Monthly Archives: October 2016

Secular Intolerance

October 2016 Pulse

In November last year, The Straits Times reported that, according to Attorney-General George Brandis, Australia is experiencing an “alarming emergence” of religious intolerance. “Members of the Christians faiths”, Australia’s top law officer reportedly said, “are routinely subject to mockery and insult by prominent writers and commentators” (ST, 4 Nov 2015).

To be sure, Australia is not the only country to witness the surge in public attacks on religion by atheists. This phenomenon is seen across Europe and even in America, making plain what Christian theologians have known to be true all along – that secular tolerance is a myth.

Atheists and secular humanists have for a long time demonised religion, blaming it for intolerance and violence, and held up secularism as the bastion of tolerance and freedom. As British journalist Matthew Parris has so provocatively and unabashedly put it, “Godlessness is a humanising force”.

However, it is not very difficult to show just how vacuous and deceptive such rhetoric is in reality.

For example, on 15 Sep 2001, just four days after the horrific events in New York, Richard Dawkins laid the responsibility for the unconscionable act of violence at the door of religion.

“To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind”, he said scornfully, “is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Do not be surprised if they are used”.

Dawkins was applauded for his courage, but this surely is a typical example of secular bigotry.

In recent years, secular intolerance has reared its head in a number of famous court cases involving the central Christian symbol, the cross.

In Lausti v Italy, the atheist applicant Mrs Soile Lausti sought to have the cross or crucifix removed from classrooms across Italy. Their presence in the public square, argued the applicant, tantamount to coercion and even indoctrination.

In Eweida and Chaplin v United Kingdom, the applicants Nadia Eweida and S. Chaplin sought the right to wear the cross visibly in the workplace. Eweida’s employer, British Airways, had insisted that the cross she wore around her neck should either be hidden or removed.

It would be a mistake to think that these examples are rare exceptions, quirky blips on an otherwise admirable record of secular tolerance.

The dark history of secular intolerance can be traced to its birth during the great cultural and intellectual movement in 18th century Europe called the Enlightenment. Although the Enlightenment is a complex movement that can be variously characterised, its most venerated thinkers were fiercely anti-clerical and antagonistic to revealed religion.

For example, Voltaire, one of the Enlightenment’s most eloquent advocates of tolerance, is also well-known for his ferocious and relentless attacks against Jews, Catholics and Calvinists, and for rubbishing the most cherished tenets of Christianity. Karl Marx, arguably one of the most important heirs of Enlightenment rationalism, sought nothing less than the “abolition of religion”.

The philosopher John Gray has exposed the intolerance of secularism with brutal honesty. Tracing the roots of the violence perpetrated by atheist regimes in the 20th century, Gray, himself an atheist, observes that “the mass murders of the 20th century were not perpetrated by some latter-day version of the Spanish Inquisition. They were done by atheist regimes in the service of Enlightenment ideas of progress”.

Secular intolerance comes in many different guises in modern society.

It may be seen in the erroneous view of religion – widely advanced by secularists – as being only concerned about “spiritual” matters, thereby forcing the conclusion that religion has no place in the public square where political and social issues are debated.

Secular intolerance may appear in the argument that because religious language is incommensurable with other forms of public discourse (a fallacious view), religious actors in the public square must put aside their theological and religious commitments and adhere to a hegemonic secular rationality euphemistically referred to as “public reason”.

Secular tolerance is a myth.

This myth has been used again and again by public intellectuals, politicians and the media not only to discredit the church and Christianity, but religion in general.

It is therefore in the interest not only of Christians and people of faith but also of society as a whole that the myth of secular tolerance is exposed and challenged.

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. This article is first published in Methodist Message.



Taking Doctrine Seriously

October 2016 CREDO

In the past three decades, a number of Christian writers and theologians have registered their alarm over the worrying decline in doctrinal literacy among Christians today. Theologians such as Alister McGrath and David Wells and historians like Mark Noll have written anxiously about this disturbing erosion of theological astuteness.

The early evangelicals, like the Reformers of the sixteenth century, were profoundly concerned that the theology of the Church is firmly established in authority of the Bible. Although they acknowledged that there are cultural, historical and political aspects to the Reformation that must never be dismissed or trivialised, they nonetheless correctly insist that it was primarily about doctrine and theology.

But today’s evangelical churches that trace their roots to Luther, Calvin and Wesley have not taken seriously enough the Reformers’ emphasis on doctrinal and theological rigour and clarity.

In the contemporary church, there appears to be a shift from doctrine to life, from theology to spirituality. This shift itself in many ways reflects the modern malaise, the tendency to dichotomise and even polarise aspects of reality that in fact belong together, like faith and reason.

In similar vein, some modern evangelicals have become suspicious and even dismissive of the tradition of the church, justifying their position by a naïve interpretation of the Reformers’ privileging of Scriptural authority (Latin: sola scriptura). The sophistication of the Reformers’ understanding of the relationship between Scripture and tradition is often missed when evangelicals resort to simplistic slogans such as ‘Back to the Bible’ or ‘No Creed but the Bible’.

This has not only resulted in an anaemic fundamentalism that refuses to be nourished by the rich theological and spiritual heritage of the church. It has also opened the door to an idiosyncratic subjectivism, and a corrosive relativism and pragmatism, all of which will prove detrimental to the church’s self-understanding and mission.

Christians must take doctrine and theology seriously if they truly believe that God has revealed himself and that what is true about him is contained in the pages of Scripture.

Christians must take doctrine seriously because the Christian Faith is not a woolly collage of attitudes and responses to some vague notions of deity. Neither is it an amorphous and idiosyncratic assemblage of subjective spiritual experiences.

The Christian Faith is based on God’s self-disclosure, first through his dealings with Israel and finally and supremely in the person of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God.

At the heart of the Christian Faith therefore is not doctrine, but the person of Jesus Christ who is ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’ (John 14:6). Doctrine develops as the church reflects on the identity, meaning and significance of Jesus Christ with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth as her illuminating Guide (John 16:13).

Christian doctrine is therefore firmly and deeply rooted in the testimony of Scripture about the God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. It is the church’s speech about God, an endeavour that can only be undertaken because God has first spoken about himself through Scripture.

Doctrine is therefore not something the church has invented; it is not the result of philosophical speculation or fanciful guesswork about deity. Rather doctrine is the church’s rational response to God’s revelation, a way of speaking about God that is authorised by God himself.

There is a complex and dialectical relationship between Scripture and Christian doctrine. As we have seen, the doctrines of the church must be faithful to the testimony of Scripture, which is the Noma Normans non Normata (Latin: ‘The norm of norms that is not normed’).

But doctrine as the church’s understanding of God in turn provides the framework and substance to guide the Christian’s reading and interpretation of Scripture. Put differently, the individual Christian cannot adequately understand Scripture apart from the tutelage of the church and her doctrines.

The Reformer John Calvin understood very well the essential role of doctrine in helping Christians interpret Scripture correctly. In fact, he wrote his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion (1454) for this very purpose.

Thus, in the preface of the Institutes Calvin writes: ‘Although the Holy Scriptures contain a perfect doctrine, to which nothing can be added – our Lord having been pleased therein to unfold the infinite treasures of his wisdom – still every person, not intimately acquainted with them, stands in need of some guidance and direction, as to what he ought to look for in them, that he may not wander up and down, but pursue a certain path, and so attain the end to which the Holy Spirit invites him’.

Thus the Institutes together with the Rule of Faith and creeds of the early church provide the hermeneutical and theological framework within which Scripture must be read and understood. In this way, Christian doctrine puts a check on the subjectivism and relativism that is endemic in the way in which some evangelical Christians (and churches) interpret Scripture.

Doctrine is important because it not only protects Christians from error but also from deception. Scripture contains numerous warnings about false teachers who peddle their destructive doctrines.

In Matthew 7:15, Christ warns his disciples to ‘Beware of false prophets’. And in his letter to Timothy, Paul spoke about Christians who will abandon their faith in pursuit of heretical theologies: ‘The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons’ (1 Timothy 4:1).

Such warnings demonstrate the importance of sound doctrine.

It is in light of these dangers that Paul exhorted Titus to ‘teach what is in accord with sound doctrine’ (Titus 2:1). The church of today must take this injunction serious not only because the threat of heresies has not abated, but also because in our confused world, the villain has become the hero.

The inimitable G. K. Chesterton, with his characteristic perceptiveness, saw this quite clearly in the middle of the last century. ‘The word “heresy”’ not only means no longer being wrong’, he writes in Heretics, ‘it practically means being clear-headed and courageous’. Thirty years later, the American sociologist Peter Berger confirmed this in his book, The Heretical Imperative (1980) in which he points out that today it is in fact necessary for one to be ‘heretical’.

The need for the contemporary church to take doctrine seriously cannot be overstated. Sound doctrine will build up the people of God. It will enable Christians to be discerning, to be able to tell truth from error. And it will enable them to escape the corrosive acids of heresy that will eventually destroy their faith.

Roland Chia (suit)_LargeDr 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.

Mental Illness: A Christian Perspective

October 2016 Pulse

In an article entitled, ‘Let’s End Stigma of Mental Illness’ published by TODAY online on 1 May 2014, it was reported that one in six people in Singapore suffer from some form of mental illness. ‘It is quite likely’, it states, ‘that patients include our friends, colleagues or family members’.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, ‘A mental disorder is a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotion regulation, or behaviour that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental function’.

Elaborating on this basic definition, The Mayo Clinic states that ‘[m]ental illness refers to a wide range of mental conditions – disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behaviour’. It adds that ‘Many people have mental health concerns from time to time. But a mental health concern becomes a mental illness when ongoing signs and symptoms cause frequent stress and affect your ability to function’.

Although some forms of mental illness are not reckoned as a disability by the law, there can be no doubt that all forms of mental illness are in some sense disabling.

The TODAY article points out that although mental illness is not uncommon in our society it is ‘still stigmatised by prejudice, ignorance and fear’. It emphatically calls for putting such stigmatisation to a decisive end.

Christians should without qualification echo this call because we believe that all human beings – including those who are suffering from mental illness – are created in the image and likeness of God, and must therefore be valued and respected. To stigmatise or discriminate against people living with mental illness is to violate the dignity that God has given to them as bearers of his image.

However, some Christians may espouse a different view because they locate the divine image in the mental faculty of the human being. Such a view, if taken to its logical conclusion, would deem the mentally ill as possessing a compromised humanity that could no longer reflect the divine image.

This view, however, is unacceptable because it works with a defective understanding of what it means to be human.

In his 1996 address entitled, ‘The Image of God in People with Mental Illness’ Pope John Paul II deals with this issue directly by exposing the reductionism of those who privilege mental abilities in their understanding of the human being. ‘It should be made clear’, he writes, ‘that the whole man, not just his spiritual soul, including his intelligence and free will, but also his body shares in the dignity of “the image of God”’.

Thus, John Paul II states categorically that ‘whoever suffers from mental illness “always” bears God’s image and likeness in himself, as does every human being’. This means that ‘he “always” has the inalienable right not only to be considered as an image of God and therefore as a person, but also treated as such’.

The other question that often arises when Christians reflect on mental illness is that of sin. Could mental illness be the consequence of the sin of the person who suffers from it?

Here, it is extremely important to understand the fact that mental illness is often the result of a very complex confluence of factors. These not only have to do with physical and biological factors like brain chemistry and inherited traits. They also include environmental or circumstantial factors such as abuse, trauma, warfare and even poverty.

Instead of attributing mental illness to the sin of the sufferer, Christians should see it as an instance of the brokenness and tragedy of the fallen condition that all of us share. Mental illness is one of the many signs that the world we now inhabit is not the world that God had intended when he created it.

What about the relationship between metal illness and demon possession? Although sometimes the person who is mentally ill may exhibit the same ‘symptoms’ as someone who is suffering from demonic subjugation, the two must never be confused. Here is where the Christian psychiatrist and the discerning pastor or minister must work closely together.

The church must therefore be a place where hospitality is extended to people living with mental illness. It should be a place where the hurtful and ostracising stigmatisation that is prevalent in society of people who are mentally ill is consciously and conscientiously rejected.

Such generous hospitality would address some of the most damaging discriminations and injustices that people suffering from mental illness sometimes have to endure. It would address the alienation that the mentally ill sometimes experience because of social ostracism, an alienation that might lead to a tragic lost of dignity.

The church must be a place where the mentally ill are valued, cared for and loved. It must be a place where the family members and caregivers of people who are living with mental illness can receive support and encouragement. And the church should always be a place where they are constantly reminded of their hope in a loving, faithful and unchanging God.

Finally, Christians must not only minister to people with mental illness or who are in recovery. They must also be open to being ministered to by them.

As a document on mental illness and the church prepared by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has so beautifully put it: ‘The church can be a powerful and welcoming place for people who are in recovery and experiencing healing, as they return to tell their stories of hope. The church can be a locus for proclaiming the good news of healing of body and relationships, not just to people living with mental illness, but from people living with mental illness’.

Roland Chia (suit)_Large
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.

Are we fully living up to our public responsibilities?

October 2016 Feature Article

This year marks the 50th anniversary of two landmark books in English by the provocative French Christian thinker Jacques Ellul. His profound analysis of the underlying social and spiritual forces shaping our age in The Technological Society and Propaganda were widely respected outside as well as inside religious circles.

            After becoming a Professor of Law and Institutions, he developed a wide-ranging critique of society and culture based on sociological and theological perspectives. Ellul’s insights into the way our preoccupation with technical solutions and new technologies would increasingly supplant other forms of problem-solving and relating, and of the extent the media and propaganda would increasingly influence all kinds of communication, were breathtakingly farsighted.

         During his life Ellul published over 50 books. These included a series of striking expositions of several biblical writings. In other works he was critical of the way churches and theology had been subverted by the forces shaping society. In The Presence of the Kingdom he outlined the way thoughtful Christians should approach their wider responsibilities in the world. He wrote:

“Christians were never meant to be normal. We’ve always been holy troublemakers, we’ve always been creators of uncertainty, agents of a dimension that’s incompatible with the status quo”. As such “we do not accept the world as it is, but we insist on the world becoming the way   that God wants it to be. And the Kingdom of God is different from the patterns of this world.”

        The problem is that we have lost our edge. More biblically inclined Christians have largely settled for a privatised faith based on the church and family. More liberally oriented Christians tend to conform too much to the issues and ideologies of the wider society. What is really needed is for us to develop a full-scale vision of life, encompassing every aspect of what we do, that springs out of our faith in Jesus Christ as revealed through the Scriptures.

Ellul argued that it is less important to have views about, or to take up a definite economic or political position, than to create a consistent and distinctive way of life. The early Christians developed this. So did believers during the Reformation. We need a similar movement today.

“The whole of life is concerned in this search. It includes the way we think about present political questions, as well as our way of practising hospitality. It also affects the way we dress and the food we eat … as     well as the way we manage our financial affairs. It includes being faithful to one’s wife as well as being accessible to one’s neighbour. It includes the position we ought to take on current social and political questions, as well as the decisions which relate to the personal employment of our time … Absolutely everything, the smallest details which we regard as indifferent, ought to be questioned, placed in the light of faith, examined from the point of view of the glory of God.”

How can this come about? According to Ellul, we must resolve to do three inter-related things:

(1) to wake up and become more sharply aware of what is really happening around and within us.

            This means looking beyond what is given to us trough the media and hand-held devices. The news and messages we receive through the day are mainly about secondary matters, coloured by the world’s illusions and values, and permeated by political or personal ‘spin’. The deeper forces shaping both ourselves and our times remain largely hidden. Discerning what is taking place below the surface will only come if attentive prayer and mediation is also part of the search.

            (2) to listen to our own and others’ inner selves to detect the personal effects of what is shaping our world.

            This reveals more specific and profound insight into the forces at work in our society than we get from the news, reports, polls or statistics. But it requires greater self-examination and deeper interaction with others than we are used to. This enables us to work out, for example, how much our technical devices – some of which we check two or three hundred times a day – are changing the way we think, speak, relate and behave. We cannot fully achieve this, however, without drawing on the Holy Spirit’s ability to search the deepest recesses of our minds and hearts.

            (3) to act locally even though we think globally, helping to transform that part of the world closest to us.

            It is Ellul who coined this popular phrase. Only through engaging in our work and play, community and civic life, where we live that most of us can have the greatest public influence. It is precisely there that we confront decisions affecting conscience, issues others find discomforting, opportunities to make a difference. It is there that we can most challenge the illusions that tend to bind people, inventions that seek to enslave human beings, and destructive or even demonic forces in our society

            Creating such a style of life is a corporate as well as individual work.

  • It must be a part of everyday family life. – a topic of conversation with children over meals, joint decisions between husband and wife, private as well as public behaviour.
  • It should also be a central part of what local churches are about. They need to create communities within them where members can explore life’s responsibilities and changes, pray and search the scriptures about these, encourage and support each other to live out this new style of life. In doing so they will learn how to relate, manage conflict, handle money, deal with political agendas, indeed develop a style of life that provides clues for the wider society.
  • It ought be at the heart of what christian groups based on the work place, sporting activities, and social action discuss and undertake. It also requires the help of Christian institutes, centres and think-tanks which contain special expertise in envisioning a distinctive whole-of-life vision of how faith can leaven and transform the world in which we live.

            Ellul’s own life provides a model of what he wrote. Though a layman he founded a small church in his locality alongside his denominational commitments. He initiated informal vacation classes for interested students as well as regular University courses. He worked among troubled youth in his neighbourhood and served as Deputy Mayor in the city of Bordeaux. He was a member of the local resistance against the Nazis during the Second World War and was the first to bring the plight of the persecuted Kurds to the attention of the Western world.

            A distinctive style of Christian life, he argued, alone has the innovative and explosive force to make a difference in the world today, potentially affecting every part of human life, society and culture. It was also the only way that Christianity today could once again have a compelling point of contact with the world from which to proclaim the Gospel.

Dr Robert Banks.revisedRobert Banks is a biblical and practical theologian, based in Australia but with teaching experience in universities and theological colleges in Europe, North America and Asia. He has written a number of books on such biblical themes as God the Worker, Jesus and the Law and  Paul’s Idea and Community, He has also written or co-authored others on The Tyranny of Time, Private Values and Public Policy, The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity and Re-envisioning Leadership.