Tag Archives: grace

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.

 

The Pneumatological Perspective to Inter-faith Dialogue

September 2016 Feature Article

The Second Vatican Council teaches that the Holy Spirit acts not only in the Church but also outside it, and above all, in other religions.

The Council while defending the unique saving work of Jesus Christ, recognizes the universal salvific will of God. This means that Jesus wants to save all of humanity and indeed Scripture says that the whole of creation longs for this redemption (Rom 8:22).

Although the Council spoke of the Spirit’s action outside the boundaries of the Church and in all things that are good and true, it was Pope John Paul II who went further by recognizing the activity of the Holy Spirit in non-Christian religions.

Pope John Paul II never suggested that salvation could be found in non-Christian religions. He merely pondered on questions like: How does God work in the lives of peoples of different religions? How does the saving activity of Jesus effectively extend to those who have not professed faith in Him?

In fact, it was Pope John Paul II who vigorously took up the direction of the Council in expanding on the theme of interfaith dialogue in his writings, in line with his firm belief that the Holy Spirit also guides non-believers and the activities of non-Christian religions.

The document, Presence and Action of the Holy Spirit in the World and in other Religions issued by the Vatican’s Commission for Interreligious Dialogue, invites Christians to reflect on the presence and action of the Spirit not just in the Church but in other religions, and in fact, the whole world. It says that all humanity live under the action of the Holy Spirit, which in “these last days has been given to all humankind” (Acts 2:17).

Scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit is like the wind. No one can control the Spirit or monopolize Him. The Holy Spirit like the wind blows wherever it pleases (Jn 3:8). In the Psalms, one is often told that the Spirit of the Lord fills the whole earth (Ps 139). Galatians 3: 1-5 and Acts of the Apostles 2:17-21 remind us that the Spirit has been given to all humankind.

These verses are not exhaustive of scriptural references to the Spirit’s action upon the entire world and on all of humanity.

Some theologians refer to this mode of the Holy Spirit’s presence in the whole of creation as the ordinary presence of God in creation. They argue that it would be meaningless to discuss the extraordinary presence of the Holy Spirit in believers without first accepting His ordinary presence in all creation.

This discussion is termed by theologians as the presence of the Holy Spirit in ‘its universality and its particularity’. It recognizes God’s presence and activity in the Church and beyond it. It recognizes all of history as salvation history since it is the same Spirit who is at work among all peoples and whose presence fills the whole earth.

Therefore, there is a need for a greater appreciation of the Holy Spirit’s activity and presence in the world.

The Holy Spirit can touch, empower and inspire anyone He chooses. It is clear by reason and revelation that the person who is open to life, truth, wisdom, goodness, holiness and desires such things in his or her heart, is indeed guided by the Holy Spirit, who is Life, Truth, Wisdom, Goodness and Holiness itself.

God is not just the God of the baptized. He is the Father of all and it is from Him that every family in heaven and on earth derives its name (Eph 3:14-15). In fact, Ephesians 4:6 continue to say, “There is one God and Father of all people, who is Lord of all, works through all and is in all.”

Pope John Paul II in a general audience on 16th Oct 1985 said, “The fatherhood [of God] does not regard only the chosen people. It reaches every person and surpasses the bonds existing with earthly parents.”

Theologians like Gavin D’Costa have concurred on this point by stressing the universal presence of the Spirit in all human culture. D’Costa sees God as the God of all who fills, sustains and saves the world with His life-giving Spirit. He writes, “The riches of the mystery of God disclosed by the Spirit are measured and discerned by their conformity to and illumination of Christ, who is the normative criterion.”

Clark H. Pinnock in an article entitled, Religious Pluralism: A Turn to the Holy Spirit, explains D’Costa by saying that “while the Spirit reaches beyond Jesus in extent, it does not go beyond Jesus in content.”

Jacques Dupuis says that Christians do not have a monopoly over all truth. Although he believes that the fullness of Revelation comes in the Person of Jesus Christ, in terms of quantity, it does not exhaust the divine mystery. Dupuis says although the fullness of revelation comes in Jesus, we still need to relate this to what the Holy Spirit is accomplishing in the world.

Wolfhart Pannenberg and Jurgen Moltmann both talk about a universal pneumatology. Both see the Spirit as necessary not just for redemption but for sustenance.

Moltmann in his book, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, writes, “In both Catholic and Protestant theology, there is a tendency to view the Holy Spirit solely as the Spirit of redemption.”

He continues, “Thus, the redemptive Spirit is cut off from bodily life and the life of nature. It makes people turn away from this world and hope for a better world beyond. They then seek and experience in the Spirit a power that is different from the divine energy of life which according to the Old Testament interpenetrates all the living.”

Moltmann sees the Holy Spirit meeting people not only in religious spheres but in secular events and even in the most mundane activities of life. Nothing is untouched by the finger of God, not even non-Christian religions. Theologians call this action of the Holy Spirit, ‘prevenient grace’.

Prevenient grace is a theological concept that has its origin in St. Augustine. For him, it is the divine grace that precedes any human actions. Prevenient grace is God drawing people to Himself prior to any human decision.

Thomas A. Langford in his book, Practical Divinity: Theology in the Wesleyan Tradition, discusses the position of John Wesley’s prevenient grace. In Wesley’s doctrine of prevenient grace, God offers every person the opportunity to be saved, although the ‘how’ is known only to God. Wesley recognizes that everyone is provided with prevenient grace to a larger or lesser extent. This is the activity of the Spirit upon the hearts of each human person.

It is this prevenient grace that produces what is good and positive even in non-Christian religions. Prevenient grace is the work of the Holy Spirit which he gives freely to those who are opened to his goodness, Christians and non-Christians alike.


Rev Fr James Yeo

Rev. Fr. James Yeo is currently the rector of the Catholic Theological Institute of Singapore.

 

The Dignity of Daily Work

Work occupies a significant part of the daily lives of many Singaporeans. According to a recent media report, increasing workplace connectivity and higher expectations are blurring the distinction between personal life and work. The report cites a 2011 Workplace Survey that reveals that 69 per cent of employees in Singapore tune in to work on weekends, when they are out office, and even while on holiday. Technological advancements have led to hyper-connectivity just as keener competition has resulted in higher expectations and unreasonable demands on the part of employers. Thus, 77 per cent employers expect their staff to be available and contactable during emergencies, 45 per cent bring their work along when they go on holiday, and 29 per cent of employees believe that they should be available at all times because they are using a company mobile phone. The survey concluded that employees here have a high level of ‘dedication’, which may be just a polite euphemism for ‘workaholism’.

Daily work matters to the Christian faith. According to the Bible, work is not the baneful consequence of sin but the original intention of God for human beings created in his image. In Genesis, after God had created the first humans he commanded them to be fruitful, to subdue the earth and to rule over it (Genesis 1:28). God placed the first human couple in the garden and immediately put them to work! In their work Adam and Eve were to serve as images of their Creator, a reflection of the God who is incessantly at work. Unlike the gods of Greek and Roman mythologies who absolve themselves from work, preferring to dine on nectar and ambrosia in a heaven of rest and contemplation, the God of the Bible is a consummate worker. After bringing the world into being, God continues to work, sustaining, governing and providing for his creation. Human work is therefore an expression of the divine will, and in carrying out their daily labours to the best of their abilities, human beings not only enter into a unique partnership with their Creator but also glorify him.

It was the primordial fall that turned human work from a blessing into a curse. To be sure, the fall has not altered the divine intention or the status of human work. But this activity, which is originally meant to be a blessing, has turned into a toilsome and burdensome experience. As Genesis 3 indicates, the fall introduces ‘labour pains’ to both the man and the woman – man in manipulating the accursed earth, now filled with ‘thorns and thistles’, and woman in the pains of childbirth. Tainted and corrupted by sin, human work is now shot through with profound contradictions and paradoxes. Work in many ways liberates us and provides us with the many conveniences that we take for granted, from cooking stoves to airplanes. But work also enslaves us, draining our mental and physical powers by its relentlessness. Work both enriches and impoverishes the worker. By working hard, the worker earns more and so becomes richer. But his wealth is often purchased at the price of the monotony and drudgery of work, which often alienates the worker.

Human sin has also introduced aberrations to the way in which we look at daily work. It was Karl Marx more than anyone else who hailed the importance of work for human self-actualisation. According to Marx, it is through work that human beings realise themselves and transform the world. The details of Marx’s philosophy of work and human society are obviously beyond the scope of this brief article. Suffice to say that the Marxist approach presents a serious distortion because it reduces persons to their work, just as it anoints human labour with the spurious power to save. In many respects capitalist economies do not fair much better. In such economies, work has very little to do with self-expression or the common good, being often reduced merely to a means of acquisition. Furthermore, in the capitalist system, someone’s work is almost always owned by and done for the profit of another. Work is deemed valuable only if it is able to generate income. As some theologians have pointed out, in the capitalist economy, ‘work becomes slavery under a new name’. Both Marxist and capitalist approaches to work demean the worker, but in different ways.

The Christian theology of work is radically different from the way in which secular ideologies and attitudes have portrayed it. From the biblical perspective, daily work is a calling, a vocation through which we serve God and glorify him (Ephesians 6:5-8). For the Christian then, both the janitor and the geneticist serve God and neighbour through the work they do. It was the Reformers who helped us to understand this when they argued that pastors, monks, nuns, and popes are no holier than famers, shopkeepers, dairymaids or latrine diggers because they are all serving God through the work that he has called them to do. According to the Christian perspective, therefore, human work can never be secularised. In similar vein, the work that we do is never solely or even primarily for our benefit – the attainment of wealth, power or prestige – but always for the common good. This means that work is always a form of ministry to God and to society. Needless to say, according to this understanding, any human enterprise that does not glorify God and edify human society – from loansharking to human trafficking – must necessarily be excluded as legitimate forms of work.

For the Christian, then, daily work is inextricably bound to worship. Here, it is perhaps important to point out that the Sunday worship should not be seen as a pause at the end of the week. Rather, for Christians worship on Sunday begins the workweek by pervading it with the good news of God’s love and salvation. Worship at the beginning of the week not only hallows the rest of the week, but also significantly transfigures our understanding of daily work. It enables us, firstly, to understand our proper relationship to work. It shows us that although work is important, the purpose human life must not be understood as work without end, but to exist in creative relationship with each other and with God. And secondly, worship helps us to see that our daily work is always a graced activity, infused by divine grace and animated by the Holy Spirit. Finally, Christian worship helps us to understand our work in relation to the work of God. As theologian David Jenson has brilliantly put it, ‘The work that we do is made possible through the work that does not belong to us alone’.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands. This article was published in

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands. This article was published in Word@Work, June 2012.

Discipleship of the Mind

Many Christians are familiar with the Great Commandment recorded in Luke 10:27: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with your entire mind. Love your neighbour as yourself’. This Commandment urges believers to love God with their whole being. Believers are commanded to love God not only with their hearts and souls; they must do so also with their minds. As James Sire has pointed out in his provocative book, Habits of the Mind, this means that ‘thinking is integral to our call to be what God wants us to be’. As Christians we are called to think, and to do so as well as we can with our God-given intelligence. When we apply our intellect in this way, we express our love for God and we glorify him.

Some Christians, however, fail to see this. They have adopted an anti-intellectualism, which, at first blush, may even sound pious. After all, was it not the Apostle Paul who wrote, ‘For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God … For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength’ (1 Cor 1:18, 25)? Such piety, however, is fallacious. The message of the cross is folly to those who are perishing because they approach it with distorted perspectives and from erroneous vantage points. Thus, when Paul speaks of the gospel as ‘folly’, he is being ironic. As Os Guinness has put it so eloquently, ‘Only in relation to a genuine folly foolish enough to pretend it is wise does true wisdom come to be seen and treated as folly’. The gospel, for Paul, is not folly but true wisdom!

Anti-intellectualism is the spiritual corrosion that will cripple the Church and compromise her witness in society. Writing primarily about the subtle but alarming changes in American evangelicalism that took place from the 1970s, theologian David Wells observes the disturbing shifts in emphasis from doctrine to life and from theology to spirituality. Wells laments that evangelical Christians in America have generally ‘lost interest … in what the doctrines of creation, common grace, and providence once meant for Christian believers’. He adds, somewhat despairingly, that ‘it is enough for them simply to know that Christ somehow died for people’. It would be a mistake to think that this observation has little to do with Christians in Singapore. A simple survey of the titles on display at some of our Christian bookshops would give a rough but not inaccurate indication of the theological literacy of Christians here. The displacement of theology in the life of the Church brought about by anti-intellectualism will severely weaken the Church.

Anti-intellectualism will also severely compromise Christian witness in society. The Church is commissioned to proclaim the Gospel to the world and part of this has to do with the Church’s prophetic engagement with society. Christians believe that the Gospel is public truth and as such it is not just relevant to a select group of people. The Christian faith therefore refuses to be privatized and shut off from the public square. A public Gospel therefore requires a public theology. Anti-intellectualism in the Church, however, can prevent Christians from engaging faithfully and meaningfully in public discourse. In fact, anti-intellectualism will severely cripple the Church’s confidence in participating in such engagements. And this will in turn seriously compromise the witness and influence of Christians in the public square.

On the basis of the first of Jesus’ commandments, we must say, quite simply and directly that anti-intellectualism is a sin. In refusing to use the minds that God has given to us as part of our praise to him, we have disobeyed this commandment. We have simply failed to love God fully, with our whole being. Beyond all excuses, evasions and rationalizations, Christians must recognize anti-intellectualism for what it truly is. Only then will Christians be able to address the problem. But even here, an important qualification must be made. In rejecting anti-intellectualism our goal is not academic or intellectual respectability, but faithfulness to the commands of Jesus. The discipleship of the mind is not about intellectualism (the sin on the other extreme end of the spectrum!) or intellectual snobbery. It is about loving God with our minds by allowing God’s Word to govern our thinking.

The command to love God with our minds, then, presents a two-fold challenge for Christians. In the first place, it emphasizes the importance of the intellect. Put differently and quite simply, the command challenges Christians to think. But more importantly, this command challenges Christians to think Christianly, that is to think theologically, to allow Scripture and the tradition of the Church to inform and shape their thinking. This is what the discipleship of the mind is all about! It is about being so immersed in the worship, life and doctrines of the Church that our perspectives, our worldviews and our values are entirely molded by the Gospel. It is about not conforming to the ‘pattern of this world’ but being transformed through the renewal of the mind (Rom 12:2). It is about developing a habit of mind that sees the world through the lens of the Gospel.

To think Christianly therefore requires the Christian to be grounded in Scripture and in the doctrines of the church. But thinking Christianly does not only mean thinking about Christian topics. It has to do with allowing the Word of God to govern our thoughts on every possible aspect of life – education, career, raising children, politics, medicine, science, the arts, entertainment, leisure. Thinking Christianly therefore engages the whole person in the whole of life. As such, it is more than just an intellectual activity.

In addition, to think Christianly is to conduct our lives in obedience to God. The Christian doctor who knows that the Bible teaches the sanctity of human life would refuse to perform an abortion or euthanize his patient. The Christian politician who understands the biblical demand for justice would oppose policies that would marginalize certain sectors of society. There is a profound relationship between thought and life, thinking and doing, worldview and ethics. The challenge for Christians to think Christianly is therefore always a challenge to radical discipleship. This is because thinking Christianly is always premised on the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom.


Dr Roland Chia


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

The Christian Virtue of Civility

February 2015 Feature Article

As the General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement, I contribute op-ed articles to the Straits Times on current issues pertaining to kindness and graciousness.  Two of them provoked responses and reactions. [i]  Though most were positive responses, there were some negative reactions including a handful of very angry and rude comments, punctuated with insults, name-calling, and excoriation so typical of uncivility that permeates some quarters of our social media.  Shielded by the cloak of anonymity, the shrill voices, complete with expletives, often reaching fever pitch and polluting the cyberspshere.  These netizens are no doubt passionate and see it as their warrior duty to straighten me out without any consideration as to how to disagree without being disagreeable.

Civility is about how we go about registering our disagreements, without being disagreeable. It is about finding positive ways to converse and interact with each other in the public space.   It comprises “the exercise of patience, integrity, humility, and mutual respect in civil conversation, even (and especially) with those with whom we disagree.” [ii] Civility does not require that we compromise or abandon our particular convictions and values. It merely requires us to negotiate our disagreements with our fellow citizens in wholesome ways because we respect them as citizens and human beings, created in the image of God.

It is very tempting, I must confess, to respond in kind when you feel unjustly excoriated.  But then as a Christian, I must take seriously the admonition of Peter who writes to the early Christians, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15). Though the context is evangelistic-apologetical, civility should apply to interactions in all contexts.  Gentleness in response to anger is advocated in Proverbs 15:1, “A gentle answer turns away wrath.” It is driven by the respect we should have for people who may disagree with us.

Paul aligns with Peter in his letter to the Colossians, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Col. 4:6). To be gracious implies a deportment of pleasantness, attractiveness, winsomeness and charm. Graciousness should characterise our response to others precisely because of the grace or undeserved favour we have received from the Lord.

The function of salt includes purification and preservation.  It is also a seasoning agent.  Hence, our speech should be identified by the purity and wholesomeness of our language. At the same time it should not be insipid. On the contrary, it should be sprinkled with the salt of wit giving zest and liveliness to the conversation. C.F.D. Moule comments that we are “not to confuse loyal godliness with a dull, graceless insipidity.” [iii]

The example of civility is found in the Lord’s conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4).  The unnamed woman lived on the margin of Jewish society, and Jesus interacted with her respectfully and gently.  While speaking the truth, He did so with love, in a kind, compassionate, and redemptive manner. In His encounter with the woman at the well, Jesus shows us the practical application of “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15).

Our political consciousness has been recently awakened even as the economy is becoming more challenging.  Public trust is waning as individuals feel increasing vulnerable in the wake of income-gap widening and jobs perceived to be taken by outsiders.  Social cohesion wears thin in the face of incipient xenophobia.  Stories of discontent, rage and agitation fill our newsprint, airwaves, coffee shops and especially the social media. Where are the voices of balance and moderation in these challenging times?

I am convinced that the moderates are in the majority, but for whatever reason, we remain the silent majority.  Unless we are prepared to take the lead and speak out with civility as taught by the Lord, the minority will appear to be in charge of the conversation.  The hallmark of a great civilization is when we value civility as a virtue that binds peace-loving people of different persuasions together in community. The fabric of our society is in danger of tearing when it is allowed to be stretched thin by extreme incivility of a minority.

Civility in our collective conversation is not just a matter of discourse.  It is a positive approach to social engagement. By ignoring the loud shrill voices of a minority in the social media, and allowing them to have a field day, we are abdicating our responsibility to act responsibly.  We cannot allow ourselves to be isolated and insulated by not engaging.  It is through engaging with civility that we can hope to preserve and promote civility in our national ethos.

Perhaps the life and work of Roger Williams (1603-1683), a Puritan who founded Rhode Island, could inspire us.  He posited civility as the “rules of the game” for living in a pluralistic society and considered it essential to ensure public peace, maintain social order, and create the conditions for citizens to cooperate on matters of public interest and common good. He recognized that members of a pluralistic society are unlikely to completely agree on a substantive vision for what is right and good for society, but he assumed that all would agree that basic norms of tolerance, respect, common courtesy, patience, and honesty were necessary principles for debating and discharging our responsibilities for the common good.[iv]

We need the spirit of Roger Williams today.  We need Christians who believe in civility to rise up and engage the uncivil for we have the moral responsibility “for such a time as this” (Esth 4:14).


Dr William Wan (2)
Dr William Wan is the General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement.  He is also a winner of the Active Ager Award (Council of the Third Age) 2011. Prior to taking on this role as General Secretary, he was practising law and managing a psychometric company. He has always been active in community-based work and believes that kindness breeds kindness.

 


Notes:

[i] “Where has all our empathy gone?” (empathy: _http://www.straitstimes.com/breaking-news/singapore/story/where-has-all-our-empathy-gone-20140124)

“Even Jover Chew deserves due process law.” (jover chew:_http://www.straitstimes.com/news/opinion/more-opinion-stories/story/even-jover-chew-deserves-due-process-law-20141122)

[ii] James Calvin Davis, In Defense of Civility: How Religion Can Unite America on Seven Moral Issues That Divide Us (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 159.

[iii] C.F.D Moule, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Colossians and to Philemon. (Cambridge University Press, 1957), 135.

[iv] For more on Roger Williams’s conception of civility, see James Calvin Davis, The Moral Theology of Roger Williams: Christian Conviction and Public Ethics (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), chapter 5.

[v] If you are interested in doing something about engaging the uncivil, please email me.