Monthly Archives: September 2018

Grappling with our Christian and Asian Cultural Identities

September 2018 Credo


Should Christians participate in Chinese rites? Can we use Traditional Chinese Medicine or Ayurveda (Indian medicine)? Is it wrong for Christians to practise Yoga or Taiji Quan or other Asian martial arts? These are just some of the many questions that Asian Christians ask whenever they grapple with our two-fold identity as Christians and Asians.

These are not easy questions to answer, particularly when most Christians are more familiar with Western culture, science and theology, than with our own cultural heritage. How then should think about the relationship between our faith in Christ and the culture we are brought up in? While it is impossible to address these concerns exhaustively here, there are some theological principles we can work with to navigate these murky waters.

Defining Culture

What is culture? Culture, as Martin E Marty put it, is simply “everything that human beings do with, make of, cultivated or nurtured from nature.” It “comprises language, habits, ideas, beliefs, customs, social organization, inherited artefacts, technical processes, and values.” On the most part, this definition covers the whole of human knowledge. I shall, therefore, assume culture and human knowledge as one and the same.

Special versus General Revelation

So how do we evaluate culture? I begin with the observation that the whole of Christian teaching focuses on three poles: the natures of God, humanity and Creation, and their relationships with one another. Specifically, God revealed Himself through His salvation of Israel, and the redemptive work of His Son, Jesus Christ. Both stories have been passed down to us through the teachings of the Bible. Christian tradition commonly regards these teachings as ‘Special Revelation’.

Scriptures, however, also assert that the world we live in has much to teach us about God. This ‘General Revelation’, as it is known among theologians, is assumed in Psalm 19:1, when it says ‘the heavens declare (or communicates) the glory of God’. Romans 1:19 asserts likewise, though negatively, that humans do know much about God’s laws, but refuse to acknowledge them.

Judging from figures like Melchizedek (Gen. 14:17) and Job, who seem to know God well even though they were not Israelites, it appears that one can know some aspects of God and His laws truly if in a limited way. This is also why many ancient cultures, such as the Greek, Roman, and Chinese often expound ethical beliefs that are similar to biblical teachings!

Having said these, it is noteworthy that the Bible is silent about many aspects of human knowledge. For example, how the world was created, the fundamentals of physics and chemistry, medical knowledge, agricultural knowledge, and the like. These belong to neither the rubrics of special nor general revelation. There is, therefore, much room for us to differ here. Christians must be careful not to confuse these ideas with General Revelation (ideas about God and His relationship with Creation) or to reject them simply because they are culturally unfamiliar.

Being Images of God and our Capacity for Knowledge

Scriptures also teach that human beings are fallen images of God (Genesis 1:26-27). This has three implications for us. First and foremost, we are inclined to seek knowledge that is always true, absolute and unchanging, just like God. Second, since we are only images, we can never attain absolute truths. Our knowledge will always be limited and perspectival, shaped by our personal circumstances, training, resources and even cultures. Thirdly, we are also sinful creatures, hindered by our addictions and biasedness. These can mislead or compel us to deny the truth. Is this not why we sometimes refuse to give up our cherished ideas even when proven wrong?

Modes of Knowing

Based on our human experience, we can say more about the nature of human knowledge. Often, much of our knowledge is based on our accumulated experience or empirical evidence. We try something and it works consistently, and we develop a theory or hypothesis to explain why this is the case.

Our empirical studies, however, are often informed by transcendental ideas. These are assumptions that cannot be proven but generally taken for granted to be true, such as ‘for every effect, there is a cause(s)’ or ‘the shortest distance two dots is a straight line’.

The Wesley Quadrilateral & Assessing Culture Ideas

The above concepts are well summarised in the famous Wesley Quadrilateral which teaches that all theological ideas should be evaluated on the basis of (1) biblical teachings; (2) Christian Tradition or theology; (3) reason; and (4) practical experience. Given these different paradigms for understanding human knowledge, how do we go about evaluating a cultural idea? Jackson Wu, in his Saving God’s Face, suggests the following: we should avoid cultural and theological ideas that are unbiblical (Areas F, D and C), affirm those that conform with Scriptural teachings (Areas A and E), and be on the lookout for cultural ideas that may not be addressed by classical theology, but are, nevertheless, compatible with biblical faith (Area B).


Implementing the Principles

In practice, how do we apply these principles? Let us consider the Confucian doctrine of filial piety. For the Chinese, it involves a cluster of ideas, including filial piety as a means of abiding by the Heavenly mandate, as respecting our parents, and also the necessity of upholding ancestral rites.

Clearly, the doctrine has many affinities with biblical teachings (Area A) about honouring our parents (Eph 6:1-3; Deut 5:16), and is thus an excellent example of ‘General Revelation’. Furthermore, Chinese reflections on filial piety are intricate and can provide insights on how we can ‘honour our parents’ (Area B) beyond what is taught in Western theology.

Yet, the doctrine is not unproblematic. Some ancestral rites assume the enduring presence of our deceased ancestors and their powers over us. This does not square with biblical teachings (Area C). While Christians should discontinue such practice, much care and creativity is needed to develop substitutional rites to enable us to convey the same underlying ideals of filial piety.

Dr Lai Pak Wah is Vice-Principal and Lecturer of Church History and Historical Theology at the Biblical Graduate School of Theology (BGST), where he teaches courses in church history, cross-cultural apologetics and Christian spirituality. A graduate from BGST (Grad Dip CS) & Regent College, Vancouver (MCS, ThM), Pak Wah completed his PhD at Durham University, where he specialised in the theology and spirituality of early Christianity.

Non-optional Option

September 2018 Pulse

In his book Dispatches From the Front, the Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas describes a commercial produced by the National Association for Retarded Citizens. The film begins with a couple standing in a dark room and looking into a crib, the contents of which are kept from sight.

Then the young mother looks up and into the camera and says, “Don’t let this happen to you. Our baby was born retarded. Our lives are crushed and we do not know where to run. Do not let this happen to you. Get prenatal counselling. Help us eliminate retardation.”

Whatever good intentions the Association may have in producing this commercial, it conveys the disturbing message that the best way to eliminate retardation is to terminate the retarded – an inevitable conclusion however we may choose to interpret the commercial. As Hauerwas points out, “We can care for cancer patients by trying to alleviate their cancer without destroying the patient, but you cannot eliminate retardation without destroying the person who is retarded.” However, this is clearly an approach that Christians could never accept.

Sadly, modern society has become so bewitched by utilitarian ethics (in its various guises) that it is no longer perturbed by its twisted moral logic or shudder at its frightful social consequences.

Throughout its history, the Church has always extended its service and care to the most vulnerable in society in ways that are truly self-sacrificial and counter-cultural. This is because Christians recognise the equal dignity and worth of every human being and seek to uphold and demonstrate the unconditional love of God.

In Western Christianity, this vision of the Church is encapsulated in the notion “the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable”.

Unfortunately, many Christians fail to understand this statement. For many, the term “option” suggests a particular course of action that one may choose to take or not to take. It therefore follows that to say that a course of action is an option is to suggest that it is optional.

It is thus imperative that we clarify the meaning and intent of the expression “preferential option for the poor and vulnerable”.

“Preferential” simply means that the needs of the poor and the vulnerable should come first. The expression “poor and vulnerable” refers to society’s weakest and neediest members – the elderly, the terminally ill, unborn children, and all victims of oppression and injustice.

This, however, does not suggest that the poor and the vulnerable are more valuable in the eyes of God. As the liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez makes clear, “God has a preferential love for the poor not because they are necessarily better than others, morally or religiously, but simply because they are poor and living in an inhuman situation that is contrary to God’s will.”

What about the word “option”?

Here, “option” does not merely refer to choice. Rather, it has to do with a fundamental commitment.

As Prof Dr Jacques Haers puts it, “option” in this context refers to “the desire, the will and the ability to struggle in close connectedness with the suffering people against the evil that causes pain and exclusion”.

The Catholic theologian Karl Rahner asserted that while serving the poor and the vulnerable does, in a sense, involve a choice for Christians, it is never optional but a moral requirement.

Thus, for Christians, serving the poor and the vulnerable is a non-optional option. It is a moral imperative and a noble duty. In obeying this imperative and performing this duty, the Christian truly images or mirrors the God he worships, the God who always reaches out to the needy.

In fulfilling this moral requirement, the Christian stands in solidarity with the vulnerable in society by being a ‘neighbour’ in the biblical sense. Here, solidarity demands that the Christian takes concrete actions to alleviate the sufferings of the vulnerable, clearly illustrated by the story of the good Samaritan. As expressed by the eminent ethicist Henk ten Have, “Solidarity is not a pious intention, but shows itself in supporting a specific cause.”

The preferential option for the poor and the vulnerable is not a moral requirement for Christians only. It is the responsibility of every member of human society.

As Pope John Paul II puts it, “A society will be judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members; and among the most vulnerable are surely the unborn and the dying”.

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.

Citizens of Heaven on Earth

September 2018 Feature

Recently, I became acquainted with the striking story of a 22 year old Singaporean while visiting a friend in San Francisco. At the age of 3, he relocated with his Singaporean parents to the United States. Being immersed in American life and culture, he grew up like any American would.

Life would have continued along the American path, if not for the letter he received from the Ministry of Defence fifteen years later, summoning him to enlist for national service.

What seemed striking to me was his subsequent response to the enlistment letter. Instead of perceiving national service as an inconvenient disruption to pursuits in “the land of opportunity” as some call America, he embraced it as an opportunity to deepen his roots. Taking his citizenship seriously, he discharged his responsibilities in the military with distinction and became an air warfare officer.

Cynics may interpret the above story as an expression of youthful idealism that so happens to be in line with national interest. Having personally met the young man and lived abroad for some years myself, I do not doubt his motivation for national service. There is something about citizenship that resonates deeply with our human desire for a sense of belonging and identity.

Recognising the theological and didactic potential of the citizenship imagery, writers of the New Testament employed it freely to convey their message to early believers living in the Graeco-Roman world.

The status of these believers as citizens or resident aliens were earthly realities that helped to elucidate teachings concerning Christian identity, its standard of behaviour and future hope. These teachings often juxtaposed the realities surrounding the earthly, political status of Christians with that of their heavenly citizenship. Indeed, priority is consistently accorded to the latter.

One of the clearest instances in which the Christian’s heavenly citizenship is given priority is found in Paul’s declaration to the believers in Philippi: “But our citizenship is in heaven.” (Phil 3:20). Paul’s declaration has a twofold implication for his recipients. Firstly, they are not to pursue “earthly things” as the “enemies of the cross of Christ” do (Phil 3:18, 19), but live lives which are in keeping with their heavenly citizenship. Secondly, they are to place their hope in no one else but “the Lord Jesus Christ” who has the power to “subject all things to himself” (Phil 3:21).

When situated within the political climate of Paul’s day, his declaration above is both radical and risky. The imperial cult worshipped the Roman emperor as saviour and Lord. Thus, calling Christians to confess Jesus of Nazareth not simply as “Christ” but also as “Saviour” and “Lord” is to pit the authority of Jesus with that of Caesar’s.

For Paul, the issue at stake in the Christian’s heavenly citizenship is allegiance to Jesus Christ. Working out what this allegiance means while living under Roman rule was a crucial aspect of early Christian discipleship.

Although the political context is different for Christians in Singapore, the same challenge of being citizens of heaven on earth still applies. Like the early church, we too must work out what it means to confess Jesus Christ as Lord in our context. Carrying out such a task responsibly would require us to take seriously the tension between Christ’s insistence that his kingdom is “not of this world” (Jn 18:36), and the equally clear assertion that “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ…” (Rev 20:15).

Holding on to this tension is important so that we do not fall into one of two errors: (1) failure to acknowledge the authority of Christ over the world, including civil institutions like governments; (2) failure to distinguish the authority of civil institutions from the authority of Christ over his church.

The first error leads to disengagement with society or nonchalance about our civil responsibilities. The second legitimises a politicised view of Christianity that treats our civil and political life as spheres in which the church has authority to govern.

As we celebrate 52 years of Singapore’s independence this year, it is appropriate to consider afresh what it means to live as citizens of heaven on earth. This task is especially critical in a time where the social fabric of our multi-racial and multi-religious society is being tested by the threat of religious extremism.

Often, there is no simple answer to the way our allegiance to Christ should look like in the specific details of our earthly citizenship. However, the Biblical portrait of such a citizen is clear.

According to the anonymous, second century writer of the Epistle to Diognetus, “Christians…inhabit the lands of their birth, but as temporary residents thereof; they take their share of responsibilities as citizens, and endure all disabilities as aliens. Every foreign land is native to them, and every native land, foreign territory…They pass their days upon earth, but they hold citizenship in heaven.” 1

Like the saints of old, we long for “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb 11:16) and point others to its glory by the way we live.

Rev Dr Edwin Tay is the Vice-Principal of Trinity Theological College and an ordained minister of the Methodist Church in Singapore. He holds degrees from the National University of Singapore (BA), the University of London (MA), and the University of Edinburgh (PhD).

What About 1 Timothy 2: 11-15?

September 2018 Credo

One of the most significant passages that any exegete or theologian has to grapple with when reflecting on the role of women in the Church is 1 Timothy 2: 11-15. In verse 12, the Apostle, writing to Timothy his young protégé, gave a specific instruction not to permit ‘a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man’, but to ‘remain quiet’.

In addition, Paul uses the Genesis creation account as the bedrock for his injunction: ‘For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor’ (vv 13-14). This has led some scholars and theologians to conclude that the Apostle is here issuing a command that prohibits women from teaching in the church and exercising authority that must be applied universally, in every church and in every age. Here we have Paul’s clear teaching of male headship and female submission that is based on the order of creation, gleaned from the very first book of the Bible, they insist.

However, there are a number of scholars and theologians (including the author of this article) who have profound difficulties with this way of reading this text, and the conclusions it suggests. For these scholars, there are compelling reasons to understand this instruction, not as a universal directive, but one that is bound by the particular context of the Ephesian church where Timothy was serving as a pastor.

In the first place, all scholars of the Bible would agree that Paul’s three pastoral epistles – including 1 Timothy – are occasional pieces. This means that they were written because Paul and his associate Timothy wanted to address some issues that have arisen in the Church at Ephesus. Thus, in order to properly understand the epistle, we must have some idea of what occasioned it in the first place.

The society in Ephesus, at the time this epistle was written, was dominated by the worship of the goddess Artemus, whose temple is one of the wonders of the world. Women played such a significant role in Ephesian society that some scholars have argued that their prominence in civic and professional life is unmatched by any other city in the Roman Empire.

In addition, there were the followers of the cult of Isis and the priestesses of Demeter, who stressed that men and women have equal rights and who gave women roles that were traditionally performed only by men. There even were philosophical schools in Ephesus, where women served as respected and influential teachers.

The women in the church at Ephesus, some of whom scholars believe were converts from pagan cults, also wanted to exert their rights to teach and govern, despite their lack of theological and spiritual credentials.

In the church at Ephesus, there were also some false teachers who challenged the authority of Paul and his disciple, Timothy. They preyed on the more vulnerable women in the church (2 Tim 3:1-9), especially those who were struggling with sexual problems (1 Tim 5:6, 11-16), who were weak in their faith (2 Tim 3:6-7), and who perpetrate fables and myths (1 Tim 4:7; 1 Tim 1:3).

Against this background, the main purpose of the Apostle in his letters to Timothy is not to prohibit women from teaching or exercising authority. Rather his main purpose is to protect orthodox teaching (1 Tim 2:4; 2 Tim 2:25; 3:7) from being polluted by heresies perpetrated by people who do not have the requisite theological and spiritual understanding (1 Tim 1:7), especially some of the women in the congregation.

That is why throughout the epistle, the Apostle emphasised again and again the need for good and sound teaching (1 Tim 1:3-11, 18-20; 4:1-7, 16; 6:20-21).

This brings us to Paul’s use of the Genesis account of the Fall to press his point. As mentioned above, some scholars maintain that Paul’s instruction on the role of women must be seen as a universal (as opposed to contextual) directive because it is grounded in Scripture.

However, other scholars have pointed out that Paul’s use of the Genesis story is typological. In other words, for Paul the story of Adam and Eve provides a powerful analogy to what was happening in the Ephesian Church. The women in the Ephesian church reminded Paul of the predicament of Eve in Genesis.

Just as Eve was deceived into believing the serpent, so the women in the Church at Ephesus were deceived into believing the false teachers who used these women to spread their heresies. And just as Eve’s deception resulted in disastrous consequences, so will the deception of the women in the Ephesian church bring harm to the body of Christ.

Thus in alluding to Eve, Paul is not saying that women are more likely to sin or that they are more vulnerable to deception. As Andrew Perriman points out, ‘Rather than claiming that men are less likely to be deceived, Paul chose references from Genesis to illustrate the disastrous consequences of a woman accepting and passing on false teaching’. The main concern of the apostle in this passage is not about the male-female hierarchy as such, but the problem of deception and how it can poison the community of faith.

It is therefore very important that we understand the nature of the prohibition. As Aída Besançon Spencer explains: ‘Paul here is not prohibiting women from preaching nor praying nor having an edifying authority nor pastoring. He is simply prohibiting them from teaching and using their authority in destructive ways’.

‘Consequently’, writes Stanley Grenz, ‘the apostle commanded that these women refrain from teaching and reverently learn from true teachers’.

If this reading of this problematic text is sound, then Paul’s injunction must be seen as a temporary instruction that he gave to Timothy to address a specific problem in the Ephesian church. It cannot be seen as a directive that has universal application to the Church, based on the hierarchical understanding of the relationship between man and woman.

This reading is more consistent with the rest of the NT, where the ministry of women is recognised. Paul elsewhere not only allowed women to pray and prophesy (1 Cor 11:5) but he also commended a number of women who were serving in leadership positions (Romans 16).

It is therefore reasonable to read the prohibition in 1 Timothy 2 as context-specific, that is, as addressing a particular issue in the Ephesian church and not as a permanent rule.

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.

Nanotechnologies and Ethics

September 2018 Pulse

Imagine creating robots so small that they are able to swim swiftly through fluids like blood to a specific destination to deliver medicine to treat a cancerous tumour. Such nanorobots would not only negate the need for invasive procedures; they would also make possible delivery of medical payloads that is so precisely targeted that it would significantly reduce the side effects of the drugs.

This (and many other mind-blowing applications) is the promise of nanotechnology, a new category of technology that involves the manipulation of materials or molecules at the scale of 1 to 100 nanometres. A nanometre is one-billionth of a metre.

Here is how one journalist describes a nanometre: ‘If a nanometre were somehow magnified to appear as long as the nose on your face, then a red blood cell would appear the size of the Empire State Building, a human hair would be about two or three miles wide, one of your fingers would span the continental United States, and a normal person would be about as tall as six or seven planet Earths piled atop one another’.

Although the study of nanoparticles can be traced to 1914 when Richard Adolf Zsigmondy used an ultramicroscope to investigate colloidal gold and other nanomaterials, it was only recently that scientists are able to manipulate, use and even produce them.

The current applications of nanotechnology are already quite staggering, covering areas as diverse a medicine, air quality control and energy efficiency. For example, in the field of medicine, nanoscale silver is being used as an antimicrobial agent in the treatment of wounds. Nanotechnology is also being used to increase the efficiency of fuel cells and solar cells, while reducing the costs.

Some nanotechnology products have already been commercialised and made available to the general public, often at a speed that has caused disconcertion among some commentators.

As Patrick Lin and Fritz Alhoff note: ‘These nanotechnology products are quickly entering the marketplace today, from stain-resistant pants to scratch-resistant paint to better sports equipment to more effective cosmetics and sunblock’.

Transhumanists like Williams Sims Bainbridge and Raymond Kurzweil have welcomed nanotechnology with much enthusiasm because of their firm belief that the technology would one day be so advanced that it could save human beings from illness, ageing and even death. Some transhumanists even envision the day when the human species itself with be transformed into something much more superior, free from the encumbrances and limitations it currently experiences.

The speed with which nanotechnology is developing and the scope of its applications has led some ethicists to worry that ethical reflections have lagged behind, and perhaps are even unable to catch up with the science. To be sure, there is a paucity of rigorous ethical discussion, and scientists and ethicists alike have not always greeted the new-minted ‘nanoethics’ with enthusiasm.

The good news, however, is that ethicists wrestling with the problems tossed up by this rapidly developing science need not start from scratch. As Mette Ebbesen, Svend Andersen and Flemming Besenbacher have rightly argued, ‘a number of ethical aspects of genetics, biotechnology, and environmental science parallel ethical issues in nanotechnology’.

Following Tom Beauchamp and James Childress, they insist that principles such as respect for autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence and justice can help ethicists navigate the complex labyrinth of ethical and social issues associated with nanotechnology.

Be that as it may, there is still an urgent need to directly address the ethical and social concerns that are specifically tied to this new technology and its applications.

One serious concern has to do with the uncontrolled proliferation of self-replicating nanosystems that may in the long term irreparably harm the ecosystem as it spreads in the environment. In addition, nanobots that malfunction and could no longer be controlled or even detected could not only cause untold damage to the environment but also endanger human lives (K. Eric Dexler’s famous ‘gray goo’).

The dual-use nature of nanotechnology means that products that are meant for therapeutic applications can also be used for biological warfare and terrorism. Although this is a common issue for many technologies, in the case of nanotechnology the problem is much more complex and magnified (pun intended).

The list can easily be expanded.

In an important document on the ethical and social issues raised by nanotechnologies, UNESCO identifies several other peculiarities associated with nanotechnology, broader issues to which serious consideration must be given.

The first has to do with the fact that the ramifications and consequences of nanotechnology are global, affecting ‘even countries and societies that are not participating in nanotechnology as researchers, producers, or consumers’.

And the second has to do with the fact that nanotechnology will most certainly increase the inequalities that already exists between developing and developed countries, what some commentators have described as the ‘nanodivide’.

Although Ebbesen et al are right to point out that the issues addressed in nanoethics and general ethics related to technology bear some familial resemblances, there is still a need to think outside the box and anticipate novel scenarios when it comes to this new technology.

To do this scientists, ethicists and policy makers must not only learn to ‘problematise’ nanotechnology. They must also learn to ‘fictionalise’ it, that is, imagine possible utopian or dystopian futures in relation to this technology. As M. L. Brake and N. Hook note: ‘Science fiction helps to train our intellects to accept our imagination as a useful tool within science’s “toolbox”’.

Because the social and ethical issues associated with nanotechnology are immense and complex, scientists and policy-makers should not be too quick to commercialise nanotech products.

Engagement with the public involving as many sectors of society as possible is not only desirable; it is imperative. This is because the social ramifications of nanotechnology – positive or negative – can potentially impact everyone, users and non-users alike.

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.