Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Tony Blair, western values, and Judeo-Christian influence

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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

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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?

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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?