 26 December 2006, his closest cousin Roson Ho on 31 March 2008, and his two good friends (TM, 128; TOR, 134, 124, x). If there are some truths in the saying that 'The dead doesn't experience death; it is the living who feels the death of the dead', then TSI has braced through many deaths. Life is painful. It is messy. "[Death] whenever it comes, is always a surprise." (TM, 129) The human condition simply resists our desired order. This is seen in TSI's introduction to his selection of essays that do not fit under any category:
Our desire to be able to put everything into their proper places is another attempt to master our lives. We learn sooner or later that there is very little we can do to control life. [...] And so there are those issues in life that resist simple categorisation. (TOR, 173)
This disorderliness is experienced through the interruption that we received in our life. In his essay titled 'Interruptions', TSI wrote, "[Life] is such that there will always be interruptions." (TM, 126) And he quoted a remark made to Henri Nouwen:
You know... my whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered that my interruptions were my work. (TM, 125)
TSI would say, "So is our life." This trajectory underlies his reflections on two complex issues: Theodicy and the divine-objective nature of ethics.

Tension of Theodicy
To TSI, the promises in life are only true if they emerged out of the crushed hopes; the answer to the question of evil is only real if it is uncovered from within the dark. He sees the redemptive significance of the messiness of life in the mess itself:
After the storm(s) things are clearer. You tend to see what is more important in life, relationships, the church, etc. (TOR, 93)
...as many have discovered, it is during the most difficult of times that we learn from our most precious lessons. It is during the most difficult of times that we discover God. (TM, x)

...God redeems the pains of a fallen world by using them to teach us the deepest lessons. In our pain and helplessness we receive the empowering comfort of God (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). [...]  God of the Cross uses pain to enable us to receive His grace and to teach us His ways. He uses the pains of this life to enable us to receive His empowerment. [...] it is the against the backdrop of our weaknesses that God's grace shines brightest. (unpublished e-Commentary: Boasting of our Weaknesses, 9 April 2007)
This redemptive consciousness in the rubble of devastation is TSI's tensed theodicy. It is a theodicy shaped by the Cross; a theology that takes for granted the given messiness of life. (Hence his workshop on The Wounded Healer: The Blessings Of Brokenness during the Wholistic Christian Counselling in Asia Conference in July 2012.) TSI listed apostle Paul as an example of this theodicy:
Perhaps, like Paul, we will discover sometimes, it is precisely because He loves us that He gives us the gift of pain. To ward off something worse. To ensure that we are in a stance where He can give us something better. (MS, 36)
Following his view on the circumstances in life and redemptive consciousness, TSI is suspicious over attempts to produce a systematic intellectual response to answer evil. If evil is experienced through the messiness of life, and life itself resists order, then how much confidence do we have in constructing an orderly account of these overbearing matters? Shouldn't we be less hesitant to acknowledge the mysterious?
I know that there are many attempts to harmonise the various claims in Scripture. These are useful. But sometimes these constructs sound too neat. Sometimes the tensions of mystery seems more honest. (TOR, 128)
For this reason, TSI sees the inclination for orderliness as the human attempt to rule over life despite the fact that the messiness and unpredictability of life poses an ontological pressure against such inclination, and hence defy it. Such seemingly innocuous pursue for self-mastery is for TSI a mirror reflection of human propensity to dethrone God from his rightful place. Such pursue is fundamentally an assertion of our authority over life. If life doesn't fit neatly within categories, any reflection over it should at least correspond to this unsettling experience. Nevertheless, human's reluctance to assent to this correspondence is strong. This is most obvious in our attempt to arbitrate ethics.

Divine-Objective Nature of Ethics
In his commentary on authority and ethics through the movie Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, TSI writes:
...the belief that if you had the necessary power you could make things right [is dangerous]. Trouble is, we end up putting our faith in our own understanding of what is right and wrong. And desiring the power to pursue our understanding of what is right and wrong. Which brings us back to the foundational temptation: "You shall be like gods..." (TM, 7)
If life does not belong to us but to God, then we should not be too hasty trying to overcome it with our constructed categories. What is worse is that we have often extended such exercise to overcome God in the name of theology. This larger-than-life propensity, which seems analogous to the desire to pursue our own constructed ethics without regard for the divine, is the "primary seduction that faces humankind." (TM, 7) As TSI rhetorically asked, "And if you don't need God, who cares about ethics?" (MS, 58)

TSI is a moral realist; that is someone who thinks that there is true moral proposition independent of our subjective opinion. The reality of ethics lies in the reality of God. He expounded this most clearly in an unpublished e-commentary:
If there is no personal God whose very nature becomes the basis for human morality then there really is no absolute basis for ethics either. If there is no holy God who demands holy behaviour from humankind, then whether we love our children or whether we abuse them really makes no difference in the end. (Goo or God?, 8 March 2004)
Nonetheless, the affirmation of moral realism is not merely a cognitive exercise but one that orientates how one lives amidst the mess in life. As TSI himself confesses,
If Christianity were not true I was going to stop playing moral games. I would probably have chosen a hedonistic path for my life. But if Christ were real, He would have to be Lord and God. He had died for me. My life was His. I would do whatever He wanted me to do. (Unpublished e-commentary: Why I Am A Christian (1), 10 March 2012)
Now, if TSI is a realist, then what kind of realism does TSI adhere to?

Realism as Honesty
Sometimes the tensions of mystery seems more honest. (TOR, 128)

[On the fallibility of humanity] Here the Bible is brutally honest. (TM, 66)
When it comes to reflection over life, TSI is more of an enthusiast for honesty than neat orderliness. This has to do with TSI's perception of the 'real'. To him, the real is not primarily in our expected order but in our transparent encounter with life. This is seen in his appreciation for those honest salespersons who advised him when he was deciding to change from PC to Apple's computer. TSI wrote, "Honesty. They answered questions clearly and were clear that they were still using PCs though they enjoyed their Apples. They came across as real." (TM, 84) Realism is first and foremost to TSI a transparent exposure and awareness of one's standing within temporality and limitation. The real is in the honest.

If theology is real, then it must be an honest reflection on life. If this is so, then the attempt to systematize theology which presupposes the individual's standing over temporality and limitation would appear to TSI like an exercise of Procrustean bed not only to theology but to life itself. For this reason, one may get the impression that TSI's theology is doomed to incoherence if not utter chaos. However one cannot charge TSI's theology as unreal.

But is that really the case? If so, does that mean we should give up making sense of God and life in a systematic or orderly manner? There is no place for systematic theology?

I can imagine TSI crying out loud, "No!" for two reasons. 

First, he rejects any sloppy position towards contemplation, especially over theological matters. Although stuffs in life are messy and resist simple categorisation, TSI emphasizes that "they require careful thought nevertheless." (TOR, 173) The fact that the introduction to his selection of essays that do not fit under any category should not blind us to the fact that there are essays that can be and are categorised. The same can be said, I think, towards TSI's hope for theology.

Secondly, TSI recognizes the need for categorisation and the inevitability of the contextual aspect of such exercise in relation to absolute truth. "As always, principles have a context." (TOR, 96) His "reflections come from trying to make sense of the world through the mind of Christ." (TM, 1) They are the result of his "struggle to apply a Christian mindset to the realities of daily life." (MS, ix) TSI thinks about the objective God through the awareness of subjective context.
The foundation of the Christian faith is not subjective personal religious experiences. The foundation of the Christian faith is the hard historical reality of Jesus' death and resurrection, an event attested to by sound and convincing evidence. (MS, 90)

[TSI's reflections] stem from the conviction that if God is real, then He and His Word must be relevant to the struggles that we face in the world. (MS, ix)
To TSI the integrity of theology lies primarily not in the ability to satisfy human urge for orderliness but in the subjective honest coming to terms with our messy life in all its idiosyncrasy under the objective sovereignty of God. I think it wouldn't be an exaggeration to see all of TSI's reflections, ranging from leadership to vocation to spiritual friendship, as manifestations of this theological structure.

The truth of Christianity is not primarily to fit into our neatly constructed categories. True theology is a careful and honest reflection of God that is built on the circumstances of life. Hence, TSI is reluctant to draw a wedge between praxis and careful deliberation, or between practical theology from systematic theology. The order in TSI's theology is not one that falls into neat categories. It is an order emerged from the juxtaposition of our subjective experience of messy life and one's thoughts on the objective God. Crude realism with vivid idealism. TSI's theology resembles divine promises from crushed hopes.

Friday, November 30, 2012

The whole idea of 'A Year of Living...."


A. J. Jacobs wrote 'The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to follow the Bible as Literally as Possible' (2007).

Ed Dobson wrote 'The Year of Living like Jesus: My Journey of Discovering What Jesus Would Really Do' (2009).

And recently Rachel Held Evans wrote 'A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband "Master"' (2012).

Looking at these books, I wonder, "You mean none of these 3 authors know that the Bible, Jesus, and 'Biblical womanhood' no where teaches the writting of one-year-livinghood (not to mention living such experimental lifestyle in the first place), commercially publish it and then sell it?"

Any publisher interested in my idea of writing a book titled 'The Year of Living Like Authors Who Lived Experimental Lifestyle So That They Can Publish And Sell In A Consumer Market That Takes The Bible As A Joke'?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The 4 Gospels are not written by Mark, Matthew, Luke and John?

"Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did not write the Gospels. [...] all the Gospels were written anonymously, and none of the writers claims to be an eyewitness. Names are attached to the titles of the Gospels (“the Gospel according to Matthew”), but these titles are later additions to the Gospels, provided by editors and scribes to inform readers who the editors thought were the authorities behind the different versions. [...] The persons who gave it that title are telling you who, in their opinion, wrote it. Authors never title their books "according to."" 
(Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don't Know About Them) [USA: HarperOne, 2010], pp.5, 103-104)

Michael Kruger, Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, gives 3 reasons suggesting that the Gospels are written by the attributed authors:
1.  The manuscript evidence.  Although we possess a limited number of gospel manuscripts from the second and third centuries that preserve the title pages, the ones we do possess have the title present. In other words, we do not find “title-less” gospel manuscripts from this time period.  Examples of early gospels manuscripts with titles are P66 (John), P4-64-67 (Matthew and Luke) and P75 (Luke and John).  Put simply, as far back as we can see in the manuscript tradition the titles are present.

2. The uniformity of the titles.  Perhaps one the most compelling reasons to think the titles were added early is the fact that there is such uniformity in these titles within the early centuries of the faith.  If the titles were added late, we would have expected a substantial amount of diversity to have developed.  After all, the users of these gospels had to have called them something (especially if they had more than one gospel), and since they were anonymous it is reasonable to think they would have called these gospels by different names.  In fact, when the ancient writer Galen published his works without a title, he acknowledges that “everyone gave them a different title.” But, incredibly, the titles of these four gospels are consistent—Mark is always called “Mark,” Luke is always called “Luke,” etc.   Such uniformity cannot pop into existence over night.  It suggests these titles had been there a while.

3. The inclusion of Mark and Luke.  If the titles were added in the late second century, as some suppose, then it is difficult to imagine that Mark and Luke’s names would have been included.  If names were arbitrarily chosen, we would hardly expect these two.  If one wanted to get quick credibility for a gospel, it would have been named after an apostle—indeed, this is what happened with so many of our apocryphal gospels (e.g., Thomas and Peter).  Yet, here we have two gospels named after non-apostles.  It would have been especially easy to name Mark’s gospel after Peter, given the historical connections between the two men, but the early church resisted. This, I would suggest, is a sign of authenticity.

But, this still leaves the question of why the gospel writers didn’t just include their names in the actual gospels accounts themselves.  Why write a gospel that is formally anonymous?  For one, this did happen from time to time with Greco-Roman biographies.  We do have examples of formally anonymous biographies, so this would not have been unheard of (e.g., Lucian’s Life of Demonax, Secundus the Silent Philosopher, Lives of the Prophets, Arrian’s Anabasis, and Sulpicious Severus’ Life of St. Martin).

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Karl Barth a 'Biblical Theologian'?

For those who can distinguish clearly and sharply between systematic theology and biblical theology, you may sometimes wonder which one does Barth belong?

Recently I mentioned Barth in a conversation on theological study. My friend said that their institution teaches only 'Biblical Theology', not systematic, implying that they don't study Barth as he is a systematician. 

My friend's remark really got me thinking. I haven't been thinking about the enterprise of 'Biblical Theology' for a while. I used to like exploring the works by Brevard Childs. So is Barth a systematician and not a 'Biblical Theologian'?

The former Principal of St John's College Nottingham, Canon Christina Baxter, ventured to answer this question back in the 1980s. Her article 'Barth--A Truly Biblical Theologian' can be accessed here. Her concluding remark is: "A truly biblical theologian? Yes, insofar as it was humanly possible!"

Have you thought of that? Or Barth is just a systematician, in an imagined world where real distinction between 'Biblical Theology' and 'Systematic Theology' can be demonstrated?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Why remember the Reformation Day?



(The following is a reflection that I wrote for 11 November 2012 church bulletin.)

Every year mainline Protestant churches commemorate the 16th century Reformation movement on 31st October. As this year’s Reformation Day approaches, I began to wonder, what’s the point in commemorating it?

If I’m not too far off, I think it has to do with God’s authority and Word in relation to the world.

God’s Authority and Word
Prior to the Reformation, almost all of western Christendom didn’t have the concept that people can be Christ’s disciple apart from the recognition by the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). The Reformation has overturned this. Therefore to be a Reformed or Protestant in the 16th century Europe is to be someone who affirms your own Christian discipleship regardless whether the RCC recognizes you or not.

Many in the present have criticized this Reformed-recognition as individualistic, relativistic, subjectivist and anarchist: how could anyone possess the authority to declare him/herself as Christian without reference to some objective institution, like the RCC? And, wouldn’t such recognition lead to pluralism, a situation where it is difficult to know which is true because everyone has a claim that differs from everyone else? (Imagine that everyone has his/her own definition of ‘Singaporean’; so what constitutes true Singaporean?)

To the Reformers, whether someone has the authority to declare him/herself a Christian is not decided by RCC or anyone else, but by what God has said and done through Jesus Christ and his earliest disciples. Since what God has said and done through Jesus Christ and his earliest disciples are best testified in the Old and New Testament, the Reformers thought it necessary to call for ‘sola scriptura’, which literally means ‘by scripture alone’, as the ultimate principle to adjudicate who has the authority to make truth-claims about Christianity, including one’s identity as Christ’s disciple. As John Calvin wrote in Institutes of the Christian Religion (translated by Ford Lewis Battles, edited by John T. McNeil):

Now, in order that true religion may shine upon us, we ought to hold that it must take its beginning from heavenly doctrine and that no one can get even the slightest taste of right and sound doctrine unless he be a pupil of Scripture. (Book 1, Chapter 6:2, emphasis added)

Now daily oracles are not sent from heaven, for it pleased the Lord to hallow his truth to everlasting remembrance in the Scriptures alone. Hence the Scriptures obtain full authority among believers only when men regard them as having sprung from heaven, as if there the living words of God were heard. (Book 1, Chapter 7:1, emphasis added)

We have taught that the knowledge of God, otherwise quite clearly set forth in the system of the universe and in all creatures, is nonetheless more intimately and also more vividly revealed in his Word. (Book 1, Chapter 10:1, emphasis added)

This proposal is not without precedence. Jesus himself invoked this principle—referring to the scripture of his day, the Old Testament—to show that he was indeed the divine Son. (John 5:39)

The Reformers held that the recognition of our own Christian identity is decided not between individualism versus communitarianism, or relativism versus objectivism, or institutionalism versus anarchism. To them, it is decided by God’s authority as testified in God’s Word. The way to move beyond pluralism is to go back to the scripture.

However I need to make a qualification here. Sola scriptura does not mean that Christians read only the Bible to grow in faith and understanding. Christians, particularly those identified with the Reformed tradition, are among the foremost in engaging non-Christians, not least with other Christians. This resembles what apostle Paul did at Athens (Acts 17:16-34) and Jerusalem (Acts 15:2). John Calvin himself read widely. It may surprise some that his first academic book was not on theology but a commentary on Roman philosopher Seneca’s work De Clementia. As Calvin advised in his commentary on Titus 1:12, “It is superstitious to refuse to make any use of secular authors. For since all truth is of God, if any ungodly man has said anything true, we should not reject it, for it also has come from God.” The revival of Christians’ engagement with God’s Word during the Reformation is not limited only to doctrines but also in relation to other created goods in God’s world.

God’s World
Therefore the Reformation movement was not merely of religious nature. Part of the reason is the fact that God’s authority and Word is not domestic, or relevant only to religious practices and rituals. When the Holy Spirit empowers us to proclaim God’s authority and Word, we are testifying God’s sovereignty over all realms of reality (Colossians 1:15-20). Hence God’s Word is not attesting only to the things lie within the four walls of the church. Rather, it is God’s summoning the whole world back to himself through us.

Besides, in the 16th century, the RCC was the highest authority in the Holy Roman Empire. The social-political structures back then, like many in the present, were intimately bound up with theology and vice versa. Therefore the Reformation’s usurping of the RCC was not merely a religious matter but disruptive at all levels of the European society.

As Harvard University’s historian Robert Scribner recounted the social condition of 16th century Germany, the place where Martin Luther’s ignited the Reformation movement:

At the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth century, the [Holy Roman] Empire experienced enormous problems of order and public peace, expressed in its inability to deal with a complex range of issues on which firm action across its territories would have benefited all: control over banditry and feud, the lack of a uniform coinage or excise system, the absence of an efficient and effective legal system capable of resolving numerous political, economic and social conflicts. [...] In the towns it was clear from the earliest days, for example in Wittenberg, that demands for religious change could be linked to social and political grievances and have far-reaching consequences. This made the initial movements a form of social dynamite, requiring only the right kind of detonator to set off a larger explosion of discontent… By 1523 it was clear throughout Germany that the ferment of religious dissent had become a broad-meshed demand for ‘reformation’, a radical alteration in the religious, social and sometimes political features of contemporary life. (Robert Scribner, ‘Germany,’ in The Reformation in National Context, eds. Robert Scribner, Roy Porter, and Mikulas Teich [UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994], pp.8, 16-17. Emphasis added)

It is therefore a mistake to think that the Reformers were overturning only medieval religious practices. By proclaiming God’s authority and Word, the Reformers were also resisting the oppressive governing policy established and sustained by the socio-political machinery controlled by tyrants in vestment.

In Remembrance
Looking at what it was, the Reformation Day stands as the bastion of hope in the face of pluralism. God is constantly summoning the whole world in its multiplicity back to Himself. It is in God’s authority and Word that we are recognized as Christ’s disciples. It is by going back to the scripture that tyrants are overthrown. In other words, the Reformation Day testifies to a time when God’s authority and Word have disrupted the ways of man for the transformation of God’s world to take place from within. Isn’t such a day worth remembering?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Knowing God (for students of the arts)



Last week I shared the following to a group of arts students:

Why do we want to know?
It is very common for us to see knowledge as something powerful. So powerful that with the right knowledge, we are able to manipulate circumstances to be in our favour, to our advantage.

There is a story about a guy who said to God, “Dear God, isn’t it true that 100 million years is just like a second to you?”

God answered, “It’s true, my son.”

Then the guy asked again, "Isn’t it true that $100 million dollars is like one cent to you?”

God answered, “Yes, that’s true.”

So the guy asked, “God, I’m sure you can spare me one cent.”

And God smiled and said, “Sure, just a second.”

The guy in the story tried to manipulate God with his knowledge of God. But God outwitted him.

That’s why when we talk about knowing God, we must examine ourselves why do we want to know God?

Do we want to know God so that we can manipulate him? Do we want to know God so that we may ultimately worship knowledge?

There was once I attended one of the local megachurches where the senior pastor asked the congregation to turn to the person seated next to us to say, “Knowledge is power.”

I may be wrong, but I think such repetition can be dangerous to Christian without clarification. To us, Christ is the greatest power. 1 Cor. 1.24 teaches us that Christ is the power of God.

Knowledge is not. At best, knowledge is the servant of Christ. At worst, knowledge is the enemy of God. That’s why apostle Paul in 2 Cor. 10:5 encouraged us to conquer knowledge and make it submit to Christ.

How to know?
In our experience, to know someone or something requires us to pay attention to what we can learn from the person or thing. We need to interact with the subject that we want to know.

For example if I want to find out the motivation of Johann Sebastian Bach as a musician, I need to interact with his works, letters, his biographies, and perhaps also visit and say a prayer at his tomb in St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany.

Likewise if I want to get to know a girl that I’m attracted to, I need to spend time interacting with her, listening to how she describes herself, her interest, her dreams, her philosophy in life, her family, and may be also her experience in relationship.

To know is to interact. When we want to know God, we interact with God. We have to read God’s works, letters, biographies, and participate in the community of which God’s presence is there.

We have to listen how God describes himself, his interest, his vision, his philosophy of life, and his experience with people.

That’s why Christians throughout the long history of the church have paid close attention to the scripture because in this collection we have the various expression that God has shown himself to the authors.

Knowing God and meaning of life
Surprisingly, the first conversation that God had with humans is not about him, but about us. The first thing that God reveals is not how great or how awesome he is, which is a given, but what does it mean for us to live meaningfully.

In Gen. 1:28-30 right after God created them in his own image, he said to them:

“Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground. [...] I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food."

How different is God from many people today. I’m sure you have come across people who when they start talking with you, they talk about how great or successful they are. They talk about what they have achieved, which concert they have worked on, which artists they have collaborated with, and etc.

When God starts to talk with us, he expresses immense interest in our life’s purpose. God said, “I care that you don’t waste your life away.”

The Genesis passage is about the way to live that reflects our knowledge of God. If God didn’t tell us anything about our purpose in life, then life is simply whatever we make of it.

Without God’s message, we can devote our life to worship hobby, career, money, Korean actors/actresses and many other things, and set the pursuit of these things as our meaning of life.

There was once someone asked iPhone’s app Siri, what is the meaning of life? Siri replied, “All evidence to date suggest it’s chocolate.”[1]

God has given specific meaning to our life. When we replace it with anything other than what God has given, we often find ourselves restless. When this restlessness goes on without checked, it becomes exhaustion. That’s when we are tired of living; when we feel dreadful and empty throughout the day.

One of the greatest pastors of the church was a bishop by the name of Augustine in the 5th century. He reflected on this and wrote, “O Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

Or in the words of C. S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia Chronicles, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. […] God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”

To know God is about living meaningfully for God. It’s about waking up with gratitude and a sense of calling to spend the day in a way that says, “I know God and how he wants me to live today.”

Many other religions or philosophies teach that the meaning of life is only discovered when you are separated from the network of family and friends. These teachings tell us to go into isolation to find meaning.

But Genesis tells us that the meaning of life is in how we manage our family, friends, neighbours, office, society, and the earth in a way that pleases God.

God’s call for us to be fruitful and increase in number to fill the earth and subdue it is not about overpopulating the world and exploiting natural resources until it becomes an unliveable wasteland.

It’s about God’s calling us to develop this world from a garden into a city, as seen in the flow of the whole Bible. In the first book, Genesis, humans are being placed into a garden to work it. (Gen. 2:15)

In the last book, John’s revelation, the entire world will be a holy city where God’s people will rest in God’s presence. (Rev. 21:1-2)

Instead of destroying the world into a wasteland, humans are told to develop it with the vision of the great city which will be built by God himself at the end of history.

This is the divine purpose that we have, the meaning of life that we have been looking for. We cannot know God without living purposefully as intended by God.

And for you all, who are students of the arts, there is something rich within you all that can contribute significantly to develop the garden into the city of God.

The other day I was just reading Revelation and came across Rev. 21:2: “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”

The image that the word ‘adorned’ carries in Greek (‘kosmeo’) means arranging in proper and fitting order, like how a musician plays a masterpiece in its finest tune; like how Johann Pacabelle wrote and performed Canon in D major. Or like how Sarah Darling re-arranged a cover version of U2’s song ‘With or without you’.

Or, how beautician brings about the embedded beauty of a face. In fact, it is from this Greek word ‘kosmeo’ that we get the English word cosmetic.

The calling of artists is to contribute to the development of the world according to this blueprint of God’s holy city. Your task is to adorn, kosmeo, the world preparing it for the coming of God.

Fill it with best work according to your talents and resources.

Living with God’s vision for us is one way to interact with God. Knowing God is not like studying an impersonal subject like how we learn to fix a car.

Knowing God is more like the picture painted in Genesis where God and the first humans were in the presence of each other in the garden, interacting.

That’s why apostle Paul wrote in Col. 1:9-10: “And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” (ESV)

Knowing God goes along with walking with and for him.

And when Christians don’t live meaningfully as God has created us, we lose the knowledge of God and back into slavery to the meaning we give to ourselves.

This is why Paul wrote in Gal. 4:8-9: “At the time, when you didn’t know God, you were enslaved by things that aren’t gods by nature. But now, after knowing God (or rather, being known by God), how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless world system? Do you want to be slaves to it again?”

Living and knowing are like the different components of a guitar. In order to be a guitar, it has to have all its part, from headstock to its neck to its body. With any part missing, it is not a guitar.

So in the same way, our knowledge of God is part of our living meaningfully for God, and our living for God is our knowing of God.

Knowing God is theology
The church has called this type of knowledge of God as ‘theology’. Nowadays, people misunderstand that theology is a specialized subject, meant only for some people who have nothing better to do with life.

Theology is about the interaction with God. A great pastor of the church in the 11th century, Anselm, the archbishop of Canterbury, wrote a prayer book with the title Proslogion, which means ‘conversation with God’. And it is from this prayer book that philosophers get one of the most famous arguments for the existence of God, which they call ‘ontological argument.’

Originally Anselm wanted to title the book as Faith seeking understanding.[2] This original title summarizes what the church meant by theology. It is about interacting with God, getting to know him, in a form of prayer.

Theology is not only talking about God, but also talking with God. Or in the words of a 5th century Christian monk, Evagrius, “The one who prays is a theologian, and a theologian is one who prays.”[3]

It is through this form of interacting with God, living meaningfully, that we know God. As for you all, students of the arts, it is more than just leading a holy life. It involves your calling to bring about the beauty hidden in the world for God through your talent, skill and passion.

Let me pray for you all with a prayer from Ephesians 3:14-19:

“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”


[1] Sirifunny, Siri answers: What is the meaning of life?, 7 October 2011, http://www.sirifunny.com/siri-answers-whats-the-meaning-of-life/ (accessed 4 October 2012).
[2] Sze Zeng, Where did the phrase ‘Faith Seeking Understanding’ come from?, dated 12 October 2010, http://szezeng.blogspot.sg/2010/10/where-did-phrase-faith-seeking.html (accessed 4 October 2012).
[3] Laurence Freeman, ‘The Monastic Wisdom of the Christian Desert: A Selection of Sayings,’ Rowan Williams, Where God Happens: Discovering Christ In One Another (USA: New Seed Books, 2005), p.125.