Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Gratitude for 2013

There is so much to be grateful for in this year. This is not to say that there wasn't time of mourning, disappointment, confusion, and anxiousness. There were. Nonetheless the year has to be concluded by thanking God for all the good things that have happened.

First, it has been a year of adjusting to married life. There were happy times as well as times when we argued over petty misunderstanding. And the amusing part is when grievance is over, we can look into the past and laugh away those silly quarrels. For all the experiences, I give thanks to God.

Second, I am grateful for the well-being of my family members in Malaysia. I didn't get to visit them as often as I wanted to. I constantly ask God to provide for my family as my contribution to them is insufficient. God has been faithful. My father has decided to join back the work force after having rested for 2 years. God has provided him a managerial role that oversees the logistic operation in a British company. My brother and sister have graduated and are now working. My mother's health has been good. So my parents do not need to support any of their children anymore. Grateful for God's provision for all these years.

Third, my friends have always been around and well. I thank God for all of them. As I am a more introverted person, I don't have many friends, but God has blessed me with 6 close ones (including my wife). These are people whom I can be vulnerable to. They are people whom I trust. The present age is re-defining "friendship" through social network technology such as Facebook. People think that friends are those on your Facebook's "friend" list. I work with youths and young adults, and this is a concern. Young people should be more savvy with social network technology. The form of virtual "friendship" promoted by social network website is not real. Real friends are those who know us and desire to spend time with us face-to-face. Such desire means that they like to be around you. They have such desire even though they have thousands of things to do on their daily diary. This real gesture is ontologically irreplaceable by social network technology. For this reason, I don't even wish "Happy Birthday" to those on my Facebook list. And likewise, I don't indicate my birth date on it. 5 birthday wishes from those dear to me are much more meaningful than getting spammed by 200 wishes on my Facebook timeline. Therefore I was very happy to receive birthday wishes from the few close friends. And I celebrate their birthday by meeting up to eat and laugh together. God knows that I need friends, and God has provided. 

Fourth, earlier this year, Yale University's Center for Faith & Culture's Singapore Institute graciously sponsored my participation in their 5-days conference on Christian-Muslim relation. It was a marvelous learning experience. There were representatives from the region's religious organizations for the program. I have learnt much from my fellow participants. It was also the first time I met Christopher Choong, a sociologist from Malaysia, after having corresponded over emails and Facebook all this while. He is also one of the contributors in The Bible and the Ballot.

Fifth, I received scholarship from Cambridge University to attend their summer school on inter-faith issues. It was a great experience to study at one of the top universities in the world. I vividly remember the moment I first saw Cambridge on the bus. My heart was filled with so much joy that I couldn't stop thanking God for the opportunity. David Ford, the Regius Professor of Divinity, gave me a ride to the Madingley Hall, where the program was held. Jews, Christians, and Muslims spent 3 weeks learning, engaging, eating, and living together. (The photo above was taken by Sarah Whittle when we visited Cambridge's Selwyn College, where Prof. Ford is a Fellow.) I also took the opportunity to visit my good friend Nathanael Goh and his wife at Durham University. Nathanael is currently pursuing his doctorate there. After the summer school, my wife flew to meet me. We spent the next 2 weeks traveling around London, Amsterdam, and Berlin. All these are possible only because of God who have blessed us through scholarship and friends' love gift.

Sixth, my second co-edited book Christianity and Citizenship is published in electronic form recently. The introduction reads: "[The book] is a follow-up series to The Bible & the Ballot that focuses on Christians’ participation as citizens. Like the previous series, the present one is also a collective effort by Christians from different parts of the theological spectrum. Six writers weigh in on topics ranging from governance to education, political movements to the gospel, as well as things that often go unspoken and avoided."

To God, in gratitude.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Reflection: God plays Lego so that Jean-Paul Sartre may receive life

When I was a kid, I received Christmas present from my parents every year. But if you ask me if I remember what they gave me each year, I can only say that I remember one. It was a Lego set. I simply don’t have any impression of other presents. So, what’s so special about the Lego set? 

There are two kinds of presents in this world. One kind is an end in itself. For example, chocolate is an end in itself; you eat it and that’s it. The other kind of present is not an end in itself; it leads to new possibility. Lego set is the second kind. From one set of Lego bricks, we can build castle, ship, cars, animals, robots, towns, and islands. It fires up our imagination. We can bring an entire imaginary world into existence. 

I like to think that God’s gift of Jesus Christ for us is the second kind of present. He is like a Lego set. He is the divine present that leads to new possibility for the world. During one Christmas, a Jewish family went shopping in the mall. The young son in the family saw a beautiful Christmas tree and was fascinated by it. He turned to his father and asked, “Daddy, why can’t we have a Christmas tree in our house?” The father very gently said, “Jewish house cannot have Christmas tree.” Then the little boy thought for a while and then replied, “Daddy, why did we buy a Jewish house?” 

While the young boy in the story thought that Christmas is just another holiday with decorated tree, his father knew very well the symbol behind the festivity: It is about the arrival of Jesus Christ into the world. The Almighty came in human flesh. And to the non-Christian religious Jews, this is blasphemous. Yet, this is what Christmas is about. 

What Christmas stands for is not only a blasphemy to the Jews, but it is also a threat to the rest. Jean-Paul Satre was a household name in France in the 1960s. He was a national hero partly due to his works in philosophy, particularly his contribution to the school of thought called ‘existentialism’. Sartre provides the definitive character for existentialism with his famous slogan “existence precedes essence”. When he died, there were about 50,000 people attended his funeral held at Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris. (Something that is very unlikely to happen for a philosopher in Singapore.) Sartre remains the father-figure for many existentialists today. 

In Sartre’s big book Being and Nothingness, he talks about how other people are a threat to us. He gives the example that we are most absorbed in ourselves, true to our own nature, when we stalk at other people through a keyhole. We are so preoccupied peeping at how people behave, gossip, laugh, and live their lives that we are not conscious of our own shame anymore. Yet, in the midst of us looking through the keyhole, suddenly we hear a noise behind us. It appears that another person is stalking us! At such realization, suddenly we feel threatened. We feel ashamed. Other people are threatening! (Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness [UK: Routledge, 2003], 282-284.) In his popular play No Exit, Sartre wrote that, “Hell is other people.” (Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit and Three Other Plays [USA: Vintage, 1989], 45.) May be because of this reason, Sartre doesn’t believe in God. Having the divine ‘Other’ looking at how we live at every moment throughout our life is a terrifying threat to our human nature. As if that is not enough, God became one of us to sneer at us, showing us how far off we have been from God’s standard. Christmas, in this sense, is a threat. 

However, that is not all there is. It is precisely because God became one of us through Jesus that we have the assurance that God truly knows us. And despite all our guilt and shame, God died for us. And because of this, we received new life in Jesus. “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Romans 6:4) 

There was a mother with her three children went for Christmas shopping. As she was alone, she had a very difficult time watching the three kids while at the same time trying to shop for all the presents on her list. The three children were nagging at her, wanting every toy on the shelves. So the mother spent the whole day juggling between watching her kids and shopping. She was fed up. At the end of the day, when she took the crowded lift to go to the basement carpark, she sighed aloud and aired her frustration, “Whoever started this whole Christmas thing should be arrested and hang!” Then someone in the lift replied quietly, “Madam, I believe they have crucified that guy.” 

Living through life can cause us frustration. We get that in our work and in our relationship with other people, and may be also in our Christmas shopping. Sometimes, like the frustrated mother in the story, we are too caught up with what we set up for ourselves to do and lose sight of the real meaning of Christmas. Let us not forget, amidst our festive busyness, that Christmas is the new life that God has given us through Christ. Through Him, we have new approach to deal with our work. Through Him, we have new way to relate to other people. Through Him, there is new life. That is God’s ‘Lego bricks’ for the world. 

Therefore, what Christmas stands for is about Jesus’ birthday and our birthday. Because of Jesus’ birthday, all of us have a new birthday, a new possibility, a new future. We may not be able to choose which family should we born into, which country should we born into, how do we want to be born as. But because of Jesus’ birthday, we can now choose to be born into a new life in Him. Christmas, like Lego bricks, opens up the possibility of new life for us. Like how Rowan Williams said it, “He comes to make humanity itself new, to create fresh possibilities for being at peace with God.” 

We may dislike our life, with the flaws and shortcomings in our nature. We may be terrified by the ever-presence of God looking at our every movement. Yet Christmas brings about the possibility that despite all this we can have new life. A life touched by divine love that is completely renewed by what Jesus has done for us. A life that welcomes every existentialist to receive.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Book Review: 'A Gentle Touch: Christians and Mental Illness' by John Ting

This book seeks to address the common issues surrounding mental illness from the perspective of a Christian pastor. The 5 areas discussed are psychosis, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, addictions, and self-care.

In his introductory chapter, John lays out his assumption of human being and his approach to healing/remedy for mental illness. Humans are regarded as multi-dimensional being. Our composition is not simply physical but also emotional, mental, psychological, social and spiritual. These dimensions are mutually affecting one another. For this reason, John advocates a holistic approach for healing that combines psychiatry, psychotherapy, pastoral and communal care. By including the spiritual dimension in his framework, John is caution that there should not be any imposition of one’s Christian faith to the client. Following this, John sets the dynamic between prayers and medicine on the understanding that “God is the source of healing.” Therefore those who are struggling with mental illness should continue to prayer while at the same time seek after medical/psychological treatment. This is a holistic framework.

The book’s second chapter deals with the discerning between demon possession and schizophrenia. The suggestion he gives is to approach such cases with an open mind, without excluding either possibilities. On one hand, symptoms of being possessed may be the result of delusional behaviour. On the other hand, behavioural disorder may be due to possession. Sometimes, it could be a combination of both. John helpfully suggests that a way to diagnose which is which is by investigating the client’s history, whether did the person participate in demonic or occult activity in the past. “If things occult and temple are absent but emotional traumas, failures and disappointments in life have occurred, the more likely the disorders are due to mental illness.”

The third chapter on mood disorder highlights the legitimacy for Christians to take antidepressant. Seeking therapy and medical course does not make a Christian less dependent on God as all healing comes from Him. John points out that mood disorder such as depression is caused by our body’s dysfunction, very much like other physical illnesses. Therefore medicine can regulate the biochemical balance in the body. In some cases, those with clinical depression may have to depend on antidepressant their whole life. To John, “God may choose to heal miraculously in answer to faith and prayer,” and if He so desire, “He also heals through medication and therapy.”

In the same chapter, John shares about his own journey of going through clinical depression. For a long period of time during the depression, he felt unproductive and procrastinated a lot. Due to the stress that weighing him down, at one point he considered suicide. It was through medication and an extended time of spiritual exercises such as prayer, reflection, and fasting that he managed to be healed from it.

The next chapter deals with anxiety disorder. John notes that “anxiety has a large cognitive component.” As such, the spiritual resources in Christianity such as God’s sovereignty and faithfulness in providing, caring, and loving His children can help to deal with anxiety. Yet, that also depends on whether is the person’s anxiety caused by “cognitive, voluntary component” or “emotional, involuntary component.” If it is the latter, then medication and therapy may be needed before the spiritual guidance is given. For this reason, counsellors and pastors need “wisdom and sensitivity to discern whether the presence of crisis, anxiety and stress mean it is not an appropriate time to inculcate a biblical worldview or it is an opportunity to learn experientially God’s sovereignty and faithfulness.”

Chapter five addresses the issue of addiction. John distinguishes 2 types of addiction. The first type is addiction is with objects that are sinful such as obsession with pornography and drug abuse. These by themselves are “intrinsically sinful.” The second type is addiction with objects that are not sinful such as alcohol, computer games and Facebook. We can consume or use them in moderation. In any case, the starting point to break an addiction is by confession and repentance. It is only through the power of Christ that one can be fully rehabilitated from these vices. I think John could discuss more on diagnosing the causes for addiction, which will help to pinpoint the cause of it in order to begin the healing process from there.

The last chapter is dedicated to discuss self-care as a way to avoid burnout. John differentiates burnout from stress where the former is characterised by disengagement and lethargic while the latter is over-engagement and anxiety disorder. Steps of prevention are recommended as burnout is often unnoticeable when it happens. These steps are self-education, participate in support group, know our own limits, accept our feelings, and confide in others. The last of them is the best defence against burnout.

This book is not only instructional but biographical. Besides sharing his thoughts and experience, John has included the personal story of others who have suffered from mental illness. I find this combination of theory and stories enhances my understanding of the issues on and remedy for mental illness with more vividness. Whether we agree with him or not in his diagnosis and suggestion, we need to listen to his exhortation to remove the stigma of mental illness in the church. “There are clinically depressed brothers and sisters in our churches who are active in some form of ministry. Most are afraid to let others know about it for fear of rejection and being judged untrusting and lacking in faith when this is probably not  so.” It would be very unfortunate if Christians with mental illness do not find it safe even in their church to talk about these matters. Thanks to John for this short yet urgent reminder.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Queer theorist: Marriage is absurdly constraining and increasingly irrelevant

Annamarie Jagose, a feminist and queer theorist who is the Head of the School of Letters, Art and Media of University of Sydney, has written an article on "long-term gay and lesbian couples that are the shiny new poster boys and girls for same-sex marriage" and why it is not serving "social justice, equity and social belonging." Her reason is that "marriage" itself is irrelevant according to the queer framework. 

I cannot deny there is a sense of vindication on my part reading Jagose's piece because what she has highlighted was exactly the point which I have brought up previously in my conversation with some prominent voices in the Malaysia-Singapore LGBTQ movement. I noted that the LGBTQ movement is largely still living under the shadow of heterosexual monogamous hegemony in their present state of advocacy. Yet I was dismissed as using pseudo-academic queer theory.

Here are some excerpts from Jagose's piece:

Defining marriage in terms of exclusivity and permanence is, at best, a wishful description; it’s an idealised account of how we, individually and collectively, hope marriage might work.... Lesbian and gay communities, and the feminist communities with which they have historically overlapped, have long celebrated the values of sexual diversity over the sexual conformity represented by marriage and the ethical importance of sexual straight-talking rather than the double-standards so frequently observed in marriage’s vicinity.

Rather than admit lesbians and gay men to marriage as currently conceived, we should avow more fully the range of options that characterise a lot of our lives and living arrangements. Why not support and recognise the alternative intimacies that gay communities, among others, have been developing for decades?

In recognising some gay and lesbian relationships as marriages, same-sex marriage emphasises the continued illegitimacy of other sexual arrangements and the continued exclusion of other social actors.

Outside the newly enlarged circle of social approval and privilege afforded by same-sex marriage stand those whose erotic lives are not organised around the values symbolised by marriage: coupledom, monogamy, permanence, domestic cohabitation.

Unmarried mothers, for instance; adulterers; the devotedly promiscuous; sex workers; the divorced; the bigamous and polygamous; those who are not strangers to the august traditions of the dirty weekend or the one-night stand; single people.

Now this ragtag bunch might not seem as worthy of social protection and prestige as the loving, caring, long-term gay and lesbian couples that are the shiny new poster boys and girls for same-sex marriage. But it reminds us to ask something that advocates of same-sex marriage, in their eagerness, forget to ask: why should marriage continue in the 21st century to be a primary mechanism for the distribution of social recognition and privilege?

Important questions of social justice, equity and social belonging cannot get worked out across such an absurdly constrained and increasingly irrelevant category as marriage.
Do read Jagose's whole article.

In Singapore, it has been highlighted by Lisa Li that the local LGBTQ movement has excluded others like Tan Eng Hong when they made Gary Lim and Kenneth Chee the poster boys of the Pink Dot movement. Such advocacy strategy has not only backfire against the movement's philosophy of inclusivity and acceptance but also betray the fact that much of local LGBTQ activism is still living under the shadow of heterosexual-monogamous marriage.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Arts and the Glory of the Lord

Three months ago I was interviewed by a postgraduate student who is currently researching for King’s College London on the relationship between the arts and Christianity in Singapore. Seated beside me were an award-winning poet and two producers of stage drama. I was not in any way as active in the art scene as them. My only contribution in the 3-hours long interview was a theological reflection on pop culture, especially the movies. 

Throughout the interview, we were shown 10 different art pieces such as T. S. Elliot's despairing poem The Hollow Men, Andres Serrano's controversial photograph Piss Christ, Rembrandt's sketch of Abraham dismissing Hagar and Ishmael, and John Lennon's atheistic utopian song Imagine. After the interview, I wonder what is the place for arts in a church?

Some of us relate the arts to high cultures of classical music, renaissance paintings, ballet, and perhaps also to exquisite cigars and vintage wine. Others think that arts are related only to beauty or aesthetic contemplation. 

To Nicholas Wolterstorff, a Reformed philosopher and theologian, the arts are much more than these. They are first and foremost "instruments" which are "inextricably embedded in the fabric of human intention" that equip "us for action" with respect to the world, to other people, and to God. (See his Art in Action [USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1980], 3-4.) Wolterstorff is saying that arts are something we intentionally make in order to help us to act accordingly in our respective context.

For instance, how food is presented on our plate affects how we act; in this case, it either encourages or discourages our anticipation to eat and savour the food. That’s why a nice photograph of food is so important in restaurant’s menu, on hawker stall’s signboard, and on food blogs. Can you recall the last time when you felt disappointed, if not cheated, when the actual serving was not as tasty as portrayed in the photograph? That‘s how art affects how we re-act.

Talking about food, I remember someone I met over lunch last year. That man seemed to be very familiar with food. While we were waiting for our order, the waiters at the restaurant would occasionally exchange foodie jargon with him. And when the food arrived, that man would describe the uniqueness of each dish to us. He would advise us to begin with certain dish first so that (to paraphrase him) “our palate is not confused.” As one who grew up eating at hawker stalls, I thought that was new. It is common to hear that our mind gets confused; but tongue? Anyway, that noon I had a glimpse into to the art of eating. Certain skillsets or instruments are needed to enjoy food, to help us to act in the context of food appreciation. Only after the lunch that I found out that the man was a Senior Vice President of Singapore Hotel and Tourism Education Centre (Shatec Institutes). His job was to perfect the art of eating, the act of savouring food.

The arts are instruments humans intentionally make in order to help us to act accordingly in our respective context. They serve human life. Wherever there are humans, there is art. As Wolterstorff wrote, 
"We know of no people which has done without music and fiction and poetry and role-playing and sculpture and visual depiction. Possibly some have done without one or the other of these; none to our knowledge has done without one or the other of these." (Ibid., 4)  
Art is part of the clothes we wear, food we eat, shopping complexes we patronize, films we watch, games we play, novels we read, songs we listen, hymns we sing, and the myriad of other things we intentionally make. This reminds us of what apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthian 10:31, "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God."

This verse tells us that all that Christians do, including our creation and appreciation of the arts, is done for God’s glory. 

Christians create arts for a different context from non-Christians. "The ultimate distinction," wrote Daniel Siebell, "is not between Christian art and autonomous modern art but between art that…. can bring forth or testify to an embodied transcendence…. and art that denies such transcendence." (God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art [USA: Baker Academic, 2008], 164.) Christians create arts in the context of the sublime glory of the Lord. As the great composer Johann Sebastian Bach is believed to have said, "The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul."

Whether the world can see or hear or taste the glory of God through the arts is another matter altogether. Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear. Whoever has eyes, let them see. Whoever has tongue, let them taste. However, there will always be those who see yet not perceive, those who hear but not understand, and those who taste but not feel—Like those who heard Jesus’ parables but did not comprehend (Luke 8:8-10). But to the Christians, "The whole earth is full of His glory" (Isaiah 6:3).

This reflection is just a sketch. The arts are too huge a subject to be addressed here. Nonetheless, I hope this reflection able to provide some pointers of where to go and what to look for, especially for those whose vocation are in the arts. So the next time you take a photo of your food with a phone, try to find how it can be God-glorifying. Then post it on Facebook or Instagram. Whether or not people will see God’s glory through it is another matter. What is important is that you have created an art for His glory. You have acted accordingly to the context. I think the same principle applies to everyone in other creative act be it in design, dance, fashion, musical, cooking, eating, filming, etc.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Postmodern Text par excellence

Just read a postmodern book par excellence.

It begins with the genealogy of power.
Every chapter is a deconstruction.
Truth is questioned and left unanswered, or seemingly so.
Social categories are questioned and radically overturned.
It contains incredulity towards all metanarratives.
Justice is the un-deconstructible finality.
Every page demands the reader's response.
And it ends with a subversive allegory.

What book?

It comes in many names.

Commonly, it's called The New Testament.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Reformation's blunder: Proliferation of dissent and disunity?

Update (11 February 2014): Includes the Univision survey that estimates how many Roman Catholics disagree with Vatican's teaching.

Today is Reformation Day. It's important to commemorate this remarkable movement. Reformation doesn't belong only to Protestant churches but to the universal church as much has been accomplished through the movement. For one, the retrieval of the pivotal epistemic and hermeneutical consistency that people can read and understand Scripture unmediated by a group of interpreters or line of post-apostles interpretation tradition. This epistemic consistency was lost or suppressed by the church authority until the Reformation. 

However, like all movements, the Reformation is not without its critics. One of the most popular comments is the charge of the proliferation of dissent and disunity among Christians: the Reformers, in defiant against the popes and cardinals of that time, have established their own churches and develop their own dogmatics, and so also have set an example for others to do likewise. As a result, there is a crisis in ecclesial and theological authority---there is a lost of reference to decide which church and theology are more faithful to the apostolic teaching. And so we have many denominations. 

In Singapore alone, we have Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Bible-Presbyterian, Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, Lutheran, Baptist, Reformed Baptist, independent Baptist, Reformed Evangelical, independent evangelical, Pentecostal, independent Pentecostal and Charismatic, Brethren, Evangelical Free Church, Church of Singapore and all other independent churches, and different congregations of Eastern Orthodoxy. Although there are individuals within these churches who are more ecumenical, yet each group claims (some implicitly, while others explicitly) its institution's official teaching as more faithful to the apostles than other churches. 

This alleged lost of an objective reference to adjudicate which theological claim is more valid than others is seen as a huge lack by the Vatican. This is also the reason for some Protestants to join the Roman Catholic Church. As the former theologian of Reformed Theological Seminary, Kenneth Howell, said of his own transition
I have always wanted to know the reasons why I must believe something. I had always thought that the Reformed faith represented the teaching of the Scriptures and the ancient Church. When I had to teach the process of biblical interpretation — as opposed to teaching what I thought the Bible taught — I realized that the only way to agree on a proper interpretation of a text is to have a living Magisterium in the Church.

The reason that there are so many Protestants who can’t agree on what the Bible teaches is that they have no authoritative interpretative body.
Or in the words of Francis Beckwith, who joined the Roman church when he was the President of the Evangelical Theological Society,
Luther himself, though excommunicated, never saw his movement as anything more than a renewal movement within the Church. We, of course, know now that the movement he started had a life of its own, resulting in scores of different and often conflicting understandings of Scripture, sacrament, and Church, and each finding something in Christianity’s traditions to challenge.

But in order to arrive at this present state of theological diversity and ecclesial fragmentation, you needed more Luthers, of which there has been an endless supply. His success made Luther a towering example to emulate.
I think whether is the proliferation of dissent and disunity brought about by the Reformation a problem or not depends on this question: Assuming the universal church is manifested fully through a concrete institution (as taught by Vatican), can a visible universal church be the effective objective reference that prevents dissent and disunity? 

This question is not asking if Vatican has official teaching or not; obviously they do, just like every other churches. This question is asking whether is there theological dissent and ecclesiastical disunity within the pre- and post-Reformation Roman Catholic Church?

The answer is 'Yes' for both pre- and post-Reformation Roman Catholic Church. We see this in Augustine of Hippo's disagreement with the Donatists, John of Damascus and the iconoclastic controversy, and the 'great schism' between the Latin west and the Greek east churches. In the case between Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, and Stephen, the bishop of Rome, the former charged the latter as a person who "would rather maintain his own evil and false position, than agree in the right and true which belongs to another."

Another example is the condemnation of Thomas Aquinas by Stephen Tempier, bishop of Paris. The bishop's condemnation listed some articles that are taught by Aquinas. Drawing from his detailed study on this, John F. Wippel, a Professor at the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas, commented,
...since a number of these articles were thought to be aimed at Thomas by informed contemporaries such as William and Godfrey and apparently in some cases, Henry of Ghent, I am inclined to take their testimony very seriously. In a number of these instances the propositions in question were known by Stephen and his Commission to have been taught by Thomas and in many cases also by one or other Master in Arts. Stephen and his Commission condemned them nonetheless. Hence it seems clear enough to me that in those cases they intended to condemn Aquinas's doctrine directly, not merely indirectly.
('Thomas Aquinas and the Condemnation of 1277,' in The Modern Schoolman LXXII, January/March [1995]:269-270.)
However, the following bishop of Paris, Stephen of Bourret, dissented from his predecessor,
...in 1325, some nineteen months after Thomas's canonization, the Bishop of Paris of that time revoked the condemnation of the Paris articles insofar as they "touched on or were asserted to touch on" Thomas's teachings. One could hardly continue to condemn at Paris the views of a recently canonized saint!
(Ibid, 239.)
In the present post-Reformation time, we are still witnessing much dissent and disunity within the Roman Catholic Church. Besides the big names such as Hans Kung, Charles Curran, and Edward Schillebeeckx, there are recent cases of Jacques Pohier, Jacques Dupuis, Leonardo Boff, Anthony de Mello, Roger Haight, Mary Agnes Mansour, Richard McBrien, Theresa Kane, John McNeill, Jon Sobrino, Anthony Kosnik, Aloysius Bermejo, and Elizabeth Johnson. The latter is the Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University, a Jesuit institution, whose book Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (USA: Continuum, 2007) is condemned by the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. In Johnson's defense are other Roman Catholic theologians such as Stephen J. Pope of Boston College and Mary Catherine Hilkert of Notre Dame University. 

Just last year the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith denounced the work of Margaret Farley, a Catholic nun who is also a Professor Emerita of Christian Ethics at Yale Divinity School. The Vatican stated that her book Just Love: a Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (USA: Continuum, 2006) poses "grave harm to the faithful". In her response, Farley acknowledged her dissent, "I do not dispute the judgment that some of the positions contained within it are not in accord with current official Catholic teaching."

For an overview of recent cases on dissenting Roman Catholic theologians, see Braford E. Hinze's essay, 'A Decade of Disciplining Theologians,' in When the Magisterium Intervenes: The Magisterium and Theologians in Today's Church, ed. Richard R. Gaillardetz (USA: Liturgical Press, 2012). On top of those mentioned above, there are many dissenting groups and organizations identified as Roman Catholics. Here and here.

A recent survey conducted by Univision--across 12 countries with more than 12,000 Roman Catholics--have shown that the Vatican does not command theological unity among its own members. As reported in The Guardian:
78% of respondents worldwide supporting the use of artificial birth control.

More than half (58%) disagreed with the church's stance that divorcees who remarry are ineligible for Communion. And 65% of the respondents said abortion should be allowed – 8% in all cases and 57% in some.
If there is dissent and disunity within the pre- and post-Reformation Roman Catholic Church, then dissent and disunity happen regardless of the Reformation. Yes, Vatican can claim itself to be the objective reference. Yet, so are those Roman Catholics who dissent from Vatican and from each other.

To say that there is a proliferation assumes an ideal past when dissent and disunity were lesser. Yet such assertion need to be shown, and not simply asserted. One must be able to show that there was lesser disagreement in the past than in the present, assuming such study is possible in the first place.

Dissent and disunity will always be found within the Roman Catholic Church. This is because they are found in the one invisible universal church of which the Roman church, a visible institution, is part of. For this reason, it's a mistake to see the present dissent and disunity among churches as the blunder of the Reformation.

Of course, this betrays the difference between my understanding of the church and that of Vatican. And I hold on to my view not only because of Matthew 13:24-30, 33-43, but also for its testimony to the plural state of the church. This ecclesiology inspired by the Reformation is a window into the reality of the pluralistic condition of the universal church.

So, can the visible universal church (as how Roman Catholic Church believes it is) be the effective objective reference that prevents dissent and disunity?

Yes, of course it can. The fact that there are adherents (followers) who say 'Amen' to all its teaching says more than that; it says it is. Just that this is the same with every other churches and those who adhere to the dissenters within the Roman Catholic Church.They too have followers who say 'Amen' to all their respective teaching.

Does this mean that we should stop working for unity among churches and Christians? Definitely no. What shape should such unity have is another discussion altogether. Suffice to say that ecumenical work has to continue (John 17:20-23).

What about those Protestants who have transited to Roman church and those who are thinking of transiting because they feel that Protestant churches can't give them an objective reference?

I would encourage them to think about this: Desiring an objective authority and throwing oneself to an entity that claims to satisfy that desire says nothing about the truthfulness of the claim. The Magisterium can claim to have the objective reference to decide what is true. But the dissenting Roman Catholics as well as Protestants and Eastern Orthodox can claim likewise for themselves. Having one authority to rely on says nothing whether that authority is true or not.

The upside of the Reformation movement is the consistency they have in their epistemic and hermeneutical framework. It is this consistency that enables people ranging from a pew warmer to a Church Father to interpret the scripture in the first place. This is the hermeneutic of sola scriptura. A jewel recovered through the magisterial Reformers. Happy Reformation Day!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Prof. Ho Yew Kee's nuance understanding of ‘prosperity gospel’


Prof. Ho Yew Kee, the Head of Department of Accounting at National University of Singapore and an active churchman, has written a good explanation of prosperity gospel. His view ably summarizes Lausanne Theology Working Group's 2009 statement on this matter. With his permission to post it here:
What is this "prosperity gospel" and what is wrong with it or is our understanding correct? Is it because the conservative churches do not believe that God will reward us for our faithfulness and obedience? Or is it because we are jealous of the prosperity and growth of these "prosperity gospel churches"? 
Why is it that a "prosperity gospel church" can raise millions of dollars for a weekend of service while the conservative churches struggle just to raise enough to buy a land and build a church? We claimed that there is something wrong with them but not with us! There is a great need for us to do introspection as to why we are seeing such great discrepancies.

I think the truth in God’s word is somewhere between these two extremes of the conservative and the "prosperity gospel churches". 

Here is an attempt to unravel this seemingly opposite positions on the prosperity gospel. The word of God is very clear.  Having the positional reference in Christ is the starting point and thereafter a life time of obedience and as we are found faithful and in obedience, God’s word says that He will pour forth His blessings on us according to Deut 28. We are not working for our blessings. We are not being obedient and faithful because we work for the blessings. We are obedient and faithful because we have Christ as the centre piece of our lives. Obedience is independent of the blessings as an end goal. We are obedient because God is the centre of our life. If we are not careful, this is where the prosperity gospel can get a hold in our lives.  

The prosperity gospel basically says that we will be blessed when we are obedient and when we do the good works and acts. This is half truth. This understanding means that the basic motivation of our obedience and faithfulness is because we want the blessings in return. The blessing is the ultimate goal of our good works. The obedience and blessings did not come from our desire to serve God as the centre piece of our lives. 

The difference here is very subtle. Take the case of offerings and givings. Under the prosperity gospel's teaching, one gives because he is expecting God to multiply his gift so that he can obtain many more folds in return. He gives because he wanted the returns. The return or blessing is the sole purpose of his giving. For example, a businessman gave a large sum as offering expecting that God will help him to win the contract. If this is the case, then this is no different from religious belief through good works as the outcome of the good works is to obtain a good and blessed life. We do good because we want a good life. Our obedience and good works are not about God but about what we get back in return. This is the prosperity gospel in all its humanity! At least this is what I understand.

The biblical giving is that we give unto the LORD because He is the centre piece and deserving of our gifts. The sole motivation is giving to the LORD. As to how God will give us back in blessings, we leave it unto the LORD as we have discharged our faithfulness and obedience in giving. The sole purpose in biblical giving is unto the LORD and with no expectation as to how God can or will give us back in return. The blessings of God is absolutely and totally His prerogative. God promised that He will bless and how He will choose to do it, He is God and He can decide. Giving is about Him and not about us.

Allow me to use one teaching of Jesus to support my reasoning.  Jesus said in Luke 14:12-14, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, otherwise they may also invite you in return and that will be your repayment. But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."  

Here in lies the practice of the normal people or the normal rich. Jesus is not saying that you should not invite "your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours" to dinner.  In hosting a dinner, Jesus said that the ordinary calculative man did the calculation and invite those to the dinner whom he thinks and believes will be useful to him. The sole intention of the dinner invitation is what he will get back in return – friendship, connections and even business dealings. Jesus teaching here is not literally saying that we should then invite "the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind" to our place for dinner but we invite those whom God can use us to bless with no expectations that these guests will ever be able to repay us with their influence, power or blessings. We make the invitation because it pleases the LORD. We invite these to our dinner because we believe God wants us to bless them and we are acting in obedience. The dinner and invitation may be the same but the motivation behind the invitation is totally different.

The takeaways from this are two:

1) We need to know clearly the motivation of our works. Why are we doing what we are doing? Why do we remain faithful unto the LORD? 

2) We need to know that as we put God as the centre of our lives and expressed this in obedience and faithfulness through words, thoughts and deeds, we need to know that God promise that He will bless us. We don’t work for the blessings. We work for God and God will repay us in due time.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Hermeneutics through sola scriptura

Last week, I was caught up in a discussion on the topic of authority in doctrinal discernment: What are the criteria that define the orthodoxy of a doctrine?

Most Christians, if not all, hold that the scriptures is the final authority. This far is clear. What's challenging is how do we deal with the multiple interpretations on so many issues with every one claiming to be faithful to the scriptures and guided by the Holy Spirit?

One of the participants in the discussion strongly suggests that the best way is to interpret the scriptures through the Church Fathers. To him, the Church Fathers are more reliable than us in the present time. So if the Fathers thought that the bread and wine are transformed into physically real flesh and blood of Christ during the eucharist, then that is really what happens every time the Lord's Supper is celebrated.

I have to disagree on this point. The Church Fathers are valuable to us like every other great theologians, but this does not by default means other Christians' interpretation of the scriptures is less reliable. 

Here is the reason why the Reformation's cry for sola scriptura (by scriptures alone) makes so much sense: Every humans can read the scriptures and understand it for one's own conduct and growth as Christ's disciple. If this assumption is questionable, then even the Church Fathers' interpretation cannot be reliable (unless one thinks that they are supra-human or somehow arbitrarily are reckoned to be more illuminated than other readers). 

The Church Fathers' ability to interpret scriptures has to be engaged with in the same way as how we engage other authors.  This is not to say that the Church Fathers have no special authority in interpretation. Rather, their authority is as valid as any other great theologians of the church in the past and present, as long as they are in accord with the scriptures.

Ultimately, only the apostles and prophets in the New Testament era have special authority. This is due to their close proximity to Jesus. Their historical and physical closeness to him is something which the Church Fathers and the Reformers don’t share. These first century's Christian leaders served very different function from the Church Fathers solely on the basis of their historical proximity with Christ. We can read the New Testament and draw our doctrinal truths about God and the world without referring to the Church Fathers. Whether what one draws out is true or not is another matter. The point is that the sola scriptura assumption serves as more coherent basis than the appeal to Church Fathers, or the Magisterium for that matter. In other words, sola scriptura provides a more reasonable epistemological basis (or in Herman Bavinck's phrase "epistemic source") for hermeneutics.
The assumption that the best way to interpret the scriptures is through the Church Fathers begs the question on what if they got it wrong? If they got something wrong, and if we insist on following them even if they are wrong, then wouldn't that betrays Christians' emphasis on truth?

Case in point is the Church Fathers' theologically-constructed discrimination against the Jews. Their religious stigmatization of the Jews had so pervaded the imperial power and fueled the populace's prejudice that laws which placed the Jews as second-class citizens were legislated. For instance,
"...the Church influenced the imperial government to exclude Jews from military rank and its accompanying privileges. Throughout the Roman Empire, with the possible exception of Italy, many Jews had served in the Roman Army. So many Jewish soldiers served the Romans that, by the end of the fourth century, the Church had become alarmed. In 418 the Church succeeded in having a law passed that excluded Jews from the army, although they still could serve in the defense of their towns. For a Jew to serve in the military, the law required that he have himself baptized as a Catholic."
(Robert Michael, A History of Catholic Antisemitism: The Dark Side of the Church [USA: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008], 36.)
Here are some references from primary and secondary sources:
"And we say with confidence that they will never be restored to their former condition. For they committed a crime of the most unhallowed kind, in conspiring against the Saviour of the human race in that city where they offered up to God a worship containing the symbols of mighty mysteries."
(Origen, Against Celsus, 4:22)

"Tertullian gloated and exulted when he imagined how Christ would punish the Jews for having “thrown God, i.e., Christ, out.” Israel was not merely extra ecclesiam (outside the Church); it was “extra Deum” (outside of God)."
(Robert Michael, A History of Catholic Antisemitism: The Dark Side of the Church [USA: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008], 28, quoting research from David P. Efroymson, Tertullian's Anti-Judaism and its Role in his Theology, (Temple University Ph.D. thesis, 1975), 125.)

"Although those Jews had been called to the adoption of sons, they fell to kinship with dogs; we who were dogs received the strength, through God's grace, to put aside the irrational nature which was ours and to rise to the honor of sons....But see how thereafter the order was changed about: they became dogs, and we became the children....Where a harlot has set herself up, that place is a brothel. But the synagogue is not only a brothel and a theater; it also is a den of robbers and a lodging for wild beasts....Certainly it is the time for me to show that demons dwell in the synagogue, not only in the place itself but also in the souls of the Jews."
(John Chrysostom, Against the Jews, 1)

"Now then, let me strip down for the fight against the Jews themselves, so that the victory may be more glorious—so that you will learn that they are abominable and lawless and murderous and enemies of God."
(John Chrysostom, Against the Jews; 2)

"[Jews are] Murderers of the Lord, killers of the prophets, enemies and slanderers of God; violators of the law, adversaries of grace, aliens to the faith of their fathers, advocates of the devil, progeny of poison snakes, . . . whose minds are held in darkness, filled with the anger of the Pharisees, a sanhedrin of satans. Criminals, degenerates, . . . enemies of all that is decent and beautiful. They are guilty of shouting: Away with him, away with him. Crucify him. He who was God in the flesh!"
(Gregory of Nyssa, In Christi Resurrectionem, in Patrologiae, Cursus Completus, Graeca, ed. J. P. Migne, [Paris 1863], 46:685–86, quoted in Robert Michael, A History of Catholic Antisemitism: The Dark Side of the Church [USA: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008], 26.)

"Wasn’t it the Jewish people in the synagogue who are possessed by the unclean spirit of demons—as if bound fast by the coils of a serpent and caught in the snare of the devil—and who polluted its pretended bodily purity with the inner filth of its soul?"
(Ambrose, Commentary on the Gospel according to Luke, quoted in Robert Michael, A History of Catholic Antisemitism: The Dark Side of the Church [USA: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008], 23.)

Jerome sermonized that “Judas is cursed, that in Judas the Jews may be accursed. [Just as] you see the Jew praying; . . . nevertheless, their prayer turns into sin. . . . Whom do you suppose are the sons of Judas? The Jews. . . . Iscariot means money and price. . . . Synagogue was divorced by the Savior and became the wife of Judas, the betrayer."
(Jerome, The Homilies of Saint Jerome [Washington, D.C., 1964], 1:255, 258–62, quoted in Robert Michael, A History of Catholic Antisemitism: The Dark Side of the Church [USA: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008], 24.)

"On you, on you, false Jews and princes of a sacrilegious people, weighs the burden of this crime [of deicide. It] makes you the more deserving of the hatred of the whole human race."
(Pope Leo I, Sermon LIX: On the Passion VIII:3, quoted in Robert Michael, A History of Catholic Antisemitism: The Dark Side of the Church [USA: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008], 76.)

In pope Gregory the Great’s writings, both public and private, described Judaism as “superstition,” “vomit,” “perdition,” and “treachery,” and the Jews as “enemies of Christ.”
(Shlomo Simonsohn, The Apostolic See and the Jews, Documents:492-1404 [Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1988], 5,12–13,24–26.)

"In his reply to Faustus the Manichaean, Augustine continues his analogy between Cain and the Jews, arguing that the Jews were materialistic and evil deicides who will be punished forever, until they see the light and convert to Christianity. “Not by bodily death,” Augustine wrote, "shall the ungodly race of carnal Jews perish. . . . To the end of the seven days of time, the continued preservation of the Jews will be a proof to believing Christians of the subjection merited by those who, in the pride of their kingdom, put the Lord to death. . . . “And the Lord God set a mark upon Cain, lest any one finding him should slay him.” . . . Only when a Jew comes over to Christ, he is no longer Cain." By identifying the Jews with Cain, Augustine turned the Jewish historical and moral mission on its head. The Jews were no longer the divinely chosen witnesses to God’s moral message, they instead were now a sinful “Witness People” who would prove to the pagans the melancholy fate that awaited those who opposed Christ—a concept that legitimized and sanctified the suffering enslavement of Jews to Christians."
(Robert Michael, Holy Hatred: Christianity, Antisemitism, and the Holocaust [USA: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006], 30.)
John Chrysostom stood out among the Church Fathers in condemning the Jews. Robert L. Wilken, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at University of Virginia, commented that John was applying a rhetorical method known as 'psogos' that demonizes the object: "In psogos, the rhetor used omission to hide the subject's good traits or amplification to exaggerate his worsts features, and the cardinal rule was never to say anything positive about the subject." (Robert L. Wilken, John Chrysostom and the Jews: Rhetoric and Reality in the Late 4th Century [USA: University of California Press, 1983], 112.) 

That was how far a Church Father would go to caricature the Jews. Such theologically motivated discriminatory rhetoric eventually evolved into modern form of western antisemitism which contributed to the holocaust. Those who think that the best way to interpret the scriptures is through the Church Fathers will have to see the Jews likewise. 

To those who adhere to sola scriptura, we are obliged to interpret the scriptures according to the best historical understanding of the biblical context. Therefore we can disagree with the Church Fathers. Sola scriptura enables us to examine how the 'Jews' were understood by the apostles and prophets who were Jews themselves

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Brief Reflection on Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, Chapter 1: The Science of Dogmatic Theology

This is my first brief reflection on Bavinck's highly acclaimed Reformed Dogmatics. There are altogether 4 volumes. I only have the first volume and I hope I can finish reflecting through them all---If God willing. I'll be reflecting as a pastoral staff of a local church in Singapore. That's my lens to filter and draw out relevant concerns that are applicable in my context.

The sub-categories in this chapter are:
  • Terminology
  • Dogma, Dogmatics, and Theology
  • The Content of Theology
  • Is Theology a Science?
  • Theology and Faith
  • The Science of God
  • The Encyclopedic Place of Dogmatic Theology

Bavinck defines dogma as the articles of faith based on God's Word while dogmatics is the system of the articles of faith (p.34). "The imperative task of the dogmatician is to think God's thoughts after him and to trace their unity. (p.44) "Dogmatics is the knowledge that God has revealed his Word to the church concerning himself and all creatures as they stand in relation to him" (p.38). "For dogmatics is a positive science, gets all its material from revelation, and does not have the right to modify or expand that content by speculation apart from that revelation" (p.44). Dogmatics and ethics are "related members of a single organism. (p.58)"

This chapter strongly reminds us that the Christian way of life requires the objective reality of truth. Ethics and truth are two sides of our life under God. In cell group or Bible study group, we tend to be either preoccupied with catching up with one another over the week or we focus only in answering our study material as if we are sitting for exams. This would result in us feeling there is still something missing in our Christian fellowship. Either we are missing the life part or the truth part. This often translates into a lack of transparency felt between members. In more serious cases, people feel superficial towards one another, which is something undesirable for a community of believers.

Bavinck would point us back the resources in revelation, God's  word. This is where our dogmatics come from. This is where the focus of our fellowship life should be. Cell group or Bible study group is the united effort of God's people to think God's thoughts after him. What happens in our respective weekly fellowship is the deepening of our dogmatics and ethics. Our "single organism" being nurtured. 
Therefore cell group cannot be merely about catching up with one another over what took place in the week without reference to God's word. Life experience left untouched by dogmatics is ethical reflection that is without unity. The story of our week becomes fragmentary. Unless we understand our experience through the scriptures' resources, what we share about our week would be less of the organic whole. Likewise, Bible study cannot be like sitting through exams. We are not primarily answering Bible study's questions. Rather, we are to think God's thoughts after him along with those in fellowship with us. The Bible study material is a platform to facilitate this fellowship-thinking, this collaborative scientific learning of God, the world, and ourselves.

This is where daily Bible reading can help. The passages we read keep our daily encounters connected with dogmatics reflection. Or at least it reminds us to think God's thought after him through the way we live.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Holy Spirit is opening up new marital arrangement

Monogamy is a struggle to those who are born with the orientation to desire multiple partners. The answer is here: Polyamory.

According to Wikipedia: Polyamory, often abbreviated as poly, is often described as "consensual, ethical, and responsible non-monogamy." The word is sometimes used in a broader sense to refer to sexual or romantic relationships that are not sexually exclusive, though there is disagreement on how broadly it applies; an emphasis on ethics, honesty, and transparency all around is widely regarded as the crucial defining characteristic.

Besides, overcoming many monogamy struggles, polyamory encourages honesty, openness and communication in relationship. It gets people to really spend time to talk through stuffs. "People in these relationships really communicate. They communicate to death," said Bjarne Holmes, a psychologist at Champlain College in Vermont. As a polyamorist said, "We don’t have a choice. We’re in love with each other." This by itself already surpasses all struggling monogamous couples who can't even hold a decent conversation with each other for more than 30 minutes without bursting into argument.

For non-religious people, this is a good thing to propose for the society as a whole. It promotes communication among people and also provides a better domestic and economic supporting structure for children to grow up. As a polyamorist pointed out, "It seems to be that a child brought up by three loving parents would have some quite big economic advantages, and humans have cooperated in child-rearing since the year dot." Besides, elderly folks in polyamory relationship can age together actively, "We’re all planning to grow old together." This could virtually solve the problem for low birth rate and the challenges of aging population. Government should review existing law; Registry of Marriage should start drafting new marriage agreement.

For Christians, polyamory is a new way the Holy Spirit is moving to open up new social arrangement that cultivates new environment for people to grow deeper in Christ as well as in each other. Churches should not react to polyamory like how they have been reacting to gay sexuality; it is "a shame because those who are speaking out of fear are missing such a powerful moment of the moving of the Holy Spirit. They could be one with the rushing widening of human experience and awareness but they fight this flow rather than join in it."

Polyamory, like gay sexuality, encourages authentic love. As a polyamorist said, "It's not like there's only so much love I have to give and I have to give all of it to one person. I can love as many people as I can fit in my heart and it turns out that's quite a few." The Bible's monogamous passages are meant for ancient people. Like the issue on slavery, we know better now. Churches and pastors should start designing liturgy to bless polyamory marriage so as not to miss where the Holy Spirit is blowing or prevent the spreading/sharing of love. We should not prevent people who are really in love with each other and every other to be in covenantal consensual relationship. Besides, polyamory critiques and subverts the oppressive tyranny of heterosexual monogamous bigots! As a polyamorist advocated, "Personally, I started practicing non-monogamy in my early 20s as a statement against the tyranny of the heterosexual couple form and the patriarchal nuclear family." Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and even Jesus would support it! After all, this is a matter of human rights! Churches and Christians have to move fast to endorse and celebrate polyamory so that we can join others in praise and thanksgiving for all these wonderful new Spirit-driven expressions of love:
"The Holy Spirit is opening our eyes to this — can’t you see it! I give thanks that New York will soon join those who do and invite us all to make sure we do not miss jumping on board this joyful movement of God."

***Note: Keep calm. All I'm doing is highlighting some of the most common arguments for non-heterosexual monogamous arrangement.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Ronald Wong's response to the Straits Times' editorial on FCBC's dismissal of employee

The Straits Times' editorial on Faith Community Baptist Church's dismissal of an employee alleges the church's leadership as colliding religion with public interest:
When organised religion collides with the public interest in what some deem to be a faith-based dispute, there is no question a correct decision is one that favours society at large while respecting the doctrinal sanctity of that faith. 
My friend, Ronald Wong, has submitted a response to the Straits Times, but it was not published. Ronald's response points out that it is Straits Times' insistence to perceive the case as a conflict between the religious and the secular that has introduced the religious dimension into the case, and so has stirred the public's view to see it in that light.

Here is Ronald's article:
I refer to the Opinion article, “Safeguard secular nature of labour laws” (17 Sep 2013). The author made a distinction between “secular legislation” and “biblical teachings and the ethics of the independent church” in respect of grounds for dismissal of an employee. Without commenting on any specific case, it should be noted that the issue of dismissal on the grounds of ‘misconduct’ is not so simply drawn as between secular or religious.

An employee can be summarily dismissed for misconduct under section 14 of the Employment Act and/or misconduct amounting to a repudiatory breach of an employment contract (where the Employment Act is inapplicable). The scope of ‘misconduct’ would vary depending on the facts and circumstances of the case. There have been legal decisions stating that misconduct that is prejudicial or likely to be prejudicial to the interests or reputation of the employer could warrant summary dismissal (Reilly v. Steelcase Canada Ltd. (1979) 26 O.R. (2d) 725 103 D.L.R. (3d) 704 (Ontario High Court Of Justice)); likewise as misconduct that has the potential to adversely affect the working environment (Smith v The Christchurch Press Co Ltd - [2001] 1 NZLR 407 (Court of Appeal Wellington)). Hence, in Smith v The Christchurch Press Co Ltd, the Court held that the employee was validly dismissed for sexual misconduct in relation to another employee outside the office during lunch hour as it was an issue concerning two employees, arose out of the work situation and had the potential to adversely affect the working environment.

The conclusion that could be drawn from these cases is that the issue of whether a particular act of misconduct, whether characterized as moral, sexual, physical, reputational or otherwise, has to be determined according to the context of the case and not simply whether it is based on secular or religious ethics.
See original ST Opinion article here: http://news.asiaone.com/news/singapore/editorial-safeguard-secular-nature-labour-laws
(Nothing herein constitutes or is for the purpose of legal advice. You should consult a lawyer to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. Nothing here creates a solicitor-client relationship between the author and reader/user.)

Friday, September 27, 2013

Book Review: 'Engaging Society: The Christian in Tomorrow's Singapore,' edited by Michael Nai-Chiu Poon

This collection of essays is the latest publication of Trinity Theological College's Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia. The essays are written by theologians, ethicist, social-cultural geographers, civil servant, and seminary principal. Here is the content:
Foreword: Lily Kong
Preface: Tan Gee Paw
Introduction  Engaging Society: The Christian in Tomorrow’s Singapore – Michael Poon

Part I: Singapore connecting – Global, national and communal
Chapter 1 Cultural Icons, Global City and National Identity – Lily Kong
Chapter 2 Migration and ‘Divercities’: Challenges and Possibilities in Global-City Singapore – Brenda S. A. Yeoh and Theodora Lam

Part II: Resourcing the Christian mind
Chapter 3 Catholic Social Teaching: Abiding Yet Progressive – Kenson Koh
Chapter 4 Narcissistic Spirituality and Its Impact on Christian Public Engagement – Mark Chan
Chapter 5 The Church in Singapore and the Judgement of God – Leow Theng Huat

Part III: Engaging society
Chapter 6 Middle Axioms and Social Engagement in a Plural Society – Daniel Koh
Chapter 7 Christian Witness in the Public Square: Retrospection and Prospection – Roland Chia

Next steps
Chapter 8 Our Pledge: Let Hope and Charity Flourish in this Land – Ngoei Foong Nghian
Afterword: "That they may live" – Michael Poon
Appendix  For Further Reading
Lily Kong in the Foreword noting the intention of this book is to "nudge Christians to think about their social responsibility in a changing world"(p.viii). Tan Gee Paw's Preface states that this is "a tentative step to open up a new corridor of understanding the role of the Church in modern society" (p.xiii). Michael Poon's Introduction rounds up the aims of this collection as helping Christians to "think about their public witness and social responsibility in Singapore" (p.1).

What I get from this preliminary section is a common narrative of change that underlies the whole project. "Change is indeed the only constant," (p.viii), "...these changes will pale into insignificance compared to the changes that will take place over the next fifty years," (p.xii). Characteristics of these changes are global in nature in the areas of economy, social and political (p.xii). This has brought about the government's proposal of the controversial 2013 Population White Paper and the "huge anxiety" and "intense public discussion" that followed suit (p.1). This is the background of which this collection explores for "particular insight" Christians can "contribute toward public discussion on Singapore's future?" (p.1). It provides a theological compass for "Christians approach the challenge of thinking about living in Singapore when boundaries are fused and conventional maps are no longer reliable" (p.3).

The 2 essays devoted to reflect on these changes are found in Part I. Lily Kong compares the changing city landscape between Shanghai and Singapore, while Breanda Yeoh and Theodora Lam describe how migration has been and will continue to increase diversity in Singapore's society. Both are to "inform" and "alert us to the character of 'engaging society'" (p.18).

The former tells us that fanciful buildings are not enough to cultivate national identity. Therefore more care need to be given in city-building planning. But it doesn't say what kind of Christian contribution available to help foster what kind of national identity. For e.g. does having an architect/city-planner/engineer, who happens to be a Christian, to build the landscape marks that engagement Christian?

The latter essay elaborates the demography trend in the country and conclude that migration is a compelling force that futher diversify Singapore's society. As a result, families are becoming more diverse, race dynamic needs more flexible management, and negotiation of co-existence among different people need to be managed well. Indeed, these serve as good reminder. This essay would be more instructive if it at least highlights what Christian engagement is needed and how it can be done with the diversification process.

These 2 essays helpfully describe to readers Singapore's city-landscape and demography, yet nothing much, if at all, on Christian public witness and social responsibility in both areas---which is the aim of the book. If "tomorrow's Singapore" should have a more grounded national identity and would have a more diverse society, readers are left clueless on how to engage them. (Neither do the other essays in this collection follow up on these two analyses.) Besides, given the significant role the narrative of change that underlies this collection of essays, I wonder if the sole focus on cultural infrastructure and demography able to represent the reality of change that is said to be happening? If not, then why highlight only these two areas, which are not as defining as economics and regional-political factors that fuel and sustain the narrative of change? 

Part II on Resourcing the Christian Mind begins with Kenson Koh's introduction of Roman Catholic's social teaching with highlights on Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's encyclical Caritas in Veritate in chapter 3. He points out that the dignity of human persons who are created in God's image is the "basis of many themes in Catholic social teaching" (p.63). Following that, there are 4 fundamental values of social life that serve as "points of reference for the proper structuring and ordered leading of life in society" (p.68). These 4 values are truth, freedom, justice, and love. Koh emphasizes that although these principles are permanent, their application to social engagement is "not eternally enshrined in stone" (p.81).

I sympathize with this article's emphasis on the need of absolute principles as reference that guide social life. This is counter-cultural to many who think that principles should be as fluid as the changing surrounding. Koh attempts to strike the right balance between what is absolute and applicable with the changes in the society.

Mark L. Y. Chan in his essay Narcissistic Spirituality and Its Impact on Christian Public Engagement analyses how self-centred teaching coated in Christian language such as prosperity theology "impact Christian public engagement negatively" (p.88). Chan identified that narcissism, even though clouded with Christian expression, encourages individualism, neglect the cultivation of the mind, perpetuate consumerism/materialism, disabling our inability to empathize, forfeit wider cooperation in the society, leads to selfconceit, and disregard public concerns. 

In response to self-centred spirituality, Chan directs us to a "cruciform spirituality for public engagement". This alternate theology counteracts narcisism by emphasizing human sinfulness and hence cultivate humility and moderation. For this reason, there is openness to learn and willingness to cooperate with others in the society for common good. This cross-centred spirituality is a "call to go beyond our petty self-interests and to enter the fray of life in our world to pray and work towards the coming of the kingdom of God...." (p.96).

Leow Theng Huat's re-appropriation of P. T. Forsyth's understanding of God's judgement stirs the cruciform theme into another aspect of social engagement. Leow asked how does God's judgement as seen through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ help us to understand contemporary events? The key is in understanding God's judgement as "essentially reformative" in nature (p.106). Because it is reformative, divine judgement is an expression of the divine love. "God's love is simply his desire for us to be holy as he himself is holy, so that we can have fellowship with him" (p.107).

Complementing Chan's critique of narcissistic spirituality, Leow calls our attention to churches' lack of mention of God's judgement. He attributes this lack to "modern sensibilities" such as Christians' over-sentimentalization of God's love, human-centred type of Christianity, reductionistic and secularized perception of events, privatisation of Christian faith, and the fear that such fiery theme can be abused. Without judgement, our consciousness of holiness loosen. As a result, churches lose its vision to challenge and sacrifice for the society.

The theological framework both Chan and Leow suggest is one that is cross-centered and so it is non-triumphalistic, self-critical, and open to cooperate with others in the society.

The first article in Part III, Daniel K. S. Koh's Middle Axioms and Social Engagement in A Plural Society, introduces a dialectical approach to engage with society particularly in the drafting and evaluation of policy. This approach derives principles from "sound" and "clear theological basis" that can be accepted by non-Christians (p.122), and so promotes faithfulness to theological integrity, fairness to everyone in the society, and feasibility in its practical application. 

"To be fair, there is no approach which will aprovide solutions to every societal problem. Whatever it is, the upshot of such an exercise is that the process of arriving at an appropriate and acceptable middle axiom should at least assure us that the people involved in the discussion---experts, politicians, policy makers and stakeholders; whatever their religious background---would have put in careful thought" (p.123).
In the next essay Christian Witness in the Public Square: Retrospection and Prospection, Roland Chia recounts his own active engagement in the society. He has been commissioned by the National Council of Churches (NCCS) to produce statements representing Singapore churches in addressing ambiguous issues ranging from interfaith relations to biomedical research. Reflecting on the churches' past record of social engagement, represented by NCCS, Chia reminds us of the neccesity for churches to continue their cordial activism with the public. "The cultural and political situation in Singapore is changing so rapidly that the Church can no longer exist in cloistered seclusion from what is happening around it," and, "Christians must be sensitive  to the fact that there are many disparate voices in the public square that yearns to be heard and acknowledged" (p.143, 144-145).

In line with Daniel Koh's emphasis on faithfulness, fairness, and feasibility, Chia encourages us to be realistic in social engagement. "The realism to which I refer is not just practical, but theological. Theological realism informs us that the social and political world to which we are called to bear witness is fallen and sinful... It is a world that is not always concerned for the common good, regardless how often and eloquently it deploys this rhetoric. But Christians... must also acknowledge their own inadequacies... Furthermore, some of the issues in the public square are very complex, and the Bible and Christian tradition may not have directly addressed them" (pp.146-147).  

These 2 essays underline the importance for Christians to be realistic when we deal with public matters. This is a much needed reminder to the faithfuls not only to align their expectation accordingly but also to think carefully the means through which they engage. Nonetheless, one ought to ask whether is such realist approach to social engagement a product of the prevalent pragmatic culture in Singapore? If yes, then this by itself doesn't make the approach less faithful or invalid. It merely points to the need for the age-old negotiation between realism and idealism.

This collection concludes with Part 4, which consists of Ngoei Foong Nghian's reflection on the National Pledge and Michael Poon's Afterword. Ngoei recommended 3 areas for Christians in Singapore to consider as we take the next step in building the local churches. First, local Christians have to be discerning in learning from Western Christians. Second, we "should not be tempted to aggresively influence society and decision makers," which "will result in poor witness in the public eye" (p.156). Third, clergy and laity alike should be more serious with formal Christian education so that deeper understanding of Christian stewardship and social responsibility can be cultivated. This suggestion coheres with the "obvious lacuna" mentioned by Daniel Koh, which is the local's lack of priority in the training on theological ethical discourse (p.129). The editor, Michael Poon, closes the collection with a call for Christians to "learn how to work alongside other equally sophisticated Asians in a fast-rising first-world Asia in the new cnetury" (p.160). 

Overall, this book is a good guide for many of us in Singapore who are either directly or indirectly affected by some of the recent controversies that have implicated Christianity and potentially instill a lasting negaitve impression of the faith in the society. Many of these controversies are unnecessary and probably can be avoided. Perhaps there wasn't any resource available back then to help us. Now, we have.