Monthly Archives: February 2017

Designer Disability?

February 2017 Pulse

In 2002, the Washington Post Magazine published a story of an American lesbian couple, Sharon Duchesneau and Candy McCullough – both of whom are deaf – who had deliberately chosen to have a deaf baby. A friend of theirs, with five generations of deafness in his family, donated his sperm.

The couple succeeded: their child Gauvin McCullough has only a very slight amount of hearing in one ear.

Duchesneau and McCullough are not the only couple that has chosen to have a child with a disability. In 2008, BBC News reported that Tomato Lichy and his partner Paula Garfield also tried to have a disabled baby through IVF.

A survey conducted by Baruch, Kaufman and Hudson in 2006 showed that couples who deliberately choose to have children with conditions commonly seen as disabilities are not as uncommon as one would imagine.

The highly-publicised case of the American lesbian couple cited above has ignited a fierce debate in the popular press as well as in academic journals on medical ethics across the globe.

The responses have been extremely polarised. On one end of the spectrum, there are those who strongly condemn the couple for deliberately bringing a disabled child into the world. On the other end are those who applaud them for exercising their right and autonomy.

Should people with inherited disabilities be allowed to select children with the genetic disposition to have similar disabilities?

The answer to this question is made more complex by recent discourse on disability.

There are some who argue that a distinction must be made between disability and impairment. Disability, they insist, is a social construct that has resulted in discrimination against people with physical impairments.

For example, the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) maintains that “it is society which disables physically impaired people”. It asserts: “Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society.”

According to those who espouse such a view, deafness is merely a physical impairment, not a disability.

This approach to the issue is, in my view, misguided. While concern about discrimination against disabled people in our society is justified, the theory that all disabilities are social constructs that have served as the basis for discrimination must be called into question.

Once this theory is set aside, the sharp distinction that UPIAS makes between disability and impairment would appear contrived and even absurd. Certain forms of physical impairment are in fact serious disabilities.

Physical disability may be defined as a condition that limits and incapacitates a person in such a way that it potentially, if not in actuality, reduces his ability to flourish. Seen in this way, blindness and deafness are disabilities.

While it is true that discrimination and social insensitivity (for example, the failure to alter the built environment for people with disabilities) would considerably further compromise the quality of life of disabled people, it does not change the fact that their disability itself is an impediment to their flourishing.

Thus, if we were to place a blind person on deserted island where there is no discrimination, his blindness would still be an impediment to his wellbeing.

In the Gospels we find Jesus healing the blind, the deaf and the mute (Mark 8:22-25; Mark 7:31-37). This shows that disabilities are not part of God’s plan when he created human beings, but the result of sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve. The healing ministry of Jesus shows that salvation has to do with restoration of the wholeness that was compromised in the original Fall.

Whatever may be the philosophical rationale or emotional motivations, to deliberately bring a deaf child into the world is therefore surely at odds with God’s will and purpose for creation.

But what about those who wish to defend the autonomy of the couple – their freedom to choose?

In Christian ethics, freedom should always be exercised responsibly. The couple that exercises their right to deliberately bring a child with a disability into the world must ask themselves if they have acted responsibly. They must ask if they have acted in the best interest of their child, who will have to cope with this disability for the rest of his life.

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

How a Minority Church Impacted Wider Society

February 2017 Credo

The early church avoided active engagement with Roman politics, where the contestation for power was brutal and political fortune was fickle, brutish and short. The bedraggled religious community was already leading a precarious existence since it lacked political patronage. As such, it would be wise for it to avoid getting entangled with mighty Caesar who would not hesitate to snuff out any potential challenge to his throne. However, political realism did not mean that the church retreated into a cocooned existence in the ghetto. Instead, it sought to serve wider society by building effective social-economic networks for social renewal.

A Social Message of the Power of Love in Action

Lucian (a non-Christian) was impressed by the solidarity among the Christians. He testified that “their original lawgiver has taught them that they were all brethren, one of another . . . They become incredibly alert of anything  . . . that affects their common interests.”

The love of Christians was exceptional in times of plagues and calamities. Eyewitnesses reported that when an epidemic struck, the populace rejected the sick and abandoned unburied corpses in their desperate attempts to avoid infections from a contagious and fatal disease. In contrast, Bishop Dionysius described how Christians “held fast to each other, visited the sick without fear, ministered to them assiduously, and served them for the sake of Christ . . . many did die, after caring for the sick and giving health to others, transplanting the death of others, as it were, into themselves.”

The impact of such selfless service was highlighted by the early Church historian Eusebius. He wrote, “Then did they show themselves to the heathen in the clearest light. For the Christians were the only people who amid such terrible ills showed their fellow-feeling and humanity by their actions. Day by day, some would busy themselves with attending to the dead and burying them (for there were numbers to whom no one else paid any heed); others gathered in one spot all who were afflicted by hunger throughout the whole city, and gave bread to them all. When it became known, people glorified the Christians’ God, and, convinced by the facts, confessed the Christians alone were truly pious and religious.”

It must be emphasized that for the early church Christian social welfare was not merely an emergency service but an ongoing mission expressing itself in several ways:

First, the church was at the forefront of private charity. In AD 250, the Roman Church distributed alms and supported about 1,500 widows and poor and disabled persons. There was no other equivalent charity in the Roman world.

Second, the church cared for slaves and poor people needing burial. Converted slaves were granted equal dignity and fullest rights in church. Indeed, slaves could become clergymen or even bishops. Christians extended burial services to strangers because they share a common humanity. Undoubtedly, such care comforted grieving relatives and cultivated sympathies for Christianity.

Third, the church provided employment and insisted that every able-bodied person must work. The church formed guilds to provide work for any brother in need. We can only admire its balanced social policy: “For those able to work, provide work; and to those incapable of work, be charitable.”

A Refuge and Haven of Peace in Times of Social Chaos

Roman cities had an average population density equivalent to that found in modern industrial slums. Given the absence of social welfare in Roman society it was no wonder that crime was rampant.

As one contemporary witness testified, “Night fell over the city like a shadow of a great danger, diffused, sinister, and menacing. Everyone fled to his home, shut himself in, and barricaded the entrance . . . if the rich had to sally forth, they were accompanied by slaves who carried torches to light and to protect them on their way . . . Juvenal sighs that to go out to supper without having made your will was to expose yourself to reproach of carelessness.”

In contrast, the church was a haven of peace and support amidst urban lawlessness and insecurity. The church provided the essentials of social security and, more importantly, a sense of belonging in a city of strangers.

Neighbourhoods were transformed when neighbours were bound together not only by common rites but by a common way of life. Admittedly, social compassion was not a virtue found exclusively among Christians, but in those days Christians appeared to have practised it more effectively than any other group.

Rodney Stark aptly captures the social impact of early Christianity, “Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent urban problems.

To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family.

To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing service.”

In summary, the church became an institution for social renewal—the new civilizing and cohesive power that could unite and care for the diverse races of the Empire.

Dr Ng Kam Weng
 is Research Director of Kairos Research Centre in Kuala Lumpur. Previously, he had been a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies and a member of the Center for Theological Inquiry at Princeton University. From 1989 to 1992 he taught at the Malaysia Bible Seminary Graduate School. He has a PhD from Cambridge University.

‘Smiles from Reasons Flow’

February 2017 Pulse

In many traditional treatments of Christian theological anthropology (the Christian understanding of human beings), the focus has been on the rational faculties or spiritual capacities that distinguish humans from the rest of the animals.

Traditional conceptions of what constitutes the image of God in man (imago Dei) have been based mainly on these significant qualities.

While these qualities are important and deserve the attention they have been given, other uniquely human qualities are somewhat neglected.

For example, an aspect of our humanity that still awaits fuller exploration by theologians is our ability to see the lighter side of ourselves, others and life itself. I am referring to humour, which is associated only with Homo sapiens and which is absent in the other animals.

In this short article, I want to reflect on two behaviours that many regard as distinctively human but are not taken seriously enough (no pun intended) by theologians: the smile and laughter.

Let us begin with the smile.

Anthropologists tell us that only the human being is capable of smiling because this act is a personal and rational response to others and to events. Animals, they maintain, do not smile and what may sometimes appear quite close to a smile are in fact merely grimaces.

In making this observation, these anthropologists merely confirm what John Milton knew centuries before. In his delightful depiction of the love that Adam and Eve shared in Paradise Lost, Milton writes: ‘smiles from reason flow, / To brute denied, and are of love the food’.

The smile, according to Milton, is a rational act. Thus, it follows that only rational creatures are capable of this behaviour.

In addition, the involuntary smile, as a genuine response to the other, can be said to be an act of self- transcendence. Or, as Roger Scruton has brilliantly put it, the smile is ‘the blessing that one soul confers upon one another, when shining with the whole self in a moment of self-giving’.

Smiling is a way in which we signal our presence – not just our physical presence, but more importantly our personal presence as well – that we are truly ‘here’. Similarly, reciprocated glances and smiles are subtle acknowledgements of one another’s presence, a sign of human sociality.

What about laughter?

Again laughter can be arguably said to be a distinctively human behaviour. Animal laughter like those observed in chimpanzees, bonobos and even rats are not really laughter. They are in fact only vocalisations that sound like laughter, often in response to some physical stimuli.

Although laughter may be analysed in various ways, we must at the outset recognise the fact that, like the smile, it is always a rational response to something. Put differently, we may say that laughter is a form of judgement.

That is why philosophers Like Roger Scruton have postulated – rightly, in my opinion – that only rational beings laugh.

Thus, although bonobos may make screeching sounds that resemble human laughter when tickled, it should not be mistaken as laughter. This is because human laughter, although involuntary and visceral, is never simply a subjective response.

That laughter is a rational response and a form of judgement can be demonstrated in the way in which we respond to some jokes. Although some jokes are funny, we do not laugh at them because they are offensive and in bad taste. This means that we do not laugh at everything that is amusing, only those we judge are worthy of laughter.

Furthermore, laughter is in many senses a social phenomenon. It is an expression of delight or amusement that is other-directed. Scruton again explains this well when he writes that ‘Laughter is an expression of amusement, and amusement is an outward directed, socially pregnant state of mind’.

If smiling and laughing are distinctively human behaviours, can we say that they in some sense mirror our Creator, since human beings are created in the image of God?

Do we have accounts of God smiling or laughing in the Bible?

In the great Aaronic blessing, we have this remarkable statement: ‘the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you his peace’ (Numbers 6: 24-26). Although the expression has been variously interpreted, it could mean that God looks upon his people with a pleasant and cheerful countenance because he is pleased with them.

This has led some commentators to extrapolate that God smiles in delight as he looks upon his people.

The Bible does speak about divine laughter. But in most cases, the laughter of God is derisive – he laughs at human folly, idolators and those who set themselves up as mighty.

But the Bible also tells us that God delights in his children. For example, in Psalm 149, we read: ‘For the Lord takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with salvation’ (v. 4).

And his delight and blessings bring joy and laughter to his people. Rejoicing in the restoration of Zion, the Psalmist could say: ‘Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy … The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad’ (126: 2-3). This has led some theologians to suggest that God laughs with us as we rejoice in our salvation.

To suggest that God smiles and laughs do not in any way distort the biblical portrayal of God in his personal dealings with his people, which are often depicted in anthropomorphic terms.

Laughter and the smile are therefore indices of self-transcendence. As rational and uniquely human behaviour, they may in some sense be said to be an aspect of the image of God that we all bear.


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.


Strangers and God Encounters

February 2017 Feature Article

A Land of Strangers

In this cosmopolitan world of growing homogeneity, we are daily faced with stories and issues surrounding migration—in our local press, coffee shops, crowded trains and political circles. Churches have even started to engage on the subject, albeit occasionally.

Yet while we try to keep up with our understanding and response to the controversies, real and pressing global issues of migration continue to escalate, from the distant refugee crisis in Europe to the low-wage migrant workers right here in our midst.

Singapore currently houses about 1 million low-wage migrant workers, including domestic helpers and those working in construction, marine and manufacturing industries. The stranger is present in our homes, hospitals, streets, trains and malls. India, China, Philippines, Bangladesh and people from all across the globe share our private and public space.

The question for the local church now is: how should we respond to this phenomenon of strangers in our land? With an increasing xenophobia both overt and subtle in our values, policies and community life in Singapore, our Christian faith is the antidote. We must respond with ‘Philoxenia’ instead.

The Greek word ‘philoxenia’ means a love of strangers.

Healthserve was initiated nine years ago to serve the migrants and marginalised through the provision of simple medical services. It soon became apparent that the mere provision of medicine and expertise would not suffice. If we were to meet the deepest needs of these migrants, a fresh understanding of who the stranger was and a rediscovery of our Christian tradition of hospitality would be crucial.

Soon, counselling had become a part of the medical consultation, social assistance was given out in the form of EZLink and phone cards, and outings and meals were regularly organized for those who came to see us. A safe space for community and hospitality had been gently birthed. The stranger had been noticed and invited into our community.

The Rich Man and Lazarus

In Jesus’ Luke 16 parable, Lazarus sits outside the rich man’s home separated by a gate and probably a wall. The rich man must have gone in and out through the gate several times daily never noticing or ignoring Lazarus. This gate and wall, while protecting the rich man’s luxurious lifestyle, also became the barrier between him and his fellowman.

What about the poor migrant and stranger who sits at our gates? Perhaps Jesus in this parable is not chastising the rich man for his wealth but for the fact that he never notices Lazarus despite frequently passing him by. By keeping himself separate in his own ‘safe’ world, the rich man had become inattentive. When we separate ourselves from those different to us, indifference and cynicism take root and we develop walls of cataracts that blind us to their needs.

What we need is an attentive presence.

Hospitality expresses godly obedience (Romans 12:13, Hebrews 13:2). The Healthserve community lives out this word as we engage the strangers in our lands with active philoxenia.

After all, the concept of strangers is not strange to Christians. Abraham met God near the trees of Mamre, Lot met God in the angels, Mary and her friends met Jesus thinking He was the gardener, and the two disciples met Jesus while walking to Emmaus. Yet passing through Little India, Lucky Plaza or Peninsular Plaza on a Sunday heightens a sense of strangeness in us—Christian or otherwise.

As Christians, we first encountered God as strangers. When meeting new people, we connect on commonalities like mutual friendships, similar interests or shared affiliations. When we encounter a stranger different to us, however, strangeness seems the only commonality. But there is a choice. When we choose to be attentively present with those unlike us, we are choosing to celebrate the common humanity which unites us all.

Christian hospitality is much about strangers serving strangers.

It helps to remember that we are pilgrims and were once all aliens. A modern Acts 2 community is experienced though the shared journey of discovering our identity in Christ.

While the world rejects migrants at the margins, we can practice Christian hospitality by leading them to the centre. When we remember our own acute alienation before God encountered us, we can generously extend this gift of hospitality to those at the margins.

Generosity, love and security in Christ is enjoyed as a community in Healthserve when we treat a patient, offer or receive life advice, share a meal or story with each other. Taking this posture, the expectation that a migrant simply cleans our streets or builds our homes deepens into a gospel understanding of reciprocal mutuality. Such love is essential for humanity to flourish and experience God intimately.

Every community has a story.

When Healthserve welcomes a new migrant, he discovers a community rich in its own journey, history, meaning and identity. This richness is possible only because the love of God comes alive in community—where volunteers young and old alike, dancing Pentecostals and Bible Presbyterians, Bangladeshi and Chinese migrants come together to share their meals and stories.

Healthserve is constantly being transformed by the people we serve, and they are in turn transformed by encountering Christ. The gospel in this milieu is powerfully proclaimed in a subversive way, and it is in this context too that advocacy and speaking against unjust systems comes naturally. We seek to protect the vulnerable while feeding and clothing them because true hospitality cannot ignore structural injustices.

Rediscovering Christian hospitality

This is how true Christian hospitality can lead a Christian community towards an integral and missional philoxenia. Hospitality is no longer a programmed means to evangelical proclamation but innate in our mission as people of God.

In a multicultural context like ours, we embody hospitality by developing an attentive presence to those unlike us. By imitating God Himself, who saves us as strangers and whose character is expressed in hospitality (Ephesians 2:19, Colossians 1:21-22), we practice and live out a transforming philoxenia which brings Shalom and Hope to our hurting and desperate world.

Dr Goh Wei-Leong a General Practitioner, is the founder and director of Linking Hands, a medical networking agency. 

He chairs the Christian Medical & Dental Fellowship (CMDF) of Singapore. He is the S.E. Asian regional general secretary of the International Christian Medical and Dental Association (ICMDA).

In 2006, he helped found and chairs HealthServe, a NGO and charity that reaches out to the under-served communities of foreign workers in Singapore.

Dr Goh serves with Operation Mobilisation (Singapore) as an OM Associate (Local Ministries) and in OM East Asia Pacific (Relief and Development). He is currently the chairman of the board of OM MTI (Mercy Teams International).

Divine Transcendence and Immanence

February 2017 Credo

In the Eastern Church, the Trisagon is usually sung before the Prokeimenon of the Gospel and the reading of the Epistle. Known as Ter Sanctus in Western Christianity, this ancient prayer celebrates the holiness and transcendence of God with the familiar words taken from Isaiah 6:3: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts …’

The transcendence of God is everywhere attested to in the Bible. In Psalm 113: 5-6, the psalmist declares: ‘Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth?’

And in Isaiah 55, a passage well known to Christians of all stripes, the transcendence of God is depicted in light of his unfathomable ways: ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’ (vv 8-9).

It was belief in the utter transcendence of God that marked out the Israelites from the ancient world, leading them not only to reject all forms of idolatry but also the reverencing of all earthly sovereigns as divine, even at great political and social cost.

To speak of the transcendence of God is to emphasise his absolute uniqueness. As Emil Brunner explains: ‘Transcendence of essence means that God is God alone, and that his “Godhood” is absolutely and irrevocably different from all other forms of being’. Put differently, divine transcendence points to God’s ‘wholly otherness’, his absolute distinction from the creation.

The concept of divine transcendence must always be accompanied by the concept of divine immanence if theology is to achieve a more balanced understanding of the God revealed in Scripture. For the Bible portrays God as the transcendent Creator who is also intimately involved in the world he has sovereignly brought into being.

As Donald Bloesch puts it: ‘If we conceive of God as infinitely other, we must at the same time envisage him as infinitely close. If we picture him as wholly transcendent, we must at the same time allow for the truth that he is radically immanent in the sense of being present with us and for us’.

The immanence of God has to do with his active presence in the whole of creation. Scripture attests to this in various ways. For example, in Jeremiah 23: 24, the Lord declares: ‘Can a man hide himself in secret places to that I cannot see? … Do I not fill heaven and earth?’ The divine immanence signals God’s closest and most intimate relationship with the world, but without ever compromising his transcendental otherness.

To quote Bloesch again: ‘… he is never immanent without being essentially transcendent, just as he does not remain transcendent without making himself for our sakes immanent’.

Understanding the relationship between the divine transcendence and the divine immanence is extremely important if modern theology is to navigate safely across the metaphysical labyrinth and avoid the Charybdis of deism and the Scylla of pantheism.

Deism so emphasises divine transcendence that the god it creates is for the most part an absentee deity, aloof to the affairs of the world. Pantheism, on the other hand, privileges divine immanence in such a way that the distinction between God and the world is erased.

In contemporary theology, it was Karl Barth, the great Swiss German theologian who emphasised the importance of the otherness of God – his utter transcendence – more than any other theologian in his long and bitter battle against the theological liberalism of his day.

Liberalism envisions the divine immanence in such a way that the work of God is often conflated with the historical and political processes. The gap between God and human beings is narrowed and even blurred, and the enterprises fanned by human ideologies and ambition are often confused with the divine purpose.

Such immanentism has made the liberal Protestant churches of Barth’s day susceptible to the Nazi ideology and agenda.

In response, Barth emphasised the infinite and qualitative distinction between God and the world, his utter transcendence. God cannot be gleaned from our observation of the empirical world – hence Barth’s rejection of the natural theology of liberal Christianity. He is only known by revelation, which comes from above.

For Barth, human beings can never succeed in domesticating God or coercing him into endorsing their most ambitious political and social projects. The transcendent God, who is ever immanent in his creation, remains forever sovereign.

Christians worship the God who is at once transcendent and immanent without attempting to unravel this unfathomable mystery. Christians worship the Creator and Sustainer of the universe who dwells in the hearts of human beings (John 14:23; 1 Corinthians 3:16), the God who is exalted but never remote.

As Gregory of Nyssa has declared: ‘God’s transcendent power is not so much displayed in the vastness of the heavens, or the luster of the stars, or the orderly arrangement of the universe or his perpetual oversight of it, as in his condescension to our weak nature’.

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.