Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Interview with Andrew Loke on Christology

‘Christology’ is a subject widely discussed by academic historians and Christian theologians around the world. In Malaysia, it has recently gained traction among Muslims.

Local university and religious groups have been organising seminars on Christology. However, instead of actual experts and scholars on the subject, these seminars are taught by people with dubious background.

To give some ideas of what actual discussion on Christology is like, I have contacted a friend who is a scholar on the topic to interview him.

Andrew Loke is currently Research Assistant Professor at the University of Hong Kong. He was previously a medical doctor before becoming a scholar. Andrew obtained his PhD from King’s College London and has published two academic works on Christology. The first one was based on his doctoral dissertation entitled ‘A Kryptic Model of the Incarnation,’ published by Routledge in 2014. His second work on the subject is a historical study entitled ‘The Origin of Divine Christology,’ published by Cambridge University Press just a few months ago.

Joshua: Andrew, what actually is ‘Christology’?

Andrew: Christology is the doctrine and the study of Jesus Christ---who he is, what he has done.

Joshua: You have studied the origin of the doctrine of Jesus Christ as a historical research in the way historians engage with their subject. What makes this approach different from the usual “this or that Holy Book says so, therefore it is true”?

Andrew: A number of Holy Books mention Jesus Christ. Some of the things they say about Jesus are similar, but some are contradictory. To adjudicate the debate concerning the contradictory statements, one should not simply assume that what this or that Holy Book say must be true, since this would beg the question. Rather, given that the origin of Christology is a phenomenon of history, it can be studied using the methods of critical historical enquiry.

This would involve an examination of the beliefs of the earliest Christians which are reflected in their writings, and a consideration of factors such as the religious, social and cultural background of the earliest Christians, their understanding of sacred texts, their religious experiences, their interactions with surrounding cultures and the challenges that they faced. As Jesus and the earliest Christians are Jews in the first century Roman-era, historians on Christology have to research into their specific historical context, and not on other sources from a different era and background.

Joshua: You mentioned in your work that there are a number of different views concerning the origination of the claim that Jesus is divine. Please tell us what is your take on each of them. The first view says that “divine Christology” (i.e. the doctrine that Jesus was divine) began towards the end of the first century, around the time when the Gospel of John was written.

Andrew: This view is contradicted by the evidences found in the letters by apostle Paul, which were written in the middle of the first century, and which reflected the beliefs of Christians which were already well-established even earlier.

As shown in Chapter 2 of my book ‘The Origin of Divine Christology’, Paul affirms the doctrine that Jesus was ‘truly divine’, that is Jesus and the Father are both within the being of YHWH. This conclusion is shown by evidences of worship practices and spiritual expressions expressed towards Christ which are found in Paul’s letters, and by texts such as Philippians 2:6-11, 1 Corinthians 8:6 and Romans 11:36, taken together. These are all written in the middle of the first century, which reflect beliefs that have been established and accepted earlier. Therefore, the doctrine that Jesus was truly divine did not begin near the end of the first century, but much earlier.

Joshua: The second view acknowledges the divine Christology was already established by middle of first century, but attributes this as a result of influences by Greek and other ancient mythology.

Andrew: This view has been widely rejected by historical-critical scholars. Based on historical evidences of the time, the devout Jews during the Roman-era were very, very strict in their religious belief about reserving worship only for one God the Creator (see Romans 1:18-25). Hence, it is unlikely that those devout Jews, such as the earliest Christian leaders, would be opened to Greek or pagan influences to distort their religion.

Even if some of these Jewish Christians did accommodate under pagan influences, there would have been strong objections from the more conservative Jewish Christians concerning the worship of Christ, just as they raised objections against innovation that is considered distorting their religion (as seen in the objection against Jews and non-Jews eating together in Galatians 2:11-12). Instead they were in widespread agreement about the status of Christ, as shown in Chapter 5 of my book.

Moreover, many scholars have observed that acclaiming and invoking Jesus as ‘Lord’ was done in Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christian circles, as indicated by the Aramaic invocation formula ‘maranatha’, preserved by Paul in 1 Corinthians 16:22. Furthermore, the references to Jesus as ‘Lord’ in Paul’s letters frequently involve allusions to Old Testament passages (e.g. Philippians 2:9-11, 1 Corinthians 8:6) and appropriation of biblical phrasing (e.g. Romans 10:9-13). These confirm that the early use of the title ‘Lord’ in Christian circles derived from Jewish religious vocabulary and not from Greek or pagan sources.

Joshua: What about the view that says, it was apostle Paul who introduced the idea that Jesus is divine, and thus distorted the actual Jesus?

Andrew: This is another view which has been widely rejected by historians. Paul was not so influential that he could have invented Christianity. Before his active missionary work, there were already groups of Christians across the region. For example, a large group already existed in Rome even before Paul visited the place.

The earliest centre of Christianity was the twelve apostles in Jerusalem. Paul himself consulted and sought guidance from the Christian leaders in Jerusalem (Galatians 2:1-2; Acts 9:26-28, 15:2). The historian Richard Bauckham in his book ‘Jesus: A Very Short Introduction’ published by Oxford University Press, summarizes in this way: “What was common to the whole Christian movement derived from Jerusalem, not from Paul, and Paul himself derived the central message he preached from the Jerusalem apostles.”

Joshua: And the third view says that the perception that Jesus is divine was widely accepted by a sizeable group of people shortly after Jesus’ death.

Andrew: This view is well-established by the historical evidences, which indicate that Jesus was already regarded as truly divine by the earliest Christian church in Jerusalem led by the twelve apostles. As explained in my book ‘The Origin of Divine Christology’, Jesus was regarded as truly divine in earliest Christianity because its leaders thought that God demanded them to do so through the following way: a sizeable group of them perceived that Jesus claimed and showed himself to be truly divine, and they thought that God vindicated this claim by raising Jesus from the dead.

Joshua: Are not the four gospels in the Bible corrupted? If they are, then they are not reliable historical sources on Jesus.

Andrew: Many scholars have pointed out that the view that the four gospels in the Bible are corrupted and unreliable historical sources on Jesus is based on widespread misconceptions, see http://ehrmanproject.com.

In any case, regardless of whether the four gospels are corrupted or not, we still need to explain how did the earliest Christians come to regard Jesus as truly divine. If Jesus did not claim and show himself to be truly divine and rise from the dead, this would not have happened; the earliest Christian leaders who were devout ancient monotheistic Jews would have regarded Jesus as merely a teacher or a prophet, but not as truly divine.

Joshua: Thank you for taking time to share your expertise on Christology. This short interview would help to give a glimpse of what actually the topic is about. If addressed by people from dubious background and without actual academic research work done on the subject, we will only end up with confusion and having wrong ideas over Christology.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Love and kindness: Cornerstone of resilience

The storm that occurred in Penang in early November had flooded as much as 80% of the state, and had claimed nine lives. No one had expected a tropical cyclone to hit Penang. 

State officials and staffs worked through the night to rescue victims, ensured drainage system working properly, and arranged logistics and aid for those affected. 

Emergency shelters were immediately set up, charity organisations mobilised their volunteers and resources to distribute food and water to those trapped by the flood.

I was recovering from high fever, flu, sore throat, and cough at that time. Went to the doctor thrice. When I felt well enough to work, on 6th of November, I went to the shelter at District Office Seberang Perai Tengah to help. 

About 500 people from Padang Lalang constituency had been evacuated to the shelter. There was also constant influx of people to the District Office to get verification form as proof to show to their employer that they cannot turn up at work due to the flood.

Dozens of volunteers busied unloading, loading, and packing food and water. Dozen others came with their trucks to fetch thousands of packed necessity for flood victims. The volunteers were there day and night to make sure aid reached the victims.

We constantly get phone calls from friends and strangers who wanted to contribute. We received thousands of bottled water, bread, cake, fruits, and biscuit. There were also those who sent in pillows, blankets, mattresses, water jets, and cleaning chemical and tools.

Malaysians from various religious and non-religious background came together to help in the crisis. Although we were tired, yet we were very touched by this gesture that demonstrated our common humanity regardless of religious, racial, and political differences.

I was particularly encouraged when we visited a flooded kampung to hand out gift packs, one of the flood victims did not want to receive it because he wanted us to pass to others who needed it more.

There were those who would still thought of others even when they themselves were victims.
At times, the situation was chaotic. Members of the public thought that they can collect the donated items at the shelter. False WhatsApp messages were circulated. 

One of those messages was racially provocative, urging Malays to rush to the shelter to get hold of the items before they were all distributed to the Chinese. 

It was disheartening when I saw the message. It shows how easy racial animosity surfaces during crisis. This social ill persisted, all due to decades of racialised policy implemented by the UMNO-BN administration. 

We saw the ugly side of humanity, the fruit of sinful racist politics.

My Malay colleague who received that text was furious and rightly replied in the group chat that the items were delivered to flood victims regardless of race.

Contrary to the viral WhatsApp message, the shelter was only the storage place that sent out items into flooded areas. The shelter was not a distribution center for the public to get freebies. I had to make several announcement to disperse the crowd.

There were also occasions when several members of the public who came to the shelter to insult and shouted at the volunteers.

Some of them scolded us for not sending food to them. Others demanded cooked rice and warm meal instead of dry food. There were also those who asked us for detergent and toiletries with colour and smell that they prefer. 

Not to mention, there were those who hoarded more than they needed, and those who pretended to be flood victim in order to get the donated items.

A couple of volunteers confided in me their frustration over the unruly behaviour of some flood victims.

No matter how hard we worked, we simply cannot fulfill everyone's expectation of the kind of aid they felt entitled to.

Moreover, that was a time of crisis. Resources and manpower were limited, while needs were overwhelming. Our immediate task was to provide basic necessity for survival to as many as we can reach.

Over that tragic week, we have seen the best and worst of people.

It got me wonder, what is the point of providing aid which can be promptly abused and taken for granted? Wouldn't such abuse be eliminated if there is no aid to begin with? And if we cannot fulfill everyone's expectation, then shouldn't we just let them be?

As I was reflecting, I remembered the notion of “common grace”. It is the idea that God continues to care and provide for the creation even though it has gone wayward.

One of the inspirations for this idea is this scriptural verse: “[God] causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (
Matthew 5:45b)

Author R. Michael Allen describes common grace in this way: “God really does restrain human evil, gracing us with a more tolerable planet and human society. We call this “common grace” because it is shared with all inhabitants of this earth (“common”) and is yet an undeserved gift (“grace”).” [1]

Yes, there are those who would abuse any given aid. Yet, there are genuine needs too. Aid should therefore be extended even with real possibility of abuse, so that genuine ones will receive help.

Our aspiration should not stop at reducing and preventing abuse, which if not careful paralyses us with cynicism, depriving us the ability to care for the unfortunate others.

Moreover, the overflowing goodness shown by those who cared and contributed was a sign of common grace showered on us all. 

Several times when we were anxious that our food and water will run out, we saw batches of lorry ferrying new supplies for us to be delivered into the flooded areas. 

Instead of being paralysed by cynicism, we should be led by love and kindness.

The flood relief work was a shared task among individuals and groups from various persuasions.

For instance, many were touched by the kindness demonstrated by Taman Free School surau that provided shelter to 70 non-Muslims during the flood.

Devotees of Buddhism and Chinese folk beliefs get involved out of compassion and good karma. Muslims and Christians out of God's call to bless and care for others. Free-thinkers out of humanitarian cause.

Each group contributed out of their own reason, tradition, and values.

John Rawls' “overlapping consensus”, the agreement from various groups over a common issue, saw its practical outcome in our multicultural volunteerism, guided by love and kindness.

This bond that traverses across religions and irreligiousity is the cornerstone of a resilient society. And it should remain so for Malaysia.

[1] R. Michael Allen, Reformed Theology (London: T&T Clark, 2010), 96.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Reformation: Giving hegemony the middle-finger

Tomorrow marks the symbolic 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Many of the reflections by theologians and historians have noted that the phenomenon is about the reformation of the "church", what happened to the western Latin churches in the 16th century.

It was indeed a movement that has changed churches. Yet, more fundamentally, it was a movement that  has unsettled the power structures in the society at that time.

The Reformation, if it was merely about what happened in the church, then its implication would be much lesser. How much impact would a denomination have for changing its internal rules?

The Reformation was much more significant than protesting against what happened in the church. It was a protest against the status quo and overarching power relation in the late middle age.

It was a protest in a world where the effect reverberated throughout the whole society, including the churches. The religious institutions of that time was as powerful as the princes, if not more so.

Have we fully understood the significance of the support given by Frederick the Wise, the Elector of Saxony, to Martin Luther? Frederick was a prince in his realm, which was a vassal to the Holy Roman Empire. He was also the founder of the Wittenberg University, where Luther taught. He was also the person who got Luther to defend himself at the Diet of Worms, and then saved him from possible assassination after the Diet.

Frederick's doing is akin to supporting an opposition political party yet himself remaining within the ruling regime. He couldn't give up his position of power and dignity in the regime though he wanted very much to change it from within. And he saw in Luther someone who can do the work for him. Thus the tremendous support he gave to the renegade Augustinian monk.

The Reformation's most significant impact lies in the fact that it has broken the hegemony of one of the most powerful religious/political institutions in human history.

Following the Reformation, rapid de-centralisation in Europe took place. As a result, the Roman Catholic Church inevitably adapted to the re-structuring of the then society, reviewing its own self-understanding along the way.

Borders of modern nation-states had their roots in the Reformation. Modern political sentiments such as the importance of the individual was given vitality through the Reformation.

In terms of Christian doctrines, many theologies that Protestants and Roman Catholics take for granted today were developed through that unsettling period.

The unfortunate result where Protestants and Catholics cannot acknowledge each other' religious rites is not so much due to different theology, but rationalisation to justify each other's responses to the ecclesiastical hegemony half a millennium ago.

As I contemplate over the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I look towards to this episode in our shared history as the inspiration for all struggles for re-balancing or moderating hegemony of our time.

Happy 500th Anniversary!

Sunday, October 01, 2017

GDP growth, competitive rank, yet to benefit people

The recent reports on the economic wellbeing of Malaysia, trumpeted by the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN), is nothing more than cosmetic. Substantial change is negligible.

The 5.7% GDP growth in the first half of this year and the 23rd position in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Competitiveness Report 2017-2018 are quoted as evidence of the country’s progress.

These reports by themselves do not represent reality. Worse, they are being exploited to manipulate our actual experience, to convince us that all is well while persistent problems swell.

To get a better grasp of reality, these reports must be read alongside others. One may begin with the rising cost of living.

The average inflation rate for the first six months was 4.1%. Compared with the same period last year (2.6%), this is an increase of 58%.

The estimated rate will be between 3-4% for this year, which is high when compared with that of our neighbours: Singapore (1.1%), Brunei (-0.1%), and Thailand (1.4%).

Hence, inflation is referred to as the fourth most problematic factor for doing business in Malaysia, by the WEF’s Global Competitiveness Report.

The decline in the value of the ringgit is worrying. On Jan 13, 2014, the exchange rate to the US$1 was RM3.26. The same day this year, it was RM4.46.

Following that, the trajectory of our Gross National Income per capita, that reflects the average income per Malaysian, has been badly affected.

Earning less for the same work
The Economic Planning Unit’s The Malaysian Economy in Figures 2017 report states that the average income of US$10,644 in 2014 was reduced to US$9,242 (2015), then to US$9,102 (2016), and is at US$8,906 this year.

That means, without any salary increment, we are on average being paid 16% lesser now for the same amount of work we did three years ago.

Salary increment must be no lesser than 16% over four years to at least be stagnant. If inflation is accounted for, we need more than that.

GDP growth and competitive rank, by themselves, cannot be measures of economic and social wellbeing. Things are not cheaper. Rather, it has become more expensive to live in Malaysia.

Recent polls correspond to these data. Of those surveyed, 56% remarked that their financial situation had worsened, and 86% deemed that the average wage was low.

GDP growth and competitive rank have not been shown to benefit the average Malaysian. There is clearly a huge gap in the system.

The present government has failed to translate productivity growth and competitive edge to the people’s advantage.

Increased production and reduced red tape for foreign investors are not indicative of the public’s increased disposable income and consumption. GDP growth and competitiveness, by themselves, are irrelevant to the local’s standard of living.

Sadly, the ruling government seems contented in mere cosmetics, exhibiting neither innovation nor a serious effort to fix the systemic gap.

*This article first appeared on Free Malaysia Today website on 30 September 2017.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Happy 60th Merdeka as secular federation!

Today, we celebrate the 60th independence anniversary of the Federation of Malaya. There are many achievements over the past 6 decades, and one of them is the uniqueness of our secular polity.

The federation’s secularity was created to address the two most important issues for Malaya to gain independence: to preserve the Sultanate that symbolises Malays’ interest, and maintain inter-racial harmony and equal citizenship rights within a new nation. The British called them the “two fundamental political problems.” [1]

Many religious Malaysians today think that the secular framework is the enemy of religion. But that was not the case in the 1950s.

The federation of Malaya under the British Empire was officially formed in 1948, replacing the controversial Malayan Union. After that, the local fervency for independence grew.

Dato Onn bin Jaafar, the founder-leader of UMNO who later resigned from the party, presented his blueprint for the independent federation in May 1952:
“The constitution should seek to vest sovereignty in the people and establish constitutional government. It should oppose communal policy and should contemplate a secular state with a single common citizenship assured to all, irrespective of religion, colour, creed or sex.” [2]
The head of the British Information Services in Malaya (1952-1954), Alec Peterson agreed with Onn. Given the complexity of Malaya’s situation, Peterson reckoned that the only possible governing framework required for the independent nation is “ a new form of secular State… in which racially distinct communities, whose cultural and social life is still separate, develop a common political loyalty.” [3]

The Alliance coalition, comprised of UMNO, MCA, and MIC, that had won the first federal election under the campaign theme “Independence In Four Years”, submitted their ‘Political Testament’ in September 1956 to the Reid Commission, the committee responsible to draft the constitution of independent Malaya, detailing their proposal. The Alliance wrote:
“[The] religion of Malaysia shall be Islam. The observance of this principle shall not impose any disability on non-Muslim nationals professing and practicing their own religions, and shall not imply that the State is not a secular State.” [4]
The Alliance’s memorandum was not only a private letter to the Commission, but was published in the newspapers, made clear to the whole of Malaya, that the federation should be secular.

The Sultans, having read the memorandum, got nervous, not because of the proposed secularity, but (probably surprising to many today) due to the establishing of Islam as the official religion of the federation.

The royalties were anxious that their power over their Islamic subjects, the Muslims, would be eroded. Queen’s Counsel Neil Lawson, hired by the Sultans, conveyed the collective royal objection to the Reid Commission in September 1956:
“It is Their Highnesses’ considered view that it would not be desirable to insert some declaration such as has been suggested that the Muslim Faith or Islamic Faith be the established religion of the Federation.” [5]
After much consultation with the Constitution’s drafting committee and repeated assurance given by the Alliance leaders, the Sultans agreed. A newspapers, dated 13 March 1957, carried the following news:
“[There] is a desire that Islam should be the established religion of the Federation. The Commission made no recommendation on the religious question, in deference to the opinion of the Rulers. The Rulers have now had second thoughts. They have approved the suggestion of the Alliance memorandum for the inclusion in the constitution of a declaration establishing Islam as the State religion, provided this does not prejudice the present position of the Rulers as heads of the Muslim religion in their separate States. The Federation would still be a secular State, and non-Muslim nationals would suffer no disability.” [6]
The Sultans, head of Islam affairs in the respective state, understood and agreed that the independent Malaya, according to the Alliance’s proposal, will be secular, with Islam as the official religion.

Everyone involved in the drafting of the Constitution – Alliance leaders, Sultans, British administrators, and Reid Commission members – was clear about this.

Therefore, the Colonial Office in June 1957 proceeded to prepare the parliamentary document White Paper, for British parliament to debate the ‘Federation of Malaya Independence Bill’ on 12th of July 1957, with paragraph 57 stating:
“There has been included in the Federal Constitution a declaration that Islam is the religion of the Federation. This will in no way affect the present position of  the Federation as a secular State…” [7]
When the Constitution was made public on 3 July 1957, the local newspapers commented, “[T]here has been inserted in the Constitution a declaration that Islam is the religion of the Federation. But the Federation remains a secular State, as now, its citizens equal before the law, enjoying all the fundamental rights of a democratic State, including freedom of religion.” [8]

Five days later, the editor of The Straits Times, Allington Kennard wrote, “Article 3 of the Constitution declares that Islam is the religion of the Federation, but the Federation nevertheless is a secular State. Every person has the right to profess, practice and propagate his religion. Every religious group has the right to manage its own affairs, and to maintain religious and charitable institutions, including its own schools.” [9]

On 31st of August 1957, the federation gained independence, a new form of secular state materialised in world politics, one with an official or ceremonial religion.

The secular Constitution was lauded as “the Best of All Possible Constitutions,” given the complex political juggling it was designed to do – to preserve the Sultanate that symbolises Malays’ interest, and to maintain inter-racial harmony within a nation. [10]

This was not only a common knowledge among those in Malaya and Great Britain, but also those across the world as well.

Less than two months after Merdeka, the October 1957 issue of the Far Eastern Survey, the eminent American historian of Malaya, J. Norman Parmer – who conducted doctoral fieldwork in Malaya from 1952 to 1955, and returned in 1961 as the first U.S. Peace Corps Country Director – recognised that the new nation had Islam “declared the official religion,” yet the federation remained “a secular state.” [11]

Islam was given the official or ceremonial role not in spite of the secular framework but because of it. This unique secularity instituted Islam, not other religions, to perform the ritualistic function at official events, while the Sultans remain the head over Islamic matters in their respective state.

Therefore in the Malaya parliamentary debate on 1 May 1958, over whether is the independent federation an Islamic state, our first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman said, ”I would like to make it clear that this country is not an Islamic State as it is generally understood, we merely provided that Islam shall be the official religion of the State.” [12]

On 24 March 1959, Tunku made another statement, reported in the newspapers, that it was “impossible to apply the Islam religion in every way to the administration of the country.” [13]

Tun Mohamed Suffian, who had advocated for Malaya’s independence earlier, and later known as “Malaysia’s most distinguished judge,” in 1962 clarified that Islam in the federation “is primarily for ceremonial purposes, for instance, to enable prayers to be offered in the Islamic way on official public occasions such as the installation or the birthday of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Independence Day and similar occasions.” [14]

Virtually everyone – from the time when Dato Onn presented his blueprint in 1952 until Tun Suffian published his article in 1962 – was aware that the federation was to be secular after independence.

This awareness became paramount at the formation of Malaysia in 1963, with the merger of Singapore, Bornean States and Malaya. The Malayan members within the Cobbold Commission, the committee established to prepare the proposal for the creation of the new nation, gave assurance that the new federation “would be secular.” [15]

Subsequent events for the next five decades have unfortunately gave rise to the distorted view that the federation did not gain independence as a unique secular state.

Nonetheless, as shown above, the Alliance leaders, Sultans, the British, the Americans, the Malayan judges, newspapers journalists and editors, regular Malayans, and Sabahans and Sarawakians knew the federation as a unique secular state, with Islam given the official or ceremonial role.

This is our Malaysian achievement, an unprecedented contribution to world politics and political theory and practice. One that created a nation for Ali, Ah Kao dan Muthu bersama.

Happy 60th Merdaka!

[1] "Gammans Speaks of 'Second Palestine'," The Straits Times, 11 June 1946, p.3.

[2] “Onn Gives Malaya His Blueprint,” The Straits Times, 12 May 1952, p.7.

[3] Alec DC Peterson, "The Birth of the Malayan Nation," International Affairs, vol.31, no.3, (July 1955):314.

[4] “Political Testament of the Alliance,” The Straits Times, 28 September 1956, p.8.

[5] Quoted in Kristen Stilt, "Contextualizing constitutional Islam: The Malayan experience," International Journal of Constitutional Law, vol.13, no.2 (2015):415.

[6] “Second Look At Reid,” The Straits Times, 13 March 1957, p.8.

[7] Cited in Nurjaanah Chew Li Hua, "Legal Pluralism and Conflicts in Malaysia: The Challenge of Embracing Diversity," in Religious Rules, State Law, and Normative Pluralism: A Comparative Overview, eds. Rossella Bottoni, Rinaldo Cristofori, Silvio Ferrari (Switzerland: Springer, 2016), 255.

[8] “The Merdeka Charter,” The Straits Times, 3 July 1957, p.6.

[9] “It's the Best of All Possible Constitutions,” The Straits Times, 8 July 1957, p.6.

[10] “It's the Best of All Possible Constitutions,” The Straits Times, 8 July 1957, p.6.

[11] J. Norman Parmer, "Constitutional Change in Malaya's Plural Society," Far Eastern Survey, vol.26, no.10 (October 1957):149, "US peace corps terms agreed," The Straits Times, 6 September 1961, p.6, "Peace Corps men in today," The Straits Times, 10 January 1962, p.9.

[12] The editor, “Sarawak signed with secular state,” The Edge, 19 June 2014 (accessed 31 August 2017).

[13] “[T]he Government has pointed out that as a major tin and rubber dealer on the international market it is necessary to maintain Friday as a business day. In a refreshingly frank statement [Prime Minister Tunku Abdul] Rahman once noted that by making Friday a holiday “the country would lose $1,000,000 a day” and thus it was “impossible to apply the Islam religion in every way to the administration of the country.” (Fred R. von der Mehden, "Religion and Politics," Asian Survey, vol.3, no.12 [1963]:613.)

[14] Joseph M. Fernando, "The Position of Islam in the Constitution of Malaysia," Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, vol.37, no.2 (2006):250. "Tun Mohamed Suffian," The Telegraph, 28 September 2000 (accessed 31 August 2017).

[15] Cited in "Country was never an Islamic state," Malaysiakini, 10 May 2006 (accessed 31 August 2017). 

*This article first appeared on The Malay Mail Online, 31 August 2017.

Friday, July 07, 2017

Kamarul Yusoff seems to enjoy distorting people's thoughts

Kamarul Yusoff's (lecturer at UUM) has a recent FB post that distorts my writings and thoughts. He simply picked them out of context.

For e.g. when I wrote that churches must address socio-political issues, I was referring to the mysterious death of Teoh Beng Hock at the MACC building. Religious communities (whether it is Muslim or Christian) should likewise be angered by such incident and condemn it.

(Unless Kamarul thinks it is okay that religious community should not be concerned over such incident.)

But Kamarul picked it out and said I am giving a blanket statement for churches to be political.
His quotations from my writings are picked out from context.
Kamarul: Gesaan supaya gereja melibatkan diri di dalam politik turut ada di dalam blog beliau pada 17 Julai 2009 (Theology, Pulpit, And Socio-Polity): “I think the pulpit can and should be the avenue to preach on socio-political issues. Pulpits that have nothing to do with socio-political issues is denying Christ as the authority above all powers and principalities. And an apathetic pulpit is Christ-less.” Ia juga ada di dalam blog beliau pada 16 Oktober 2011: “The Church should not float above politics... The Church does not and should not be above politics”.

*****Original source: "I am very disturbed by Teoh Beng Hock's death.He died while under the custody of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC). Was he tortured and murdered by MACC's officers?"

Kamarul: "Dedah beliau di dalam blog beliau pada 2 Mac 2015 (A Response To Islamic Information & Services Foundation's Distribution Of Translated Quran) pula, Qur’an yang diedarkan secara percuma oleh Institut Kefahaman Islam (IKIM) perlu diambil oleh penganut Kristian bagi tujuan evangelical (for evangelical purpose). Tegas beliau: “Reading other religious texts help us to understand how best to communicate with the religious others when we share our perspective of Christianity. Besides facilitating mutual understanding, it also enables us to introduce our faith to them with illustrations and analogies that are relevant to them.”

*****Original source states that I advocate the reading of each other’s religious literature in response to MCCBCHST’s statement: The Malaysian Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) has since produced a statement to reprove the programme. The council states that the actual intention of the programme is “to propagate the Islamic faith to the Non-Muslims under the guise of removing misconceptions of Islam.” The statement also condemns the programme as “obnoxious as a similar right is not given to Non-Muslims.” Therefore, the council advises non-Muslims not to accept the translated Quran.

Kamarul: "Di dalam blog beliau pada 10 Januari 2010 (Secular & Non-Secular Polity Vis-A-Vis Inter-Religious Relation), beliau menyatakan Malaysia tidak pernah menjadi sebuah negara sekular (Malaysia has never been a secular state). Di dalam blog beliau pada 1 September 2010 (Secularists Are Often Clueless About The Real World) pula, beliau menghentam teruk golongan sekular dengan menyifatkan mereka “basically ignorant of the basic characteristic and nature of contemporary modern politics, including the one--secularism--which they are dedicated to propagate” dan dengan menggesa mereka “to come out from their coconut husk”.

*****Original source describes the state of “secularity” in Malaysia as not entirely like the secularity in other countries: The fact that the National Principle does not list 'Kepercayaan Kepada Allah' ("Belief in Allah") indicates a supra-secular polity that is religiously inclusive. (I term it 'supra-secular' and not 'post-secular' because Malaysia has never been a secular state as compared to countries that find secular polity a status quo like Singapore, or those that are not settled with the status quo like England and the U.S.A.) The citizen's religious belief is not only recognized but assumed by the state. The state's polity is grounded on this assumption and hence religious influence over the matters of the state is common.

Kamarul: Saya sebenarnya cukup pelik dengan cara Joshua Woo cuba berlagak sebagai pakar dalam bidang agama Kristian walhal sewaktu belajar selama tiga tahun di Trinity Theological College, Singapura, dahulu beliau mengaku beliau hanya mendapat gred rendah yang menyebabkan beliau tidak dapat memohon untuk menyambung pengajian ke peringkat lebih tinggi. Ini terkandung di dalam blog beliau pada 20 Januari 2011 (Second Year, Second Semester): “And due to that my overall grade is affected. I got comments that my assignment had no theological reflection, empirical support, etc. Now I can't even apply for postgraduate studies as my grade doesn't meet the minimal requirement (which I was told is B+).”

*****Original source is actually my complaint that my courses were not academic enough, thus I didn’t do well in those subjects that are not academically-based: Though I can be very wrong but my hunch is that some subjects in the present curriculum are so patronized by contemporary social and economic milieu that they have lost their theological seriousness, if not credibility. These subjects are what I consider as pseudo-theology, if not pseudo-academic. They are crafted to demand criticality which themselves cannot bear to engage in. There are courses that require students to engage with them critically. But when that happened, the curriculum cannot withstand the engagement and simply collapsed. Therefore, I have tried not to engage with these subjects critically because I know that they will collapse. I chose to refrain myself, just as other classmates did. And due to that my overall grade is affected. I got comments that my assignment had no theological reflection, empirical support, etc. Now I can't even apply for postgraduate studies as my grade doesn't meet the minimal requirement (which I was told is B+). That is fine.""

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Saya akan keluar DAP Jika DAP Parti Kristian

Saya menyertai DAP sebagai ahli sebelum Pilihan Raya Umum ke-12, 2008. Saya percaya terhadap visi DAP untuk menjadikan Malaysia sebuah tempat yang baik untuk rakyat Malaysia tanpa mengira kaum dan agama.

Saya yakin bahawa kerangka politik DAP adalah berdasarkan kepada  “ideal-ideal kebertanggungjawaban, kesaksamaan, keadilan dan pemeliharaan martabat manusia” (seperti yang dinyatakan dalam perlembagaan parti) boleh ditawarkan sebagai bentuk pentadbiran yang terbaik untuk Melayu, Cina, India, Iban, Kadazan, Bidayuh dan semua orang di negara ini.

Saya percaya bahawa DAP mempunyai gambaran tepat Perlembagaan Malaysia sebagai “dokumen secular”. Maka parti tumpu untuk mematuhi perlembagaan untuk "memelihara kedudukan istimewa orang Melayu dan Bumiputra serta hak-hak kaum-kaum lain" dan "memastikan kedudukan Islam sebagai agama Persekutuan serta kebebasan untuk mengamalkan agama-agama lain dengan aman dan damai" (seperti dinyatakan dalam Deklarasi Shah Alam).

Sembilan tahun berlalu sejak saya menjadi ahli DAP. Dan parti tidak mengubah visi dan kerangka politiknya.

Oleh itu, sangat pelik apabila terdapat orang yang mendakwa bahawa DAP adalah parti politik Kristian dan mempunyai "agenda Kristianisasi".

Walaupun jauh dari seorang Kristian yang sempurna, saya menganggap diri saya seorang yang mempercayainya. Saya mempunyai minat yang mendalam untuk belajar tentang pemikiran dan sejarah Kristian, yang membawa saya untuk melanjutkan pelajaran ke peringkat ijazah sarjana muda dalam pengajian Kristian. Saya telah bekerja dengan beberapa institusi Kristian sebelum ini, bersama-sama menyalin beberapa buku Kristian, dan aktif berkhidmat dalam kalangan Kristian.

Walau bagaimanapun, sekiranya DAP adalah sebuah parti politik Kristian, saya akan keluar daripada parti tanpa ragu-ragu. Saya menolak parti politik yang sepenuhnya berasaskan agama Kristian atau mempunyai "agenda Kristianisasi".

Alasannya bukan kerana saya bertentangan dengan kepercayaan saya sendiri, tetapi sebetul-betulnya kerana saya, seperti kebanyakan orang Kristian hari ini, mempunyai manfaat untuk melihat apa yang kejahatan dapat dilakukan atas nama agama untuk mendapat keuntungan politik.

Sebagai contoh, Maharaja Theodosius I dengan Gratian dan Valentinian II mengubal undang-undang Edict of Thessalonica pada Februari 380 untuk menjadikan agama Kristian Nicene sebagai agama kerajaan.

Ia sepatutnya menjadi kemenangan bagi agama. Tetapi apa yang turut berlaku adalah penghapusan kebebasan agama secara beransur-ansur. Kristian mula menuntut pemusnahan arca atau patung bukan Kristian yang dipamerkan di tempat awam. Menjelang Februari 391, semua amalan agama dan tempat ibadat bukan Kristian dilarang. Orang Kristian yang tidak mematuhi Kristian Nicene juga ditindas dan diasingkan.

Hal yang sama terjadi di Armenia ketika Raja Tiridates III menukar kerajaannya menjadi negara Kristian. Semua tapak keagamaan bukan Kristian diroboh, dan kepercayaan yang bertentangan dengan Kristian Nicene dilarang.

Sejauh yang ditunjukkan oleh sejarah, apabila satu versi agama menjadi agama kerajaan, aktor politik bukan sahaja akan membendung agama-agama lain tetapi juga menindas pandangan lain terhadap agama rasmi. Ini dilihat agak sama kepada kebanyakan kita di Malaysia.

Selain itu, agama Kristian tidak mengajar orang Kristian secara khusus untuk menubuhkan sebuah negara Kristian. Tiada ayat dalam ‘New Testament’ menuntut kewajipan sedemikian.

Sebaliknya, Yesus mengajar, "Kerajaanku bukan dari dunia ini. Jika demikian, hamba-hamba saya akan berjuang untuk mencegah penangkapan saya oleh para pemimpin Yahudi. Tetapi sekarang kerajaanku ada di tempat lain. "(Yohanes 18:36)

Tiada arahan bagi orang Kristian untuk menubuhkan kerajaan yang nyata di dunia ini.

Walau bagaimanapun, ini bukan untuk menafikan perkhidmatan yang boleh diberikan oleh orang Kristian kepada kerajaan. Sebaliknya, adalah untuk menekankan bahawa agama boleh dengan mudah dimanfaatkan untuk mendapatkan keuntungan politik dan akhirnya menjadi justifikasi untuk penindasan. Ini terutamanya apabila platform politik seperti parti politik sepenuhnya berasaskan agama.

Atas sebab ini, parti yang neutral terhadap keagamaan memberikan "semak dan imbang" yang terbaik bagi penganut mana-mana agama atau mereka yang tiada agama. Ini dapat mengurangkan kemungkinan kita tergoda, sama ada secara sedar atau tidak sedar, untuk mengeksploitasi agama atau keagamaan untuk mendapat keuntungan politik.

DAP adalah platform sedemikian. Visi dan kerangka politiknya mempunyai mekanisme kesederhanaan yang menghalangi eksploitasi agama dan keagamaan, dan dapat menyatukan rakyat daripada semua agama dan mereka yang tiada agama berdasarkan “ideal-ideal kebertanggungjawaban, kesaksamaan, keadilan dan pemeliharaan martabat manusia”.

Oleh itu, DAP mempunyai pemimpin dan ahli daripada semua agama atau tiada agama yang boleh memimpin, bekerja, dan berjuang untuk negara bersama.

Tuduhan bahawa DAP adalah parti politik Kristian atau mempunyai "agenda Kristianisasi" adalah dua tuduhan yang jahil. Kejahilan terhadap visi dan kerangka politik parti, dan kejahilan bagaimana umat Kristian berhubungan dengan aktivisme politik. Semuanya lebih mengejutkan apabila kejahilan itu dipaparkan oleh pensyarah universiti dan pengarah institusi dan organisasi yang pakar dalam analisis politik.

DAP sentiasa bersikap neutral, atas alasan yang baik. Itulah sebabnya saya masih berada di dalam parti. Pada waktu ketika DAP akan menjadi parti Kristian atau mempunyai "agenda Kristianisasi" adalah hari saya menyerahkan peletakan jawatan saya.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

‘Religion and politics’ can be hopeful

One distinctive feature about Malaysia is that religion is part of our politics. Ours is not like other countries where religion has little to no influence in politics. For this reason, religion is constantly being politicised.

Although only Islam is the “religion of the Federation,” its politicisation has inevitably implicated other religions or non-religiosity in politics. The most recent example is the scapegoating of Christian evangelicalism as the political force behind the opposition political front.

Such intertwining of religion and politics has drawn various responses from the Malaysian public. Some desire to disentangle religion from politics. But given the reality of the country, this is rather too unimaginable.

If history has a discernible pattern, the disentanglement of religion from politics will only gradually achieved through long years of violent wars that have exhausted all parties of resources and human lives, like what happened in Europe’s Thirty Years War.

Then, after a period of hibernation, religion will return and took its place in the political arena again, as what is happening in the de-secularisation discourse in certain western countries, Turkey, and China today.

If religion and politics naturally attract each other, then perhaps it is only right for us to take this attraction into serious consideration in our nation-building effort.

So, how to do that given the mess and tension created by ill-willed political actors in the country for so many years? There are at least two areas where constructive work can be done.

Inter-faith and intra-faith relation

One of the causes of suspicion among various religious communities is the lack of honest face-to-face talk about religious teaching and interfaith issues.

Such lack has severely weakened Malaysians’ capacity to deal constructively with differences among religions as well as among various subgroups within each religion. Religions are not only distinct from other religions but also diverse within themselves.

Take for instance Christianity. Roman Catholics have their different religious orders such as Jesuits and Dominicans, the Protestants with different denominations such as Methodist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian, and the Eastern Orthodox with different orientation such as Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy.

The same with other religions. Islam has its four major schools (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali), and the unique Sufism, not to mention Shia and Ibadi traditon. Buddhism has its Theravada, Mahayana, Japanese, and Thai versions.

Each religion has its own way to include while simultaneously recognise differences within. This inclusivity should be creatively extended from each religion to other religions.

Honest face-to-face exchange is necessary to build mutual understanding and strengthen social cohesion. Otherwise, our multi-religious society becomes vulnerable to propaganda and political exploitation, and thus gives way to unnecessary tension and stigmatisation of those who are different from us.

Engagement, programme and co-curriculum

We can grow up in this multi-religious society without actually learning about our neighbour’s religion. It is not in our culture, community engagement programme, nor education system to encourage such interaction.

Many do not see the value in this learning. However, a look at countries that are currently plagued by communal violence should tell us otherwise. No nation can thrive when it is preoccupied by communal strife.

The government’s passivity to facilitate mutual learning means that non-governmental-organisation and religious community need to step in to fill the gap.

Besides organising grand dinners, there is a range of ground-up initiatives such as visitation, forum, summer school, charity work, and retreat that can be organised by NGOs and religious institutions.

Special emphasis should be given to educate the religious public on how their own religion can be a source of inspiration for them to contribute to the common good of the society. As reported, the Prime Minister Najib Razak himself “urges Malaysians to go back to their faiths to make Malaysia a greater nation.”

Instead of tearing down the nation, religions have the spiritual resources to build it based on the principle of justice, welfare, and liberty.

Hope and pray

Despite the level of intense politicisation of religion in our country, there is still much hope abound. The best of religions not only teaches us to do good but also to inspire hope.

Malaysians can look into our own respective religion to discover such hope. While those who do not adhere to any religion can likewise provide thoughtful values and inspiration. Every Malaysian regardless of their belief have a place in this country.

There is much to be done. While we are at it, let everyone from all religions constantly pray that Malaysia will be a place where Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus, Sikhs, atheists, agnostics, and everyone else to be able to learn, love, and live with each other without having our religion or religionlessness being exploited for political gain.

*This article first appeared on The Malay Mail Online, 5 July 2017.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Which systematic theology textbook?

There are many textbooks on systematic theology. So if you are new to this subject, you may wonder which one should you get? 

I cannot survey all the available books on systematic theology out there, but here is a brief guide that I hope you will find helpful. I have also limited the list to text written by modern theologians, so no mention of classical works like John Calvin's Institute of the Christian Religion.

Over the years, I have noticed that there are two types of systematic theological text that serve very different purpose.

Introductory Systematic Theology
The first type is introductory text. These books come in handy to provide basic information about Christianity in an orderly way. By orderly, I mean their content is organised according to doctrine like 'God', 'sin', 'salvation', 'Jesus Christ', etc (some of them like to use the technical term like 'theology proper', 'harmatiology', 'soteriology', 'Christology', etc).

Usually books in this category are published in one-volume. Due to its introductory function, the scholarship in them is not very broad. They are more substantial than catechism but less scholarly than journal articles.

Inevitably, the discussion on each doctrine touches only the surface, which is alright as long as the author leaves the discussion open and direct readers to other substantial works.

What I don't like in some of this systematic theology is that they give cocksure answer by way of prooftexting to very debatable theological questions. So I do not recommend Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Zondervan, 1994), which is very popular among evangelical seminaries, unfortunately.

Alister McGrath's Christian Theology: An Introduction (currently in its 6th edition published by Blackwell in 2016), is a good example of this type of systematic theology. Its coverage is very wide, from history to doctrinal controversies to key theologians to contemporary theological trend. It reads like a theological travel guide. Very handy to new theological students.

Other good ones are Anthony Towey's An Introduction to Christian Theology (Bloomsbury, 2013) and Richard Plantinga, Thomas Thompson, Matthew Lundberg's An Introduction to Christian Theology (Cambridge University Press, 2010). But these two texts have not received wide recognition among local Christians.

Other introductory one-volume systematic theology which do not cover as wide but provide good discussion over doctrinal themes are Michael Horton's The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Zondervan, 2011), Michael Bird's Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Zondervan, 2013), Millard Erickson's Christian Theology (Baker Academic, 3rd edition 2013) and John Frame's Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (P&R, 2013). These four systematic theologies are more suitable for sermon preparation and relevant to the general church people.

For those who has a liking for a more philosophical-theological approach, Anthony Thiselton's Systematic Theology (Eerdmans, 2015) is the text to go to. Thiselton is renowned for his work on philosophical hermeneutic, so his discussion has a continental philosophy flavor.

While those who want an introduction to the historical development of doctrines can benefit from Roger Olson's The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform (IVP, 1999). If you find Olson's work too laborious, you can always turn to Jonathan Hill's highly readable The History of Christian Thought (Lion, 2003). 

And those who are Pentecostal, you may be interested in Simon Chan's Spiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life  (IVP Academic, 1998).

Constructive Systematic Theology
The second type is constructive in nature. This type aims to generate discussion by asking new theological questions, proposing new ways of asking those questions, setting unexplored trajectory, and/or re-vitalise forgotten theological approach.

These texts casually presume readers to have background over the subject matter. The scholarship is more substantial than the introductory type. There is one-volume constructive theology text such as Rowan Williams' collection of essays On Christian Theology (Blackwell, 2000), but usually they come in multi-volume. For examples, Robert Jenson's 2-volume Systematic Theology (Oxford University Press, 1997-1999); and Jurgen Moltmann's 7-volume Systematic Contributions to Theology (Fortress, 1981-2012).

However, not all multi-volume texts are constructive. For instance, Norman Geisler's 4-volume Systematic Theology (Bethany House, 2002-2005) is an introductory type. On each doctrine, Geisler lists out the Bible verses (often in prooftexting manner), quotations from church fathers, and syllogism that support his position on the doctrine. Who and who say what, and that is that. Hardly any constructive discussion, new questions being raised, or trajectory set.

On the other hand, shorter text doesn't mean more elementary. Jenson's 2-volume is less than 600 pages, but it is for readers with deep familiarity with the theological discourse in both western Roman tradition and eastern Greek religiosity. The language is loaded and technical. How many of us understand Jenson's discussion on Holy Spirit in the following extract:

"Is invocation of the Spirit anything distinctive over against invocation simply of God? Is Pentecost a peer of Easter or does it merely display a meaning that Easter would in any case have? The first position has been endlessly pressed on the West by Orthodoxy; in the judgement of the present work, rightly." (p.146)

20th century saw the publication of noted works such as Karl Barth's 14-volume Church Dogmatic (recently reissued as 31-volume by T&T Clark, 2009), Wolfhart Pannenberg's 3-volume Systematic Theology (Eerdmans, 1991-1998), Paul Tillich's trilogy (University of Chicago Press, 1973-1976), and Herman Bavinck's 4-volume Reformed Dogmatics (translated and published by Baker Academic, 2003-2008). 

There are 3 on-going projects in the present century that deserve the attention of theological students: Veli-Matti Karkkainen's 5-volume A Constructive Christian Theology for the Pluralistic World (Eerdmans), Sarah Coakley's 4-volume with the 1st setting out a contemplative-ascestic approach on Trinity, gender and sexuality (Cambridge University Press), and Katherine Sonderegger's 3-volume with  the focus on the oneness of God (Fortress). Each deals with very different motif, pointing new ways to discover and express divine truth.

Is there something in between Introductory Systematic Theology and Constructive Systematic Theology?
Some of you, who are well-acquainted with the first type of text, are looking for bridging text to go into constructive systematic. There are two edited books that fit this category: Oxford Handbook to Systematic Theology, edited by John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance (Oxford University Press, 2009), and Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, edited by Colin Gunton (Cambridge University Press, 1997).

What I have listed here is not exhaustive. As I have mentioned above, there are a lot of books on systematic theology. Each reader has his/her unique theological inclination. Some prefer Reformed approach, some historical, some Pentecostal, some Eastern Orthodoxy, etc. 

Nevertheless, I hope the two types of systematic theology text as categorised here would help you to decide which text to get and plan your own trajectory of theological development.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Blessed Good Friday 2017

Good Friday is probably the only event in the world that celebrates the death of a harmless person, calling it "good".

People might be more willing to cheer for the death of an evil person, but a harmless one?

Of course, Jesus was not actually harmless to all, as he questioned, criticized, & sabotaged the powerful religious authority of his day.

Jesus threatened the most respected & highest official in his community, the High Priest Caiaphas.

As a result, the authorities plotted & had him captured, prosecuted, & sentenced to death.

However, on Jesus's own decision, he didn't defend himself at the trial. He desired to be sentenced to death, believing that that was his destiny & there was a cosmic purpose following it. Thus, he was crucified.

His death left his followers confused. Many of them went back to their business as usual, defeated.

Then some time later, his followers regrouped and began celebrating his death as if it was a victory. They came to understand why Jesus desired to die. They saw the cosmic significance attached to it. As one of them later wrote:

"Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:7-8)

The dramatic shift from being defeated to being victorious owed to the followers' experience of Jesus being risen 3 days later.

That is why this Friday is "good". Blessed Good Friday to all.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Not Debate, But Muslim-Christian Dialogue: Responding to Nurul Haqq Shahrir

I read the article by Nurul Haqq Shahrir (a member on the panel for Islamic law transformation under Majlis Dakwah Negara) with much interest and optimism. He has rightly pointed out the resistance among people from different religion to engage each other in respectful exchange. I sympathise with his lament. 

Adding to Nurul’s observation, I would like to highlight two other conditions that severely discourage, if not undermine, Muslim-Christian interaction in this country. 

Absence of Levelled Platform 
The local demography and religious landscape are not fertile for interfaith engagement. This is partly due to the positioning of Islam by the authorities over the past five decades that has made it an extremely sensitive matter for non-Muslims to interact with the religion. 

The recent controversy over Hadi’s Private Bill, the “RUU355” motion, has shown how unacceptable it is for many Muslims to see non-Muslims expressing their thoughts and concern over the issue. Non-Muslims were told not to discuss it. Those who talked about it were criticised and chastised. 

Nurul himself has written an important article on the RUU355, and has received much derision from fellow Muslims. Now, if a Muslim like Nurul is not spared from criticism, one can imagine how much more worse it is for non-Muslims who talked about it. 

Siege mentality and the sense of religious superiority have led many local Muslims to perceive non-Muslims’ engagement on that issue, or any other Islamic topics, as threat to their akidah, their religious rights, and the position of Islam in the country. 

This situation has been so for a long time. One can recall the mob demonstration eleven years ago that abruptly ended the peaceful forum over Article 11, organised by 13 NGOs, including the Malaysian BAR Council and the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism. 

Such dismal condition is due to the absence of a levelled platform for all religious communities to engage one another. As long as the authorities continue to ignore their active role to provide such platform, genuine and constructive interfaith interaction will always be intimidated and thus deterred. 

Top-Down Prohibition 
The other condition that discourages interfaith interaction is the authorities’ active dissuasion for such activity. The authorities not only failed to provide levelled platform, but are extremely resistant toward high-quality public interfaith initiative. 

There are occasional closed-door academic discussions, but there seems to be an unspoken rule that such interaction is prohibited in the public. 

A case in point is the cancellation of the international “Building Bridges” seminar in May 2007. The year-long preparation involving 30 renowned Muslim and Christians scholars and leaders around the world was suddenly called off by the authorities just one week before the event. Our national leaders’ talk about the importance of interfaith interaction has always been mere lips-services. 

The reality is that the authorities take an active role in prohibiting different religious communities learning from one another, especially the Muslims from the Christians. Malay Muslims who want to read the Bible cannot even access the book in their own mother-tongue. The authorities deem that having access to the Malay Bible would confuse the Muslims. Again, being perceived as a threat to their akidah

The only type of interfaith interaction that is allowed in the public is the type that Nurul described as having “skilled debaters” employing deceit rather than rational argument to “win.” Thus, our country is plagued by confrontational and aggressive form of interfaith relation that leads to nowhere but continues to inject antagonism, suspicion, and fear among the religious communities. 

Way Forward 
Despite all the obstacles against Muslim-Christian interaction in Malaysia, Nurul’s article brings about a sense of hope, that there are still Muslims in this country who want to see constructive relation between the two religious communities to happen. 

While we continue to hope that the authorities would finally come to their senses, stop paying lips-service to interfaith interaction, and encourage constructive Muslim-Christian relation, we can begin small through our own sphere of influence. 

One of the most fruitful interfaith exercises that we can do is “scriptural reasoning,” promoted by higher-learning institutions like the University of Cambridge. It is about reading and studying each other’s scripture together. I had once been in a scriptural reasoning group consisted of Ibadi and Sunni Muslims, Anglican and Presbyterian Christians, and Orthodox and Reform Jews. 

We gathered for the sole purpose of learning from one another; how we understand our own religious text, how others understand theirs, what others can teach us about our own, what we can contribute to others’ understanding of their own text. Without pretension, deceit, and sense of superiority. We were there for constructive interfaith interaction. Perhaps, Nurul can suggest to the Majlis Dakwah Negara to initiate similar exercise. 

It is not a dismal situation that each religious group has much to learn from others. The important thing is the necessary attitude for religious people to seek knowledge and understanding. We can appreciate the encounter between apostle Paul and the members of Areopagus in Athens, recorded in the New Testament. The apostle tirelessly engaged with people of other religions, to even cite the works of their scholars, Epimenides and Aratus to bridge understanding. (Acts 17:28) 

Instead of futile debates, energy and resources should be channelled for fruitful Muslim-Christian dialogue that seeks after genuine interfaith learning and build relations across communities.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

NCCS’s Advisory on 'Beauty and the Beast'

Many have talked about the National Council of Churches of Singapore's (NCCS) advisory. Here is my reflection on it.

Disney’s “Wholesome Values”
The advisory states that Disney “has always been associated with wholesome values”. The “nice, exclusive gay moment” in the remake is “totally unnecessary and signals a marked departure from the original 1991 Disney classic.”

A friend, Mr. Smith highlighted that Disney is first of all a business. They profit from telling and animating story.

Thus, their “wholesome values” evolves according to what is perceived to be or should be wholesome in their targeted market by the story-tellers and film-makers at certain point in time.

Case in point is the original Fantasia made in 1940 that featured dark-skinned characters slaving for white characters, highlighted to me by Mr. Goh. This scene was edited out in its subsequent releases from 1960s onward, after the American civil rights movement against racism. Some may think that this edit is unnecessary

Disney’s “wholesome values” evolve according to the market’s prevalent values, not set on stone. Thus, it is misplaced faith to expect Disney creating works featuring only values agreeable to us all the time.

Besides, as I re-watched the 1991 animation Beauty and the Beast, I saw that Belle said “I love you” to the Beast without knowing that he was actually a man under spell. 

In fact, Belle was shocked at the Beast’s transformation back into a man (as seen in the photo above). As far as she was concerned, she fell in love with a beast, not a man.

What is NCCS’ and the advisory’s supporters’ take: Does Christianity teach that having human-romantic-love to non-human is “wholesome”?

If it is not wholesome, then on what basis can we say that Disney and the 1991 Beauty and the Beast are associated with “wholesome values”?

Duty To The Young
The advisory noted that some Christian leaders are “deeply concerned about the LGBT representation” in the remake as it is “an attempt to influence young children and socialise them at an early age into thinking that the homosexual lifestyle is normal.”

Regardless of the subject, be it right or wrong within the boundary of civility, we can commend each community leader to alert their members of perceived negative influence.

Be it the NCCS on the movies, Muslim authority over pop culture, or humanist groups on mission schools and religious-oriented co-curriculum activity, all have the duty to alert their respective members over values contrary to their ideology.

So no problem with this right of duty.

Singling Out and Magnifying Homosexuality
The problem comes when the message to “exercise discretion,” be “attentive to the entertainment choices,” and to “engage in meaningful conversation with [children] as they seek to make sense of the world” with the singling out and magnifying homosexuality.

It is as if the Christian’s value-radar is extremely sensitive over same-sex issue. It just beeps at other transgressions but sounds the fire alarm over homosexual content.

Such elevation dangerously turns the same-sex issue into a litmus test for orthodoxy, which divides between the tolerable and the non-tolerable that further stigmatises gay people in the society.

This hyper-sensitivity could be a reaction towards a perceived prolonged LGBTQI aggression that poses threat to civil toleration. Indeed, the public sphere is not cordial to all. 

Nonetheless, Christian’s witness in the public sphere is not to replicate such intolerance. This is especially so when we recognize that it is civilly unhealthy for the society, not least the church.

Thus, it would be more constructive for church leaders to see homosexuality in the same way they see other religions. Not saying that other religions are like same-sex act. Just saying that if Christian leaders do not see people of other religion and their religious life as threat, then they can likewise do the same with regards to homosexuality. Of course, I’m here assuming that other religions and homosexuality are deemed as against the teaching of Christianity.

Besides, in singling out and magnifying homosexuality, we unwittingly elevate same-sex act as ‘super sin’ from other sins. (For e.g., focusing on homosexuality and overlook beastility, as noted above.)

We therefore need to ask, why churches are so concerned over sexual sin? Why can’t Christian leaders be tolerant towards gay element as how they are being tolerant over Islamic or Buddhist element?

This is not to suggest that therefore church leaders should issue advisory or encyclical on every matters deemed sinful. Rather, this is to suggest that Christians should extend the same cordiality they have on other non-Christian element to homosexuality.

If Christians have no issue with people practicing other religion, then we can likewise do so with homosexuals. Of course, this doesn't apply to all things deemed un-Christian, only those within the boundary of civility.

In the end, we have to ask ourselves, what are we influencing our children for? To further stigmatises gay people? And sosialises them to be people who prejudge others based on their sexuality, religion, and wealth? Or, we want them to be adults who can contribute to the civility of a pluralistic society?

Socialising the young to know that people should not be discriminated based on their sexuality (or religion or race) is something all peace-seeking society needs.  As an article states (emphasis added):
“[It] would have been a huge help for [children] to see gay characters in movies when they were young — that they might have become more sensitive and accepting towards gay peers, or better able to grapple with their own sexuality. Studies have suggested that seeing gay characters in popular entertainment can decrease prejudice towards those groups.

“There is no doubt that kids seeing positively portrayed gay characters could have a significant effect that would contribute to such children’s learning about the world and who is in it,” said Edward Schiappa, a professor of comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Churches can strengthen the cohesion of a pluralistic society by encouraging the type of parenting that socialises children not to be prejudicial over people based on sexuality.

Christian leaders can help to build a world that no longer stigmatises gay people.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Why are Christians criticising LeFou being gay?

3 thoughts on Christians' condemnation of LeFou being portrayed as gay in Beauty and the Beast:

• Take a step back, ask ourselves, why do we react critically against that while not at all at the enchantress casting a spell that turned a man into a beast, which is wrong in using witchcraft to overturn divine order of creation (man into beast)?

• If we say that enchantment is not real while gay lifestyle is, then isn't this show that we are secularised in our worldview by the rationalism of the 18th-century Enlightenment, that Charles Taylor calls the "immanent frame", that we take for granted there's no enchantment anymore?

• If so, shouldn't we likewise take for granted there's no sacredness or divine-orderliness in heterosexuality? If we persist to take for granted one and not the other, shouldn't we need to account for such inconsistency?