Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Tony Blair, western values, and Judeo-Christian influence

The former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blair deeply believes in the superiority of western values. For that, he thinks that the west should continue to strive to lead the world as has always been. 

Since his stepping down, Blair actively travels the world to develop religious peace through his foundation. He continues to exercise leadership grounded in western principles. His confidence in western values shapes his view on geopolitics and hope for the future of the world.

His position seems triumphalist, glorifying the western civilization over the rest of the world. Perhaps, bordering cultural imperialism. Yet, it is not as simple as that. 

Although Blair sees these values as western, yet he also believes that they are potentially universally appreciated as values that all of humanity can embrace:
"The world needs our [west-oriented] leadership for a very simple reason: while our values may have been nurtured in the West, their appeal and their ownership is vested in humanity. Liberty, justice, the people above the government not the government above the people: these are the values we forged over centuries and they represent the steadfast evolution of human progress"
(Tony Blair, A Journey [London, UK: Arrow Books, paperback edition 2011], xviii.)
To Blair, those western values are not rootless. They are the fruit from the Judeo-Christian backyard that has so shaped some of the most important egalitarian principles that we cherish today.
"Europe has many faults, but it has progressive values, a decent base adherence to the Judeo-Christian heritage that precisely because of its tumultuous and often terrible history has achieved a considerable measure of human civilization today." (Ibid, xxxvi.) 
In other words, to Blair, the reason why the west should continue to lead the world is because these values, negotiated rightly as well as wrongly with Christian theology through the ages, are the right set of universal principles that make us who we are meant to be as human beings.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Carl Trueman's own poison and doctrinal dissent

Recently, Carl Trueman, the Paul Woolley Chair of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary (WTS), has written about the (impending) crisis among conservative Protestant Christians. 

His bleak observation is fueled by what he saw as the prevalent power-play, or "Mob" rule, in the confessional circle. He highlighted the censoring of his writing on the Reformation21 website as an example of such "bully-boy tactics":
First, far too much power is exerted by wealthy and influential parachurch organizations. A good example of this was provided this year by events surrounding the attempted exchange about Evangelicals and Catholics Together which was commissioned by Reformation21, the e-zine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Three of us were involved: Timothy George, Thomas Guarino, and myself. The exchange was respectful, honest, friendly, but frank. My own article was scarcely a paean of praise to the ECT process. 

Within hours of the first article (that of Tim) being published, a tweet and a hostile blog post by a senior representative of another Reformed parachurch group based in Florida, followed by rumored behind-the-scenes shenanigans, were enough to get the series pulled (and then thankfully picked up by First Things—kudos to Rusty Reno). Sad to say, one parachurch group had effectively closed down perfectly legitimate discussion in an unconnected forum by sheer bully-boy tactics. 

An aberration? Unfortunately not. This is symptomatic of the way things are in much of the conservative Protestant world. As long as the most influential parachurches are run like businesses, money and marketing will be the overriding concerns, even as concern for ‘the gospel’ is always the gloss. Reinforced by a carrot-and-stick system of feudal patronage connected to lucrative conference gigs, publishing deals, and access to publicity, such tactics as those described will continue to be deployed. Roman Catholics might look on Protestantism from the outside and see it as theology ruled by a mob. Speaking as an insider, it often seems to me to be ruled more by the Mob.
In sum, the power-play within the conservative Protestant circle has effectively censored Trueman's article from the website even though he serves, as of this post, in the Editorial Advisory Committee.

Trueman is clearly upset over this, and saw the incident an evident of a real problem in the Reformed community.

This incident is both sad and comical. 

Sad, because this is another example of the widespread incapability among Christians to deal with pluralism in general, theological plurality in particular. Comical, because Trueman get to taste a little of his own poison.

Trueman, whether realizes or not, has significantly contributed to the "bully-boy tactics" culture. He has, in his capacity as Vice President for Academic Affairs and Academic Dean from 2006-2012, took part in ousting his colleague Peter Enns from WTS in 2008.

He implied in a public statement that the dismissal of Enns was necessary for the seminary (1) to uphold "the great catholic legacy of the Reformation and of subsequent confessional evangelicalism," and (2) to hold its faculty accountable:
As Academic Dean and as Vice President for Academic Affairs, I believe this lies above all in two specific areas.  First, it is now clear that Westminster is to be committed to a doctrine of scripture that reflects what is taught in the great confessions of the Reformation, and which has nurtured the confessional evangelical church for centuries.   As evangelicalism in general broadens out, as it loses its connection with its confessional Reformation past, as it becomes increasingly vacuous at a doctrinal level, the leaders at Westminster have decided that that is not the path this institution will go down.  We will not accept that the Reformation creedal heritage is no longer relevant; we will not accede to the indefinite broadening of evangelicalism’s doctrinal horizons; nor will we subscribe to the modifications of the doctrine of scripture which are such a necessary part of that broadening.  Rather, we will stand where we have always stood, on the great solas of the Reformation: Christ, scripture, grace, faith, and, above all, God’s glory.  We are not, and will not be, a seminary which repudiates the great catholic legacy of the Reformation and of subsequent confessional evangelicalism.

Second, it has been made clear that Westminster professors are to be held accountable to more than just the canons of their chosen academic guild or the current trends of thinking in their various subdisciplines or even their friends and colleagues on Faculty.  Accountability in times of crisis, of course, is always a painful experience. There is a human cost on all sides which press releases, theological statements, and minutes of meetings rarely, if ever, convey. While theology is indeed a great hobby, it is too often a nightmare of a profession.  Yet those who teach must be held accountable for their teaching, however hard that may be; and, for too long at Westminster, too little attention has been paid to what we as Faculty teach while too much, perhaps, has been paid to what others outside of our church constituencies think of us.
Trueman also revealed the kind of power-play that he and his colleagues orchestrated at WTS as: "organized and prepared for every eventuality, putting into place safety nets and multiple 'Plan Bs', they identified the places where influence could be wielded, mastered procedure, fought like the blazes when they had to, stood strong and immovable in the face of violent opposition and outmanoeuvred their opponents by continual attention to meeting agendas, points of order, procedural matters and long-term coordinated strategy." (H/T: Brandon Withrow)  

So on one hand, Trueman lamented his own victim-hood of "bully-boys" power-play, while on the other hand, he did it on others. 

If this tell us anything, it shows the mindless demand from certain conservative quarter of the evangelical universe to have its doctrinal liberty cake and eat it at the same time.

It is therefore a necessity for religious believers, whether Christian or others, to learn to acknowledge intra-faith plurality that embraces doctrinal liberty even from within our own tradition. 

Hope the aftertaste of his own poison has brought Trueman to see the ill-effect he has injected into the Christian community himself, which contributed to the crisis he now so passionately warning the rest of us about.

On our part, we must learn. Not so much from Trueman's observation, but his inconsistency. So that we can avoid it.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Are rules set by churches a reflection of eternal divine truth?

It is said that divine truth is eternal and unchanging. Christians set up principles that they choose to abide with. Churches set up rules or moral expectation that their employees have to follow. (In fact, all organizations have their own rules, so this is not something peculiar to churches. However, what is peculiar is the kind of rules that churches have which other organizations don't.) 

These principles and rules are believed to be reflecting God's eternal unchanging moral demand or order for the creation.

Some time back, ChristianityToday.com reported a change of rules in the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board:
Previous rules required would-be missionaries to have been baptized in an SBC church, or in a church that held SBC-like beliefs about baptism. Candidates baptized in a church that did not believe in eternal security—the idea that true Christians can’t lose their salvation even if they sin—or a church that views baptism is a sacrament were rejected.

The new rules allows those who were baptized by immersion and who are members of an SBC church to be candidates.

The changes also address the question of charismatic worship and prayer practices, which have been controversial for Southern Baptists. Under the previous rules, candidates who spoke in tongues or had a “private prayer language” were barred.

Under the new rules, speaking in tongues does not disqualify missionary candidates. Too much emphasis on charismatic gifts, like speaking in tongues, could still lead to discipline.

“IMB may still end employment for any missionary who places ‘persistent emphasis on any specific gift of the Spirit as normative for all or to the extent such emphasis becomes disruptive’ to Southern Baptist missions work,” according to a FAQ about the new rules posted by IMB.

Divorced candidates have been allowed to serve in short missions. Now they will be eligible to serve as long-term missionaries, depending on the circumstances of their divorce and other factors, such as the culture they will work in.

Parents of teenagers will also be potential candidates. The IMB had previously disqualified them out of concerns for the challenges that teenagers would face by being uprooted and having to move overseas. Now IMB leaders will decided on a case-by-cases basis whether or not to allow parents with teenagers.
In Singapore, most Baptist churches in the past required their newly hired pastors who were baptized by sprinkling and not by immersion to go through immersion baptism, as sprinkling was considered theologically invalid. Now, this is not required anymore. Many local Baptist churches recognize sprinkling baptism as well.

The point: Whether we acknowledge or not, churches do change religious rules and beliefs. If so, then how could churches and Christians claim that their rules and principles reflect the eternal truth of God? 

Therefore a lot of hesitation is needed for believers to make demanding claims on themselves as well as on others. Human rules are always interpreted construct that attempt to reflect God's truth to the best of our intention and understanding. But that should not give us enough reason to believe that our principles and churches' organizational rules are eternal truths. 

At best, they are for very practical and functional use, that is to ensure things move. But to claim that they are absolute and unchanging is another matter altogether. Such loaded theological assertion risks blaspheming God, impressing our own idea of what's right and wrong unto God, and telling the world that they are of God.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Is there a place for scholarly pursuit of divine truth?

I used to believe that divine truth is given to everyone regardless of their intellectual ability. I was wrong. 

The "wise and learned" are excluded from divine revelation. Says who? The man himself---in fact, such exclusion is praiseworthy.

"At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do." (Luke 10:21)

In fact, as I read through Luke's Gospel, Jesus is portrayed very much like an anarchist. He is against establishment, the rich, the elite, and the learned. His curd relation to the latter group is most fascinating to me.

For eg. "One of the experts in the law answered him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.” Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them." (11:45)

If we can extrapolate "experts in the law" as "scholars", then this passage contains so much critique against the practice of meritocratic academia (both in secular and theological studies)! 

It seems that elite thinkers are shunned by Jesus. What does this tell us about academic pursuit and excellence that almost everyone (including churches) so cherish today? Should this diminish the importance of academic theological study, or should this help us to re-frame academic theological learning?

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Conviction and public ethics

The conversation below can be applied in various issues as debated in all religions. The point is not about "bigotry" per se but, as aptly illustrated by Adam Ford, also on how loosely this word is being used on the two disagreeing sides. 

This conversation also highlights the need to discuss public ethics in a way that takes into consideration the pluralistic nature of our society, specifically in relation to religions.
The Oxford Dictionary defines the following words as such (which may change according to the prevailing semantic currency each word possesses):

Bigot: A person who is intolerant towards those holding different opinions.

Bigoted: Obstinately or unreasonably attached to a belief, opinion, or faction, and intolerant towards other people’s beliefs and practices.

Bigotry: Intolerance towards those who hold different opinions from oneself.

So, do you think the person on the left of the conversation above a bigot? Why, why not? Is his approach right or wrong? Does he take into consideration the pluralistic nature of society in deciding public ethics?

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Christian conduct in church and society

Rowan Williams recently wrote on Apostle Paul's vision of the Christian church:
"For him, the Christian Church was not a human institution – but equally, not even a divine institution in the ordinary sense. It was an imagined social space: a place where human desires found their proper focus and human relations were harmonised accordingly. The Church was where you discovered what you most acutely needed and how you could become most fully what you were created to be – an agent in community, drained of self-will and self-absorption by the pressure of God’s love, so that you could relate to others without fear, rivalry and lust for power."
I wonder if it is legitimate to extend this ecclesiological vision into an ideal pluralistic society that politics attempt to create and sustain? Could this be a Christian political witness? 

Some such as Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank have suggested that the church should be the role model for the society to emulate, however such view assumes an obvious social wall separating the Christians' social reality from non-Christians', as if both groups do not live in the same society or their interaction can be clearly defined and ought to be minimized.

I'm thinking, what if it's the other way around? If churches' beliefs and practices are more often than not being influenced and affected by the society they are situated in, then the political arrangement of the society has both direct and indirect access to the formation of ecclesiastical life. 

If so, then Christian political witness should not prioritize the question 'how should Christians conduct themselves in churches' over 'how should Christians conduct themselves in a pluralistic society'. Christians must learn how to conduct themselves consistently in both the church and the society.

In other words, the "social space" that Christians imagined must be big enough to contain the society as a whole without prematurely distinguishing between the wheat (church) from the weed (non-Christian social reality).

Friday, November 27, 2015

Christian duty and social causes

While trying to push back the fascist form of Islam in Malaysia which impinges onto citizenry liberty of this constitutionally secular country, I am seeing Christians in Singapore trying to advocate a form of Christianity-inspired social-values onto the republic's secular space.

In my observation, the three inter-linked causes of these two phenomena are:
1) the fear of moral deterioration (whether real or imagined) of our late modern era, and
2) the compulsion to protect our own and our community's identity and values, which often lead to
3) the inability to deal with plurality found in society.
For religious people, this means the drawing of social moral boundaries; be it legislating laws or lobbying for informal rules that proscribe what should and should not be allowed in the country. 

To the Muslims, it is differentiating between "haram" and "halal". To the Christians, it is between "principalities and powers of the world" and "gospel principles/values".

In other words, the three inter-linked causes have given rise to a dualistic view of the society, where almost anything can be distinguished either "for" or "against" one's religious values.

When a pamphlet that states "A percentage of every Starbucks purchase is donated to support same-sex marriage" is going around social media, some decided to boycott Starbucks. When it was announced that Adam Lambert is going to perform at Singapore's year-end countdown, 11,000 signed a petition to have him removed from the event.

I don't know how many of these advocates are Christians, but I know of fellow Christians who have participated in them, believing that they are simply carrying out their Christian duty as responsible citizens.

I wonder if they also boycott Google (with all its subsidiaries such as Gmail, YouTube, Blogger, Google Calendar, etc), Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft because they support same-sex marriage? How about Amazon (which owns BookDepository), Procter & Gamble (with all its household products), Nike, and Kraft that owns the famous Oreo

(Any Christian who uses iPhone and wants to be consistent in boycotting Apple, please consider donating your phone, iPod, or iPad to me instead of throwing them away.)

Hardly we find Christians who can be consistent in this regard. They have to pick and choose which product, celebrity, corporation, or organization to boycott. This means that Christians have to pick and choose which values to be deem worthy enough to activate their Christian citizenry responsibility to boycott or sign a petition against. 

In Starbucks' and Lambert's case, the values some Christians choose to uphold are those related to sexuality and/or public decency. But why not they choose to exercise their Christian responsibility over against idolatry, greed, drunkenness, etc?
"Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God." (1 Corinthians 6:9-10, ESV)
If those who advocate against Starbucks and Lambert are to be consistent, then they should also exercise their supposed Christian duty to petition against all other religions' idolatrous practices, against all big companies that are driven by greed, and against all bars, clubs, and convenient stores that sell alcoholic beverages.

I suspect no Christians in Singapore would want to be consistent in this regard. We all pick and choose. And the question worth asking is then, why do we choose certain values and not others? Is it because we have been conditioned by certain authority or social forces? If so, how do we rise above them?

There is no quick-fix to this three inter-linked causes. Therefore, Christians should not be too quick to adopt certain social causes as their Christian duty. This form of civic hesitation is perhaps paradoxically the kind of Christian responsibility that today's believers need to discover.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Doctrinal development as critique

If the collective understanding of "heaven" and "afterlife" is developmental in nature (one only needs to survey the OT to the NT to see this), then on what basis do we know we have got it right right now?

Some called it "progressive revelation", but often such "progress" stops somewhere, usually in the past. If it has stopped, then how do we make of our developmental understanding, which supposedly on-going?

Is revelation really progressive or our understanding that is progressive? Both? If both, then what doctrinal stability do we have at all?

On deeper reflection, could it be that "heaven" is really nothing more than just our developmental understanding?

Could it be that it is just a "[sic]", just a theory without deeper meaning other than the fact that the word "heaven" is being uttered? And our developmental understanding is our attempt to make sense of that utterance?

This investigation doesn't of course stop only at "heaven". More significantly, the same should be asked on the often-used word "spiritual".

Getting at an answer would not only be a linguistical and psychoanalytical but also theological and philosophical breakthrough.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

How do we know that Christianity is the truth?

I recently attended a religious ceremony at a Siamese Buddhist temple as part of an official visit by my MP. Several Muslims and Christians were also at the ceremony, as they had been invited after having helped the temple to solve some issues.

With the different religious groups not only living peacefully together but also helping to improve lives in one another’s community, some people might be led to think that aside from their beliefs and rituals, there is no fundamental difference between the different religions.

We might then ask: How do we know that Christianity is the truth?

This question prompted me to think about my own faith journey.

Personal Salvation

I was born into a family that followed traditional Chinese religious customs. My parents burned joss sticks and hell-money as offerings to our ancestors, and offered food on an altar in our home on certain religious occasions.

When I was about 12 years old, my parents started to practise Mahayana Buddhism, and I followed their lead and became a devout Buddhist. I was taught to follow Buddha’s teaching to attain “enlightenment”, which was supposed to free me from the cycle of reincarnation know as samsara. This meant doing good deeds and avoiding bad deeds, which would affect what happened at the next reincarnation.

In trying to attain “enlightenment”, I even became a novice monk, which involved shaving my head, going on a strict vegetarian diet, staying in a temple, and observing over 200 rules. I wanted to be freed from samsara, so I thought I would be a Buddhist my whole life.

When I was 17 years old, however, I started to struggle over the possibility that I would not be able to attain enlightenment because of the many bad things I had done.

Perhaps, I thought, there was no way I could be freed from samsara, and would be stuck in the perpetual cycle of reincarnation. This created much uncertainty about my eternal destiny—until I accompanied a friend to his church.

That day, I learned that God came into our world through Jesus Christ to liberate us from the consequences of our bad deeds. It was a message that resonated deeply with my need for liberation. The same evening, I accepted Christ as my Savior.

That was how I became a Christian. It started with the realization that I couldn’t do anything to save myself, and ended with the experience of being loved, forgiven, and accepted by God, despite all that I had done. In a way, Buddhism had helped me to realize my need for divine grace, which led me to Christ.

Making Sense of Life

For a long time, I was also constantly feeling restless. Regardless of what I did, I felt that something significant was missing in my life. Initially, I thought it was companionship, so I got into a relationship. But the restlessness remained. Then I thought it was the lack of achievement, so I went to do certain things that I had always wanted to do. Yet I still felt restless. And I just couldn’t make sense of it.

After I became a Christian, I started to read up more about my newfound faith. Several books helped me to make sense of life and see it from a Christian perspective. In Mere Christianity, for example, C. S. Lewis wrote about his own sense of restlessness: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”

That statement completely resonated with me. Finally, it all made sense. I realized that we are always restless in this world because God has created us for another world.

Christianity speaks to my innermost sentiments and helps me make sense of them. As Lewis wrote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen: Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

Jesus’ Reality

However, religious experience and making sense of one’s own feelings are not enough for one to be certain of the truthfulness of Christianity. Our faith, after all, is built on the claims and actions of one person, Jesus. So, in order to be certain, we have to be convinced that Jesus really existed.

There is a big debate about this: some people believe that He is real, while others think otherwise. There are also some who accept He existed, but don’t believe what He said or did—including dying on the cross and rising to life.

There is sufficient scholarly persuasion, however, that provides a strong case that Jesus was real and that all He said and did were true. For example, we have the Gospel accounts—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—which testify about the life of Jesus. While some scholars have cast doubt on the Gospels’ reliability as they are based on the authors’ memories, others have argued otherwise, saying that the Gospels should be read as ancient biographies, and are essentially eyewitness accounts. A study of church history show that the four Gospels in the New Testament were accepted very early on as authoritative records of Jesus’ life.


In summary, these are the three reasons that show me that Christianity is indeed the truth:

(1) My experience of God’s love through the liberating message of the gospel.
(2) The realization that Christianity helps me make sense of my life.
(3) The confirmation that Jesus’ life and actions are true.

Of course, knowing all this does not mean that we put down other religions. In my own faith transition, I have learned that there are elements in other religions that God can use to lead people to Him. While we remain convicted of our own faith, we can learn to appreciate and be open to learning from others. At the same time, we can remain steadfast in our faith, knowing that Christianity is the truth.

This article was originally published at YMI website on 28 September 2015.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Penang's culling of stray dogs: Why the outrage?

The present outrage over the culling of stray dogs in Penang has not shown how "animal rights" can be defended consistently. Yes, it is emotionally offensive. But why so?

I think this emotional offense is enabled by the implied assumption that dogs are more precious than pigs and chicken. But again, why so?

On one hand, there are animal rights advocates who lobby for the protection of animals' natural habitat, and so humans must not intervene. For instance, they went the extent of advocating the killing of baby polar bear Knut when it was abandoned by its mother. By saving the bear, as they argued, we are intruding nature.

On the other hand, there are those who lobby for the protection of animals not according to their natural habitat but according to how we treat humans. These advocates argue that we must not only protect the animals, but we must treat them as if they are humans. We must clean, feed, and dress them as how we do to humans. Some animals are even better treated than humans. As one of the 50 animal lovers who gathered at Esplanade last night called the stray dogs her "babies" and "family", which is an obvious example of their attempt to "humanize" animals. This latter group disagrees with the former by questioning the "natural" way of things, with the world famous animal-rights philosopher Peter Singer dismisses it as "an error of reasoning in the assumption that because this process is natural it is right."

From a theological point of view, such outrage (which resembles the reaction against Yulin's dog meat festival) shows that we have lost the idea of human uniqueness in relation to animals. We talk so much about eco-balance, but we have no idea where the scale is tipping towards.

Due to this, we are vulnerable to either "naturalize" animals to the extent of completely allowing the cause of nature to take its place, or "humanize" animals to the extent of treating them as if they are humans even though our treatment contradicts their habitat.

One should be reminded of what Slovenian cultural critic Slavoj Zizek calls the "radical ecology" which understands nature not as serene, balanced, and harmonious existence. Rather, nature is constantly in flux and subjected to intervention and manipulation.

If so, how then can we even begin to understand nature? This is the question that Oxford professor Alister McGrath asks, "How can we construct a philosophy based on nature, when nature has already been constructed by our philosophical ideas?" McGrath's own answer may not satisfy the secular or irreligious mind of the multi-cultural public as he approaches it from a religious point of view.

Nonetheless, it is clear that unless we have the answer to the question of "nature", we cannot simply and arbitrarily elevate one species (dog) over above others (pig, chicken, cow, lamb, etc).

Unfortunately, many are carried away by the emotional offenses they feel and lobby for and against things that they have yet to approach in a sensibly or reasonably robust manner.

It seems that animal lovers are contented to cry and shout at the Penang State government via social media, vigil, and press conference rather than to have civil discussion based on reason as humans should do.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Theological ethics and 'WWJD'

When Christians hear "WWJD" (what would Jesus do?) preached as principle/guideline for life, they should ask:

- is the preacher married, or looking forward to start a family? Because Jesus didn't.

- does the preacher owns a property, or servicing a mortgage, or looks forward to own one? Because the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.

The point: theological ethics cannot be simplified as WWJD abstracted from Paul's phrase "imitate me for I imitate Christ". The phrase refers to the precedent things Paul said in 1 Cor. 10, which he wanted his readers to imitate. So not in all things.

This means there's no easy way to theological ethics except through the cumbersome task of theologizing, which is often neglected (for better or worse) for the sake of "pastoral" expediency.

Is "Jesus is Lord" a political claim?

Stanley Hauerwas famously says:  "[The phrase] 'Jesus is Lord' is not my personal opinion; I take to be a determinative political claim."

I think that's true only when we assume that the purpose of politics is to bring about the eschaton. This is what some theologians call "over-realized eschatology".

It's wrong as John 18:36 and Luke 17:20-21 tell us that God's kingdom's policy does not materialize in this world. But politics' policy does. If there's convergence between kingdom's and politics' policy, it's coincidental and temporal until the end of (in Augustinian phrase) "secular" time.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Bersih 4 (29-30 August 2015)

Bracing the scorch of day and cold of night,
to pave a way for a future bright.

Walking from National Mosque to Merdeka Square,
drenched in sweat with hope we wear.

Sitting on the floor under the LRT track,
with thousands more having each others' back.

Seeing Malays, Chinese, Indians, and all,
singing songs that breach racial wall.

Bersih! Bersih! We cry out loud,
demanding transparency, justice, and equality now.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Origin of Adam Smith's "invisible hand" language

The most famous phrase by the father of modern capitalism, Adam Smith that illustrates the pragmatic logic of market ideology is (for better or worse) adopted from Christian theological language of divine providence.

Hugh Binning (1627–1653) was a Scottish Presbyterian philosopher and theologian at Glasgow University.

(H/T: Prof. Peter Harrison @uqpharri's Tweet: https://twitter.com/uqpharri/status/634683730594918400?s=08)

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Give us a transparent government

Several of us from the Penang state government are now in Kerala, India to attend a week-long cross-cultural learning. After 9 hours of traveling, the first thing we looked for at the airport was not food or toilet but mobile data plan! 

While in a telco shop listening to the heavily Malayalam-accented sales pitch given by the promoter, I could sense our entourage’s anxiety in not knowing whether were we being conned or given a real good deal. There was no official contract shown to us, but a brochure highlighting 4G speed. All that we are told to give them 500 Rupees (RM30) and they will give us mobile data. And there was no receipt. 

After waited until the next working day for our registration verified, we finally had access to mobile data. But only at 2.5G speed, slower than the publicised 4G. There is nothing we can do about it. 

One obvious lesson I learnt from this is the need for transparency. 

Recently Y.B. Datuk Paul Low, our Minister in-charge of governance and integrity, has commented that the federal government is not ready to provide official information to the public. He raised questions on the demand for more openness as akin to wanting the government to be ‘naked’ and so is similar to promoting pornography. He also cited the lack of administrative structure in place to facilitate public access to official data as another reason why the federal government cannot be transparent. 

In one broad stroke, Datuk Low has dismissed the need for the federal government which has ruled the country for more than half a century to work on being transparent to the public. While Penang and Selangor, ruled by the opposition for less than a decade, have already put in place a law to allow the public to have access to official data. 

We are not talking about 500 Rupees telco service here but financial scandals amounting billions of public funds and implicating top officials. All that we ask for is more transparency from the federal administration so that the public can protect the country from further mismanagement. 

However, such request is denied by the very minister whose responsibility is to enhance the government’s integrity. 

It makes me wonder if Datuk Low’s actual portfolio is to protect the federal government’s integrity by sweeping the dirt underneath the carpet so that everything looks fine, and discourage others from discovering and cleaning the dirt? 

When it comes to public administration, transparency expresses integrity and integrity strengthens governance. 

We may be conned by others at other places, and we cannot do anything about it. But for Malaysia, we want it to be ruled by a transparent government which is committed to be held accountable by the public.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Back to Singapore during SG50 weekend

I went back to Singapore over the SG50 weekend.

After being away for 4 weeks, it was a relief when I walked into Changi airport's toilet and found that the soap dispenser actually had soap and worked!

In fact, the soap dispensers in every public toilets that I entered were likewise functional. This is rare in Malaysia.

I managed to catch the "LKY" musical, which is based on Lee Kuan Yew's life, from his schooling days until Singapore's independence.

I left the theatre feeling happy for Singapore. But sad for Malaysia.

Singapore is what Malaysia could have been. Or vice versa, as determined by historical circumstances and national leadership.

Speaking of the latter, the late Lee Kuan Yew and his fellow founding fathers of Singapore are to be acknowledged. Their tireless works have left traces throughout the island. Their legacy pervades through generations.

In fact, it was Lee Kuan Yew's now-immortalized words that have largely prompted me to relocate back to Penang after having spent 12 years in Singapore: "At the end of the day, what have I got? A successful Singapore. What have I given up? My life."

His dedication and vision have made Singapore into what she is today. He and Singapore are great inspiration to the developing world.

Therefore, I rejoice together with Singaporeans in their golden jubilee for what their wonderful nation stands for. There is much Penang can and should learn from.

Perhaps one day, the soap dispensers in Malaysia will contain soap and work too.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

How to relate faith and science?

As I was clearing my office, I realized that I have bought books to help me form my own understanding on the relationship between faith and science.

So, how to relate faith and science? I think there are 4 ways.

First, we learn about the nature and limit of scientific inquiry. Two professors at Massachusetts Institute of Technology have published works on this: Monopolizing Knowledge: A Scientist Refutes Religion-Denying, Reason-Destroying Scientism (Fiat, 2011) by Professor of Nuclear Science & Engineering Ian Hutchinson, and Certainty: Is Science All You Need? (Veritas, 2014) by Professor of Chemistry Troy Van Voorhis.

Both of them point out the limitation of scientific inquiry to attain truth, exposing the prevalent yet mistaken belief that only science can produce true knowledge or certainty (a.k.a. ‘scientism’). British scientist Rupert Sheldrake in The Science Delusion (Coronet, 2012) and American philosopher Thomas Nagel in Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (Oxford University Press, 2012) make similar point.

The Professor Emeritus of Physics at Open University Russell Stannard and Professor of Computer and Information Science at City University of New York Noson Yanofsky in their respective The End of Discovery: Are We Approaching the Boundaries of the Knowable? (Oxford University Press, 2010) and The Outer Limits of Reason: What Science, Mathematics, and Logic Cannot Tell Us (MIT Press, 2013) highlight several areas of inquiry that scientific method could not investigate, and so cautioning the public from having blind faith in science to give answer to all questions.

David Goodstein, the former Vice Provost at California Institute of Technology, has drawn from his experience of investigating allegations of scientific misconduct to produce the book On Fact and Fraud: Cautionary Tales from the Front Lines of Science (Princeton University Press, 2010). He detailed how the scientific enterprise is not as objective as many would like to believe, that science is actually a very human endeavour that is filled with subjective interest, agenda, and belief. And often, it is not easy to differentiate actual scientific fact from its misrepresentation. Many scientific reports are taken to be truthful by the sheer act of faith. Alexander Unzicker and Sheilla Jones have recorded many such cases in ‘Bankrupting Physics: How Today's Top Scientists are Gambling Away Their Credibility’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

This first approach reveals the reality of the scientific enterprise in all its usefulness and weaknesses in achieving and publicizing real knowledge. Faith is found in the whole enterprise. In fact, the very advancement of scientific experimentation requires certain dogmas to be accepted before it can be conducted.

The second way to relate faith and science is by learning the broad history of scientific development. The three classical texts are David Lindberg’s The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450 (University of Chicago Press, 2nd edition, 2007), Edward Grant’s The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional and Intellectual Contexts (Cambridge University Press, 1996), and John Hedley Brooke’s Science and Religion:  Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge University Press, 1991).

These works show that modern science didn’t come into the world out of nowhere. Rather, it is a product of a long historical process where faith and the investigation of reality are more often intertwined than separated. In many cases, it was faith that motivated and sustained scientific inquiry. Therefore what we call ‘science’ today is a profoundly circumstantial enterprise.

If these 3 works appear too academic, there are 4 books on the same topic that are more accessible: John Losee’s A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science (Oxford University Press, 4th edition, 2001), Owen Gingerich’s God’s Planet (Harvard University Press, 2014), Ronald Numbers’ Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Harvard University Press, 2010), and John Henry’s The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science (Palgrave Macmillan, 3rd edition, 2008).

The third way to make sense of faith and science is to learn how theology can be done in a ‘scientific’ manner. This exercise enables us to see how faith and science can work together to advance collective knowledge about the world and ourselves.

For examples, J. Wentzel van Huysteen’s interdisciplinary study on human uniqueness in Alone in the World?: Human Uniqueness in Science and Theology (Eerdmans, 2006), Philip Hefner’s proposal on the ways and benefits of collaboration between faith and science in The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion (Fortress, 1993), Alister McGrath’s research on doctrinal development by interacting with philosophy and science in The Order of Things:  Explorations in Scientific Theology (Blackwell, 2006), John Polkinghorne’s study on the binary relation in Science and Theology: An Introduction (Fortress, 1998), Tom McLeish’s study on the theological purpose of science and the scientific wisdom of theology in Faith and Wisdom in Science (Oxford University Press, 2014), and Andrew Steane’s work on the dynamics between science and belief in Faithful to Science: The Role of Science in Religion (Oxford University Press, 2014).

The fourth way to relate faith to science is by learning about the sociological and personal account of scientists who practice religious faith. Willem Dress' Religion and Science in Context: A Guide to the Debates (Routledge, 2010) highlights cultural factors that influence how we relate faith and science. The ground-breaking work Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think (Oxford University Press, 2010) by Elaine Howard Ecklund shows that many scientists are also people with faith. The volume Faith in Science: Scientists Search for Truth (Routledge, 2001) edited by W. Mark Richardson and Gordy Slack contains interviews with scientists across various religions on how they see their scientific work in view of their faith and vice versa.

As for personal account, one can see how faith and science are related from the story of John Polkinghorne, who was previously a Professor of Theoretical Physics at University of Cambridge before becoming an ordained Anglican priest, through his own From Physicist to Priest: An Autobiography (SPCK, 2007) and biography by Dean Nelson and Karl Giberson Quantum Leap: How John Polkinghorne Found God in Science and Religion (Monarch, 2011).

Lastly, there are many easily accessible books written on this subject. I would personally recommend the following: God’s Undertaker:  Has Science Buried God? (Lion, 2007) by Oxford’s mathematician John Lennox, Pascal’s Fire: Scientific Faith and Religious Understanding (Oneworld, 2006) and Why There Almost Certainly Is A God: Doubting Dawkins (Lion, 2008) by London's philosopher Keith Ward, and Big Bang, Big God: A Universe Designed for Life? (Lion, 2013) by Cambridge's astrophysicist and priest Rodney Holder.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Jesus and Paul may not be as 'pro-family' as we like to believe

It is the time of the year again when the topic on "family" is widely discussed, due to the Pink Dot gathering on 13 June 2015. The "Wear White For Family" movement has gathered momentum in response, especially among Christians.

There are widespread assumptions about what "family" is among Christians. It is commonly perceived that family is about a tightly knitted group of members who share the same gene pool (through procreation done within the confine of faithful and lasting marriage) that commits to spend weekends together, support and care for one another, celebrate each other's birthday, and if possible enjoy overseas vacation annually. And of course, to do all these consistently, the family members (especially the parents) have to be educated, socially adaptive and economically driven.

This is the prevalent social imaginary of what family means. And among other things, it is also a significant contributor to a country's annual GDP. Christians likewise think that this is what our religion teaches about family.

Nonetheless, what does the New Testament really teach? Here are some thoughts to consider.

1. Jesus may not be as pro-family as we would like to think.
There are three instances where Jesus teaches against family ties. First, Jesus strongly objects against those who want to maintain their family ties at home while at the same time wanting to be his disciples:
As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” He said to another man, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.” Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:57-62)
Second, Jesus dismisses the blessedness of parent-child relationship in favor of obedience to God:
Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” (Luke 11:27-28)
These two examples are commonly interpreted as Jesus' teaching on priority between family well-being and God's kingdom; that we must prioritize God over family in situation when we need to choose between the two. For instance,
 "[The] spiritual principle that following Jesus ought to be every Christian's first priority continues to apply, and where this brings an individual into conflict with his or her natural family obligations, he or she must first seek God's kingdom and his righteousness (Matt. 6:33)."
(Andreas J. Kostenberger and David W. Jones, God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation [USA: Crossway, second edition 2010], 102.)
This interpretation makes our family responsibility a subset of Christian religious obligation:
"While Jesus places people's obligations within the larger framework of God's kingdom, however, this should not be taken to imply that Christians are to neglect their family responsibilities. As Paul would later write, "But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever" (1 Tim. 5:8)."
(Ibid, italic added.)
This explanation seems reasonable for the two scriptural passages above, yet it does not have the same explanatory effect to the following passage where Jesus sees himself not only as someone who brings division in family but as someone who also wishes for it:
“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:49-53)
As it is not so easy to read priority into this passage therefore one usually explains this anti-family passage by confining its relevance and application to Jesus' three-year ministry before his death:
"Clearly, Jesus' physical presence on this earth and his three-year public ministry necessitated unconditional physical following of the Master in a unique way."
(Andreas J. Kostenberger and David W. Jones, God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation [USA: Crossway, second edition 2010], 102.)
What I find intriguing is the hermeneutical decision that pro-family readers make. The steps can be stated as follows:
Step 1: We assume that "family" has unquestionable value in God's kingdom. (It must be so because it feels so right---especially to those who cherishes family ties. Something that feels so right must be valuable to God.)

Step 2: Therefore when Jesus teaches against family, he is not subverting existing family ties. Jesus is either highlighting priority of our obedience to God over our familial allegiance, or teaching lessons that only applicable in his three-years ministry on earth.
Such hermeneutical decision has a problem. In order to take Step 2, we need to assume that Jesus sees familial responsibility as part of our service or obedience to God (let's call this 'Step 2's assumption'.) Without Step 2's assumption, we have no ground to read Jesus' teaching against family as prioritizing God over family, nor can we read into Jesus that he subsumes family responsibility under obedience to God.

At this point, pro-family readers would cite the principle of letting scripture interprets scripture. For instance, they will point out that Jesus cared for his mother when he was on the cross (John 19:26-27). This scripture shows that Jesus is pro-family and so it is the basis for Step 2's assumption. 

The problem with this principle of scripture interprets scripture is that it simply pushes the hermeneutical puzzle a step back, which in this case we are the ones who choose which scripture to interpret the contested passage. As much as one can invoke John 19 to support Step 2's assumption, one can equally highlights Jesus' disrespecting his mother by calling her "woman" (John 2:4) and his disregard for his familial ties (Matthew 12:46-50) as basis to reject the assumption.

In the end, we cannot reach a solid hermeneutical reason to cast Jesus either as pro- or anti-family.

2. Apostle Paul may not be as pro-family/marriage as we would like to think too.
The apostle has said many things about domestic affairs (Ephesians 5:21-6:9, 1 Timothy 3:4, 5:1-16, Titus 1:6, etc). Nonetheless, Paul does not appear to be pro-family/marriage in 1 Corinthians 7. After Paul has written much about his view, he summarizes:
What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not... For this world in its present form is passing away... An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord. If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honorably toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin—this man also does the right thing. So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better.
(vv.29-38, italics added.)
The apostle does not see commitment in marriage as a subset of devotion to God. In fact, he understands family ties as distraction; family takes away our devotion to God. Paul even thinks that celibacy is better than marriage and setting up family.

Pro-family readers would point out that Paul mistakenly thinks that the second coming would happen in his own lifetime, therefore such urgency for undivided devotion to God.

But this explanation does not work because Christians are generally taught to live as if Christ is coming back anytime. Hence it does not make a difference if Paul thinks Christ would be back soon or not. (This approach resembles the hermeneutical decision to confine the application of Jesus' teaching to his three-years ministry on earth, as one can draw from the "present crisis" in 1 Corinthians 7:26.)

Pro-family readers would also point out that Paul qualifies that these verse are his own judgement, not God's command (v.25).

What this approach misses is Paul's other qualification made on his own judgement, that his view is empowered by the Holy Spirit (v.40), and so they are as trustworthy as God's command by divine mercy (v.25).

Therefore we cannot reach a solid hermeneutical reason to cast Paul either as pro- or anti-family too.

I do not know what historical circumstances have contributed to the shaping of our contemporary social imaginary of "family". As far as I can tell, the idea of "family" that many Christians prize and champion today is not so immediately acknowledged by Jesus and Paul. 

This post is not to side with either the pink or the white. My sole interest is in examining how biblical texts are being used today, and raise questions over the assumptions we modern readers bring to the scripture.

I hope this would help readers to re-look at their hermeneutical approach to the Bible so that we are more cautious when making statement about God's view on matters dividing the society.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Sharing at Q. TEA Peace Talks

Last Saturday I took part in an interfaith event organized by Q Commons Singapore. My fellow presenters were Md Imran Md Taib (Muslim interfaith activist), Isa Kamari (acclaimed Malay poet), Chew Lin Kay (humanist interfaith activist), Jason Leow (Zen practitioner), and Aaron Lee (prize-winning poet and Christian activist).

I presented on a theology of peace which revolved these three points:
  1. The pursuit of peace is necessary because the competition of sovereignty is perennial.
  2. The peace of Jesus' kingdom is not the peace of the empire.
  3. Jesus, Christians, and peace-building.
The presentation might not be clear. So, here is the tidy version.

1. The pursuit of peace is necessary because the competition of sovereignty is perennial.
The world is filled with competition for sovereignty. Everyone wants to be sovereign. We see this competition in four domains:
  • First, the international domain. Major superpowers contesting over global hegemony. Previously, between the western and eastern blocs. Now it is between USA and China. The recent Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is but one example.
  • Second, the national domain. Different political, ethnic, and religious factions contesting over governance within the country. (Certain national contest extends over into the international domain, such as the call to establish Islamic caliphate across the globe by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.)
  • Third, the communal (and domestic) domain. We see competition within a community that is based on differences such as gender and individual interest. Dispute within church, sibling rivalry, and marriage commotion are examples.
  • Fourth, the personal domain. This is the competition experienced by individuals within. We find in ourselves conflict between our ideal self and our base self. To use psychoanalysis term, it is the competition between our id and superego. Very much like what Paul wrote in Romans 7:15: "…what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do."
When mismanaged, the competition in each domain can lead to violence and chaos. The international conflict leads to war, national to riot and coup, communal to separation or felony, and personal to mental breakdown and suicide. The competition in these four areas are perennial. Thus, the need to pursue peace.

2. The peace of Jesus' kingdom is not the peace of the empire.
What can Jesus teach us about peace in a world where the competition of sovereignty is perennial at these four areas?

Jesus introduced the idea of the kingdom of God that is already here and now but not yet completely manifested. In Christian theology, this is known as the "already but not yet" kingdom. The idea of kingdom is also an idea of sovereignty that also promises peace into the world.

But what kind of "peace" that Jesus promised? The idea of peace is commonly understood as the peace of empire. In Jesus' time, it was known as Pax Romana, the peace of Rome. When Japan was conquering Asia during the Second World War, they promised to bring "great peace". 

The peace of empire is a combination of military and political power. They are intrusive in nature. The peace of Rome brought heavy taxation and political subjection. The so-called "great peace" of Japan brought massacres and sub-standard living. Therefore the peace of empire provokes hostility and insurgency. People rebelled against such peace.

Jesus promises peace, but what differentiates his version of peace from that of the powers in the world? There is degree of ambiguity on this. For even in Jesus’ time, not everyone understood peace the same way as Jesus did. He knew that his peace would come across as division to some (John 16:33 contra Luke 12:51-53).

Nonetheless, I think here are some characteristics of the peace promised by Jesus:
  • Jesus' peace is not the peace of empire. It is not military or political. Although it has a skewed view on military force and has something to say on the political, it is not a peace to be established by weapons and parliament.
  • Jesus’ peace is not primarily concern over the competition of sovereignty in the four domains (international, national, communal, and personal). Jesus’ peace addresses the competition of sovereignty between humanity and God. He is concerned over the conflict between the empire of humanity and the kingdom of God. Violence, greed, oppression, and transgressions of all kinds and forms are manifestation of humanity's challenging God's sovereignty. Sometimes these competitions are carried out in the name of religion. At other times, in the name of humanistic ideals.
  • Jesus saw humanity's rebellion as futile and will be ended by God. This is so by the principle of justice. If humans are not made to rebel against God, then it is only right that God corrects this error by unmaking them, that is to destroy them. The only way to escape this without deviating from the cause of justice and still preserves humanity is through the sacrifice of a scapegoat that can represent humanity.
  • Jesus saw himself as that scapegoat. He willingly set down his life as the sacrifice on behalf of the human race to fulfill the required divine justice while preserving humanity. Through his sacrifice, the ultimate destruction of humanity is averted. This is the peace that Jesus brought. His is not the peace of empire spread by weapons and sustained by force, but the peace through the cross that addresses the competition of sovereignty between humanity and God.
What then does this peace have to say to the competition in four domains today?

3. Jesus, Christians, and peace-building.
First, Jesus' peace is not established by military or political powers, therefore Christians should not think that we are doing God a favor by using empire's apparatus to establish God's kingdom. If Jesus’ peace is coercive, his servants would have fought to prevent his arrest (John 18:36).

When Jesus was about to depart, he said: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid."

So, let us freely, without trouble and fear, continue to make peace, build peace, and sustain peace in this chaotic world. But with the way of the cross, not the means of the empire.

Second, Jesus' own example as peacemaker between humanity and God is a model for peace-making. Our pursuit for peace must prioritize justice and the preservation of humanity.

By framing conflicts in term of the four domains (international, national, communal, and personal) is not complete without also seeing them as subsets of the war humanity waged against God. Without the latter, justice is factional and open for re-definition by the competing parties. And preservation of humanity then becomes preservation of human beings who are on our side.

Between justice and preservation of humanity, we cannot choose one over the other. And when we had to, self-sacrifice is an option. Striving for justice and humanity's peace (instead of factional justice and self-preservation) is imitating Jesus.

Third, Jesus taught the importance of peace-building in relation to religious identity: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." (Matthew 5:9)

Interestingly it is not the other way around. Jesus didn’t say, blessed are the children of God (that is those who see themselves as religious) for they will be peacemakers. Jesus didn’t start with who we think we are, and then we have to go and make peace. He started with those who are already making peace, and declared that they will be called children of God.

Therefore let us not get caught up with solidifying our exclusive socio-religious identity that we forget that those who will be called children of God will not be those who are busy identifying themselves as such but those who are actually pursuing peace.

Monday, May 04, 2015

A word on church growth methods

Christianity is a missionary faith. It aims to make everyone into Christ’s disciples. Thus, numerical growth is a major characteristic of the faith since its beginning. All believers are to share the gospel to everyone they know in order to increase kingdom membership. However, this is so much easier said than done.

The difficulty is not so much in how to increase numbers but in what numbers we want to increase?

It is not difficult to achieve numerical growth because there are time-proven methods that guarantee increased membership. This is the good news.

As found in various studies, there are three ingredients which are empirically demonstrated to boost membership effectively.

The first ingredient is “spiritual entrepreneur”. Most congregations that achieve exponential growth within one generation have a celebrity Senior Pastor.[1] 

The Senior Pastor is a highly popular, eloquent, and innovative person who runs the church like an entrepreneur would a company (which Presbyterian’s Elders-Deacons system does not allow). In fact, the Senior Pastor is the brand of the church, as how Steve Jobs is to Apple Inc. 

Not convinced? Well, think of all the big churches you know—most of you probably do not know anyone else from those churches except their Senior Pastor, right?[2] Just like everyone knows Steve Jobs but most has not even heard of Jon Ive, who designed Apple’s revolutionary products.  

The second ingredient is the “deployment of marketing strategies, technologies and consumerist ethos” for the church.[3] Churches that adopt this method “draw on popular culture and a consumerist logic in order to attract an audience more familiar with rock and roll, shopping malls, and self-help culture than with traditional church liturgies, hymns, or symbols.”[4] 

The relationship between church and members is viewed through the relationship between a company and its customers. The church produces messages and experiences that are consumer-driven, which is effectively presented via marketing techniques and technologies to capture the populace’s interest. 

Emphasis is placed on making the church “seeker sensitive”, which often means toning down the inherited religious symbolism and rituals. The sermon has to be TED-like, that is topical in addressing popular needs rather than expository in seeking God’s prophetic voice in the Bible.

The third ingredient, which is related to the second one, is to provide a range of services cater for the members. The church invests in programs that address the various needs of the members and allow them a few varieties to choose from. Church is structured like a shopping mall that has “something for everyone”.[5]

These three ingredients guarantee numerical growth. 

However, there is not-so-good-news. Like all methods, these three come with pitfalls as much as promises.

When churches that grow due to a celebrity Senior Pastor often cultivate a personality cult following more than a congregation that gathers for a communal spiritual journey. 

Mars Hill Church was founded in 1996 by its Senior Pastor Mark Driscoll, who is famous for his Reformed preaching. The church deployed effective marketing strategies and technologies to maximize its outreach. The church is ranked by Outreach Magazine as the third-fastest growing church in 2012.[6] At its peak, it had 14 branches with weekly attendance of 13,000. 

Yet, in 2014, Driscoll resigned. Following that, it was announced that all Mars Hill churches will dissolve by 2015.[7] Another similar example is Robert H. Schuller and his Crystal Cathedral. Therefore, it would not be too imaginative to suppose that the same would also happen to many local big churches with a celebrity Senior Pastor.

Aligning churches along the consumerist logic to be “seeker sensitive” and as centre that has “something for everyone” raises serious questions on what disciples are we making? 

The Willow Creek Community Church has congregational size of 24,000 and listed as the most influential church in America. Outside its founding Senior Pastor Bill Hybels’ office hangs a poster that says, “What is our business? Who is our customer? What does the customer consider value?” The church invested millions of dollar annually to provide many types of programs for members to participate. 

This reflects the church’s ministry philosophy, as its executive pastor Greg Hawkins said, “Participation is a big deal. We believe the more people participating in these sets of activities, with higher levels of frequency, it will produce disciples of Christ.”[8]

Then around the middle of 2000s, the church engaged an external agency to conduct a multiple year qualitative study of the church. The findings were unexpected—63% of the church’s most active and considered spiritually matured members were actually contemplating leaving the church! 

The multimillion-dollars-programs the church invested in to cater for all its members and its “seeker-friendly” culture could not retain members. The turnover rate was high. This corresponds to what we see in local “seekers sensitive” churches.

Furthermore, in a separate study, it is found that today’s young Christians (18-29 years-old) are more appreciative of liturgical religiosity: 78% preferring quiet church than loud church, 67% describe their ideal church as “classic” rather than “trendy”, and 77% like church with a sanctuary than church with an auditorium.[9]

My point is this: There is no perfect church growth method. Each comes with pitfalls and promises. As churches embrace the method of their choice, they also must prepare to brace themselves for the pitfalls. Indeed, these methods guarantee numerical growth—of personality cult followers and high turnover rate in church membership. Therefore, the difficulty is not on how to increase disciples, but what kind of disciples are we making?

Recognizing where the real difficulty lies helps us to see ‘doing church’ in a way that is freed from the shadow of surrounding churches with exponential growth. Only then can we begin to understand the bearing of disciple-making.

A pastor friend once told me that his ideal church size should be about 200 to 300 members. That is a good size to build community that is socially viable, where most people can get to know most other people as how they should be as a spiritual family. Any number beyond this should be directed for a new church plant. (This is of course another easier-said-than-done issue as small congregations have difficulty getting venue for their activity. Yet, the suggestion rightly prompts us to rethink the purpose of the church.)

[1] Scott Thumma, “Exploring the Megachurch Phenomena: Their Characteristics and Cultural Context,” Hartford Institute for Religion Research, 2003, http://hirr.hartsem.edu/bookshelf/thumma_article2.html
[2]  Jeaney Yip and Susan Ainsworth, “’We aim to provide excellent service to everyone who comes to church!’: Marketing mega-churches in Singapore,” Social Compass, vol.60:4 (2013):508.
[3] Terence Chong and Daniel P.S. Goh, "Asian Pentecostalism: Revivals, Mega-Churches, and Social Engagement," in Routledge Handbook of Religions in Asia, eds. Bryan S. Turner, Oscar Salemink (Routledge, 2015), 407.
[4] Stephen Ellingson, “New Research on Megachurches: Non-denominationalism and Sectarianism,” in The New Blackwell Companion to the Sociology of Religion, ed. Bryan S. Turner (Blackwell, 2010), 247.
[5] Thumman, Exploring the Megachurch Phenomena.
[6] Brendan Kiley, “Mars Hill Announced the “Third Fastest-Growing Church” in America,” dated 24 September 2012, The Stranger, http://slog.thestranger.com/slog/archives/2012/09/24/mars-hill-announced-at-the-third-fastest-growing-church-in-america
[7] Ruth Graham, “How a Megachurch Melts Down,” 7 November 2014, The Atlantic, http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/11/houston-mark-driscoll-megachurch-meltdown/382487/
[8] “Willow Creek Repents? Why the most influential church in America now says “We made a mistake,” 18 October 2007, Parse: Leadership Journal, http://www.christianitytoday.com/parse/2007/october/willow-creek-repents.html?paging=off
[9] Stephanie Samuel, “Study Shows Millenials Turned Off by Trendy Church Buildings, Prefer a Classic Sanctuary,” dates 14 November 2014, The Christian Post, http://www.christianpost.com/news/study-shows-millennials-turned-off-by-trendy-church-buildings-prefer-a-classic-sanctuary-129675/