Tag Archives: tolerance

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.

Interrogating Tolerance

September 2016 Pulse

In his study on the history of toleration, Alan Levine observes that ‘Toleration is one of the most attractive and widespread ideas of our day. It is a cornerstone of liberalism, a key protection for both individual citizens and minority groups, and in general is the predominant ethos of all moral civilizations in the modern world’.

There is little reason to question the veracity of Levine’s observation. But the ubiquity of the concept of tolerance in our time and the proliferation of its use in a variety of contexts has, ironically, obfuscated its meaning and resulted in serious confusions that may be detrimental to human sociality.

Academics and politicians who employ the language and rhetoric of tolerance to address different issues have sometimes presented tolerance as a moral virtue. This tendency is also found in the writings of some theologians and ethicists.

However, it is important to recognise the fact that toleration or tolerance has to do with politics, not so much with morality or religion. Both the genesis of this idea and its immediate and subsequent applications bear this out quite clearly.

The idea of toleration that arose in seventeenth century Europe – and famously expounded by John Locke in Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) – was purposed to solve to the problem of religious diversity and conflict that had become acute at the time. Toleration made possible the peaceful co-existence of the different religious groups within society.

Seen in this light, toleration has much to do with politics and very little to do with ethics and even less to do with religion. As Jonathan Sacks has pointed out, toleration is the answer to the question: How shall people with different faith convictions live together? Toleration’s concern is not truth but political order and civic peace.

Toleration, then, is about managing difference and the threat that it poses. Or, as Wendy Brown puts it toleration is a strategy for ‘regulating aversion’. It is the ‘mode of incorporating and regulating the presence of the threatening Other within’. But if Brown is right, if toleration is in essence just a way of negotiating the mean between rejection and assimilation, toleration is a political necessity rather than a virtue.

The seldom-explored relationship between tolerance and power is vital to our understanding of the true nature of tolerance. To tolerate is in some sense always to stand in the position of power and judgement over the tolerated. Tolerance points to the normative standing of the tolerant and the liminal standing of the tolerated.

As Wendy Brown explains: ‘It reconfirms, without reference to the orders of power that enable it, the higher civilizational standing of those who tolerate what they do not condone or share – their cosmopolitanism, forbearance, expansiveness, catholicity, remoteness from fundamentalism’.

The withholding of tolerance is similarly an expression of power. It suggests that that which cannot be tolerated is barbaric, but without in any way implicating the cultural and societal norms of the party that makes this judgement.

Tolerance has, at best, a tenuous relationship with morality. To be sure, weaved into the idea of tolerance is a basic moral impulse – a sense of right and wrong. Thus, tolerance must be distinguished from preference or taste because it requires that a moral judgement be made on the thing tolerated.

Put differently, I tolerate an action or a practice not because I think that it is morally neutral. Rather, I am certain that it is morally wrong, but I am willing to allow it. Tolerance therefore presupposes disagreement on something that is of moral significance.

But this leads to an interesting question: if an action or practice is morally reprehensible to me (e.g., abortion or euthanasia), why should I tolerate it?

It is here that the relationship between tolerance and morality becomes murky and dubious. Tolerance, which makes sense only when moral convictions are taken seriously, seems to insist that these very convictions must either be given up or relativised.

As Bernard Williams has perceptively pointed out, such is the paradox of tolerance: the very thing that makes tolerance necessary has also made it impossible.

But tolerance’s relationship with morality is also tenuous in another sense, especially in our postmodern climate where the truth upon which morality depends has become illusive. It is in such a cultural ethos that the rhetoric of tolerance can be truly at home.

As S. D. Gaede has wryly put it in his book, When Tolerance is No Virtue: ‘Tolerance is a value that conforms nicely to the world we live in. Having pretty much decided that truth is not attainable, we have made tolerance of a plurality of truths a virtue. Having no truths worth defending, we have made nondefensiveness a mark of distinction’.

This attempt to interrogate tolerance, to question its innocence, so to speak, does not suggest that we should reject tolerance or ignore its usefulness. Tolerance must of course be preferred to incivility and violence.

Such analyses however change the status of tolerance – from a transcendental virtue to a strategy of governance, a way of negotiating differences in order to achieve social peace and cohesion.

This is not an idle exercise. For only when the nature of tolerance and the role that it plays in our pluralistic society is properly understood can its abuses be prevented.


Roland Chia (suit)_LargeDr 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.

 

Responding to Changing Family Realities

September 2015 Feature Article

Conservative Christians perceive that there are threats to the institution of the family.

Most apparent are attempts internationally to redefine marriage to include same-sex unions. Cohabitation has become so common in some societies that they now account for nearly the same number as those who enter into marriage.

Medical technology has also made it possible to redefine parenthood. Single women now have the choice to have children without the need to know their child’s father through the use of donor sperms and artificial insemination. Marriages are more likely to end in divorce, and remarriages are not certain to hold for life.

In the Singaporean context, there is little likelihood that same-sex unions and single parenthood by choice will become mainstream. Surveys show that Singaporeans of all religious persuasions and those who are not religiously affiliated, do not approve of either same-sex unions or out of wedlock pregnancies. The government is conservative and is resistant to make changes related to family norms which may not be well accepted.

While the population, especially younger people are more open to cohabitation, housing is a scarce resource in Singapore and thus practicality will deter many from that option.

The concern of higher divorce rates is however disconcerting.

More recent cohorts who marry are dissolving their unions at a much faster rate. Based on figures released by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, among those who married in 2003, 16.1 per cent of them dissolved their marriage by the tenth year of marriage.

This is compared to the lower proportion of 8.7 per cent for the 1987 cohort. About 20 per cent of the 1998 cohort dissolved their marriage by the fifteenth year of marriage.

The forces that lead to such marriage instability cannot be attributable to mere changes in family values. Most couples are not frivolous about their marriage commitment. They believe that when they enter into marriage, it is meant for life.

However the stressors of modernity and accompanying aspirations can greatly affect what people believe is an acceptable relationship.  With both husband and wife busily engaged at work, the demands of raising children and caring for one’s own parents mean that strains in relationships are very likely.

Because people today want to have authenticity in their relationships, they are unlikely to stay married if the marriage is not fulfilling what it was intended to do. There seems to be greater tolerance for divorce than enduring in a loveless and contentious marriage.

Besides the increase in divorces, the overall profile of households in Singapore is changing. The nuclear family form consisting of a married heterosexual couple with children is declining as the dominant form of household here.

Instead, because of population ageing and norms of privacy, there are more households which comprise of single persons or married couples without children. Lower marriage and parenthood rates also mean that there will be more singles in the years to come and fewer younger family members to attend to the needs of those who are ageing.

With more divorced persons choosing to remarry, there will be more blended families where children can come from two marriages. In other cases, households will comprise a divorced parent who will have to singlehandedly care for his or her child. In general, these different household types have to contend with greater difficulties in accessing adequate care.

The Christian church has always thought highly about preserving and supporting families. In response to the challenges that modern life poses to families, many churches today involve themselves in the provision of a variety of services to assist families in need.

Christian faith does not make Christians unsusceptible to family trials but provides perspectives which allow for better coping. Diana Garland in her often used textbook, Family Ministry states that,  “Congregations nurture strong families by instilling values that promote strong family life, committing themselves to the challenges of loving unconditionally, celebrating joy together, making time together a priority, handling anger and conflicts in ways that strengthen rather than destroy relationships, practising repentance and forgiveness, and together serving the larger community and world.”

Besides the values imbued through the Christian tradition, churches provide practical guidance for family living through sermons and teaching and give a platform for different generations to coexist and interact. Many a church member can learn the struggles and blessings that are unique to different stages of the family life cycle just by interacting with others in the congregation.

What is it like to live as a family with an older parent co-residing in it? How do older spouses who have no children relate to each other? How can a divorced mother ensure that her children have a sense of normalcy despite their father leaving the marriage? It is easy to find suitable models within the church who thrive despite the struggles of family life.

If churches are to continue being relevant and offer strong support for families both in the Christian and broader community, they must also be attuned to the changes that are happening to the institution of family. They must accept that not all families are the same.

There is a common tendency among church-goers to advocate for how the family should be, both in form and function. Whether it is about gender roles, how married couples should relate to one another, optimum parenting styles or the role of grandparents, there are strongly held views which have the tendency of silencing other views and sometimes sidelining those whose families do not conform to expected norms.

The Scripture does prescribe what family should look like and how its members need to meet one another’s needs.

The Bible declares that marriage is between a male and female (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:4-5); sanctions sexual relationships and reproduction only in the confines of marriage (Hebrews 13:4) and stresses the obligations that parents and children as well as husbands and wives have to each other (Ephesians 6:1-4, Ephesians 5:22-33).

However the Bible does not shy away from depicting biblical characters and how far they conduct themselves from the biblical ideals of family. The fact that Jesus Christ is born in a family line full of complications is testament that God uses a variety of family types and conditions to achieve his redemptive purposes.

Churches then need to be places where people know that their family circumstances will not be unkindly judged. Concerns about being held under scrutiny, lead many members and leaders to be ashamed about sharing the realities of their family life where there might be much deep-seated conflict, violence, sexual misconduct and other characteristics deemed as “unbecoming of saints”.

Instead of shunning family arrangements which mainstream culture devalues, Christian theology provides a rich resource where family types can enjoy recognition. For instance, while singlehood may sometimes be deemed in popular culture as depicting one’s lack of ability to attain marriage, Scripture provides value to the role of singles.

Similarly the Bible extols older persons in the family and society, something which our youth-oriented society is just now beginning to grapple with. Where individuals do not have strong family ties to support them, the church provides a platform for them to find kin-like relationships.

The Christian tradition allows us to reconceptualise the concept of family beyond the structures of blood-ties and marriage. Individuals can have kin-like ties with its corresponding privileges and obligations as brothers and sisters because we share God as our Father.

Our response as Christians to the continued changes in the family institution should not be to merely decry or politicize such changes. While it is important to make a stand for biblical principles that undergird strong and stable family units, we should prioritise on what we are best at doing – offering Christian love to support and strengthen families.


Dr Mathew Mathews is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies at the National University of Singapore. He has researched on a number of family-related issues. He actively serves at Alive Community Church. These are his personal views.