Category Archives: Pulse

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.

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.

 

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.

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 Betrayal of Medicine

May 2017 Pulse

One of the reasons that the National Council of Churches of Singapore gave for rejecting physician-assisted suicide (PAS) and euthanasia in its 2008 statement is that these actions are “against the very ethos of medical practice”.

The betrayal of medicine’s noblest purpose that the growing acceptance of PAS and euthanasia signifies and accentuates is of course the result of many different but profoundly related developments.

The first of these is the subtle shift of the focus of medicine away from the patient.

According to Edmund Pellegrino, the Hippocratic Oath that has served European and American physicians since the dawn of modern medicine is now under attack both from without and within the medical profession. This is because some are of the view that the values it upholds are unable to address the complex ethical issues presented by emerging medical technologies.

But the rejection of the patient-centric tradition exemplified by the Hippocratic Oath exacts a heavy price because it changes the very character of medicine itself.

As philosopher Dianne Irving has rightly observed, once this tradition was weakened, “bioethics began to replace it with medicine practiced for the greater good of society rather than for the individual patient. That threatens patient welfare and denigrates medicine into a business rather than a profession”.

Another possible contribution to medicine’s betrayal is the secularisation of ethics, as a result of which moral reasoning is bereft of the very assumptions and principles that are supposed to govern it.

To be sure, some ethicists – like Leon Kass and Gilbert Meilaender from the Jewish and Christian traditions respectively – still regard human life as sacred and insist that physicians should be committed to the bodily life of their patients. But such views are gradually going out of vogue, supplanted by a utilitarian ethic couched in heady rhetoric about “the greater good” of society, and about individual autonomy and rights.

Edmund Pellegrino and David Thomasma offer a penetrating diagnosis of the modern predicament in medicine as well as in other fields when they write: “Much of the moral desuetude [state of disuse] into which we believe the professions – medicine, law, even the ministry – have fallen is the consequence of ethical claims without a moral philosophy on which to ground them.”

“Moral arguments based on utility, cost-benefit analysis, contract law, economic restraints, unbridled individualism are all symptoms of ‘moral malaise’,” they add.

Utilitarianism has indeed become the new orthodoxy in biomedical ethics.

“All [leading] bioethicists,” writes Anne Maclean, the perceptive critic of bioethics, accept “some version of utilitarianism”. University of Cambridge Law Professor John Keown agrees. In an interview, he asserts that “in modern bioethics, nothing is, in itself, either valuable or inviolable, except utility”.

Ethicists must therefore shoulder some responsibility for the erosion of moral acumen and for the betrayal of medicine’s noblest ideals.

Theologian Richard John Neuhaus put it starkly: “Thousands of ethicists and bioethicists, as they are called, professionally guide the unthinkable on its passage through the debatable on its way to becoming the justifiable, until it is finally established as the unexceptional.”

We see this happening in so many areas in biomedical ethics, from stem cell research to gene therapy, and from the criteria for ascertaining death to the hydration of PVS patients. We also see this in the debate surrounding PAS and euthanasia.

For example, Peter Singer and utilitarian ethicists like him are constantly pushing the envelope with regard to euthanasia.

Singer envisions an ideal world where all terminally-ill patients would be routinely euthanised. He writes: “Perhaps one day it will be possible to treat all terminally-ill and incurable patients in such a way that no one requests euthanasia and the subject becomes a non-issue; but this is now just a utopian ideal, and no reason at all to deny euthanasia to those who must live and die in far less comfortable conditions.”

For the Christian, medicine is a gift of God, the outworking of His common grace in this fallen world. The true goal of medicine is always to help and to heal, never to harm or to kill.

The utilitarian calculus that is so pervasive in the practice of modern health care is not only alien to the character of medicine. It has also seriously undermined and subverted medicine’s true and highest purpose.


 

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.

Lebensunwertes Leben

May 2017 Pulse

In his 1983 article published in Pediatrics, the controversial Princeton University ethicist Peter Singer argues unabashedly that nonhuman animals have greater morally significance than a seriously deformed or disabled human infant.

‘If we compare a severely defective human infant with a nonhuman animal, a dog or pig, for example, we will often find the nonhuman to have superior capacities, both actual and potential, for rationality, self-consciousness, communication, and anything else that can be considered morally significant’, he writes.

Preferential treatment is extended to the disabled infant, he argues – again quite unapologetically – not because of some intrinsic worth it possesses but simply because it is a member of the species homo sapiens, an approach he obviously disapproves of.

In the second edition of his influential book, Practical Ethics (1993) Singer sees people with severe disabilities quite categorically as having ‘a life not worth living’.

Singer’s cruel utilitarianism chillingly reminds us of the dehumanising eugenics of the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s that saw the extermination of certain segments of the population, guided by a similar philosophy – that some human lives can be said to be Lebensunwertes Leben (‘life unworthy of life’).

The killing of disabled people, especially newborns, is a practice that can be traced to antiquity. Despite their indubitable brilliance and enduring influence that can still be discerned in a wide range of topics today – from politics to beauty – the great Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle never prohibited or even called to question the practice, common in classical antiquity, of killing defective babies by exposure.

The Christian writer Miniculis Felix gives us a stark glimpse of the prevalence of infanticide in Greco-Roman society in Octavius where he writes – in a justifiably condemnatory tone – that ‘newly begotten sons [are] at times exposed to wild beasts and birds, or dispatched by the violent death of strangulation …’

In fact, as Darrell Amnundsen has clearly shown, ‘the care of defective newborns simply was not a medical concern in classical antiquity’. Consequently, no law existed in antiquity against the killing of such babies.

The early Christians of course rejected and opposed this practice because according to the Scriptures all human beings without exceptions are created in the image and likeness of God’ (Genesis 1:26-27) and must therefore be valued and protected. This includes the young, the old, the vulnerable and the disabled.

The early Christians therefore extended care to the poor, the sick, the marginalised and the disabled in ways that amazed the society of the time. So counter-cultural were they in showing compassion to the people that society had marginalised and rejected that the early Christians were often described as ‘the third race’.

The early Christians would pick up the infants that were left to die on the streets, in drains or in specially designated pits for unwanted children. They would either care for these children as their own or place them in the orphanages they ran.

Thus, unlike the most influential voices of the ancient Greco-Roman world that recommended with impunity the killing of deformed children (Cicero, De Ligibus, 3.8) and the drowning of ‘children who are at birth weakly and abnormal’ (Seneca, De Ira 1.15), Christians roundly condemn such practices as immoral.

Perhaps the clearest Christian voice in antiquity that protested against such inhumanity is that of Lactantius, who in his Divine Institutes writes: ‘Therefore when God forbids killing, no exception whatsoever must be made. It is always wrong to kill a man whom God has intended to be a sacrosanct creature. Let no one, then, think that it is to be conceded even that newly born children may be done away with, an especially great impiety! God breathes souls into them for life, not for death’.

In the darkest period of the history of modern Europe, a young pastor-theologian spoke with inimitable clarity and unparalleled courage against the evil eugenic projects of the Führer that were responsible for the mutilation and murder of untold numbers of Jews and people with disabilities.

In his unfinished book, Ethics published shortly after his execution by the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke out against the utilitarian principle which demeans human life and violates its God-given dignity: ‘Life created and preserved by God possesses an inherent right, completely independent of social utility … There is no worthless life before God, because God holds life itself to be valuable’.

Bonhoeffer warns of what he called ‘the aristocratic philosophy of life which glorified strength and power and violence as the ultimate ideals of humanity’.

This warning, sounded in the last century, has not lost its relevance and urgency in the present. In fact, we may say that in the wake of the current myth of human perfectability inspired by the bewildering advances in bio- medicine and technology, this warning has taken on a pertinence and currency that Bonhoeffer could not have possibly imagined.

While the Christian Faith rejects the morbid glorification of weakness (which unfortunately can be discerned in some recent discussions about disability – but that’s another story!), with its radical concept of the suffering God, it does suggest another way of looking at and understanding weakness that is truly redemptive.

And it is this way of looking at the other that has led Christians like Lactantius in the third century and Bonhoeffer in the twentieth to speak out against the manifest atrocities of their day and to advocate an ethic of love that regards even the most vulnerable and disabled members of their societies as bearers of the divine image, whose lives must be cherished and protected and whose dignity should never be violated.



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.

Gender Chaos

April 2017 Pulse

At Brighton College, one of the most prestigious private schools in Britain, gender distinct uniforms have been abolished. This means that the students in the school could choose to wear trousers or a skirt, a blazer or a bolero jacket.

Teachers in some preschools in America are not allowed to call the children “boys and girls” because to do so would promote unhelpful gender stereotypes.

In its 2015 Report, the Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee suggests that Britain should adopt the ‘self-declaration’ model that is currently used in Ireland, Argentina, and Denmark. Instead of undergoing sexual reassignment surgery, transgendered people should be allowed to simply declare the sex of their choice by filling a form.

The LGBTQI community has produced a glossary that lists a bewildering number of different expressions of gender and orientations. These include skoliosexual (people who are attracted to transsexual people), genderqueer (people who think of themselves either as pangender or genderless), third gender (people who do not identify with either male or female), and many more.

Gender-neutral language has also been introduced in some circles, where “Ze” replaces “he” and “she” and “Hir” replaces “his” and “hers”.

These are just some of the many examples of the chaos and insanity surrounding gender in modern society.

The traditional binary model that presents men and women as different and that insists that the difference between them is fundamental has been called to question. “There is no way that six billion people can be categorised into two groups”, asserts Dr Jack Dreshner, a member of the American Psychiatric Association.

Indeed the term “binary” is now regarded in some quarters as pejorative and even as carrying the same offense as terms like “racist”, “sexist” and “homophobic”. Gender fluidity – the idea that gender is not fixed but mutable – is now the new orthodoxy, and it is even promoted as a lifestyle choice.

The origins of this new dogma can be traced to the 1970s when postmodern philosophers and feminists argued that gender is not a matter of biological fact but a social construct.

Michel Foucault challenged the essentialism of the Enlightenment view of sexual identity, arguing that it is in fact a social construct that can always be negotiated and redefined.

Judith Butler argues that our understanding of what it means to be a man or a woman is very much shaped by the gender scripts that we receive from our culture. And as we perform these scripts, the gender it constructs is somehow etched into our bodies and psyches.

Needless to say, these conceptions of human sexuality and gender are antithetical to the teachings of Scripture, which clearly present the duality of sexes (the binary model) as the Creator’s intention for human beings (Genesis 1:27).

Reflecting on this passage, Karl Barth concludes that “We cannot say man without having to say male or female and also male and female. Man exists in this differentiation, in this duality”. Put differently, the distinction between male and female, their equality before God and their fundamental mutuality are indispensable to our understanding of the meaning of human existence.

In addition, although sexual differentiation cannot be said to only serve the procreative purpose, procreation would not be possible without it.

All this means is that although gender has to do with the complex relationship between biological sex and behaviour, it is in fact not as fluid as the postmodern deconstructionists have made it out to be.

In its document on human sexuality, the Evangelical Free Church of America rightly states that “All of human existence, including sexuality, has been damaged by the fall into sin”.

However, it should be pointed out that the fall has not only resulted in perversions in our sexual desires, habits and behaviour. It has also introduced serious distortions to our understanding of human sexuality and gender that has resulted in the current confusion.

This new orthodoxy concerning gender, therefore, should not be greeted in a cavalier manner as if it is just a benign social experiment or a harmless quirk in culture. The dysfunctions it legitimises and the irrational intolerances it advocates can create an oppressive hegemony, a new tyranny that deprives society of certain rightful freedoms.

It must therefore be challenged and rejected.


 

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.

Marriage as Covenant

April 2017 Pulse

One of the most interesting features of modern divorce laws is ‘no-fault divorce’. As the descriptor makes clear, this is a species of divorce where the spouse filing for divorce does not have to demonstrate any fault on the part of the other spouse.

According to an article in FindLaw, ‘All a spouse has to do is give any reason that the state honours for the divorce’. And the reasons usually offered are amorphous and cryptic, such as ‘irreconcilable differences’ or the marriage is undergoing an ‘irreparable breakdown’.

In America, no-fault divorce was first introduced in the state of California in the 1970s. Several states followed suit in the 1980s, including New York, which introduced the law only quite recently, on August 5, 2010.

Singapore, too, has no-fault divorce laws, although the conditions are somewhat more stringent than in other countries.

No-fault divorce is a symptom of the current erosion of the institution of marriage due perhaps to the libertine attitude engendered by the sexual revolution in the 1960s. But it is also the consequence of seeing marriage in terms of a social contract, and no longer as a covenant.

The contractual model of marriage is not only prevalent in secular society. Some Christians have also found this model attractive.

Among the sixteenth century Protestant Reformers, all of whom had a very high regard for marriage as a divine institution, it was John Calvin who emphasised the importance of understanding this union as a covenant.

In many of his writings on this subject, most notably in his sermons, Calvin stressed that marriage is not a human convention subjected to the whims and fancies of society, but a divine institution best understood as a covenant.

In his sermon on Deuteronomy (Deut 5:18), for instance, Calvin stressed that ‘Marriage is called a covenant with God … meaning that God presides over marriages’. He repeated and elaborated on this point in his great sermons on Ephesians: ‘Marriage is not a thing ordained by men. We know that God is the author of it, and that it is solemnized in his name. The Scripture says that it is a holy covenant, and therefore calls it divine’.

How does emphasising the covenant nature of marriage clarify our understanding of the kind of union that it is against modern alternatives?

In the first place, the covenant metaphor stresses that marriage is a union between one man and one woman – in other words, it emphasises marriage’s monogamous nature.

Related to this, the covenant metaphor also stresses the commitment of the two parties in the way in which the contractual model does not. This covenant commitment is clearly expressed in the words of the traditional marriage vow (which can be traced to the 16th century): ‘To have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part’.

Secondly, understanding marriage as a covenant stresses that God is involved in each marriage – he participates in it. The narrative in the early pages of Genesis, which describes God’s intimate involvement in bringing Adam and Eve together, brings this out rather beautifully.

This means that God did not just institute marriage; he also witnesses and solemnises each marriage. In addition, John Witte points out that ‘God is also the guarantor of the marriage, on whom the couple can call to ensure that the terms of the marital agreement are fulfilled’.

And thirdly, to understand marriage as covenant is to see the union between husband and wife as part of the much larger and profound covenantal relationship between God and his people (indeed, between God and humanity). This means that in the marital union, both the husband and the wife must learn what it means to be faithful to each other from the faithfulness of God to Israel.

As Witte once again pointedly writes: ‘For a husband to wander after another woman – whether a lover, prostitute or concubine – is now not just an act of adultery, but also an act of blasphemy, an insult to the divine example of the covenant marriage that God, the metaphorical husband, offers to each human husband living under God’s covenant’.

To see marriage as a covenant is to acknowledge the graveness of divorce and to share God’s own fundamental disapproval of it (Malachi 2:16). It is to expose ‘no-fault divorce’ for what it truly is: the crass deprecation and even mockery of the institution that God himself had put in place for human happiness and for society’s flourishing.



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.

Islamophobia Phobia

March 2017 Pulse

After a closed-door meeting with 60 Madrasah students in March this year, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam spoke to the press about the dangers that Islamophobia poses to the social fabric of Singapore.

The origin of the term “Islamophobia” is somewhat obscure. However, it is clear that by the late 1990s, the term had already entered into mainstream political and social discourse.

In 1997, the U.K.-based Runnymede Trust issued a report entitled ‘Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All’, in which Islamophobia is defined as “unfounded hostility towards Muslims, and therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims”. In its 2001 Durban conference, the United Nations describes Islamophobia as a form of prejudice.

Islamophobia, Minister Shanmugam argues, “will be destructive to the soul and spirit of Singapore that we have created – a multi-racial and multi-religious community where we embrace all races and live as one community”.

The Minister is, of course, right.

If Islamophobia refers to irrational and closed-minded prejudice and discrimination against all Muslims, it should be resolutely condemned without qualification. No community should bear the blame for the atrocities perpetrated by a few of its members in the name of the religion that the community espouses.

However, in condemning Islamophobia, one must also take with equal seriousness the obverse problem, which some have described as “Islamophobia phobia” – the fear of being accused of being Islamophobic.

Islamophobia phobia must be taken seriously because of its potential to impose an irrational self-censorship that impedes the objective criticisms and genuine debates necessary for any society to flourish. This may in turn induce a dangerous societal paralysis that would put both the security of our societies and the safety of their members in jeopardy.

Examples of such paralysis and its tragic consequences are not hard to find.

In 2009, Major Nidal Hasan went on a shooting rampage that killed 14 people at Fort Hood. Although a number of his fellow officers and superior officers were aware of Hasan’s jihadist sympathies, they kept quiet about it for fear of being accused of bigotry.

Perhaps the most appalling example of the paralysis caused by Islamophobia is the shocking spate of sexual exploitation of children in Rotterham.

Between 1997 and 2013, Pakistani gangs have reportedly subjected at least 1,400 children in the South Yorkshire town to unconscionable sexual abuse. The official inquiry report revealed that although the police, city authorities and child protection agencies knew what was happening, they chose to turn a blind eye because they were afraid of being accused of “racism” and “Islamophobia”.

It is pertinent to note that Islamophobia is itself a somewhat murky notion that is often sloppily used by politicians, activists and the media. Important distinctions are often ignored, especially when the term is used rhetorically or as a slogan.

However, understanding the distinctions between criticism and fear, and between criticism and contempt or hatred of Muslims is absolutely critical if we are to have an objective assessment of the issue. Once these distinctions are not in view, anyone who criticises the Muslim community will very quickly be condemned as a fear-mongering Islamophobe.

In his statement to the press, Minister Shanmugam rightly pointed out that Islamophobia plays “right into the hands of the terrorists”. This is because such attitudes can cause Muslims to feel that they are being marginalised and discriminated against, and this would make them more vulnerable to radicalisation.

It should, however, be pointed out that the notion of Islamophobia (in distinction to the reality it describes) can also be used by extreme Islamists to further their cause. They can use it to silence and even criminalise all criticisms (however legitimate the criticisms may be), and to portray Muslims as victims.

It is therefore quite illuminating to compare how gay activists in the West have been using “homophobia” with how Muslim activists are using “Islamophobia” to serve their respective agendas.

As William Fitzgerald puts it, “just as gay activists and their enablers in the media and the courts have managed to criminalise criticism of homosexuality in many places in the West, Muslim activists have succeeded in criminalising criticism of Islam in the same places”.

The idea of Islamophobia – employed by certain people in certain ways – is therefore potentially as dangerous as the thing itself!



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.

Ghost in the Machine

March 2017 Pulse

One of the most puzzling questions that continue to plague philosophers of mind is the relationship between mind and body. In a philosophical ethos where physicalist accounts of reality seem to be the new orthodoxy, phenomena such as consciousness continue to fascinate and baffle our best minds.

‘How can there be such a thing as consciousness in a physical world, a world consisting ultimately of nothing but bits of matter distributed over space-time behaving in according to physical law?’, inquires the philosopher of mind, Jaegwon Kim, in his book entitled, Physicalism or Something Near Enough (2005).

Colin McGinn wrestles with the same problem when he asks: ‘How could the aggregation of millions of individually insentient neurons generate subjective awareness? We know that brains are de facto causal basis of consciousness, but we have, it seems, no understanding whatever of how this can be so’.

Modern discussions on the relationship between mind and body can be said to be mostly reactions and responses to Cartesian dualism.

The 17th century philosopher, Rene Descartes, drove a wedge between the mind and the body when he argued that ‘we clearly perceive the mind, that is, a thinking substance, apart from the body, that is, an extended substance’. By making the fundamental distinction between the res cogitans and the res extensa, Descartes is proposing a substance dualism, separating mind and body.

This has prompted the British philosopher, Gilbert Ryle, to describe Descartes’ dualism memorably as the ‘ghost in the machine’ in his book, The Concept of Mind (1949).

Cartesian dualism is of course not new. It may be seen as a modern version of the more ancient Platonic dualism that conceives of the eternal soul as a distinct substance from the temporal physical body.

Attempts to surmount or eradicate such dualisms have led, as mentioned above, to privileging the physicalist view where the mind is reduced to the brain and where mental states are simply attributed to neurons and synapses.

Dissatisfied with the solution suggested by physicalism, thinkers like Nancy Murphy have proposed another way of understanding the mind-body relationship that is rather clumsily described as ‘non-reductive physicalism’.

According to this theory, while mental properties are closely related to and in some sense dependent on physical properties, they should not be confused with them. Mental properties must be seen to supervene physical ones just as the aesthetic qualities of a painting (its beauty and elegance) can be said to supervene the physical ones (paint and canvas).

For reasons that I cannot discuss within the short compass of this article, both types of physicalism have been found wanting by some philosophers and theologians.

There is, however, another way of understanding the relationship between mind and body that avoids dualism on the one hand and physicalism on the other. Technically termed as hylomorphism (Greek: hule = matter and morphe = form), this theory can be traced to another ancient Greek philosopher: Aristotle.

Aristotle begins on the premise that every physical object is a compound of form and matter. The form, he goes on to argue, is the actualising principle that directs and energises matter, enabling it to achieve its true potential.

The soul therefore, as the principle of life, defines the existence and life of a being. (Aristotle believes that all living beings, including plants, have souls appropriate to their kind). While the physical body of the animal may change, the soul (or form) remains the same. The soul retains the integrity of the living being and enables the exercise of its faculties.

As University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum explains: ‘The lion may change its shape, get thin or fat, without ceasing to be the same lion; its form is not its shape but its soul, the set of vital capacities, the functional organisation, in virtue of which it lives and acts’.

Applying this to human beings, Aristotle postulates that the soul is the form of the body. That is, the soul is the principle of life that makes the human being the kind of creature it is – it gives it integrity. For Aristotle, the soul refers to all living processes, including mental capacities.

In light of the modern mind-body debate, hylomorphism can be said to be a salutary alternative to dualism and physicalism.

In contrast to the dualistic view (Platonic or Cartesian), which sees the soul (mind) and body as two distinct substances, hylomorphism establishes the closest possible relationship between the two.

The great medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, who applies hylomorphic metaphysics to his anthropology states that ‘the body and the soul and not two actually existing substances; rather, the two of them together constitute one actually existing substance’. Thus, neither the soul by itself nor the body by itself have ‘the complete nature of its species’, according to Aquinas.

While hylomorphists agree with the physicalists (of both reductive or non-reductive varieties) that the physical aspects of the human are important, they reject the latter’s theory of supervenience, which postulates that higher mental properties are dependent on and even determined by lower physical ones.

Supervenience has led Christian philosophers like Nancy Murphy to see the traditional concept of the soul as no longer meaningful.

Hylomorphism is therefore able to present a more holistic conception of the mind-body relationship.

It prevents the mind and the body from drifting apart. It prevents the instrumentalization of the body (in the Cartesian sense of the body as merely the extension of the mind).

Significantly, hylomorphism provides a more profound account of the nature of human actions. Human actions are never seen as having either mental or physical causalities but as the agency of the whole person.



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.