Author Archives: Florence Kang

Art and Obscenity

July 2017 Pulse

Two planned performances in the recently-concluded M1 Singapore Fringe Festival ran into difficulties with the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) due to “excessive nudity”. In ‘Naked Ladies’, burlesque dancer Thea Fitz-James strips and performs an indecent act, and in ‘Undressing Room’, dancer Ming Poon challenges a participant to undress him even as he undresses her.

Both performances were cut from the festival.

In London, Japanese photographer and artist Nobuyoshi Araki achieved both fame and notoriety for his work called kinbaku (or erotic bondage), which features photos of naked or partially-naked Japanese women bound in different poses.

That these works are described as “art” forces one to question if any work can be so “christened”, so long as it has the blessings of the high priests of the art world.

Take for example, Fountain, a 1917 work by Marcel Duchamp that is widely seen as the icon of the 20th century. Art specialists have described the dislodged urinal as the quintessential example of what Duchamp called “ready-made”, a manufactured object into which the artist imbues some mysterious meaning simply by calling it art.

This state of affairs suggests that modern art has lost its way. Art is simply surrendered to the currents of moral and cultural relativism, even as the objective standards by which it was once judged become irrelevant or are simply abandoned.

When this happens, trash can become art, when the official channels of patronage support it. And pornography (like kinbaku) is considered as art if it hangs in the museum or gallery, as if sanctified by its hallowed halls.

As Jonathan Jones has put it so pointedly: “Sell a nude photograph in a gallery shop and you are disseminating art. Move the place of exchange to a grubby north-eastern drinking den… on a dead Sunday afternoon… it all becomes much muckier – ‘pornography’, even.”

This has led Roger Scruton, one of the most astute philosophers of our day, who still cares about those immutable qualities that would distinguish a piece of work as art, to write: “The world of art… is full of fakes. Fake originality, fake emotion and the fake expertise of the critics – these are all around us and in such abundance that we hardly know where to look for the real thing.”

That art is now obsessed with sex and the sexual act – given our post-Kinsey culture – is clearly seen when works of banal obscenity are reverenced as art.

An example of such philistinism in art is the series of prints and statuettes by American artist Jeff Koons that depict couples copulating. Their creator hopes to turn pornography into art and give it spiritual significance and depth.

One of the many reasons why art has degenerated in this way is that our culture, having tried so strenuously to abolish shame, can no longer recognise it or understand its importance.

The revulsion that society once had for the obscene has all but disappeared. The fig leaves – in language, behaviour and thought – have been removed by a culture that is now shame-less.

Another reason is that we have now come to look at sex very differently from the past, having acquired, according to Scruton, “a habit of describing sex in demeaning and depersonalising terms”.

Most importantly, our culture seems increasingly incapable of appreciating beauty – no thanks to the modern iconoclasts for whom beauty is denigrated as a bourgeois concept, too superficial and old-fashioned to be taken seriously by artists.

But in despising Beauty, we will also fail to recognise Truth and Goodness. We will fail to see that good art – true art – can be an epiphany of these transcendentals, without which human life would be meaningless.

True beauty is transformative in that it draws us away from ourselves. As Scruton has once again put it so well: “Beauty tells you to stop thinking about yourself, and to wake up to the world of others.”

We see such beauty in a Michelangelo or a Rembrandt. We see it also in Bach’s Mass and in Mozart’s Requiem.

When art puts us in touch with the true, the good and the beautiful, it becomes in some important ways redemptive. It shows us that despite the ubiquity of sorrow and suffering in our world, life is still meaningful.

Such art can be the conduit of God’s grace.


 

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.

Being Christ’s Witnesses in a Pluralistic Society

July 2017 Credo

We live in a highly pluralistic society, which encourages the virtue of religious harmony and tolerance. On the other side, we receive the Great Commandment from Christ to “go … and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20; ESV).

How can Christians obey Christ’s commandment in this contemporary society? Is Christ’s teaching compatible with the ideal of religious harmony?

In order to deal meaningfully with this complex issue, we must understand the nature of Christian witness along with the context of today’s society. Of his missiological principle, Paul wrote, “To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law” (1 Cor. 9:20-21).

What do Christians have to offer to a pluralistic society? Following Paul, we should answer: pluralistic portrayals of Christ and context-sensitive knowledge of our pluralistic society.

Christians acknowledge the four Gospels with at least four different pictures of Jesus. It is one Jesus with many portrayals. Even among the synoptic Gospels, the Lukan Jesus is not portrayed in precisely the same way as the Markan or the Matthean Jesus, not to mention the Johannine Christology with its own distinctiveness such as the seven great I AM statements, to name but a few.

From historical theology, particularly from the Reformed theological tradition, we have the threefold office of Christ: Christ’s prophetic, priestly, and kingly office. The prophetic office brings true knowledge of God, the priestly true holiness, and the kingly true righteousness and mercy. Proclaiming Jesus in merely his priestly office, albeit very important, is neither adequate nor faithful to the richness of biblical Christology.

Our pluralistic society longs for pluralistic answers. From Christian perspective, we have pluralistic facets of biblical truth.

Now, how should Christians deal with religious pluralism as a fact? From an outside perspective, Christianity is just one among many other religions and therefore, cannot have an absolute claim of truth. “All roads lead to Rome,” they say. However, now we even live in a post-pluralistic society: not only are the roads many, but also the goals are many. Christian goal might not be the same goal of other religions.

The task and calling is greater yet not insurmountable. There are at least two approaches for a post-pluralistic context.

The first is to answer the small/particular questions with Christian particular answers, before uniting the answers into the ultimate answer that is Jesus. The second is to bring the particular questions of life to the ultimate question, which in turn has its ultimate answer in Jesus.

When Jesus revealed himself with the seven great I AM statements, he answered the small particular questions of life with particular answers (I AM the bread of life; the light of the world; the door; the good shepherd; the resurrection and the life; the way, the truth, and the life; the true vine).

All these particular answers find their fulfillment in the person of Jesus. Jesus is always the ultimate answer but Christians need to carefully know the questions and context-sensitively answer them. Jesus is not the bread for the problem of darkness; he is the light. He is not the light for the problem of death but the resurrection and the life.

With regard to the second approach, Christianity believes that all questions of life are rooted in the problem of human fall into sin. All questions can be traced back in the story of Adam’s fall recorded in Genesis. Sin is the arch problem and it has many different dimensions, imitating the many facets of truth.

When we say sin, it includes again not only the dimension related to the priestly office, i.e. the problem of holy – unholy. Sin extends its power to the problem of injustice, elitism, totalitarianism, but also ingratitude, discontentment, self-centeredness, greed, idolatry, etc.

When John the Baptist witnessed Jesus by saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29), he was using priestly vocabularies, yet the meaning extends beyond the priestly context.

We might add perhaps one last approach, namely that of postliberal theology.

Stanley Hauerwas bases the authority of the Bible upon the practical function in the life of the Christian community: “Claims about the authority of scripture are in themselves moral claims about the function of scripture for the common life of the church. The scripture’s authority for that life consists in its being used so that it helps to nurture and reform the community’s self-identity as well as the personal character of its members.”

Far from obscuring the Christian identity, Hauerwas context-sensitively locates Christian absolute claim of truth in the living out of the biblical story in the communal life of the church. Therefore, Christian witness is not a matter of being a (individual) Christian witness but (communal) Christian witnesses.

Because of its persuasive character, Christian testimony should be free from the spell of religious fundamentalism. “Witness is non-coercive. It has no power but the convincingness of the truth to which it witnesses,” writes Richard Bauckham.

True Christian witness does believe in a grand biblical story but never oppressive. In this regard, Christians need not to fear the accusation of being threats for religious harmony. God’s love to the world is greater than our fear. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”


 

Dr Billy Kristanto is the Academic Dean at International Reformed Evangelical Seminary Jakarta. He was a part-time lecturer in harpsichord at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, NUS. Graduated from Heidelberg University (Ph.D in musicology, Th.D in systematic theology), he is an ordained pastor of Reformed Evangelical Church of Indonesia.

Initial Evidence?

July 2017 Credo

Reader’s Question: Is speaking in tongues the initial sign that a Christian is baptised in the Holy Spirit?

Pentecostals maintain that the ability to speak in other tongues (Greek: glossolalia) is the initial evidential sign that a believer has received the baptism of the Holy Spirit. According to Pentecostal theology, Spirit baptism is the second work of the Holy Spirit, subsequent to regeneration, that empowers believers to be witnesses for Christ.

The website of the Assemblies of God, UK, states: ‘We believe in the baptism in the Holy Spirit as an enduement of the believer with power for service, the essential, biblical evidence of which is the speaking with other tongues as the Spirit gives utterance’.

Pentecostals routinely cite Acts 19:6, which gives an account of the Holy Spirit descending on the disciples in Ephesus when Paul laid his hands on them. Upon receiving the Spirit, the Ephesian believers immediately spoke in tongues and prophesied.

Other passages that Pentecostals frequently appeal to for scriptural support of their teaching about initial evidence include Acts 2:4, 8:14-20 and10:44-46.

Before we discuss the hermeneutical and theological issues pertaining to the Pentecostal doctrine of initial evidence, two important observations are in order.

The first is the fact that not all the passages in Acts that describe the so-called baptism of the Spirit specifically mention tongues-speech as the immediate consequence (See, for example, Acts 2:41; 4:4; 5:14; 8:17; 13:12, 48; 14:1; 17:12, 34; 18:8).

Secondly, although many Pentecostals accept tongue-speech as initial evidence of Spirit baptism, some have argued that it is not normative. For example, the NT scholar and AG minister Gordon Fee maintains that while speaking in tongues may be regarded as a valid ‘repeatable’ experience, Pentecostals should not insist that it is normative.

The hermeneutical question is important, and therefore a good place to begin as we examine this doctrine from the biblical standpoint.

How should we read the accounts of the Spirit’s activity in Acts? Should we read them only as descriptions of what took place in the early Church? Or should we read them as offering a paradigm for the Christian life?

Put differently, are these accounts in some definitive sense prescriptive? Or are they merely descriptive?

Many biblical scholars, including I. Howard Marshall and Gordon Fee, maintain that the accounts in Acts are the attempts by their author, Luke, to describe what took place at Pentecost and on the days following that important and pivotal event.

However, although Acts is a historical account of the birth of the Church, Luke’s narrative also seeks to give the read a sense of what God was doing in human history. Put differently, Luke’s historiography has a theological intent and purpose.

The question is: what was that theological intent and purpose? Was it to present a paradigm for the Christian life?

Many biblical scholars, including Gordon Fee, maintain that it was never Luke’s intention to present a paradigm for the Christian life or to teach that Spirit baptism is the work of God subsequent to regeneration.

Fee, for instance, makes his case against the doctrine of subsequence in his article entitled, ‘The Baptism in the Holy Spirit: The Issue of Separability and Subsequence’ published in the Fall 1985 issue of Pneuma: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies.

Luke’s theological emphasis in Acts is to show how Jesus’ promise to his disciples before his ascension (Acts 1:8) is fulfilled as the Church’s witness unfolded as the result of the Spirit’s empowerment.

Turning now to the theological issues surrounding the Pentecostal doctrine of initial evidence, we should note firstly that Paul’s fundamental emphasis concerning the gifts of the Spirit has to do with their diversity and with the fact that they are distributed according to the sovereign will of God.

Paul emphasized that not every Christian will receive the same gift. ‘If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be?’ he asks (1 Corinthians 12:17). Furthermore, his rhetorical question, ‘Do all speak in tongues?’ suggests that even in a Church as spiritually gifted as the Corinthian Church, not every member has the ability to speak in tongues.

In his discussion on the spiritual gifts, there is no evidence that Paul privileged the gift of tongues above the rest. Yet, the Pentecostal doctrine of initial evidence privileges tongues over the other gifts because it alone is a reliable evidential sign that a believer is baptized in the Holy Spirit.

Finally – and briefly – we have to consider the way in which Pentecostals and some charismatics have understood the expression ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’. Reading Acts as presenting a paradigm for the Christian life, they conclude that Spirit baptism refers to a definite work of the Holy Spirit subsequent to regeneration.

As we have already seen, some Pentecostal scholars have argued that this interpretation is untenable. I think they are right in doing so.

According to the testimony of the New Testament, the Spirit that regenerates believers is constantly at work in their lives – leading and guiding them into all truth, sanctifying them and empowering them to be Christ’s witnesses.

The Spirit also grants Christians various gifts for the edification of the Church. To some are given the gift of mercy, to others the gift of tongues. Thus, every Christian is empowered by the Spirit for service, and therefore has a role to play in the Body of Christ.


 

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

 

Mathematics and Reality

July 2017 Pulse

At a recent Ethos Institute seminar on ‘Science and the Christian Faith’, a participant asked an important question pertaining to the relationship between mathematical models and reality. Mathematicians and philosophers are still debating this contentious issue, and it looks like the jury will be out for some time yet.

I offer these reflections as a theologian and philosopher, and not as a mathematician.

There can be no doubt that mathematics is held in the highest regard in modern society as many believe in its power to unlock the truths of the universe of which we are a part. Mathematics has been triumphantly described as ‘the language of the universe’ because of its ability to depict physical reality with such precision and elegance.

The veneration of mathematics can be traced to the golden age of Greek philosophy. The great Pythagoras could say that ‘All is number’, and Aristotle who came after him could echo his view approvingly by declaring that ‘The principles of mathematics are the principles of all things’.

Closer to our day, Albert Einstein expressed his amazement at the power of mathematics thus: ‘How can it be that mathematics, being after all a product of human thought which is independent of experience, is so admirably appropriate to the objects of reality?’

Mathematicians and philosophers are drawn to mathematics because of its sheer beauty. Whether it’s the mathematical constant π or Einstein’s famous E=mc2, the sheer elegance of mathematical models and the way in which they help us to make sense of the physical world is at once stunning and attractive.

The presence of beauty in mathematics should urge the Christian to contemplate the beauty of God, the Creator of all that is. As mathematician and theologian Paul Schweitzer, S.J., notes: ‘Just as when the beauty of the lilies of the field, the songs of birds, or the smile of the child overwhelms us, in the contemplation of mathematical beauty a window opens onto eternity and one can sense the holy presence of our loving God’.

Mathematicians and philosophers generally agree that mathematics is in some sense related to the physical world, but how this relationship should be understood is still a matter of considerable debate.

In contrast to the so-called mathematical Platonists who believe that mathematical objects and ideas exist independently from the material world, I hold the view that they are mental abstractions of our perceptions of reality. This means that mathematical concepts are grounded in and therefore dependent on the material world.

The history of mathematics itself bears this out as ‘natural numbers’ emerged very early in human consciousness and systems representing numbers can be traced to very ancient times.

‘The counting of numbers’, writes Schweitzer, ‘… arose at the dawn of human consciousness, to make it possible to number the oxen in a herd, or the number of coins in a purse, or the number of people in a tribe. Thus numbers are abstracted from concrete reality’.

Sophisticated systems like multiplication tables can be traced to the Sumerian civilisation during the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Ages. The great Sicilian mathematician, Archimedes, developed a system of numbers that is so sophisticated and precise that it is said that he could calculate the number of grains of sand in the universe! Geometric figures and spaces are also abstractions based on our perceptions and observations of reality concerning spatial relations between objects.

Mathematics, Derek Abbott maintains, is the product of the human imagination that is used to describe or portray reality. Abbott even argues that although the majority of mathematicians claim to hold the Platonist view, they are in fact closet non-Platonists!

But why is the philosophy of mathematics important? It is quite obvious that mathematicians who have very different views about the nature of mathematics could do their work unimpeded.

I think this question is important for at least two reasons.

Firstly, it is important to have a realistic estimate of the power and effectiveness of mathematics. The non-Platonic view, in my opinion, alerts us to the fact that mathematics is a human enterprise and not the ‘miracle’ that some scientists have made it out to be.

Put differently, because perfect mathematical forms do not exist in the physical universe, mathematics is just a mental construct and the models it creates are merely approximations of reality. Seen in this way, mathematics not only has its limits, it is also vulnerable to mistakes and failures.

That said, the precision and effectiveness of mathematics is truly remarkable, prompting Eugene Wigner to write his famous paper entitled, ‘The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Physical Sciences’ in 1960. ‘The mathematical formulation of the physicist’s often crude experience’, Wigner writes, ‘leads in an uncanny number of cases to an amazingly accurate description of a large class of phenomena’.

But lest we get carried away with the perceived omnicompetence of mathematics (which the Platonic approach encourages), we should evaluate its successes more closely.

In response to Wigner’s paper, Abbott wrote a piece entitled, ‘The Reasonable Ineffectiveness of Mathematics’ which, following the arguments of Richard W. Hamming, highlights some areas of human inquiry where mathematics has had lesser success.

He notes, for example, that mathematics has less success ‘in describing biological systems, and even less in describing economic and social systems’. One possible reason why this is so, Abbott speculates, could be the way in which these systems are adaptive and mutable. ‘Could it be they are harder to model simply because they adapt and change on human time scales, and so the search for useful invariant properties is more challenging?’, he asks.

But the question of timescale and the limits of human perception should also give us pause when considering the successful mathematical models. Abbott adds: ‘Could it be that the inanimate universe itself is no different, but happens to operate on a timescale so large that in our anthropcentrism we see the illusion of invariance?’

The second reason is related to the first. A realistic estimate of mathematics would prevent us from embracing a naïve epistemological exclusivism (scientism) that dangerously neglects or ignores other kinds of truth.

While mathematical models have a remarkable way of portraying reality, they are also deficient in a number of ways. For example, they present a world of quantities without qualities. As the philosopher and poet Raymond Tallis has brilliantly put it: ‘The energy in Einstein’s equation is not warm or bright or noisy, and the matter is not heavy or sticky or obstructive’.

Mathematics has a very important place in our lives. However, we must never take the hyperboles of Pythagoras or Aristotle too seriously.

Instead we must follow Tallis’ wise counsel and never neglect other kinds of truth, especially truths that are ‘rooted in the actual experience of human beings that lie beyond mathematics: situational truths saturated with qualities and feelings and concerns, and differentiations of space and time (‘here’, ‘now’)’.


 

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.

 

Our Way is Not to be Discovered in Ourselves, but Offered from Another

July 2017 Feature

I know, O Lord, that the way of humankind is not in themselves,
that it is not in the person who walks to direct their steps. 

Jeremiah 10:23[i]

As a young man, I worked as a foreman on a US National Forest Service fire-crew in the Cascade Mountain Range in Oregon.  The Cascades’ undulating hills and conical peaks are beautiful, but easy to get lost in if you leave the trail and head into the woods.

I discovered this the hard way when I led my crew into the woods to extinguish a small lightning fire in a large dead Cedar about two miles off the main road. Rain and mist from the low canopy of clouds limited our view.

Unable to locate the burning snag, I called in a spotter plane to circle over the tree as a guide. We knew the aircraft would only circle briefly, so when it did appear above the trees we hastily set down our packs and dashed some 300 meters to the smouldering snag.

The rain had done most of our job for us, so I had part of the crew fell the tree and douse its coals while I and three crewman walked back to fetch our packs that contained food but more importantly our compass.

Given that we hadn’t run far, we assumed fetching the packs simple, but thirty minutes in and no packs to be seen, we turned back to the fire.  Yet, we were unable to find the fire. For two hours we searched but to no avail; we were adrift in mists, rolling woods and the gloom of dusk. I had a map, but it was useless without a compass for bearings.

Finally, the mist began to give way and the cloud canopy lifted. In the distance I saw Bachelor Mountain appear on the horizon and with this landmark and the sunlight filtering in I was able to pinpoint our position on the map and thus we were able to make our way back to the fire.

With light came direction and Jeremiah’s prophecy suggests the same. According to the word given to Jeremiah, humans are not designed to make their way by themselves.

Spiritually, vocationally, and relationally, they need guidance and that need is built into our physical and spiritual DNA. Indeed, Biblical Hebrew language reveals our need for guidance.  In ancient Hebrew, the term “in front of” (qedem) is word for “past.” and the word for “behind” (achar) is the root of the term “future” (achareet).

Hence, humans face the past and walk backward into the future and it follows that “the way of adam (humankind) is not in themselves;” humans require another to guide them in their way.  Without orientation, direction, and grace we are fated to wander aimlessly. Both collectively and individually we need another who sees the future gives guidance to on our way.

That guide is given a name by Abraham (Gen 22:14). Abraham names to the one who not only stayed his hand from killing Isaac and provided the sacrifice as “Jehovah Jireh” (KJV) or “The Lord Will Provide” (NIV).

Yet the name “Jehovah Jireh” literally means “Yahweh who sees”. Thus, Abraham honours Yahweh who sees to his need and guides him in his way. Abraham like Jeremiah realizes that his way of is not in himself, it was not in Abraham who walks to direct his own steps.

The implications of this for us are legion as we make our own way in the world, but let me suggest at least three areas it affects us.

First, knowledge that is sound and leads to wisdom requires revelation.  You see without sound guidance the data, research, quantitative and qualitative analysis we gather is of questionable value.

Certainly controlled experiments, statistical analysis, rational decision analyses can produce mountains of data that can be diligently catalogued and refined, yet without wisdom and direction cannot tell us what is its value and how we understand and apply it.

As Stanley Fish has noted:

No matter how much information you pile up and how sophisticated are the analytical operations you perform, you will never get one millimeter closer to the moment when you can move from the piled-up information to some lesson or imperative it points to; for it doesn’t point anywhere; it just sits there, inert and empty.[ii]

Fish reminds us that research and analysis that leads enables reason and sound engagement insists that it answer normative questions such as “what are we supposed to do?” and “at the behest of who or what are we to do it?”  Naturally that requires more than a description of what is, but some insight into what ought to be.

Biblically that requires that knowledge be informed by the one who sees and guides. Thus, sound research should be informed by revelation and even spiritual guidance.

Apart from sound guidance, humankind is prone to organise and use knowledge to pursue what in the long run are personally or collectively destructive and defiling.  Thus, spiritual autonomy affords an intellectual vertigo that is bound to harm more than it heals.

Yet, the spiritual dependency of sound analysis and reason suggest the more profound reality, that knowledge is personal.  Jeremiah’s prophecy assumes another. The act of “directing” transcends a mere rational course of action and contends we need one who is able to direct us a methodology for life.

Jeremiah’s words imply the bond of a traveller and their guide. And because this guidance is personal it is also infers that it is nurtured in a dynamic back and forth.

Thus, rather than a commander and a soldier, it is more like a pair engaged ballroom dance where there the subtle communication of lead and sensitive response make the two dancers one in motion, expression, and essence.

Finally, if my understanding of the passage is correct, this direction is a free gift.  Our need for direction may be universal, yet it is not imposed.

The wanderer is not forced by the guide, nor is the guide under obligation to direct. As a gift it requires that the traveller to accept and follow the direction of the guide, and the guide free to direct as they see fit and according to their will. By design it is a relationship build on trust that the direction given is for the good.

Naturally, this has implications for how we think about grace, action, and good works. When it comes to the relationship between, grace faith and works, a passage many of us have learned by heart is Ephesians 2:8ff

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves—it is the gift of God.  Not by works lest any person boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ for good works. which God prepared in advance for us to do.

The relationship between grace, action, and direction is lost in the English translations of this passage. The verb “to do” peripateō literally means to walk and refers to the direction of one’s life.

Therein lies the deep echo of this passage with the prophecy of Jeremiah. Grace, faith, salvation as well as our work and life interpenetrate one another. Our life work and fulfilment thus rest in our relationship to the one who leads and guides and indeed laid down his life that we might be reunited with him through grace and faith.

Here our nature and calling to be relational, rational, and compassionate beings find its completion and fulfilment. He is our guide as we walk with him.


Notes

[i] All bible verses are my translation

[ii] Stanley Fish; “Are there Secular Reasons” New York Times: Opinionator, February 22, 2010 6:00 pm. At http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/22/are-there-secular-reasons/ .


 

Dr Thomas Harvey is Academic Dean at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies. He taught theology at Trinity Theological College for many years.

 

Post-Truth Politics?

June 2017 Pulse

Last November, Oxford Dictionaries declared “post-truth” as the international word for the year 2016. So significant is this expression that Oxford Dictionaries’ Casper Grathwohl even said it could become “one of the defining words of our time”.

“Post-truth”, whose origins can be traced to the early 1990s, is not a new coinage. Yet the remarkable events that took place in the UK in July 2016 and in the USA in September of the same year had made it an ineluctable buzzword.

Oxford Dictionaries defines “post-truth” thus: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

The two events mentioned earlier are of course “Brexit” and the extraordinary journey of Mr Donald Trump to the White House.

In the Brexit episode, “Leave” campaigners repeatedly perpetuated untruths in their effort to convince the British public to abandon the EU. The most startling example is the fraudulent claim by Mr Nigel Farage that it costs Britain £55 million (S$99 million) a day to be a member of the EU.

More alarmingly, vast swathes of the British population appeared to have ignored all the fact-based warnings about the perils of leaving the EU sounded by academics and politicians alike.

In the most acrimonious presidential campaign in the history of the USA, then presidential hopeful Trump told so many lies that one reporter said despairingly “it’s hard to know which ones to cite”.

The fact-checking outfit Politifact has found that 70 per cent of Trump’s “factual” statements can be categorised as “mostly false”, “false” and “pants on fire” untruth.

Of course politicians have always been known to lie, and some commentators have even said that it is virtually part of their job description – although that would be unduly cynical.

The difference here is that in the past, politicians would try very hard to camouflage their dishonesty, believing that voters would care. In the so-called post-truth era, this assumption is abandoned, and politicians lie blatantly and with impunity.

This shift in paradigm is surely disconcerting not just for the champions of liberal democracies for whom facts are sacred. It must surely also be unnerving for countries like Singapore that have rightly prized objective and rational approaches over visceral ones.

There can be no doubt whatsoever that post-truth politics is made possible by the rise of populist movements evident in some countries and the ubiquity of social media. Together, they have ignited and fanned the flames of this new brand of politics.

Is truth important in politics and for society?

Of course it is, for it is only the truth – not lies or falsehood – that will eventually set us free (John 8:32). Surely even those who do not seem to care very much for the truth know this. They know that a society established on the murky foundation of deceptions will soon fall into ruin.

But perhaps the so-called post-truth politics brings to light a deeper malaise that has been festering in Western societies, namely, the deep and sometimes unarticulated distrust of authority and established institutions.

This brings us to another possible ‘take-home’ from these extraordinary events that is perhaps not given the attention it deserves.

It is not uncommon to read commentaries that condescendingly deride the voters – bamboozled as they were by an ocean of misinformation and lies – for being gullible and undiscerning.

Such caricatures are never fair.

Perhaps those who “vote with their hearts” are not always delusional or irrational. Perhaps it is not the case that these voters have given up on the truth but rather that they do not trust the facts – that is, the facts as dished out by authorities whose trustworthiness they have called into question.

Perhaps they are wary of the way in which “academic and scientific research” is sometimes commandeered to advance the agenda of the political elite, and to taunt those who disagree.

Perhaps the so-called pro-truth brigadiers, who rely slavishly on statistics, are the ones who are naïve. Perhaps they have embraced so narrow and reductionist a view of truth that they foolishly think that numbers, figures and charts tell the whole story.

And perhaps this has blinkered their vision to the point that they miss the truth about the hopes and fears, aspirations and struggles of ordinary people.


 

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

The Book of Ruth: a Study in Unspectacular Faithfulness

June 2017 Credo

The Book of Ruth begins: ‘In the days when the judges ruled…’. But the events it describes are very different from those described in Judges. Bethlehem, where most of the book is set, seems to have been an oasis of goodness within Israel during this period. People like Naomi and Boaz were good people, faithful Israelites. Ruth can be described as a narrative of ‘unspectacular faithfulness’.

What happens in the book? There are no battles in which God dramatically saves Israel from their enemies (again, contrast Judges). The focus of Ruth is not national but for the most part local (Bethlehem and its citizens). The events described are mainly ordinary, the kind of things that might have happened often in Israel’s history.

Consider the three main characters. In a time of famine Naomi travels with her family from Israel to Moab. Her husband dies there. Her two sons marry Moabite women. Some years later they also die. Naomi returns to Bethlehem with Ruth. When she arrives in Bethlehem, she is filled with a sense of what she has lost, and accuses God publicly (1:20-21)

There’s nothing very unusual in any of this. Clearly Naomi passes through some kind of crisis: in c. 1 her faith seems to be near breaking point; by the end of the book she seems to believe again in the goodness of God (4:14-16). But most of us have experienced such times.

Ruth is a Moabite woman, but she returns to Bethlehem with Naomi. She has drawn close to Naomi during the years they have been together. More than that, Ruth commits herself not only to Naomi, but to Naomi’s God (1:17).

Ruth does much more for Naomi than might have been expected. And yet, people do form strong attachments, and even move to another land because of these attachments. What Ruth does is highly commendable, but not spectacular.

Boaz is presented as a godly man: his first words are ‘The LORD be with you’ (2:4). He is also a responsible landowner: he visits his fields at harvest-time to see how things are going. When he sees Ruth gleaning, he finds out who she is, and encourages her to continue gleaning. He follows Moses’ teaching (cf. Lev. 19:9-10), but goes beyond what Moses taught (2:15-16). He treats Ruth generously because of what he has heard about her (2:11) and because he knows that the God of Israel extends a welcome to all who seek him (2:12).

In all sorts of ways, then, Boaz is a good Israelite, one who knows and lives by Israel’s traditions. But surely he was not the only good man in Israel in those days.

As the story begins, so it continues: three people in different ways ‘go the extra mile’ and bring blessing into each other’s lives. It is a moving story, but there are no spectacular or miraculous happenings, merely fairly ordinary people experiencing a series of fairly ordinary events.

As is well known, the Book of Ruth traces God’s providence in the events related (see, e.g., 1:6; 2:3, 12, 20; 3:10, 13; 4:13). It ends by taking us beyond the lifetimes of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz (4:18-22): what God did in their days, though they could not have known it, led to the birth of David, Israel’s greatest king. (Matthew 1 will take the story further.)

How does the book portray God’s providence? Is it saying that God had to guide events along precisely these lines, that if Ruth had gleaned in a different field, or if Boaz had refused Ruth’s request (3:9), then David would not been born, and God’s purposes of salvation would have been derailed? Surely God is more resilient than that, more resourceful in his dealings with humanity.

We should read the book differently: Naomi, Ruth and Boaz all, in their different ways, believe in the God of Israel and express their faith in the everyday details of their lives; they engage in the normal events of life (sowing, reaping and gleaning; marriage and childbirth), but do so in a way that reflects their commitment to God. These, the Book of Ruth tells us, are the kind of people God can use, whose lives God can take up into his purposes. That seems to be the book’s ‘doctrine of divine providence’.

Christians perhaps do not emphasise enough the importance of faithfulness in the daily, weekly and yearly round. The raw material for faithful living is all around us, in the regular events of our lives. We should not imagine that the real movers and shakers in God’s kingdom are those with high-profile ministries. Nor should we imagine that the only worthwhile ministries are those which take place in church or on ‘the mission field’: God is not so limited.

We should reflect seriously: if we live out our faith in our families, that may bring blessings that will last for generations. If we get involved in our communities, that testimony may bring many into God’s kingdom. If we carry out our jobs or callings honestly and with commitment, that many make the character of our God more visible to our colleagues than a hundred tracts left around the office. If we put our professional skills and other talents at God’s disposal (for politicians, lawyers, city planners, architects, builders, teachers, home-makers and many others have roles as important as pastors, theologians and Bible scholars), then the impact could be immense.

That impact could be apparent in own lifetimes (as it was for Naomi, Ruth, Boaz and even the citizens of Bethlehem); it could also be apparent generations after our lives have come to an end (which is the point that the genealogy of 4:18-22 makes).

All that is required is that we be willing to exercise faith in the ordinary details of our lives, using the talents, circumstances and opportunities which God gives us – that we display the kind of unspectacular faithfulness which runs through the Book of Ruth and makes it such a warm, hopeful and above all practical book.


 

Dr Philip Satterthwaite has been Principal of the Biblical Graduate School of Theology (BGST) since 2011. He has been Lecturer in Old Testament and Biblical Hebrew at BGST since May 1998.

Christian Hospitality from ‘Migrant’ to Migrant

June 2017 Feature

Public discourse on issues concerning immigration and foreign workers is often carried out within the framework of “human rights,” “national interests,” and “Asian values,” with religious values having a lesser role in the discussion. While this is understandably the preferred approach in a secular and multicultural society like Singapore, the Christian community must believe it has a point of view that can make a true difference in the problem-solving efforts.

The Christian view does not necessarily contradict these contemporary categories of thinking but it can offer humane perspectives based on an alternative view of people and the world. In this article, I would like to reflect on the question, “Why should we be hospitable to new immigrants or to resident non-citizens?”

I believe the Christian perspective supplies some good answers, and deep theological meaning can be discovered in the normal hospitality that we accord to the foreigner in our midst.

We live in the age of unprecedented human migration. Barring the implementing of regional plans by governments to check or reverse the trend, global mass migrations will continue to characterise present reality. As an instance, in a press release by the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, it was reported that in 2013, a third or 30% of marriages in Singapore involved at least one spouse who was neither a citizen nor a permanent resident, up from 23% in 2003.[i]  The trend of marriage to foreign spouses will likely continue to rise in Singapore as the city moves toward greater cosmopolitanism.

Churches have to face the reality of rapid social change, and can expect people of an uncommon ethnicity or origin to appear at the church’s doorstep. While most churches emphasize hospitality and kindness towards strangers, and discourage cliquishness, the encouragement to do so is usually based upon the evangelistic motive.

This is certainly more laudable than promoting exclusiveness or exclusion, but we can miss the important truth that the basis for Christian hospitality towards strangers is first derived from the Scriptural understanding of God’s compassion for the vulnerable and the Church’s self-understanding as a pilgrim people.

“Because You Were Foreigners in Egypt”

Charles Van Engen, a professor emeritus at Fuller Theological Seminary, noted that while the Old Testament often presents foreigners as enemies of the people of God, it also contains many commands to Israel to care for the foreigners or “strangers” who lived in their midst.[ii]

Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt. – Ex 23:9, NIV

The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God. – Lv 19:34, NIV[iii]

The commands given by God through Moses were accompanied by the reason why the Israelites must treat foreigners well and not oppress them: the Israelites were foreigners in Egypt so they knew what it had been like to experience suffering and oppression as foreigners. The Israelites and the foreigners shared a common experience of alienation and suffering, and this bond must be expressed in the dignified treatment of the less powerful group.

Van Engen traced another theological meaning in God’s demand for the Israelites to show compassion – it would serve as a constant reminder to them that they were themselves a people who were pilgrims, sojourners and immigrants in the land. This was to be an integral aspect of their calling as a people even after they entered the Promised Land.

From God’s call to Abram to leave his country and become a sojourner, through to the period of the Exile when God’s people had to learn to live in a place where they did not belong, Israel’s self-understanding continued to be that of a migrant race. This self-perception would carry into the Christian faith as Jewish and Gentile believers grasped the truth that they have inherited not only the privilege of being God’s people but also its pilgrim character.

Jesus and Neighbourliness

Jesus’ approach to the poor and dispossessed in society was built on the Old Testament tradition of mercy and compassion for the disadvantaged. His teachings re-established the spirit of the Old Testament ethic, which had been kept in the practice of the law but not in the sentiments that it was meant to evoke, and superseded it with new and radical applications. He did this particularly through reinstating “neighbourliness” as a supreme way worshipping God (Mt 22:34-40), and by redefining the word “neighbour” (Lk 10:36-37).

By introducing the command to ‘love your neighbour as yourself,’ which in the Law is never placed next to the command to love God, Jesus raised its spiritual status to a startling height and intertwined loving one’s neighbor with loving God. In his telling of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, ‘neighbour’ is no longer understood in terms of geographic, ethnic or cultural proximity. The robbery victim’s ‘neighbour’ is simply ‘the one who had mercy on him.’ Christian neighbourliness therefore consists in loving the neighbour we know as much as we love ourselves, and by showing mercy to the stranger in need we do not yet know, thereby making ourselves a neighbour to him.

Jesus’ teachings shaped how the early church related to pagan society. The same spirit permeated the church leaders’ instructions to their congregations on intra- and inter-church relations (Rom 12:13, 1 Pt 4:9, 1 Tm 3:2, Ti 1:8, 3 Jn 7-9), and relations with the unbelieving world (Heb 13:2, 3). Church fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Tertullian continued in the same vein, exhorting Christians to continue in the practice of love and concern for strangers and foreigners.

Encountering God in the Migrant

In his essay, “On Loving Strangers: Encountering the Mystery of God in the Face of Migrants,” Miguel Diaz spoke of how ministering to migrants and understanding the experience of migration helps us as believers to “reconceive the mystery of God.”[iv] Deliberating on the thought of Karl Rahner and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who both wrote about how we encounter the presence and mystery of God in our daily interaction with fellow human beings who may be very different from us, Diaz invites us to see how, in the Incarnation, Jesus could be conceived of as a migrant who crosses the border and experiences all the accompanying dangers of migration in order to bridge his world and ours.

Diaz concluded that “there is something about crossing over and welcoming others (especially alienated others) that mirrors how God crosses over and welcomes us in Jesus Christ. A human community that does not welcome others and their otherness—a human community that rejects and shuns identifying with the suffering of migrating strangers—does not image the mystery of God.”[v]

From ‘Migrant’ to Migrant

Singapore is a nation of immigrants, so it might be something of a surprise to the casual observer that we have not been very hospitable to entrance seekers and migrant workers residing in Singapore. This is not so surprising upon reflection. Hospitality towards others not like us is not part of the social DNA of any society. In Singapore, this has not been helped by the fact that many of our forebears were poor immigrants.

Their first concern was for their own economic survival, not the well-being of society. For them, charity began, and often ended, at home. The cautious immigrant mindset has remained, and is today encouraged by the modern myth of self-achieved success. “Since I earned my wealth and comfort through my own perspiration, why should you not do the same?” How do we practice Christian hospitality in this setting?

We often think of hospitality as something we do, whether it is preparing a meal for friends and relatives or welcoming a visitor in church. Christian hospitality is much more than outward politeness and service.

It begins with self-understanding and the inner life of worship that finds its way into our daily activities. It has to do with recognizing that we are ourselves pilgrims and foreigners who are “longing for a better country—a heavenly one” (Heb 11:16), and understanding what it feels like to have to make a home far from home. It concerns our readiness to surrender ‘We-Them’ distinctions and to place unfamiliar others in a common space with us under the same appellation – neighbour. It has to do with welcoming others because we are imitating Christ who “crossed over” to welcome us. In more than one sense, we are migrants ministering to migrants.


Notes

[i] Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, “New Measures to Help Prospective Singaporean-Foreigner Couples Better Plan For Their Future,” Press Release, 24 October 2014.

[ii] Charles Van Engen, “Biblical Perspectives on the Role of Immigrants in God’s Mission,” Journal of Latin American Theology 3, no. 2 (2008): 17-19.

[iii] See also Ex 22:21, 23:12; Leviticus 19:33; and Dt 10:19. The presence of these commands is remarkable when one learns that other ancient near eastern legal codes do not have statements of provision or compassion for foreigners.

[iv] Miguel H. Diaz, “On Loving Strangers: Encountering the Mystery of God in the Face of Migrants,” Word & World 29, no. 3 (2009): 235.

[v] Ibid., 240.


 

Dr Fong Choon Sam is Dean of Academic Studies and Interim Co-President at Baptist Theological Seminary. He teaches in the Missions, Religions, and Research areas.

Social Science and Its Limits

June 2017 Pulse

Last year, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam announced that the government is increasing funding for research in the social sciences and humanities in Singapore by 45 percent.

‘Our region today is a fascinating and fertile ground for study’, he noted, ‘but scholarship has not caught up with its growing importance. We can and must build up this scholarship in the region that can confirm and spur both policy and the initiatives of societal leaders’.

This move by the government surely must be applauded.

The social sciences have indeed gained much prominence in educational institutions and in society at large in recent times. This is mainly – though not exclusively – because of their perceived ability to offer astute analyses and perhaps even insights into many aspects of social life.

Social science is itself a multi-disciplinary venture that covers or incorporates a wide range of subjects, including economics, political science, sociology, history, archaeology, anthropology, and law.

It is because of its incredibly wide scope that many today have put their confidence in social science to solve the world’s biggest and most pressing problems such as inner-city crime, alternative energy sources, and cyber security.

Like all human enterprises, social science is profoundly influenced by the prevailing culture and zeitgeist. It is therefore no surprise that as a fairly recent discipline (in contrast with the humanities, which can be traced to medieval Europe), social science is profoundly shaped by the secularism that pervades our current ethos.

More specifically, social science works with a materialist view of reality that allows within its explanatory matrix only that which can be subjected to empirical verification. Even when it attempts to describe as complex a phenomenon as religion, social science is compelled to employ a reductionist methodology because of the philosophical materialism it espouses.

Thus the celebrated founders of the economic theory of religion, Rodney Stark and William S. Bainbridge could write with admirable candour that ‘by attempting to explain religious phenomena with reference to actions taken by the supernatural, we assume that religion is a purely human phenomenon, the causes of which are to be found entirely in the natural world’.

This has led theologians like John Milbank to conclude that sociology and social science is synonymous with the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ when it comes to assessing religious accounts of reality. Given the cluster of assumptions upon which the social sciences are based, this is inevitable.

However, the philosophical naturalism that undergirds social science also suggests profound limitations to its assessments of our world and human behavior.

Milbank, for instance, pointed out that social science is unable to understand what it means to say that the Church is a community of faith. It sees the Church as just a huge and complex organization that is no different from other organizations, with its attendant hierarchies, stratifications and internal power struggles.

The Polish scholar Stanislaw Burdzeij may have exaggerated a little when he wrote that ‘For sociologists, church is usually analyzed as an emanation of material interests, to which religious belief is just a cover-up’. But some such assessment of the nature of the Church by social theorists cannot be ruled out given the thoroughgoing secularity of the social sciences.

This gives rise, as some critics have pointed out, to a kind of positivism that, if left unchecked, would result in distorting views of how things really are. The positivism in question has to do with the belief that we have access to facts simply by observation or that we can ‘read’ the world simply by our empirical investigation of it.

Theologian Neil Ormerod has pointed out two serious blind spots of social science, whose vision is blinkered by its scientific method. The first is its inability to penetrate into the problem and reality of evil. And the second has to do with the fact that by ignoring the transcendental character of human life, it fails to give an adequate account of social reality.

Needless to say, not many social theorists would agree with such an analysis.

Be that as it may, I must clarify that I am not arguing here that social science is not an important and valuable enterprise, or that it must not be taken seriously. I believe that it is, and it must.

I am arguing that the sociological imagination alone is not enough if we are to achieve an adequate understanding both of our selves and the world we inhabit. The sociological imagination must be brought into creative conversation with the religious imagination, inspired by the ancient religious traditions, including the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Social science cannot penetrate the enduring meaning of human existence. It cannot provide those necessary values that would serve as the moral ballast for society if it were to flourish in this conflicted world. While social science can offer insights into certain developments that could translate into better policies in service of the common good, it is unable to fully discern the truth about the human condition.

To do that social science must take seriously the religious imagination that the various religious traditions – especially the Judeo-Christian tradition – have inspired.



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 Mind That ‘Sees’

June 2017 Credo

This article is written in response to a request by one of the visitors of the Ethos Institute website. It has to do with the Christian’s experience of God. What do Christians mean when they say that they have a personal knowledge and experience of God? What do Christians mean when they say that they sense his presence?

One of the most important, if arguably also the most neglected topics in recent Christian discourse, is what may be described as a ‘Christian theology of religious experience’.

Despite the fact that spiritualities of all sorts – from exercises in mindfulness to New Age mysticism – have been in vogue for some time, Christian theologians generally (and evangelical theologians, in particular) have not given the issue of religious experience the serious theological attention it deserves.

Christians of every denominational stripe and tradition claim to have personal knowledge of and relationship with God. Many Christians have also testified that there were occasions when they were able to sense the presence of God in their lives.

Such assertions are, of course, premised on the Christian understanding of God.

The God who reached out to us in love and grace has invited us into a covenantal relationship with him. He is not an absentee God, distant and aloof. Rather he is Emmanuel, the God who is always with us.

But what do Christians mean when they say that they are able to sense God’s presence? How are we to understand the Christian’s perception and experience of God?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines perception as the ‘awareness of the elements of environment through physical sensation’. Perception, it adds, is the ‘physical sensation interpreted in the light of experience’.

Based on such definitions, the Christian claim that it is possible to perceive the divine becomes even more baffling, if not incredulous. For, unlike the pagan idols that are made of wood and clay, the God whom Christians worship is spirit, invisible to human eyes (John 1:18). The Creator is not a part of the created order, and therefore cannot be known by sensory perception like the material objects of this world.

But although the Creator of the universe is spirit and therefore cannot be perceived by our creaturely senses and finite minds, he has revealed himself in such a way that makes our knowledge of him possible.

In John 1:18, alluded to earlier, we are told that although no one has seen God, the Son of God has made him known in the incarnation. Put differently, by taking upon himself human flesh and coming as Jesus of Nazareth, the second person of the Trinity has made the invisible God visible.

Paul could therefore declare in Colossians that the Son ‘is the image of the invisible God’ (1:15). Scripture, both the Old Testament and the New, bears witness to the incarnate Son of God through whom the invisible God is known.

Not only did God make himself an object of this world in order to reveal himself to us, he also accommodated his revelation in such a way that we are able to receive and understand it. This notion of ‘divine accommodation’, which was brilliantly developed by the great Reformer John Calvin, helps us to understand the mode that divine revelation has assumed that makes it possible for human beings to know God.

Peter Enns explains: ‘This is what it means for God to speak at a certain time and place – he enters their world. He speaks and acts in ways that make sense to them. This is surely what it means for God to reveal himself to people – he accommodates, condescends, meets them where they are’.

The objective basis for your knowledge of God sketched very briefly here is extremely important.

The knowledge of God does not arise subjectively from our inner being, our mind or our soul. Rather, it is objective. We know God because the eternal Son has become a human being, and because the Bible bears witness to him.

However, there is a subjective aspect to our knowledge of God – and this brings us closer to the heart of our topic. Just as the Son of God has made our objective knowledge of the invisible God possible in the incarnation, so the Holy Spirit enables us to subjectively apprehend and appropriate this knowledge by faith.

The early Fathers of the Church often speak of the spiritual senses (sensus spiritualis) that the Holy Spirit awakens in the regenerate soul of the believer, enabling him to perceive spiritual things.

The Spirit forms in the believer a sensorium that makes him receptive to God. The spiritual senses do not work against the natural senses but in concert with them, giving the Christian a greater capacity for God.

As the great Swiss Roman Catholic theologian of the last century, Hans Urs von Balthasar, puts it: ‘The spiritual senses are the human range of senses adapted to the riches and the variety of the paths taken by God in his revelation, with the capacity simultaneously to “see his glory”, “hear his word”, “breathe his fragrance”, “taste his sweetness” and “touch his presence”’.

The spiritual senses that Christians are given at regeneration enable them, through the out-workings of divine grace, to ‘sense God’s presence’ and ‘experience him’. They enable the mind that is renewed by the Spirit to ‘see’ a deeper spiritual reality.

Such experiences can come to us during worship and prayer, or as we read the Bible. But we can also experience the presence of God as we perform mundane activities like driving to work or washing the dishes.

At this juncture, I would like to sound a note of caution by highlighting two very important points.

The first is that the relationship between the objective revelation of God in Jesus Christ and the subjective appropriation of that revelation made possible by the Spirit must never be severed from each other. The means that all subjective religious experiences – regardless of how powerful and compelling they may be – must be subjected to Scriptural assessment and critique.

This we learn from Scripture itself. In the wake of false teachings in the Church, the Apostle John writes: ‘Beloved, do not believe any spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone into the world’ (1 John 4:1).

Secondly, although we have been discussing how the individual Christian may know or perceive God, it must be stressed that Christian experience is always ecclesial in nature. That is to say, our personal and individual experiences of God must always be evaluated and guided by the universal Church’s experience of God.

Privileging our subjective religious experiences over the ecclesial is extremely dangerous. It has led many to theological error and spiritual ruin.


 

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