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.

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