Monthly Archives: March 2017

A Politically Correct View of Judaism?

March 2017 Credo

Recent years have seen the emergence of strongly Jewish sentiments in some Western Christian circles. The issue is not about whether Judaism should be understood on its own terms (we do that for other religions); what is objectionable is their disregard for a Christian understanding of Israel.

Unlike the dispensationalists of yesteryear whose view of Israel was at least theologically driven (even if mistaken), these modern sentiments are driven more by political correctness expressed in two strategic moves.

One is the refusal to transliterate the tetragrammaton (YHWH) into a pronounceable form. For Jews it may have something to do with their belief in God’s mystery and transcendence: None can see God’s face and live; none can touch God’s ark without provoking him to break out in judgment.

There is also a tradition about not taking the name of the Lord (YHWH) in vain, etc. Ostensibly, this move is made out of respect for Jews. But why now, when the facts have long been known? The political climate has changed especially after the Second World War.

Like many forms of political correctness, there are usually powerful socio-political forces at work. First, the West seems to be burdened with a collective guilt regarding the Holocaust. Any action or speech perceived as anti-Semitic is immediately singled out for harsh censure. When a former president of Iran questioned the existence of the Holocaust, the Western reaction was swift and shrill. Now, anti-Semitism is indeed reprehensible—but so is any form of racism.

Another reason for Western Christians’ acting politically correctly is that the space where they once inhabited and enjoyed considerable influence has shrunk alarmingly. Christians of orthodox persuasion are finding themselves shunned, marginalized and evicted from the public square by an increasingly militant secular elite. But together, Christians and Jews could mount a counter-attack. This is amply illustrated in the influential magazine First Things.

Islam, potentially, could be another friend, but given the current geo-political climate an alliance with Islam would be imprudent. Also, one must not underestimate the influence of the Jewish lobby in America.

But political correctness comes with a high price. To refuse to name God implicitly undermines a central pillar of the Christian faith.

Christians have good reason to call God Yahweh or Jehovah, even if they are not sure what the actual pronunciation of the tetragrammaton is. The basis for Christian boldness is the Incarnation.

The God of Israel has taken on flesh. In Christ, God is revealed in visible and tactile concreteness: “that which we have seen, which we have touched with our hands…” With Christ’s coming, Israel’s God has acquired a face and a name: we behold his glory in the face of Jesus Christ; we dare to call him “Abba, Father.”

Some theologians have suggested that Father is the proper name of God in that the Person so named stands in a unique relationship to Jesus Christ as his one and only Son. If Christians are emboldened by the Holy Spirit to call God “Abba” why should they not dare call Israel’s God by his proper name, Yahweh?

The second strategy is to replace the phrase “Old Testament” with “the Hebrew Bible” or Tanakh. This move may seem like a small concession but it too comes with a price.
The “Old Testament” is, admittedly, a distinctively Christian designation. From the beginning, Christians have always regarded the Old Testament as fulfilled in the New, for it points to and prefigures Jesus Christ.

This understanding is encapsulated in Augustine’s dictum: “Novum Testamentum in Vetere latet, Vetus in Novo patet” (The New Testament is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed). It is a relationship of the shadow and the real, of promise and fulfilment.

Understanding their relationship in this way does not imply that the Old is superseded. Some elements in the Old are indeed superseded and no longer necessary, such as the bloody sacrifices, as Hebrews teaches, but it does not mean that the Church replaces Israel as some supersessionists believe.

Israel is our still big brother or, putting it differently, the Church is Israel expanded. The Church is not a gentile church but the new people of God uniting Israel and the nations. It is the natural olive tree (Israel) into which the wild olive branches (gentiles) are grafted.

Some, however, are not content with this New Testament conception of the Church. For them the divine economy has to be so reconceptualized as to give Israel its own distinctive place, making it virtually a separate entity. Here again, I’m not thinking of dispensationalism but certain forms of modern nonsupersessionism. The result is a Christian Bible without a Christological centre.

For Christians the two testaments form a single Bible. This is why the early Christians interpreted the Old Testament typologically as pointing to its fulfillment in Christ. They used the Old Testament in their catechetical instructions for precisely this reason. Ambrose of Milan is a classic example, whose preference for the Old Testament is based on the rationale that just as the Old prepares for the New, it prepares catechumens for baptism into the Body of Christ.

Not to recognize the Old Testament as indeed the Old Testament is an implicit denial of the continuity and development of God’s covenantal dealings with his people. It is tantamount to denying its status as Christian Scripture. The New Testament would make no sense without the Old; on its own the New presents only a truncated story without a real beginning. The New without the Old would produce a distorted Christianity—in fact, another version of the Marcionite heresy.

Christians, especially those in the Majority World, should recognize these moves for what they are: they are not a theologically better way of understanding Jewish-Christian relations but strategies driven by political correctness. Why should Christians in the Majority World bear the guilt of the West? Our battle with secularism can be better fought not just by forging alliance with faithful Jews, but also with the faithful in other religions.

Rev Dr Simon Chan (PhD, Cambridge) had taught theology and other related subjects such as liturgical, spiritual, Pentecostal, and Third World theologies at Trinity Theological College for 27 years. His most recent publication is Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up (IVP Academic, 2014).

Islamophobia Phobia

March 2017 Pulse

After a closed-door meeting with 60 Madrasah students in March this year, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam spoke to the press about the dangers that Islamophobia poses to the social fabric of Singapore.

The origin of the term “Islamophobia” is somewhat obscure. However, it is clear that by the late 1990s, the term had already entered into mainstream political and social discourse.

In 1997, the U.K.-based Runnymede Trust issued a report entitled ‘Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All’, in which Islamophobia is defined as “unfounded hostility towards Muslims, and therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims”. In its 2001 Durban conference, the United Nations describes Islamophobia as a form of prejudice.

Islamophobia, Minister Shanmugam argues, “will be destructive to the soul and spirit of Singapore that we have created – a multi-racial and multi-religious community where we embrace all races and live as one community”.

The Minister is, of course, right.

If Islamophobia refers to irrational and closed-minded prejudice and discrimination against all Muslims, it should be resolutely condemned without qualification. No community should bear the blame for the atrocities perpetrated by a few of its members in the name of the religion that the community espouses.

However, in condemning Islamophobia, one must also take with equal seriousness the obverse problem, which some have described as “Islamophobia phobia” – the fear of being accused of being Islamophobic.

Islamophobia phobia must be taken seriously because of its potential to impose an irrational self-censorship that impedes the objective criticisms and genuine debates necessary for any society to flourish. This may in turn induce a dangerous societal paralysis that would put both the security of our societies and the safety of their members in jeopardy.

Examples of such paralysis and its tragic consequences are not hard to find.

In 2009, Major Nidal Hasan went on a shooting rampage that killed 14 people at Fort Hood. Although a number of his fellow officers and superior officers were aware of Hasan’s jihadist sympathies, they kept quiet about it for fear of being accused of bigotry.

Perhaps the most appalling example of the paralysis caused by Islamophobia is the shocking spate of sexual exploitation of children in Rotterham.

Between 1997 and 2013, Pakistani gangs have reportedly subjected at least 1,400 children in the South Yorkshire town to unconscionable sexual abuse. The official inquiry report revealed that although the police, city authorities and child protection agencies knew what was happening, they chose to turn a blind eye because they were afraid of being accused of “racism” and “Islamophobia”.

It is pertinent to note that Islamophobia is itself a somewhat murky notion that is often sloppily used by politicians, activists and the media. Important distinctions are often ignored, especially when the term is used rhetorically or as a slogan.

However, understanding the distinctions between criticism and fear, and between criticism and contempt or hatred of Muslims is absolutely critical if we are to have an objective assessment of the issue. Once these distinctions are not in view, anyone who criticises the Muslim community will very quickly be condemned as a fear-mongering Islamophobe.

In his statement to the press, Minister Shanmugam rightly pointed out that Islamophobia plays “right into the hands of the terrorists”. This is because such attitudes can cause Muslims to feel that they are being marginalised and discriminated against, and this would make them more vulnerable to radicalisation.

It should, however, be pointed out that the notion of Islamophobia (in distinction to the reality it describes) can also be used by extreme Islamists to further their cause. They can use it to silence and even criminalise all criticisms (however legitimate the criticisms may be), and to portray Muslims as victims.

It is therefore quite illuminating to compare how gay activists in the West have been using “homophobia” with how Muslim activists are using “Islamophobia” to serve their respective agendas.

As William Fitzgerald puts it, “just as gay activists and their enablers in the media and the courts have managed to criminalise criticism of homosexuality in many places in the West, Muslim activists have succeeded in criminalising criticism of Islam in the same places”.

The idea of Islamophobia – employed by certain people in certain ways – is therefore potentially as dangerous as the thing itself!

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.

Ghost in the Machine

March 2017 Pulse

One of the most puzzling questions that continue to plague philosophers of mind is the relationship between mind and body. In a philosophical ethos where physicalist accounts of reality seem to be the new orthodoxy, phenomena such as consciousness continue to fascinate and baffle our best minds.

‘How can there be such a thing as consciousness in a physical world, a world consisting ultimately of nothing but bits of matter distributed over space-time behaving in according to physical law?’, inquires the philosopher of mind, Jaegwon Kim, in his book entitled, Physicalism or Something Near Enough (2005).

Colin McGinn wrestles with the same problem when he asks: ‘How could the aggregation of millions of individually insentient neurons generate subjective awareness? We know that brains are de facto causal basis of consciousness, but we have, it seems, no understanding whatever of how this can be so’.

Modern discussions on the relationship between mind and body can be said to be mostly reactions and responses to Cartesian dualism.

The 17th century philosopher, Rene Descartes, drove a wedge between the mind and the body when he argued that ‘we clearly perceive the mind, that is, a thinking substance, apart from the body, that is, an extended substance’. By making the fundamental distinction between the res cogitans and the res extensa, Descartes is proposing a substance dualism, separating mind and body.

This has prompted the British philosopher, Gilbert Ryle, to describe Descartes’ dualism memorably as the ‘ghost in the machine’ in his book, The Concept of Mind (1949).

Cartesian dualism is of course not new. It may be seen as a modern version of the more ancient Platonic dualism that conceives of the eternal soul as a distinct substance from the temporal physical body.

Attempts to surmount or eradicate such dualisms have led, as mentioned above, to privileging the physicalist view where the mind is reduced to the brain and where mental states are simply attributed to neurons and synapses.

Dissatisfied with the solution suggested by physicalism, thinkers like Nancy Murphy have proposed another way of understanding the mind-body relationship that is rather clumsily described as ‘non-reductive physicalism’.

According to this theory, while mental properties are closely related to and in some sense dependent on physical properties, they should not be confused with them. Mental properties must be seen to supervene physical ones just as the aesthetic qualities of a painting (its beauty and elegance) can be said to supervene the physical ones (paint and canvas).

For reasons that I cannot discuss within the short compass of this article, both types of physicalism have been found wanting by some philosophers and theologians.

There is, however, another way of understanding the relationship between mind and body that avoids dualism on the one hand and physicalism on the other. Technically termed as hylomorphism (Greek: hule = matter and morphe = form), this theory can be traced to another ancient Greek philosopher: Aristotle.

Aristotle begins on the premise that every physical object is a compound of form and matter. The form, he goes on to argue, is the actualising principle that directs and energises matter, enabling it to achieve its true potential.

The soul therefore, as the principle of life, defines the existence and life of a being. (Aristotle believes that all living beings, including plants, have souls appropriate to their kind). While the physical body of the animal may change, the soul (or form) remains the same. The soul retains the integrity of the living being and enables the exercise of its faculties.

As University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum explains: ‘The lion may change its shape, get thin or fat, without ceasing to be the same lion; its form is not its shape but its soul, the set of vital capacities, the functional organisation, in virtue of which it lives and acts’.

Applying this to human beings, Aristotle postulates that the soul is the form of the body. That is, the soul is the principle of life that makes the human being the kind of creature it is – it gives it integrity. For Aristotle, the soul refers to all living processes, including mental capacities.

In light of the modern mind-body debate, hylomorphism can be said to be a salutary alternative to dualism and physicalism.

In contrast to the dualistic view (Platonic or Cartesian), which sees the soul (mind) and body as two distinct substances, hylomorphism establishes the closest possible relationship between the two.

The great medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, who applies hylomorphic metaphysics to his anthropology states that ‘the body and the soul and not two actually existing substances; rather, the two of them together constitute one actually existing substance’. Thus, neither the soul by itself nor the body by itself have ‘the complete nature of its species’, according to Aquinas.

While hylomorphists agree with the physicalists (of both reductive or non-reductive varieties) that the physical aspects of the human are important, they reject the latter’s theory of supervenience, which postulates that higher mental properties are dependent on and even determined by lower physical ones.

Supervenience has led Christian philosophers like Nancy Murphy to see the traditional concept of the soul as no longer meaningful.

Hylomorphism is therefore able to present a more holistic conception of the mind-body relationship.

It prevents the mind and the body from drifting apart. It prevents the instrumentalization of the body (in the Cartesian sense of the body as merely the extension of the mind).

Significantly, hylomorphism provides a more profound account of the nature of human actions. Human actions are never seen as having either mental or physical causalities but as the agency of the whole person.

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.

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

March 2017 Feature Article

Now that I am middle-aged, I am more acutely aware of my physical body. There are some things I cannot do anymore, like stay up late, my knees hurt especially when walking down stairs, and I put on weight easily. When I was younger I was quite oblivious to these physical limitations, but no longer. The media and cultural preference for youthfulness means that some people may look down at me because of my grey hair, and pity me that I am past my physical prime, but I have come to appreciate my physical-ness and these restrictions.

Some people take the view that the body is unimportant, since we are all going to die and our bodies will decay anyway, so we can do what we want and indulge in all our fleshly desires. Others go to the other extreme of almost worshipping their bodies or physical prowess and so undergo punishing routines to appear beautiful or to win medals. The biblical view is neither of these, but that the body is fearfully and wonderfully made by a Creator God and so is to be cared for and respected.

Created Bodies

The Christian view of the physical body is unique among other religions and science as we believe that we are created by God out of both the dust of the earth and His breath (Gen 2:7). Each part of the body is wonderfully made. We see that in a new born baby so beautifully and fully formed even when she is so tiny, and with the potential and capacity to grow into adulthood. Many of us have eyes to see with, but few of us appreciate the complexity of the physiology of the eye – nerves, lenses, muscles, membranes, etc. – which when all is working well together, enables us to see.

In the Incarnation God himself took on human flesh and thus the human body is given dignity and worth. Jesus lived, eventually suffered at the hands of Pontus Pilate and died. He rose in a glorious resurrected body, the first fruits of those who have died. Since death came through one man, Adam, so resurrection of the dead will come through one man, Jesus (1 Cor 15:20-22). The disciples could recognise him in his resurrected form, that person in that body walked, talked, and ate, yet had the power to go through locked doors and disappear in an instance (e.g. Luke 24). That same Jesus is now in the heavenly realm in that resurrected body and will return again in that body.

It is out of this foundational belief that all human beings are created in the image of God that propels Christians into ministry to care for unwanted children, the mentally incapacitated or the elderly because they too are created in God’s image and therefore worthy of care and love. These people may not be able to thank us or repay us but we still care for them.

Interconnected Bodies

Our physical bodies are also wonderfully made in that our bodies are finely interconnected. We need both eyes to balance and see depth. Our bodies are also marvellous complex wholes – the air we breathe and the food we eat provide the basic nutrients for our bodies to function, to grow strong and healthy, and to enable a baby to grow into maturity and adulthood.

Each part of the body is needed (maybe not the appendix) and even the loss of one small part can affect the whole body. Still the recent Paralympic Games has shown that a loss of a limb or even a sense of hearing does not stop people from competing in sports. We marvel at the skill and ability of these sportspeople, especially when we ourselves find that when we have injured one part of our body we can barely function.

We are also spiritually, emotionally and mentally one cohesive whole. When we are struggling emotionally we find that we easily fall sick, or find it hard to connect with God. This psychosomatic whole which is our human identity then is also foundational in the way we treat others. We strive to be sensitive to the whole person, e.g. looking beyond physical deformities to the person. We recognise this interconnectedness in healing and pastoral care; that one cannot deal just with physical symptoms without also touching on the emotional and spiritual.
The body then is to be taken care of and cherished. Not in an obsessive way in a way but in a way that honours our Maker. But it’s not just my body that is to be cared for, as Christians we are also to care for all bodies. Hence the need for physical ministries, like healing the sick, and feeding the hungry. And so we respect the body even to the end, and bury the body with dignity.

Relational Bodies

Above and beyond being physical bodies with God’s spirit in us, we are also created in the image of God (Gen 1:26). That rich phrase means that we have capacities such as the ability to love others, and have attributes such as creativity, which are given by God. As Prof John Wyatt adds, being created in the image of God also means that human beings are not self-explanatory but we derive our meaning from outside ourselves, from the God in whose image we bear (in John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today, 2006, p.431). Therefore human beings are to reflect the divine attributes and character of God.

Just as God in Trinity is in relationship within Himself, so humans are made with the capacity to relate with one another and with God. As relational beings we must live in community to best express our humanity. We are created to be in communion with others.

Therefore as we contemplate the fullness of what it means to be physical human beings, we can exclaim with the Psalmist, “What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them…Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Ps 8:4, 9).

Dr Kwa Kiem-Kiok teaches intercultural studies at East Asia School of Theology and sits on several bioethics committees. She is a member of Trinity Methodist Church. 

The Unchanging God

March 2017 Credo

‘They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but you are the same, and your years have no end’ (Psalm 102:25-26). So writes the Psalmist, as he reflects on the temporal nature of all created things – however excellent – compared to the unchanging permanence of their Creator.

Passages that speak of the unchanging nature of God are scattered throughout the Bible. In Malachi 3:6, the fact of God’s unchanging or immutable nature is categorically declared by the Creator himself: ‘For I, the Lord, do not change …’ And in his epistle, James testifies that ‘Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow or change’ (James 1:17).

The doctrine of divine immutability – that the eternal Creator of the universe does not change because he cannot change – has occupied a central place in the Christian understanding of God since the beginning of Christianity. Divine immutability not only distinguishes the Creator from the created order – which is always in flux and subject to change – it sets him apart from other notions of deity found in the Ancient Near Eastern and the Greco-Roman worlds.

But this concept has not only been misunderstood, it has also been subjected to serious distortions.

Part of the reason why misconceptions of divine immutability had arisen in history of theology is the uncritical incorporation of Hellenistic philosophy into the Christian understanding of God. Such metaphysical adulterations have resulted in a notion of divine immutability that renders God immobile and sterile – for movement, it is argued, suggests change.

This idea of immutability as immobility is further reinforced by certain conceptions of eternality. The Bible clearly depicts the Creator as eternal, without beginning or end. But eternality, according to some philosophical accounts, is equated with timelessness.

This means that the eternal God must be motionless and inactive – for movement suggests sequence, which in turn in some sense implies change. Because of these metaphysical aberrations, to speak of divine immutability is to picture him in an ‘eternally frozen pose’, to use J. I. Packer’s memorable expression.

But this conception of God is totally alien to the Creator and Redeemer that the Bible speaks about, who is actively involved in the affairs of the world, especially those of his people.

In rejecting this erroneous view of divine immutability, and in an attempt to recover something of the biblical testimony of God as dynamic and responsive to his creatures, some modern theologians have swung to the other extreme. They have constructed a God who is so vulnerable to the contingencies of history and who can be so profoundly affected by human actions that even his grand purpose for the world can be thwarted or derailed.

We see this in some versions of process theology and open theism.

Such approaches, however, are distortions because they paint a picture of a God who is not sovereign, all-powerful and wise. In this sense, our conception of divine immutability can give the other divine attributes a different hue.

Any attempt to understand what it means to say that God is immutable or unchanging must avoid the two opposite errors of equating immutability with immobility on the one hand, and of forming a picture of God whose will and purpose are completely malleable, subjected to human actions, on the other.

Furthermore, any attempt to speak of divine immutability must take absolutely seriously the entire counsel of the Word of God. It must resist the temptation of privileging some biblical passages over others, even if it enables us to avoid some theological conundrums.

Thus, for example, in Numbers 23:19 we read: ‘God is not a man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind’. But in Ezekiel 16: 42, we have these words: ‘So will I satisfy my wrath on you, and my jealousy shall depart from you. I will be calm and will no more be angry’ – suggesting a change of mind.

Attempts to explain the passages that speak about God changing his mind by describing them as anthropomorphic – as attempts to depict God in human terms – are not always convincing. The question remains: do these passages say something true about God?

How, then, are we to understand what the Bible means by divine immutability? Space allows us to only outline an answer to this question.

To speak of divine immutability is to maintain that God’s being and nature does not undergo any change – it is to say that God is perfect. God does not experience any qualitative change: he neither grows nor diminishes.

Divine immutability also suggests that God’s character is consistent – he is not good today, but evil tomorrow. God is always just, always merciful, always loving. Divine immutability therefore suggests that God is always trustworthy.

And finally, divine immutability points to the fact that God’s purpose and plan for the world that he has created are unchanging. God will accomplish whatever he has purposed to achieve when he brought the world into being.

This understanding of the unchanging nature of God addresses the deficiencies in the concept of immutability that is distorted by Hellenistic philosophy on the one hand, and the view espoused by process theology and open theism on the other.

It corresponds closely to the biblical testimony about an unchanging God who is profoundly and intimately involved in the creation, the loving and faithful God who has made a covenant with his people.

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.