Monthly Archives: March 2016

The Fictionalised Self

March 2016 Pulse

Since its inception about 40 years ago, the Internet has revolutionised our lives in innumerable ways. It has made possible access to a huge amount of information on almost everything under the sun, from the latest news about a celebrity to instructions on how to make a bomb. The Internet has also enabled unprecedented connectivity, bringing together people separated by vast distances, with just a push of a button or a click of the mouse.

When wedded to the smartphone, the Internet has made information-gathering, chatting and texting the habits of billions of people in the world today.

But the Internet revolution has also brought about irreversible changes to the way we relate to one another. The instantaneous communication it has made possible has also introduced profound and disturbing distortions to human sociality. Some worry that these subtle transmutations would in the long run be harmful to society.

Round-the-clock connectivity has brought about what some writers have called “deboundarying”, where limits are no longer respected and are repeatedly transgressed.

Deboundarying has exploited two unsavoury aspects of our (fallen) social nature: voyeurism and exhibitionism. We love watching others, and we love being watched. This in part explains the success of talk shows like The Oprah Winfrey Show where guests unselfconsciously bare their souls in front of the cameras.

Facebook is arguably one of the most effective vehicles of deboundarying. By posting personal details, photos, relationships, likes and dislikes for public access, users have made the personal and the private public. As one writer puts it, “Now, one is exposed to the world, including friends of friends, and their friends.”

The overexposure that deboundarying encourages has often led to spinning or masking. To spin is to fabricate. It is to airbrush our flaws, tell ‘tall tales’ and lie. The spin is therefore a constructed identity, a fictionalised self that masquerades as the real self.

Spinning may sometimes be a form of hiding, a concealment of one’s inadequacies and vulnerabilities. But spinning can also be a form of fantasising, of transforming ourselves into the ‘selves’ we would like to be – what Freud calls wish-fulfilment. The upshot of this is that the real and the fabricated are blurred into each other. There is no True Self, just an endless series of interchangeable masks.

Some Internet utopians say that this ability to assume multiple identities is the ultimate manifestation of freedom. They decry the myth of the fixed identity. They celebrate the emergence of the ‘Promethean Self ’ that the Internet has facilitated and the unlimited self-reinvention it has made possible.

In her fascinating book, Life on the Screen, Sherry Tuckle points out that interaction on the computer takes place in “boxed-off areas on the screen, commonly called windows”. This has led to the fractionalisation of the self, where one’s true identity can only be perceived when the different bits of one’s distributed presence are assembled.

The fractionalised self and the fictionalised self are not unrelated phenomena. In fact they can be said to be two sides of the same coin.

This brings us to that trite but still elusive concept: community. To be sure, smartphone and Internet users often speak of forming “communities”. To this end, Facebook has even transformed the noun “friend” into a verb: to friend.

But deboundarying has subverted traditional ways in which communities are formed and sustained, by deconstructing social boundaries. A good example is “disinhibition”, a term coined by Elizabeth Reid which denotes the obscuring of “boundaries that would generally separate acceptable and unacceptable behaviour”.

It must be pointed out that although the Internet can be said to be responsible for the phenomenon I have been describing, it should not be made to shoulder all the blame. As the Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz notes: “The pornofication of culture and the political-economic push for increased transparency of private life has been on the rise for decades, and the Internet has only institutionalised these trends.”

It is equally important to stress that not everyone who uses the Internet is guilty of these aberrations. But the reality and corrupting influence of the darker side of cyberspace culture simply cannot be ignored.

This new sociality is worrying because it undermines what the Christian tradition has understood to be indispensable in any human relationship: truthfulness, authenticity, integrity and responsibility. Without the sense of self-obligation to be dependable so trust can be built, healthy human relationships cannot be maintained and society itself will atrophy.

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 originally published in the October 2015 issue of The Methodist Message.


The Prophet and the Strategist

March 2016 Feature Article

There is one thing common between the prophet and the strategist. They both think about the future. There are deep differences though. A prophet, inspired by the Holy Spirit, is able to look down the centuries like Isaiah did when he prophesied about the coming of the Messiah, as well as being able to see round the immediate corner, like so many of the Old Testament prophets who prophesied about the then coming Babylonian  captivity.

The inspiration of the Holy Spirit is key. A secular strategist living in Jeremiah’s days when Israel was confronted by two rising powers, the Babylonians and the Egyptians, would only see the aggressiveness of the Babylonian empire and conclude the logical way is to seek allegiance with Egypt. A true prophet like Jeremiah, on the other hand, inspired by the Holy Spirit, saw not only the aggressiveness of the Babylonian empire but also the spiritual condition of Israel, and concluded that it would be futile to seek refuge in Egypt. Rather, Israel should repent or yield to the judgement to come at the hands of the Babylonians.

The point to note is this: whereas the secular strategist looks only at the geo-political situation around him, the prayerful Christian today must look at both the geo-political situation as well as the condition of the present day Church. I have used the imperative “must” because we live in a fast changing Asia with a relatively young Church, and all God-fearing Christian leaders must ponder carefully over this issue: how is Asia evolving, what is the present condition of the Church, and what are the warnings and re-direction needed for the present day Church to meet the future. At stake would be the ability of the Church to take on the vast opportunities that may open up for the Gospel in Asia, or suffer the fate of a sleeping Church fossilized by changes it did not bother to foresee, or worst a wayward Church on its way to becoming an episode of history.

The seemingly pious may object that Christ is in charge of the church and any attempts to prepare for the future is an act of denial of His Lordship, but misplaced piety has strewn the  western world with artefacts of abandoned churches that are a marvel for the modern tourist. The misplaced piety of the Jews in Jeremiah’s days hid their spiritual bankruptcy behind their thrice repeated pious statement “The Temple of the Lord” in answer to Jeremiah’s inspired prophecy.

The changes facing Asia today are unprecedented, not only in its scale but also in its scope, affecting every aspect of life. On the geo-political stage, the rapid rise of China would inevitably cause a displacement of American dominance of such a scale that the potential of conflict will ever be present. On the economic stage, globalization will change the fabric of Asian society, challenging traditional norms of conduct and lifestyles. On the religious stage, the rise of ISIS, not as a terrorist organization, but a religious-political ideology rooted in the history of Islam will challenge the multi-religious bedrock of security in Asian countries. On the technology stage, the advent of artificial intelligence in the current infocomm revolution will transform the primordial basis of human relationships: the way we communicate. Each of these change factors would be the subject of a lengthy discourse for which we are not at liberty in this short article to attempt.

Faced with these changes, the concerned prayerful Christian must make an assessment of the current condition of the Church. He must consider whether the present Church in Singapore, which is rooted in western culture, tradition and thought-life, is positioned to face the changes that will come about with a China-dominated Asia, a rise in religious extremism, a society that is prone to embracing alternative lifestyles brought about by globalization, and a fundamental communication revolution, to name a few.

Is the Church strong enough to encounter these future challenges without tearing away at its biblical roots? To be more precise, are the present roots already in decay due to the pressures of modernisation in Singapore? Would these challenges put us at risk that our Revelational candle stick may be removed unless we take remedial action now?

Much prayer and thought need to be given to these questions, and the thoughtful Christian need to pray for wisdom like never before!

Apart from the above, two other issues have become of immediate concern for the current Church.

The first is its organisational structure. Rigid institutions which are good in times of stability are often unable to adapt to rapid global changes. On the other hand, a completely fluid movement would lack the historic ballast needed to face the turbulence these changes will bring. We need to seriously and urgently recalibrate the balance between the Church as an institution and the Church as a movement to meet a future of rapid changes. Today many established Churches are too rigidly institutionalized, and most independent churches are mere movements with too much fluidity. Both are at risk, the one of becoming fossilized and the other of total disintegration. Of special note is the Methodist Church. It began as a movement, and transformed itself into a highly institutionalized Church.

The second issue of immediate concern is the lack of theological leadership in the Asian church. I am not referring to theological education for which we now have a proliferation of such seminaries in Singapore, with every shade of emphasis and character. But there is an absence of theological leadership that would present an Asian-oriented gospel to Asia. In such an absence, we imbibe and propagate a Western-oriented gospel which was the product of the Age of Enlightenment in Europe but does not sit well with our Asian culture. We need to support our Trinity Theological College and enable her to add theological leadership to her current emphasis on theological education.

The road ahead for the Church in Singapore is long and exciting, and may the Lord grant us wisdom and the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we face a challenging future.

Mr Tan Gee Paw was appointed Chairman of the PUB, Singapore’s national water agency on 1 April 2001.  Mr Tan is a member of a number of government committees.  He is the Chairman of International Advisory Panel, Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.  He is also Chairman of Nominating Committee, Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize, Singapore International Water Week.  He is the Adjunct Professor, Dean’s Office, Faculty of Engineering, National University of Singapore. 
He is currently a member of Changi Airport Group’s ECAD and a Director of Surbana Jurong Private Limited, as well as Singapore Millennium Foundation.

The God Particle?

March 2016 Pulse

According to particle physics, our universe came about as the result of elementary particles and forces.

One of the most important theories in particle physics today is called the Standard Model, which postulates that there are 16 fundamental particles – 12 particles of matter and four force carrier particles.

In the Standard Model of particle physics, the Higgs boson is hypothesised to explain how particles acquire mass. According to this theory, particles acquire mass by interaction with an all-pervading field – called the Higgs field – that is carried by the Higgs boson.

The Higgs boson is named after Peter Higgs, emeritus professor of theoretical physics at the University of Edinburgh, who presented his theory in a seminal paper published in 1964. But Higgs was not the only one to advance the theory.

Two other papers were independently submitted presenting similar hypotheses at about the same time.

Although scientists have been working on the assumptions of the theory since 1960s, the actual existence of the Higgs boson is difficult to demonstrate and prove of its existence has eluded them. This is because unlike other particles, the Higgs boson is very difficult to create, requiring huge amounts of energy.

It is therefore not difficult to understand the sense of triumph within the scientific community when the scientists from the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland, were able to catch a glimpse of what looked like the Higgs boson on 4 July 2012 by using the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), an instrument that cost US$1 billion to build.

In 1994, Leon Lederman in his popular book on particle physics nicknamed the Higgs boson the ‘God particle’.

There is no real theological significance to this term. Lederman used it simply because he thought that the Higgs was something like God: everywhere, but at the same time mysteriously hidden.

Peter Higgs hated the term because he was an atheist. Scientists brushed it off, and seldom used it. But, as to be expected, the press loved it, and the term gradually became more common, especially in popular books and articles on physics.

The discovery of the Higgs boson and the results of further experiments that may be conducted using the LHC will not be of great significance theologically.

It should be pointed out, that while the new LHC is able to produce the conditions that prevailed less than a millionth of a second after the Big Bang – which is truly remarkable – it is unable to replicate what scientists have called Planck time 10-43 seconds after the Big Bang, where, scientists believe, General Relativity breaks down, and when the universe was 100 million trillion times smaller than a proton. Some scientists are certain that it is not possible to create enough energy to replicate that era.

But even if it were possible to reproduce those conditions, the results of such experiments would not be theologically significant.

These findings do not, for example, challenge the biblical teaching that God had created the universe ‘out of nothing’ (creatio ex nihilo). In fact, they show that the universe indeed had a beginning.

Incidentally, the first scientist who proposed the idea of the ‘Big Bang’ was the astronomer and physicist Georges Lamaitre, an ordained clergy.

Of course scientists like Daniel Dennett have argued that the universe created itself. In his book, Breaking the Spell Dennett speculates that the universe may be said to have performed a ‘version of the ultimate bootstrapping trick; it creates itself ex nihilo. Or at any rate out of something that is well-nigh indistinguishable from nothing at all’.

But back in the thirteenth century, the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas has already shown that self-creation is a metaphysical absurdity. This is because no-thing (a thing which does not exist) cannot cause something to come into existence.

Thus, in order for the universe to cause itself to come into being, the universe must have already existed. The idea that the universe created itself is therefore not only philosophically absurd, it is also chronologically incoherent.

Scientific discoveries can help Christians to further appreciate just how intricate and beautiful is the created order that God has brought into being. The insights that particle physics gives us on the structure of sub-atomic particles and the way in which genetic science has enabled us to understand the human genome should cause Christians to be in awe of the Creator.

The way in which everything must be just right for the universe such as ours to be possible should also help Christians to appreciate the greatness of God. For example, scientists believe that if there is an change in the ratio of expansion and contraction forces by as little as 1 part in 1055 in Planck time (10-43 seconds after the beginning of the universe), the rate of expansion would either be too rapid so that no galaxies could form or too slow so that the universe would almost immediately collapse.

Ours is such a fine-tuned universe that it is more sensible to believe that it was created by God rather than something that just pop up by chance.

In light of how science has enabled us to better understand our beautiful and complex universe, Christians can therefore sing in chorus with the ancient psalmists of Israel that ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands’ (Psalm 19:1).

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.