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) 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.


Alex Tang said...

Sze Zeng,

That is an interesting article on what makes our mutual friend, Tan Soo Inn ticks.

Being a good friend, I have always followed Soo Inn's musings with interest. I believe his is a deconstucted theology resurrected from his pain (and failures). The closest I can see is that his theology approximates those of Jürgen Moltmann's A Theology of Hope.

Life is messy. We are messy. God is not.

Sze Zeng, will this be the topic for your PhD? :)

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Alex,

"Deconstructed theology resurrected from his pain (and failures)."

That's very apt description of TSI's theology!

PhD?... I don't even have a Master's, so not thinking so far ahead. I'm too caught up with my own mess already. ;D

Michelle said...

Where can I buy Tan Soo Inn's books? Is it only available in Singapore?

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Michelle,

Soo Inn's books can be purchased at SKS bookstore in Singapore and Canaanland bookstores around Malaysia.

If you can't find, you can email the publishing firm to inquire: