Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks a Radical Orthodoxian? A specter of Radical Orthodoxy in contemporary Western public discourse


Jonathan Sacks presented a noteworthy speech to Benedict XVI late last year, addressing the European context in general, the economic challenges in particular. After going through the transcript, one finds it curious that the gist of the speech very much resembles with the thesis tabled by John Milbank et al in the Radical Orthodoxy project.

The rabbi cited works done by various researchers from diverse background such as Niall Ferguson, David Landes, Eric Nelson, Rodney Stark, and William Rees-Mogg in his highlight on the undeniable influence of the Judeo-Christian heritage on the present economic system:

"...the market economy and modern capitalism emerged in Judeo-Christian Europe and not in other cultures like China that were more advanced in other ways. The religious ethic was one of the driving forces of this once new form of wealth creation.

Equally however, this same ethic taught the limits of capitalism. It might be the best means we know of for generating wealth, but it is not a perfect system for distributing wealth."

In similar fashion, Milbank offered his "archeaological approach" with "inestimable advantages" to narrate the emergence of present western secular discourses, of which the economic system is one:

"…on my reading, secular discourse does not just borrow inherently inappropriate modes of expression from religion as the only discourse to hand, […] but is actually constituted in its secularity by 'heresy' in relation to orthodox Christianity, or else a rejection of Christianity that is more 'neo-pagan' than simply anti-religious."
(John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond secular reason [UK: Blackwell, 1990; Second edition, 2006], p.3. Emphasis original.)

The Radical Orthodoxy's offered solution to our present problems is to "re-envision" a "more incarnate, more participatory, more aesthetic, more erotic, more socialized, even 'more Platonic' Christianity," (John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, Graham Ward, eds., Radical Orthodoxy: A new theology [UK: Blackwell, 1999], p.3).

Notice the identical language in Sacks' solution below?

"Economic superpowers have a short shelf-life: Spain in the fifteenth century, Venice in the sixteenth, Holland in the seventeenth, France in the eighteenth, Britain in the nineteenth, America in the twentieth. Meanwhile Christianity has survived for two thousand years, and Judaism for twice as long as that. The Judeo-Christian heritage is the only system known to me capable of defeating the law of entropy that says all systems lose energy over time."

With these similarities, one wonders whether is the Chief Rabbi a closet Radical Orthodoxian?

Probably Radical Orthodoxy has been criticized so much so that it has become a vulgarity in the field and an obscenity in its own right. Hence people can't resist but simply to shy from the label.

Nonetheless, as seen here, its specter lingers, and manifests itself in the works of Ferguson, Landes, Nelson, Stark, Rees-Mogg, and Sacks---those who are not related to Radical Orthodoxy in anyway.

There is always another way to call a female canine, no?

Friday, January 27, 2012

Making icon out of dust

God said, “Let us make mankind in our icon [Septuagint: "image"], in our likeness..."

The LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

(Genesis 1:26, 2:7)


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Craig Evans versus Bart Ehrman: Does the New Testament present a reliable portrait of the Historical Jesus?



Two established scholars in New Testament studies taking each other to task. 

Ehrman is doing what he does best: Pointing out "contradictions" in the four gospels as the reason to doubt the historical reliability of them, and hence the historical portrayals of Jesus. If these accounts contradict each other, then they are not historically accurate. Hence we cannot be too quick to assume their reliability.

Evans highlights the first principle that contemporary biblical scholars ground their researches (including that of Ehrman): The gospel accounts are reliable as far as historical research is concerned, and this is the starting point of biblical scholarship itself. Can we assume these documents are inaccurate just because we cannot make historical sense from them despite there are details found in them that correspond with archaeological findings and extra-biblical historical data?

Both agree that the gospel accounts are difficult for contemporary readers to comprehend. For Ehrman, this means "contradiction" and so we must read them as fabrication---those events just didn't happen. 

For Evans, this means that we can still ascertain historical data from the texts even though there is difficulty---we have to continue to work on understanding those difficulties with what we can historically affirm.

Isn't the two scholars' so-called historical conclusion philosophical differences?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Happy Chinese New Year, the second day!


May you, readers, be blessed with good (mental & physical) health and wealth so that you may continue to pursue your life in Christ as a blessing to others in this Dragon year! 

Even if health fails and wealth nil: 
We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.

We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in [others].

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
(2 Corinthians 4)

Monday, January 23, 2012

Worship, sensus divinitatis, and local students


It is reported that local students are now worshiping the "Bell Curve God" (H/T: Ronald Wong):
The bell-curve refers to a grading method where students' grades are assigned based on the relative performance of their peers. [...]
As seen in the photo above, an altar is set up with food, drinks, and vitamin C tablets offered to this god. 
One picture even shows a sign hung up on the ceiling, that "cursed" whoever entered the room without a food offering for the "Bell Curve God".
This news is particular interesting when read along John Calvin's sensus divinitatis, which simply means that humans are born with some vague ideas that divinity exists. To Calvin, this is the Christian God. And the vague ideas is given by this God to everyone.

G. K. Chesterton has similarly said, "For when we cease to worship God, we do not worship nothing, we worship anything." 

Or, as apostle Paul put it: "...since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made..." (Romans 1:30)

Humans are inevitably homo religiosus. We are endowed with the inclination to worship. And I tend to think it is this inclination that guides all direction and path taken by us in searching for the purpose and the meaning of life, as well as the rationale in ethics and philosophy. And in this case, the hope of some local students.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Any difference between 'Jew', 'Israelite', and 'Hebrew'?

There is so much that I have taken for granted in term of the concern of local congregation. Take for example, during yesterday's Bible Study session, a question was asked about the ethnic difference between Jews and Israelites: Are the two identical?

All this while I assume that they are. Yet, I can't be sure.

Someone said that "Jews" is a race, while "Israelites" is synonymous to "people of God" (therefore, "Christians" are sometimes called "Israelites").  The former is strictly an ethnic group, while the latter is more inclusive (one can be an "Israelite" by embracing Judaism, but one cannot be a "Jew" in the same way). 

I didn't know whether was this correct. So after the Bible Study session, I did a search.

I knew that "Israelites" refers the descendants of Jacob, who is known as Israel. I also knew that after Solomon, there were two kingdoms, with the north known as Israel while the south as Judah. But I didn't know how did the reference "Jews" and "Israelite" came about, and whether they are identical.

According to Oxford Dictionary, the word "Jews" originally used during the Middle English era, derived from "Old French juiu, via Latin from Greek Ioudaios, via Aramaic from Hebrew yĕhūḏī, from yĕhūḏāh" ('Judah').

So, "Jews" is just a translation of Judah. This means that a Jew is also an Israelite, a descendant of Jacob.

Then, what about "Hebrew"? 

Oxford Dictionary states that the English "Hebrew" is translated "from Old French Ebreu, via Latin from late Greek Hebraios, from Aramaic ‘iḇray, based on Hebrew ‘iḇrî understood to mean 'one from the other side (of the river)'."

This word is synonymous to "Jews" and "Israelite." This sheds some light over 2 Corinthians 11:22, when the apostle Paul highlighted three different aspects of his ethnicity: "Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I."

He was a true Hebrew because he spoke the language. He was an Israelite because he was from the lineage of Jacob. He was Abraham's descendant because he was born into the covenantal community. This suggests that to the apostle, a true Jew is someone who has all three aspects.

More interestingly, Jews' own understanding of these phrases can be found at Judaism101 website. It is highlighted that the Jews see ethnicity as inherited through the mother:
The Torah does not specifically state anywhere that matrilineal descent should be used; however, there are several passages in the Torah where it is understood that the child of a Jewish woman and a non-Jewish man is a Jew, and several other passages where it is understood that the child of a non-Jewish woman and a Jewish man is not a Jew.

In Deuteronomy 7:1-5, in expressing the prohibition against intermarriage, G-d says "he [i.e., the non-Jewish male spouse] will cause your child to turn away from Me and they will worship the gods of others." No such concern is expressed about the child of a non-Jewish female spouse. From this, we infer that the child of a non-Jewish male spouse is Jewish (and can therefore be turned away from Judaism), but the child of a non-Jewish female spouse is not Jewish (and therefore turning away is not an issue).

Leviticus 24:10 speaks of the son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man as being "among the community of Israel" (i.e., a Jew).

On the other hand, in Ezra 10:2-3, the Jews returning to Israel vowed to put aside their non-Jewish wives and the children born to those wives. They could not have put aside those children if those children were Jews.
In summary, "Jews", "Judahite", "Hebrew", and "Israelite" are interchangeable.

That said, there are certain occasion when a distinction between these words can be helpful. For instance, when one is writing something about the post-Solomon era of northern and southern kingdoms.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Sorry, but the claim "I hate religion, but love Jesus" is plain stupid



This video has been shared at least 10 times by others on my Facebook page. My fellow theological student also experienced the same thing on his page. 

Honestly, though crude, the claim made in this video is plain stupid. As a theological student, I have concern when such stupid claim is being widely shared around by other believers, thinking that it speaks the truth. The problem is that it is not the truth.
Why?

Brian LePort, who shared similar concern, has written two posts on this video. The first one titled 'Remember, Jesus practiced religion too!':

Jesus is used as a poster-boy for people who want some mystical connection with him, but dislike the practices of others.

If Jesus stands against anyone it is not because they are “religious”. Yes, some religions and religious practices can distract us from Jesus, but so can being irreligious!

If you participate in the Eucharist, if you were baptized, if you gather together to worship, if you pray, if you meditate, if you sing and play music, if you observe holy days, if you do any of these things you are using religious practices to connect with the risen Christ.

Leport's second more elaborate post basically reiterates the same claim.

Kevin DeYoung has written a substantial comment on this video too. He analyzed each of its claims and helpfully showing why some of them are wrong:

More important is Bethke’s opening line: “Jesus came to abolish religion.” That’s the whole point of the poem. The argument—and most poems are arguing for something—rests on the sharp distinction between religion on one side and Jesus on the other. Whether this argument is fair depends on your definition of religion. Bethke sees religion as a man made attempt to earn God’s favor. Religion equals self-righteousness, moral preening, and hypocrisy. Religion is all law and no gospel. If that’s religion, then Jesus is certainly against it.

But that’s not what religion is. We can say that’s what is has become for some people or what we understand it to be. But words still matter and we shouldn’t just define them however we want. “Jesus hates religion” communicates something that “Jesus hates self-righteousness” doesn’t. To say that Jesus hates pride and hypocrisy is old news. To say he hates religion—now, that has a kick to it. People hear “religion” and think of rules, rituals, dogma, pastors, priests, institutions. People love Oprah and the Shack and “spiritual, not religious” bumper stickers because the mood of our country is one that wants God without the strictures that come with traditional Christianity. We love the Jesus that hates religion.

The only problem is, he didn’t. Jesus was a Jew. He went to services at the synagogue. He observed Jewish holy days. He did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them (Matt. 5:17). He founded the church (Matt. 16:18). He established church discipline (Matt. 18:15-20). He instituted a ritual meal (Matt. 26:26-28). He told his disciples to baptize people and to teach others to obey everything he commanded (Matt. 28:19-20). He insisted that people believe in him and believe certain things about him (John 3:16-18; 8:24). If religion is characterized by doctrine, commands, rituals, and structure, then Jesus is not your go-to guy for hating religion. This was the central point behind the book Ted Kluck and I wrote a few years ago. (Emphasis original)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Tan Kim Huat's commentary on Mark's gospel, and Leow Theng Huat's commentary on P. T. Forsyth's theodicy

These two books finally arrived at our shore. Just got a copy of each from Trinity Theological College's Administration Office.


The Gospel According to Mark (Asia Bible Commentary Series). 
Tan Kim Huat is the Chen Su Lan Professor of New Testament and Dean of Studies of Trinity Theological College, Singapore. He is also the author of Zion Traditions and the Aims of Jesus (Cambridge University Press, 1997). 

I took his New Testament Exegesis course last semester. I'm now going through his New Testament Theology class. He is an excellent communicator, hence an excellent teacher and preacher.


The Theodicy of Peter Taylor Forsyth: A "Crucial" Justification of the Ways of God to Man.
Leow Theng Huat is a Lecturer in Theology at Trinity Theological College, Singapore. This is his first monograph, based on his doctoral thesis.

Last semester, I was in his Historical Theology I class. Now in his Historical Theology II class. Wrote an essay on John Damascene's theology of religion under him. His knowledge on early theological controversies on Trinity, Christology, and Pneumatology is impressively vast and deep.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Obvious Christological speech act



Ava, 2 years old toddler, is having a conversation with her mother, Lily. 

Both of them are deaf.

This is a good and heartwarming example of communication with sign. I like to think that this is also good analogy to help our understanding of Jesus' divinity in the gospel story.

The question, 'Did Jesus see himself as God?' is very much alive, especially in interfaith conversation between Christians and Muslims. 

In fact even among Christians, when exploring the question, we may find ourselves hard pressed to find explicit verbal affirmation in the three synoptic gospels that Jesus was indeed God.

And I think this difficulty is much owed to our unfamiliarity with the speech act language understood in Jesus' context. Take for example the scenario right after Jesus healed the paralyzed man:
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:5-7)
Jesus' speech acted as his pronouncement of forgiveness of sin. The teachers of the law who were there immediately understood that speech act. Jesus was performing the role that belonged solely to God alone. Hence by doing what only God does, Jesus was communicating his divinity. 

Many today overlook this because of the distance between the speech act language in Jesus' time and ours. An example from our present society is the nodding of head. We generally nod to communicate our "yes", while we turn our head to communicate "no". But in some culture (my Indian friends for instance) the turning of head is communicating "yes" at times. This is a real difference between two sets of speech act language.

When Jesus performed the forgiveness of sins, it was clear to his contemporaries what he was communicating. What Jesus communicated was so obvious that the teachers of the law were offended and anxiously thought to themselves: Jesus was blaspheming!

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Content Page and the contributors of 'The Bible and the Ballot'


Some friends asked about the topics covered in The Bible and the Ballot: Reflections on Christian Political Engagement in Malaysia Today. Hope this extract from the book's Content page helps:
Foreword
Rt Rev Datuk Ng Moon Hing 
Introduction
Joshua Woo 
Naming Names: Can Preachers Tell You Whom to Vote For?
Alwyn Lau 
Strengthening Democracy in Malaysia: The Need for a Vibrant Public Sphere
Christopher Choong 
Vote!: Voting as a Christian Duty
Tan Soo Inn 
Vote for Changes: My Decision at This Point in History
Tan Soo Inn 
Prayer and Political Consideration: How and What to Pray For?
Joshua Woo 
Why Am I Attending Vigils For Dr Jeyakumar and EO6?
Rama Ramanathan 
Afterword: Christians: A Blessing to Malaysia?
Sivin Kit 
Appendix: Petition by 34 Leaders of the Christian Community in Malaysia

Some friends asked about the contributors to the book. Here's their information:

Alwyn Lau is a member of Friends in Conversation (friendsinconversation.wordpress.com). A lecturer in Marketing and Sociology at KDU University-College. He is also pursuing a Ph.D (Arts) at the University of Monash (Sunway). He blogs at wyngman.blogspot.com. 
Christopher Choong is a member of Friends in Conversation (friendsinconversation.wordpress.com). He holds a doctorate in Political Science where his research interest lies in the interaction between religion and politics (with particular reference to Christians in Malaysia). He teaches at a private university and blogs at cacoescrib.wordpress.com. 
Rama Ramanathan graduated in Mechanical Engineering in 1982 and has since worked in factories and in regional roles in operations and quality management. He blogs at write2rest.blogspot.com. 
Sivin Kit is a founding member of Friends in Conversation (friendsinconversation.wordpress.com) and one of the initiators of Micah Mandate (www.themicahmandate.org). He served as the pastor of Bangsar Lutheran Church from 2000 to 2010 and has been actively engaged in civil society in Malaysia since 2007. Currently, he is pursuing his Ph.D in Religion, Ethics and Society at the University of Agder, Kristiansand, Norway. He blogs at sivinkit.net. 
Tan Soo Inn is a member of Friends in Conversation (friendsinconversation.wordpress.com). He holds a Doctor in Ministry from Fuller Seminary. His doctoral project focused on how one discerns vocation in the context of community. Together with his wife Bernice, Soo Inn directs the works of Graceworks (www.graceworks.com.sg), a training and publishing consultancy committed to promoting spiritual friendship in church and society. 

Weird search...

Today, a netizen googled the following and ended up at this blog:



Must be my Methodist friend who has been praying hard for my salvation. Or, perhaps a fellow Presbyterian who simply doesn't wish that I'm one. ;)

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

3 Reviews on Steven Pinker's 'The Better Angels of Our Nature'

I haven't read Pinker's book and currently don't have plan to read it anytime soon. This post is simply to point out three interesting reviews for those who are interested. 

First review is by John Gray, a political philosopher formerly at London School of Economics. He argues against Pinker's proposals that the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment, is the reason for the decline of violence. He also questioned Pinker's statement that violence has declined. The review is here.

The second one is by Steve Clarke, an ethicist at Oxford University. He commented on John Gray's review of Pinker, pointing out that Gray has made a case to argue against Pinker's proposal. But he concluded that Gray has not successfully show that violence has not decline. The review is here

Timothy Snyder, a historian at Yale University, provided the third review. Snyder critiqued Pinker's dismissing the first part of twentieth century global violence and doubted Pinker's collection of "informed guesses" as reliable historical data. He saw Pinker's work as "unscientific". The review is here.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Paul Knitter sees Buddhism's Sunyata as Trinity

There are many approaches to interfaith understanding. Most of them agree that integrity is essential; that is we have to understand any one religion on its own term and not domesticate its teaching to suit our own understanding for whatever reason. 

Integrity in this area is especially important in comparative studies between religions so that we do not distort any religion to contrast or conform with another according to whim.

Paul Knitter, who professes to be a Roman Catholic and a Buddhist (his blog titles 'How a Buddhist Christian sees it'), in his lecture 'Only One Way?' (H/T: Justin Taylor) proposes that the translation of Buddhism's Sunyata concept is pointing to the God to whom is the reference of Christianity.

The Union Theological Seminary's professor invokes the translation of Sunyata as "InterBeing" as a reference to the relational Trinity. As he wrote in his book:

"Thich Nhat Hanh, a modern practitioner, scholar, and popularizer of Zen Buddhism, translates Sunyata more freely but more engagingly as InterBeing. It's the interconnected state of things that is constantly churning out new connections, new possibilities, new problems, new life." (p.12)

"...to believe in a Trinitarian God is to believe in a relational God. The very nature of the Divine is nothing other than to exist in and out of relationships; for God, "to be" is nothing other than "to relate." That, among other things, is what the doctrine of the Trinity tells Christians. (p.19)

"To experience and to believe in a Trinitarian God is to experience and believe in a God who is not [...] the Ground of Being, but the Ground of InterBeing! [...] God is the activity of giving and receiving, of knowing and loving, of losing and finding, of dying and living that embraces and infuses all of us, all of creation. Though every image or symbol limp, Christians can and must say what Buddhist might agree with---that if we're going to talk about God, God is neither a noun nor an adjective. God is a verb! With the word "God" we're trying to get at an activity that is going on everywhere rather than a Being that exists somewhere. God is much more an environment than a thing.

"And therefore, if we Christians really affirm that "God is love" and that Trinity means relationality, then I think the symbol Buddhists use for Sunyata is entirely fitting for our God. God is the field---the dynamic energy field of InterBeing---within which, as we read in the New Testament (but perhaps never really heard), "we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28)."
(Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian [UK: Oneworld, 2009], p.19-20. Emphasis original.)

For Knitter to make his case, it is fundamental that his understanding of Sunyata as InterBeing is correct. And it is on this fundamental level that I have a question to raise: Is Knitter's equating Sunyata as InterBeing valid?

Knitter himself acknowledges that this equation is the product of Thich Nhat Hanh's "free" translation. In Chinese, Sunyata is simply translated as 空, which means "emptiness" or "void". Hence the famous verse from the Heart Sutra, "色即是空, 空即是色," ("Form is emptiness; emptiness is form") to which Knitter mentioned in the lecture.

Of course, how should Sunyata be understood is still a debate among the different Buddhist sects. Nonetheless, what we can be certain here is that Knitter chooses to use a free translation to draw out conformity between Buddhism and Christianity. He disregards the question over the validity of this translation and uses it anyway.

Besides, is the Suntaya really means interconnectivity among beings? If so, then according to the Heart Sutra, interconnectivity among beings is void. ("不生, 不滅, 不垢, 不淨, 不增, 不減。是故空中. 無色, 無受, 想, 行, 識. 無眼, 耳, 鼻, 舌, 身, 意. 無色, 聲, 香, 味, 觸, 法. 無眼界. 乃至無意識界. 無無明. 亦無無明盡. 乃至無老死. 亦無老死盡. 無苦. 集. 滅. 道. 無智, 亦無得." Translation: "The void is without beginning, ending, form, embodiment, consciousness, sensation, thought, deficiency, completeness, etc." Simply said, the void is nothing.) 

The Sunyata refers to the interconnectivity that has nothing and is nothing. It is ontologically impersonal.

If this is true, then I have another question to raise: If Suntaya refers to the impersonal interconnectivity among beings, how then can Knitter proposes that it is an equation to the Trinitarian God, who is fundamentally recognized in Christianity as personal

One can see that Knitter's intention is to point out convergence between Buddhism and Christianity. However, in the way he did it, there are violations done on both Buddhism and Christianity. On one hand, Knitter knowingly used a free translation to represent Buddhism's Sunyata concept, while on the other hand, he deprived Christianity's Trinity from its nature as a personal being. As mentioned above, there are many approaches to interreligious understanding; is this how a Buddhist Christian sees it?