Monthly Archives: January 2017

What Does it Mean to Uphold Sola Scriptura Today

January 2017 Credo

Having celebrated Reformation Sunday some weeks back, I find it appropriate to write on one of the chief slogans that encapsulates the essence of what the Reformation was about—Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). I offer the following theses for our consideration (the reader should be glad to know it is 5 and not 95 theses!)

  1. Sola Scriptura is first and foremost a theological claim: Scripture is the divine discourse of the self-communicative God to his people

A proper grasp of Sola Scriptura, I believe, begins with an assertion of the following theological claim: Scripture is the divine discourse of the self-communicative God to his people.

In turn, this theological claim involves two other key doctrines, that is, our doctrine of God and our doctrine of Scripture.[1] God is seen as the God who desires to communicate, to speak with His people. And Scripture is seen as the text used by God to be the viva vox Dei (living voice of God) to address the people and generate faith and obedience.[2]

This, I submit, is the basic theological claim underlying Sola Scriptura that imbues the slogan with its sense of authority in the first place.

  1. Sola Scriptura is recognizing what God is intending with Scripture within the divine economy of salvation: as a covenant document to draw the church into covenantal relationship with God.

The above notion is verified in three ways.[3]

In terms of its content, Scripture depicts the history of God’s covenantal relations to humankind, including all the divine communicative acts (promises, warnings, commands, consolations etc.) that witness to what God was doing in Christ. In terms of its form, Scripture sets forth the terms and conditions of this very covenantal relationship itself. And in terms of its effect, to encounter the words of Scripture is to encounter God himself in action, supremely in his making of a covenantal promise to us.[4]

Sola Scriptura reminds us that Scripture alone is sufficient to bring about this covenantal intention of God. Hence, Scripture should rightly be conceived as a divine covenant document before an ecclesial constitution.[5]

  1. Sola Scriptura, more than a principle, is a canonical practice of the church

At its core, Sola Scriptura is best regarded as a practice, specifically, a Spirit-enabled church practice in reading, understanding and using Scripture in the church in a certain way.[6]

In line with a dramatic or theatrical analogy, there are two ways that the church can ‘perform’ the ‘script’ (Scripture). The first, an ecclesial performance interpretation, is where the interpretative community (the church) authors and directs. The second, a divine authorial-centered performance interpretation, is where the interpretative community receives, responds and enacts. Of the two, the latter corresponds to the practice of Sola Scriptura.[7]

In saying this, however, I am not presuming that the church can have an immediate and unmediated access to God’s Word removed from the interpretive context or interpretive tradition she finds herself in. Stated differently, in the language of the famous philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, the church’s performance—in this case her reception and response to the canonical script—always occurs out of a tradition or ‘historically-effected horizon’. It is pure naivety to say that one can approach a text ‘a-horizontally’.[8]

Rather, in practicing Sola Scriptura, I mean this: the church’s interpretation and performance is always subject to potential correction from the canon. Practicing Sola Scriptura means not collapsing the text (of Scripture) into the tradition of its interpretation and performance.[9]

In Gadamerian language again: Sola Scriptura refers to the radical alterity of the scriptural texts that confront us as the Word of God.[10] It means respecting the otherness of this other horizon in the dialogue and allowing it to do its work of critique rather than quickly neutralizing it through dissolution within the fusion of horizons.[11]

  1. Sola Scriptura is a spirited-canonical practice of Jesus Christ before that of the church

Granted the above that Sola Scriptura affirms Scripture as canon, then canon itself is ideally first viewed as a performance (by God) before it is viewed as a script designed for further performance (by the church).

This means that it is precisely because Scripture as canon is first and foremost a performance of what God was saying and doing in Jesus Christ that it serves as a normative specification of how the church is to carry on saying and doing in Jesus Christ.[12] In other words, Sola Scriptura is firstly viewing the canonical discourse in itself as an instance of the triune God’s ‘performance’, and then correspondingly as a script that calls for an appropriate and corresponding ecclesial response.[13]

In fact, a deeper examination reveals Jesus Christ himself as the preeminent canonical ‘performer’. Jesus comes and shows to us how the Scriptures should be read: he reads the parts in light of the covenantal whole and the whole in light of the Christological center that he is (Luke 24:44, John 5:39–40).[14]

In this way, Jesus establishes the preeminent canonical practice to be ‘of him’ in the sense that the practice is about him and it is his own practice. Jesus Christ is thus both the material and the formal principle of the canon, its substance and its hermeneutic respectively: ‘substance’ in that the Word inscripturated is about the Word incarnate, and ‘hermeneutic’ in the sense that the Word incarnate teaches us how to read the Word inscripturated.[15]

The final step in the equation is to recognize that in inaugurating this key canonical practice, Jesus also commissions this practice in that the apostles and the church are to interpret Jesus after the way He himself did.[16] The sending of the Spirit is to ensure the efficacy of this specific hermeneutical and canonical practice of Jesus in the church and in her tradition. Tradition, seen in this light, is hence the church faithfully passing on and continuing these canonical acts effected by the Spirit, rather than ‘inventing’ new acts under the name of the Spirit.[17]

  1. Sola Scriptura is finally a declaration of the clarity of Scripture as recognized within the community of faith

To summarize: Sola Scriptura does not negate tradition, but it does allot tradition a secondary role by designating it with a ministerial rather than a magisterial authority. As Kevin Vanhoozer aptly states it: “Tradition plays the role of moon to Scripture’s sun.”[18]

Sola Scriptura proclaims there is a gauge or criterion to measure the faithfulness of tradition, and extending further, even the work of the Spirit in tradition. For Sola Scriptura is ultimately a confession and declaration of the perspicuity or clarity of Scripture within the community of faith.

This is a clarity effectuated by the preeminent hermeneutical practice of Jesus himself and continued by the Spirit within the church’s tradition. Concurrently, it is this clarity that enables Scripture to serve as an incessant and simultaneous criterion and check on tradition.

The clarity of Scripture is rightly not independent of tradition or the work of the Spirit, but the clarity of scripture does affirm the otherness of the text in critiquing our interpretation and in shaping tradition such that it is best defined as “loving deference towards the words of Holy Scripture,”[19] and as a “holy attentiveness.”[20]

Ultimately, Scripture, with her clarity, forms, checks and directs the church’s interpretation, and performance. And that, I believe, is what it fundamentally means to uphold Sola Scriptura today.



Rev. Edmund Fong is currently an Associate Minister in Adam Road Presbyterian Church. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Systematic Theology on the theology of the great German theologian Karl Barth. Happily married to Mei and blessed with 3 children, Edmund enjoys watching movies and running when he’s not found either reading a good book or writing his dissertation.

 


Notes

[1] Kevin Vanhoozer suggests that what he calls our ‘first theology’, that is, our first principles in doing theology, derives from a correlation of these two doctrines. See his “First Theology: Meditations in a Postmodern Toolshed,” in First Theology: God, Scripture & Hermeneutics (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 15–41.

[2] David S. Yeago, “The Bible,” in Knowing The Triune God: The Work of the Spirit in the Practices of the Church, ed. James J. Buckley and David S. Yeago (Grand Rapids; Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2001), 49–93, in particular p. 66, states it memorably: “It is this discourse, what is said in these writings, textually fixed in just this fashion, which the church knows as the ‘divine discourse’ of the Holy Spirit” (emphasis his).

[3] This basic idea forms the main argument of chapter 4 of Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 115–150.

[4] Timothy Ward, Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2009).

[5] Vanhoozer, Drama, 133.

[6] Ibid., 32, 153.

[7] Ibid., 165–185.

[8] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Second, Revised Reprinted Edition (London; New York: Continuum, 2006).

[9] Vanhoozer, Drama, 152.

[10] Amos Yong, Spirit-Word-Community: Theological Hermeneutics in Trinitarian Perspective (Aldershot; Burlington: Ashgate, 2002), 313–314.

[11] Mark L.Y. Chan, Christology From Within And Ahead: Hermeneutics, Contingency and the Quest for Transcontextual Criteria in Christology (Leiden; Boston; Koln: Brill, 2000), 145.

[12] Vanhoozer, Drama, 152.

[13] Ibid., 184.

[14] Ibid., 220–224.

[15] Ibid., 195.

[16] Ibid.

[17] As Vanhoozer highlights in Ibid., 194, this should not be taken to mean that the Spirit is subordinated in the midst of this. Instead, there is rightly reciprocity in the Son-Spirit relationship. Jesus enables the Spirit’s coming, but from a Spirit-Christology perspective, the Spirit also empowered Jesus to be who He was and to do what He did. The impetus rather, is to recognise the order and pattern set forth in Scripture, that “the one ministered to by the Spirit during his earthly ministry becomes, in his exalted state, the one whom the Spirit ministers” (emphasis his).

[18] Vanhoozer, Drama, 210.

[19] Yeago, “The Bible,” 69.

[20] John B. Webster, “Biblical Theology and the Clarity of Scripture,” in Out of Egypt: Biblical Theology and Biblical Interpretation, ed. Craig G. Bartholomew et al., 1st ed., vol. 4, Scripture and Hermeneutics Series (Milton Keynes; Grand Rapids: Paternoster; Zondervan, 2004), 374.

Is it Ethical?

January 2017 Pulse

In 2006, in an article published in Methodist Message, I argued that gender dysphoria is a form of mental disorder – a view I still hold today. If this judgement is sound, then far from being a helpful correction to the condition, sexual reassignment surgery (SRS) is in fact collaborating with the illness.

In this article, we focus on a different but not unrelated question. SRS is legal in many countries, including Singapore and Iran (because homosexual acts are punishable by death, homosexuals in Iran are forced to undergo SRS – but that’s another story). Countries like Thailand and South Korea have become international hubs for SRS, attracting medical tourists from across the globe.

SRS may be legal, but is it ethical from the standpoint of medical ethics? To answer this question, we must examine what SRS entails and what benefits (if any) it brings to persons suffering from gender dysphoria.

SRS is a major procedure with significant risks.

SRS for the male involves hormone treatment, the removal of the penis and testes, preparation of genital tissue for the creation of pseudo-vagina, the creation of the pseudo-vagina, opening the urethra, breast implants, silicone implants in the hips and buttocks, and cosmetic surgery.

For the female, SRS involves hormone treatments, mastectomy, hysterectomy, the creation of a pseudo-penis and testes, and treatment to increase testosterone levels to stimulate hair and muscle growth.

The pressing question here is whether it is ethical to perform a procedure that not only mutilates but also destroys healthy sexual and reproductive organs.

SRS must be distinguished from surgical procedures to correct or restore deformities in the sexual organs caused by congenital defect, genetic abnormalities, injury or disease. While the latter procedures are performed to correct deformities, it is debatable if SRS could even be described as treatment – although this remains a contentious issue.

One of the most important principles in medical ethics is nonmaleficence. This principle obligates physicians not to cause harm to their patients, encapsulated in the oft-quoted maxim Primum non nocere (“Above all [or first] do no harm”).

Some ethicists have combined this principle with that of beneficence into a broader principle. But Tom Beauchamp and James Childress are surely right to argue that “conflating nonmaleficence and beneficence into a single principle obscures critical moral distinctions as well as different types of moral theory”.

In destroying healthy sexual and reproductive organs, SRS has arguably transgressed this important principle in medical ethics – to “do no harm”.

But does SRS benefit the person suffering from gender dysphoria? Two important points must be made in answer to this question.

Firstly, SRS does not change the sex of the person with gender dysphoria, but only creates an illusion of change. As Richard P. Fitzgibbons, Philip M. Sutton and Dale O’Leary have pointed out in their excellent study: “It is physiologically impossible to change a person’s sex, since the sex of each individual is encoded in the genes – XX if female, XY if male. Surgery can only create the appearance of the other sex.”

Secondly, persons who have undergone SRS continue to struggle with problems of sexual identity. A recent Swedish study showed that persons “after sexual reassignment, have considerably higher risks for mortality, suicidal behaviour, and psychiatric morbidity than the general population”.

SRS therefore is not a treatment for sexual dysphoria. As Dr Paul McHugh has put it quite bluntly in his article ‘Surgical Sex’: “We psychiatrists … would do better to concentrate on trying to fix their minds and not their genitalia.”

The language that we routinely and very often uncritically use has clouded our thinking on this issue, creating more confusion than clarity.

“Sexual reassignment surgery” is itself a problematic term because it implies that the sex of a person assigned at birth can be reassigned by surgery. This, as we have seen, is not the case at all. The term “transsexual” is equally problematic because it suggests that a person of a certain genetic sex can simply move to the other sex.

With the technical possibility of surgically creating pseudo-genitals, these disturbingly misleading misnomers have given rise to yet another misleading idea: that SRS is a form of treatment for people suffering from gender dysphoria.

Perhaps it is time to re-examine the ethics (and legality) of SRS.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article is first published in Methodist Message.

Organs and Chimeras

January 2017 Pulse

The shortage of transplantable organs is a public health crisis globally. In the United States, for example, 120,000 people are on the waiting list. It is estimated that 35 percent of all deaths in the U.S. can be prevented by organ transplantation.

In Singapore, the average waiting time for a kidney transplant is still 9 to 10 years, despite changes in the law to enlarge the donor pool.

In an effort to solve this global shortage of transplantable organs U.S. research centres are conducting studies on chimeras, trying to grow human tissues in animal hosts, with the aim of creating kidneys, livers and hearts for transplant.

Scientists are proceeding with such studies despite the fact that the National Institute of Health has clearly stated that it will not support chimera research until greater clarity is achieved concerning its ethical, legal and social implications.

Chimeras are currently used in many different studies. For example, the potential of human pluripotent cells in vivo is analysed by microinjecting these cells in a mouse embryo. The aetiologies of metabolic diseases in the ageing population are studied by creating ‘humanised’ mice to which cells from the liver and pancreas of human donors have been introduced.

In Singapore, human and bovine genes are combined to create cytoplasmic hybrid embryos that are purportedly 99% human. These hybrid embryos are used in embryonic stem cell research.

The National Council of Churches in Singapore has made a robust response to this initiative (See http://nccs.org.sg/2010/12/04/human-animal-combinations-for-biomedical-research/).

There are serious ethical issues associated with research involving human-animal chimeras. They include the violation of human dignity, the question of the moral status of the chimeric creature, the risk of creating humanised animals, the violation of the order of nature, and the many uncertainties accompanying such research.

These concerns notwithstanding, the advances in cutting-edge technologies such as stem-cell biology and gene-edition have made the incredible advances in chimera research possible.

For example, scientists can change the DNA of a mammal through genetic engineering, making it incapable to forming a specific tissue. Human stem cells are then added to the animal in the hope that a particular tissue, for example a human kidney, can form in the host animal.

However, for a number of technical reasons scientists are still unable to create a viable human organ in an animal host at this point.

One of the most challenging obstacles to their success is what has been described as the xenogenic barrier. The host animal – for example, a pig – and the human organ that it is supposed to incubate are two different species, making the viability of the chimeric creature itself problematic.

Scientists working on human-animal chimeras have long theorised that the closer the species are to each other, the higher the chance the chimera has of surviving. So, if the human-bovine chimera is not viable, perhaps a primate can be used to host the human organ.

We must ask how far we are willing to go to create transplantable human organs to save lives. If primates prove to be equally unsuitable hosts, what’s next?

Taking the discussion to the extreme, will we consider using people in permanent vegetative state but who are otherwise in relatively stable condition as possible hosts? What about people who are suffering from senile dementia? Can they also be used to incubate organs for transplantation?

Many bioethicists see the importance of imagining a fictional dystopia to address the possible future scenarios presented by the trajectories of current medical and technological capabilities that would enable them to anticipate ethical and social issues that might arise.

This brings us to a fundamental question in bioethics, one that is sometimes unfortunately muted if not silenced by the thick rhetoric in support of the technological imperative and biomedical triumphalism.

The question is: Without in any way trivialising the suffering of people with organ failure, is it society’s duty to save their lives at all cost? Or are there larger moral considerations that should govern our actions?

Bioethicists – both Christian and secular alike – have argued that although saving the lives of people with organ failure is important, it should not be achieved at all cost. They believe that there are other more important moral and social considerations. That is why killing a healthy individual to procure his or her organs and the trading of human organs are both unethical and illegal and should never be countenanced.

With the unprecedented advancements in stem-cell research and gene-editing technology, we must carefully reflect on where the line should be drawn as we work towards enlarging the organ pool.

In the midst of the bio-tech hype we must remind ourselves that in our noblest attempts to ameliorate suffering and cure diseases, we must never allow ourselves to pursue strategies that would in the long run distort our moral sensibilities and dehumanise our society.


Roland Chia (suit)_Large
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

The Forgotten Trinity

January 2017 Credo

In 1989, the British Council of Churches published a collection of essays with an interesting and arresting title: The Forgotten Trinity. The authors of these essays – prominent theologians in the UK – lament the neglect of the doctrine of the Trinity by the modern Church.

To be sure, the Trinity is given special mention at strategic points in Christian worship. The Church baptises her new members in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit in obedience to the Great Commission set out in the Gospels (e.g., Matthew 28:19). And at the end of the service, the minister often blesses the congregation by using the Pauline benediction (2 Corinthians 13:14) with its trinitarian formula.

But beyond these specific rituals and allusions, very little attention is given to the doctrine. By treating the doctrine of the Trinity as little more than a theological appendage, evangelical churches appear to be following in the footsteps of their liberal counterparts.

The doctrine of the Trinity must never be seen as an optional extra.

In his book entitled Wrestling With Angels Rowan Williams writes perceptively that ‘Trinitarian theology, in so far as it is concerned with what “kind” of God Christians worship, is far from being a luxury indulged in solely by remote and ineffectual dons; it is of cardinal importance for spirituality and liturgy, for ethics, for the whole of Christian self-understanding’.

Thus, far from being a doctrine that should be relegated to the far margins of orthodoxy Christianity, the Trinity must be placed at the very centre. In fact, we may say that it is the article upon which the Church stands or falls in the sense that without it there can be no Christianity.

The doctrine of the Trinity is based on God’s revelation, the divine self-disclosure, and not on the Church’s metaphysical speculations or imaginings.

Together with Israel, the Church professes that there is only one God. The formal form of this profession can be traced to the famous Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4 which declares: ‘Hear, O Israel, our God, the Lord is one’.

The monotheism of Israel is further underscored in the Decalogue, especially in the first commandments which says: ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me’ (Exodus 20:1). This commandment is reinforced by the categorical prohibition and condemnation of idolatry that immediately follows it (Exodus 20:4-6).

The Church has always embraced and defended the monotheistic faith of Israel that is rooted in and shaped by the revelation of God in the Old Testament.

But as the Church reflects on the significance of Christmas and Pentecost, she begins to see that the one God she professes and worships is triune. For at the first Christmas, the eternal Son of the eternal Father (John 1:1-2) ‘became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14). And at Pentecost, the third person of the Godhead, the Holy Spirit was poured out to empower the Church to be Christ’s witness in the world (Acts 2).

Thus, through the revelation of God in salvation history, the Church realises that there is no plurality of gods – there is only one God, and all other claimants to deity are imposters and fakes – in a word, idols.

But on the basis of the same revelation, the Church also realises that the one true God is plural, or more precisely, triune.

In the one God, there are three persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – who are co-equal and co-eternal. Each person is the whole of the divine essence and is therefore fully God. Thus, the Father is fully God, the Son is fully God and the Spirit is fully God.

Yet each person is distinct from the other in the sense that the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Spirit. But because each person is fully God, each person possesses all the divine attributes. As the great fourth century theologian Athanasius has so insightfully put it, everything we say about the Father (that he is omnipotent, omniscient, sovereign, etc) can be said about the Son, except that the Son is Father.

The concept of God as triune – as Being-in-Communion – is unique to Christianity. And this has led some of the most eminent theologians of the Church like Thomas Aquinas to conclude that knowledge of the triune God is possible only by divine revelation.

The doctrine of the Trinity therefore distinguishes the Christian concept of God from all human conceptions of deity. It rejects polytheism, so rife in the Greco-Roman world, and insists that there is only one God, not many.

But the doctrine also insists that Christian monotheism must be distinguished from the ‘bare’ or ‘generic’ monotheisms that we find in Islam and some versions of philosophical theism. God cannot be reduced to a simple monad, either of the Platonic or Islamic variety.

Yet, the Christian concept of God brings together the one and the many. The one true God is a relationship of three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – who are of the same essence (Greek: homoousious).

In guarding this precious truth concerning the being of God, the Church has resisted all easy solutions and opposed all metaphysical and philosophical compromises. In the process, she has also exposed and rejected numerous erroneous conceptions of God.

These battles were fought because the Church believes that the doctrine of the Trinity is of primary importance. It is not an optional extra.

The doctrine of the Trinity tells us something true about God, based on the divine revelation. The doctrine can thus be described as an exact tracing of the being of God.


Roland Chia (suit)_Large


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Common Morality in a World Wounded by Fragmentations

January 2017 Feature

“Get off your moral high horse,” we have heard this phrase thrown by people who think that you have been too demanding when making an ethical judgement or they just do not agree with a stand which you have made. Sometimes this is put differently.

They may appear as a convenient retort, saying “do not impose your moral views on us” usually in an attempt to cut short a conversation on a controversial subject, for example, when dismissing a person who thinks there is valid ground for reviewing the policy on current laws governing abortion.

This kind of reaction is taking an escapist way out of legitimate discussion. It short-circuits calm reasonable debate.

More seriously, however, that kind of attitude may suggest that on matters of morals, it is impossible to find consensus. In other words, morality, to use a phrase borrowed from Alasdair MacIntyre, is too fragmented in our post-enlightenment world that we cannot talk anymore with people who do not share, say, our religious beliefs or world views.

The assertion is that we cannot have any in-depth conversation with those who hold different perspectives on life especially on issues relating to what constitute moral standards deemed to be acceptable for people of differing faiths and those with no religious affiliation.

In many ways when we look at what is happening in our world today where conflicts seem to have escalated and opposing groups try to “settle” disagreement with violence or the imposition of will on other groups, we may have cause to conclude that finding common grounds is like trying to find the proverbial needle in the haystack.

Such pessimistic view seem credible enough if we consider the many interlaced factors to explain the surge in violence in our world.

From a historical perspective, we can see that most if not all the conflicts we have witnessed in recent times might have been brought about by a festering combination of combustible conditions, including failure to address dehumanising poverty and political disenfranchisement, worsened by the growing gap of the privileged class and those who are trapped in the quagmire of socio-economic cesspool.

The situation is compounded by the anxiety that it is unlikely that the privileged class will be able to understand fully the plight of, or talk sense with, those who have lived deprived and disadvantaged life.

Invariably, those who are deprived and disadvantaged would harbour suspicion of those who are in direct or indirect control over economic apparatus and tools for creation of wealth both at the national and at the international level. In other words, if there is a pernicious cycle of action and reaction, the violence is not just a response driven by politics of envy, as some might suggest. It has historical root often incubated over a long period of time in misery and a life of despair.

In the wider world scene, when talks have been initiated to resolve issues, such talks appear to be more like courtesy gatherings, a vacuous diplomatic road show, often with no concrete proposal and if there is a semblance of solution, they would be shot down by various legislatures and interest groups or placed at the bottom of a held-in-abeyance tray.

The unfortunate signal from such road show is that the participants seem more absorbed by political posturing and in exercise of political correctness marked by a clear lack of serious dialogue and commitment to find implementable common ground.

When people who are the under-class and marginalised are oppressed or pushed around over a long period of time, frequently crossing different generations, and when talks seem so detached from social reality, the disaffected tend to hit back and they have fought back.

That is why at the international level, this multi-faceted perspective explains in parts the rise of terrorist attacks when no meaningful avenues are open for negotiation and when there is no clear evidence of commitment to listen to each other in search of mutually beneficial and sustainable policies that would generate human flourishing.

In any case, often because of entrenched interest and suspicions, it is extremely difficult to expect trusting conversation to take immediate effect, assuming that we can bring people to the same table.

So while it might be correct to say, as an example, that a particular strand of Islamic teachings might have contributed to the radicalisation of young Muslims who have taken on extreme expression of their faith, might it not also be true that radicalisation is, in part, facilitated by the over-emphasis of an arrogant type of Euro-North American centric liberalism that worships unbridled individual rights aided by a constant persistent push by liberal fundamentalists among them politicians, the academia and those who control the major media who have sought to shut out the views of others or to ridicule them in the name of “progress”?

They underestimated that those who have found solace and strength in time-tested communitarian values would not accept such not-too-subtle cultural imperialism. You cannot legislate and export self-centred values by pushing such values down the throat of others who may not want to receive them.

Clearly fragmentations of the world and violent action and reaction could have been caused by failure to listen to each other and to respect legitimate concerns of different groups of people. Samuel Huntington might be correct after all when he postulated the idea of the clash of civilizations now made more pronounced by the evangelistic zeal of liberal fundamentalists and not just radicalised religious fanatics.

The future may look bleak in a world less than 20 years into the new millennium. The temptation is for observers of social events and human relationships to resign to cynicism.

The cynical response would be an appealing route to take when we think of the relentless march to export Euro-North American individualistic values and rights through the tools of political intervention, legislation, threat of economic sanction, and cultural imperialism on one hand, and the almost inevitable militant reaction from those who refuse to embrace the values unabashedly propagated and pressurise by incessant neo-imperialistic campaign.

So calling for others to “get off the moral high ground” may seem an expedient ploy to divert attention from serious conversation. Portraying the atomistic liberal ideology as progressive and everything else is intolerant if not primitive, only invites backlash because of their neglect of tested traditions which might not have Euro-North American origin and because of the selective preference of how to apply tolerance.

Such attitudes may just end up with none the wiser and we wonder why the seeming spiralling of violence in a world gripped with fear, nihilism, and despair.

There is still an option to help us steer clear of a using a fatalistic lens to look at the world.

It requires humility to recognise that while we may hold dear to a certain well-considered perspective in life, there are still many spheres in life which people of different faiths and those with no recognised religion can still find in what the political philosopher John Rawls describes as over-lapping consensus.

The truth of the matter is that we are all members of over-lapping communities with shared spaces, shared values and shared vision for human well-being, and have to be humble enough to grant that possibility.

From first impression and a casual look, the world is clearly fractious and fragmented.

However, for those who are prepared to invest time for deeper reflection and fair engagement which can be robust and yet civil; and which allows for one to draw on resources from our own faith and philosophy and to recoup common humanity, there is always the possibility of reclaiming common grounds and common morality unless one is an anarchist in the Nietschean sense or one is swayed by a religious apocalyptic vision or a political messianic pretension that is bent on destroying the world as it is, through the use of arms or imposition of will and ideology.

In the realistic approach guided by humility and hope, it does not matter if the result does not meet the complete desire or demand of a particular group, for this is unlikely, so long as the steps taken, views exchanged, or alternative offered provides an acceptable proximation to what one has hoped for and can live with.

In such dialogic conversation, Reinhold Niebuhr’s understanding of human nature as both free and finite may help us in our search for social well-being. To know our freedom is to appreciate our human potential to find common consensus primarily informed by love and justice. To bear in mind our finitude is to carry with us a warning of our human limitation and proclivity to sin which, if allowed to dominate human social intercourse, can derail our search for a fair and just outcome.

In our Singapore context, we need to be alert to the blatant and subtle infiltration of ideologies, religious and political, which seek to impose their values and self-serving dogmas on our multi-racial, multi-religious society.

It is less likely for any kind of destructive political or religious ideologies to take root and find wide support if the government and people of goodwill work to ensure that no group is disenfranchised because of poverty and neglect, and no group is held up for honourable mention when that group has run away with disproportionate benefits and privileges.

It is also less likely for a society to be irreparably fractured if we do not dismiss without deeper reflection and appreciation our time-tested communitarian vision nourished by our unique mix of ancient rich cultural histories and traditions to be usurped by atomistic individualism. Of course one needs to be careful not to let communitarian benefit become a collectivistic nightmare or communal dictatorship. But this has to be dealt with in a separate essay.

The world is fragmented. But it is not fatal.

There is possibility for people of goodwill which, to avoid being elitist and self-serving, must include people of faith and those with none; the well-educated and the common people; the experts and ordinary workers; to listen to each other, to work for and reclaim common morality and vision for the well-being of our own society.


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Rev Dr Daniel Koh Kah Soon, an ordained minister of the Methodist Church is a part-time lecturer at Trinity Theological College and a pastor at Christalite Methodist Chapel. He is interested in social ethical issues and how the Christian faith may contribute to enhancing community well-being. This interest is reflected in his occasional reflective essays and his active involvement in the social outreach ministry of the Methodist Welfare Services where he is currently serving as its Chairperson. He is also been a member of an Ethics Committee of a major restructured hospital, as well as a member of a Central Institutional Review Board.