Author Archives: ETHOS Institute

Bloody Witness

August 2016 Pulse

In November 2010, Fr. Christian Mbusa Bakulene and a parish worker were walking to St. John the Baptist Church in Kanyabayonga in the province of North Kivu of the Democratic Republic of Congo, when two armed men in combat fatigue stopped them and asked: “Which one of you is the priest?” They shot Fr. Bakulene and walked away, leaving his companion unharmed.

This is just one of the many random cases of persecution that Christians are facing all over the world today. They are the tip of the tip of a very large iceberg.

Most Christians in the West and in countries like Singapore are not even aware of the extent of the problem and the plight of our brothers and sisters in many countries across the globe.

Here are the facts.

More Christians were killed for their faith in the 20th century than all the previous centuries combined. According to the world’s leading demographers of religion David B. Barrett and Todd Johnson, out of the 70 million martyrs since the time of Christ, about 45 million died for their faith in the 20th century.

About 80 per cent of all acts of discrimination in the world today are directed at Christians. Martin Lessenthin, the chairman of the International Society for Human Rights who made this report in 2009, pointed out that other human rights observatories have confirmed this estimate.

In its September 2012 report, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a highly-respected secular think- tank based in Washington D.C., stated that in the period between 2006 and 2010, Christians were harassed in 139 nations – three-quarters of the nations in the world.

One of the most prominent organisations that tracks anti-Christian persecution is Open Doors, an evangelical advocacy and relief organisation. According to its report, about 100 million Christians today suffer violent persecution for their faith, making Christians the most high-risk group for religious freedom violations.

The annual ‘Status of Global Mission’ report published by the Centre for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary estimates that about 100,000 to 150,000 Christians are killed each year for their faith.

In 2012, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, which was established in 1998 by President Bill Clinton, names the following countries with the worst records for the violation of religious freedom: Burma, China, North Korea, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. And the people that suffered the most violations in all these countries are Christians.

It would be a mistake to think that Christians are persecuted only when they are in the demographic minority. Just think of Russia, the Ukraine, and parts of Latin America where persecution is rife even though the majority of the population is Christian.

In his book, The Global War on Christians, John Allen Jr. explains why such a myth is toxic: “It obscures large swaths of the planet from view in thinking about the threats that Christians face, and suggests a false sense of invulnerability for Christians in societies where they represent the majority.”

There are Christian human rights organisations like Open Doors and Christian Freedom International that are helping persecuted Christians in different parts of the world. But religious persecution in the modern world is so complex that there is a limit to what NGOs and non-profit organisations can do to address the problem.

The Church must pray for her persecuted and suffering members. She must pray not only for them to be delivered, but also for them to be faithful.

In his moving account of Catholic martyrs in the 20th century, Robert Royal writes poignantly: “Martyrdom is in a deep sense the paradigm for the Christian life. Any person who starts to follow the Master seriously cannot help but find himself or herself attacked by the same forces that attacked him. Happy is the age that does not produce a large crop of martyrs. But even happier is the age whose people are willing to remain with Christ whether it means martyrdom or not, for from that willingness to die springs everything that makes it worthwhile to live.”


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was published in the March 2016 issue of the Methodist Message.

 

 

Art and Meaning

August 2016 Pulse

In his profound study on symbols and the sacred, the Catholic religious philosopher Louis Dupré observes that for the longest stretch of human history art and religion are inseparable. Changes in cultural sensibilities, however, have caused the two to drift apart.

‘A heightened sense of transcendence and an increasing secularization separated the two to a point where art could be without being sacred and where religion developed some of its symbols outside the range of aesthetics’, writes Dupré.

That art and religion are so closely related to one another should not surprise us. Cultural anthropologists have long noticed that art and religion seem to have the same roots. And even though aesthetic and religious symbols are in some important sense different, they enjoy such close affinity that they affect each other, often in creative and surprising ways.

From the standpoint of theology, the basis and the possibility of human art is the creation, fashioned lovingly and purposefully by its Creator. As The Hispanic theologian Alejandro García-Rivera explains: ‘Art’s theological dimension has its origin in God’s own art, the natural beauty of Creation’.

Creation’s beauty reflects the beauty of its Creator, for as theologians like von Balthasar have pointed out God’s glory is his beauty. The beauty of the world, through which the beauty of God is revealed, is a creaturely beauty that transforms the beholder – it is a beauty that in some real sense demands a decision, a conversion.

Furthermore, it is important to note that human beings are themselves part of God’s art. Thus as García-Rivera has perceptively pointed out, in contemplating the beauty of the world, ‘the human creature catches an intriguing and wondrous glimpse of itself.’

Perhaps the distance that modernity has created between art and religion can be attributed to its lost of the sense of true beauty. This has two adverse results: the inability to recognize beauty’s intrinsic value and a morbid preference for the banal. This is the constant lament of the British philosopher Roger Scruton in his thoughtful book, Beauty.

Insofar as beauty – together with truth and goodness – is a transcendental, the secularization of art in modern and post-modern culture may be characterized as the lost of the sense of those universal qualities that belong to the very essence of being itself.

This eclipse of the transcendentals has caused modern art to lose touch with reality itself, plunging it into the barrenness of what some have called an ‘aesthetic nominalism’, where art becomes merely a celebration of the individuality of the artist. We see this in the baneful iconoclasms of Duchamp and Picasso.

Such ‘art’, in fact, spells the end of art. The great art critic, Ernst Gombrich is therefore quite right to characterise the modern predicament thus: ‘There is no such thing as “art”. There are only individual artists’.

It is only when beauty is returned to art – or to put it the other way around, it is only when art begins to take the transcendentals seriously – will art begin once again to be in touch with reality. And when art does that, it will in different ways attempt to give form to the transcendental mystery.

Only such art may achieve ‘an evocation of the sense of the absolutely unknowable’, writes Joseph Campbell. This is especially true for religious art; but it can also be the case for any form of art, as long as it is good art (in the way that we have sought to defined it here).

Art that seeks to penetrate and interpret the real can therefore be a kind of prophetic word – speaking a visible word and with an articulate image – raising its image-voice against some of the ills of our society. And as Karen Stone has put it so eloquently, such art has the ability to cause us to ‘imagine and form an alternative to the ruling order within ourselves and in our world’.

The evocative nature of art can sensitize the viewer to the needs of others, even alerting him to the plight of the people whom he has never met. Art can help us to come to grips with the irrationality of human atrocities and the depths of human suffering.

For example, in Backs Magdelena Abakanowicz, who lived through the horrors of World War II, portrays the prisoners in the concentration camps in World War II, depicting both the atrocities they suffer and the endurance of the human spirit in a way that is truly compelling. Such art in some sense transcends the particularities of culture and history and speaks to the human soul.

Of course, not every piece of art – even good art – does this. But insofar as art is truly in touch with the real – in both its revelation and hiddenness – it has the potential to do so.

And when it does, art acquires that sacramental quality – it becomes the means by which God’s grace is able to make present (to disclose) profound truths about our human condition and about the world in which we have created for ourselves.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 

 

Speaking About God

August 2016 Credo

The Christian faith is premised on the belief that since God has revealed himself, the Church as the recipient of this divine self-disclosure is able to say something true about him. Put differently, Christians believe that their speech about God – in their prayers, worship and sermons – is both objective and true.

This assertion concerning the veracity and truthfulness of the Church’s speech about God has been subjected to attack and ridicule since the Enlightenment, especially in the writings of its more radical spokesmen like the French philosopher and encyclopaedist Baron d’Holbach. In our time, writers such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens – the so-called ‘new atheists’ – have continued this campaign of rubbishing all forms of theological or religious language.

Even the more sympathetic among the modern philosophers have questioned the epistemic significance of much of theological language.

For example, R. M. Hare, writing in the 1960s argues that religious language says nothing objective about reality but only expresses the outlook of the person or community who uses it. While Hare is willing to concede that some theological speech – or bliks as he calls them – may be meaningful, the claims that they make cannot be empirically verified.

Similarly, R. B. Braithwaite argues that religious language does not contain any information about the world, but merely expresses the speaker’s intent. The meaning of a religious claim or assertion, he insists, ‘is given in its use in expressing the asserter’s intention to follow a specified policy of behaviour’.

The Christian understanding of the veracity and truthfulness of the Church’s speech about God is based on the doctrines of creation and revelation.

Christians believe that because God has created the world, the latter can and does reveal or reflect its Creator in some measure and in some significant ways. This means that the world that God has brought into being tells us something about him, just like a work of art or music disclose something about the artist or composer.

This is the general revelation of God in creation.

In addition, as the great Swiss-German theologian Karl Barth has pointed out, in his special revelation in Scripture, God commandeers human words that describe the things of this world in such a way that they are now truly able to speak of him. To put this in another way, in his special revelation God teaches us how we may speak about him by using our words – i.e., human words – to describe his own being and character.

We may therefore say that the Church’s speech about God is authorised by God himself in Scripture.

Both general and special revelation, however, presuppose that human words can be used to speak about God. And this brings us back to fact that God has created the world in such a way that there is a real correspondence between the creation and the Creator.

This of course does not mean that the world is exactly like God, for the Creator is qualitatively different from the creation. However, although creatures can never be said to be exactly like their Creature they do resemble their Creator in some sense.

Thus, the great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas could assert that ‘Any creature, in so far as it possesses any perfection, represents God and is like him, for he, being simply and universally perfect has pre-existing in himself the perfections of all his creatures’. This means that the things that are said about the creature can also be said about God, its Creator.

A simple concrete illustration would bring clarity to Aquinas’ dense philosophical argument.

For instance, when we say ‘Solomon is wise’, we are attributing wisdom (which is a perfection) to Solomon. According to Aquinas, that perfection – wisdom – can also be attributed to God since the creature resembles the Creator.

However, a further qualification must be made. Although we can say that both God and Solomon are wise – that they both literally possess wisdom – God’s wisdom and that of Solomon are radically different.

And because of this difference, ‘wisdom’ is not used univocally of God and Solomon, although they both possess that perfection. Neither is ‘wisdom’ used unequivocally because that would suggest that God’s wisdom is not only radically different from that of Solomon, but totally so.

But if that were indeed the case, the assertion that ‘God is wise’ would be meaningless to us because we would have no idea what constitutes divine wisdom, what it looks like.

Human wisdom is therefore analogous with divine wisdom. This means that there are similarities as well as profound dissimilarities between the two.

In addition, God alone possesses true wisdom and all creaturely wisdom, however excellent, is always derived from and therefore dependent upon divine wisdom. This means that words used analogously of God and creatures apply primarily to God and only secondarily to creatures.

Analogy therefore helps us to understand how the Church is able to talk about God with human words. As the English theologian of the last century E.L. Mascall puts it: ‘The function of the doctrine of analogy is not to make it possible for us to talk about God in the future but to explain how it is that we have been able to talk about him all along’.

This doctrine of analogy has important implications for the theological language of the Church.

Because words can be used analogously to describe God and creatures, our statements about God do describe his divine nature (e.g., God is really wise). However, because the words we use for creatures are used of God only analogously, they can never adequately speak of him.

To fail to understand the limitations of our language when it is used for God is to be in danger of idolatry – of creating misleading and harmful distortions by reducing God to our concepts.

The doctrines of creation and revelation show that the Christian’s speech about God is not merely an expression of his existential angst or his attempts at self-projection (Feuerbach). The Christian is able to say something objective and true about God’s being and character.

The doctrine of analogy explains how this is done.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

 

 

 

Niebuhr in Asia: Christianity and Culture

August 2016 Feature Article

When we speak of ‘culture’, what do we mean? It is a notoriously slippery term, especially so when an Australian is writing for an unseen global readership! Culture can be ‘your culture’, ‘my culture’ or ‘our culture’. It can be as broad or as specific as one wishes. But in order to discuss its relationship with Christianity, we will need a working definition. For its inherent value in this discussion, I consider T.S. Eliot’s definition as powerful: “culture is an incarnation of the religion of the people”.[1] By this, the great poet meant that culture arises from beliefs; it is the offspring of beliefs.

If Eliot is correct, then it is the spiritual capital of a race or nation that forms the backbone of its culture. This can be seen in very explicit ways (in religious architecture, for example). But it can also be extremely integrated and organic in its expression. For example, a culture that holds a high place for children will exhibit different characteristics to one that does not. The set of beliefs in operation in a society concerning an afterlife will be seen to have effects on a culture’s approach to war, environmental issues, health care, and disability.

This paper addresses the way any particular culture—Singaporean, Australian or otherwise—might relate to the Christian faith. This assumes that Christianity is more than a culture, a view that might be challenged by post-metaphysical thinkers. However, it is a widely held feature of almost all Christian traditions that its doctrine is transcendent, and cultural expressions of this faith and practice will vary. For all of its interspersions with the cultures it encounters, Christianity retains a metaphysical heart, proposing answers to worldview questions such as the nature of God, the nature of human beings, the meaning of the world, and the possibility of ultimate justice.

Since the late 18th century, there has been strong interest in connecting the Christian religion with modern culture. A range of philosophers, theologians and cultural theorists have explored how Christianity is, should be, or shouldn’t be, in relationship with a national culture, or a set of cultures. Whilst all of this work remains interesting and pertinent, I have chosen one particular author through whom to shape our discussion.

My point of reference is the well-known work by American theologian, H. Richard Niebuhr. In the 1950s, Niebuhr wrote a very influential short book called Christ and Culture.[2] In it, he posits a series of views concerning how Christianity (by which he means something like ‘the Christian Church in the West’ might relate to the world it found itself in after the second World War. Niebuhr offered a five-part paradigm of relations between the Christians and the culture. Although influenced strongly by existentialism, the post-war mood and Barthian theology, there is ongoing value in his distinctions.

I will use Niebuhr as my background to consider these various ways that Christians in China might consider their ‘stance’ towards the broader culture. I offer these thoughts humbly, as a visitor with a love for Asian culture, and a growing but ‘youthful’ understanding of its wonderful diversity.

Niebuhr’s Five Positions

For Christians, there is an ongoing question about what it means to say “Jesus Christ is Lord” in the present day. Because this statement is both a dogmatic belief, and an expression of eschatological hope, its meaning is complex. Christians follow the theological, ethical and practical teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, but do they expect others, of different beliefs, to do so? And do they expect Christian views to gain a hearing in the arenas of politics, morality or business ethics? Furthermore, do Christians expect to participate freely in a culture, or do they expect that their beliefs will exclude them from participation at some (or many) points? Do they deliberately involved themselves in broader cultural pursuits, or do they withdraw to practise their religion as purely and unimpeded as possible?

These are the questions that spurred Niebuhr to construct his five views of how Christianity and culture can relate. Each view deserves brief mention.

First, it is possible to position Christ against culture. If a Christian sees the culture as actively or passively antagonistic to faith, he may see little or no connection between the church and the world outside it. This view is found in the statement from Tertullian, the second century Christian apologist: “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” In other words, Tertullian suggests that the worldviews of Christianity and the cultures in which it finds itself, are bound to clash, to be vastly different and incompatible. One of them must move. Often in history, it has been the Christians who have withdrawn from the culture, setting up monastic communities or separate schooling systems. We see this stance today in some areas of bioethics or financial affairs, where Christians may feel a need to separate from the norms of the culture in order to be faithful to Christ.

The second position takes the other extreme, to subscribe to the Christ of culture. Christians holding this view do not feel any significant tensions between the Christian worldview and the culture they inhabit. In this view, Christianity might offer the highest forms of culture and Christians endeavour to blend Christ into culture as a gift of excellence. Christianity is the ‘best of humanity’, it is argued, and therefore to christianize the culture is to improve it; this is the spiritual goal. This position was held by a number of 19th Century liberal Protestants, who saw the task of the church as the civilizing of a culture too influenced by barbaric or pedestrian ideals.

The remaining three positions sit between the first two extremes. It is possible to think of Christ above culture, which is perhaps the most common position taken by the Church throughout Christian history. In this view, Christianity exists beyond any cultural expressions of it, but is a church for the world. Christians become involved in the culture, seeking roles of authority and influence. They have confidence in the Christian worldview as a means of rational and ethical governance of a society, all the while maintaining that there is a reality and a community beyond that of the world, and it is the church. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Mk 12:17; Matt 22:20-22) might be the catchcry of this standpoint.

It is also possible to conceive, rather awkwardly, of Christ and culture in paradox. This view recognizes that Christians are simul justus et peccator (“always just, always a sinner”, a quote from Martin Luther) and therefore are as much part of the culture as they are part of the Church. In this view the culture is corrupt, and Christians are part of that corrupt culture; but they are also forgiven in Christ, held by grace. They live a paradoxical life. They are therefore right to be immersed in the culture as ‘natural man’, but ought to be doing their work there as slaves of Christ, obeying God in the midst of a sinful environment.

Finally, there is a view of Christ transforming culture, held by the original Calvinists. Niebuhr emphasizes (perhaps over-emphasizes) the goodness of the world that God created, and the capacity to return it to the state in which it was created. Thus, Christians enact that journey back to Eden, the return to perfection, as they dwell in the world. So, to build ‘Jerusalem’ or ‘Geneva’ or ‘America’ becomes the goal of Christian endeavour. This view is profoundly optimistic in its eschatology. It sees Christian actions in the world as eternally valuable. A less extreme version of this view would see Christians as “inaugurating the kingdom of God on earth”, even if that place will not finally come to be manifest until the return of Jesus Christ.

Contemporary Criticisms of Niebuhr

Niebuhr’s paradigm is extremely helpful as a tool for discussion of these various stances. However, it has come under constant criticism, especially for the nebulous nature of the terms used. North American Christian scholars such as George Marsden and Don Carson have criticized Niebuhr’s understanding of both ‘Christ’ and ‘culture’. Marsden argues that none of Niebuhr’s categories are specific enough to help today’s Christians map their relations with the 21st Century world. For instance, Marsden says there is little to be gained by a broad term such as ‘culture’ rather than specific enquiries into how disciplines and areas of public life such as art, politics, medicine or business might relate to the Christian worldview.

Carson wishes to suggest that the use of biblical theology modifies Niebuhr’s quadrants in a useful way. Whereas Niebuhr posits theoretical stances, Carson argues that the unfolding story of Scripture, with its “non-negotiables of biblical theology”, provides a clearer map of how Christians relate to the world. Through the acknowledgement of the development of God’s relationship with the world—from creation and then the fall into sin, to redemption in Christ and then the promise of a new heavens and new earth—Carson argues that we are given a stronger base on which to make decisions about Christian living.

Christians cannot long think about Christ and culture without reflecting on the fact that this is God’s world, but that this side of the fall this world is simultaneously resplendent with glory and awash with shame, and that every expression of human culture simultaneously discloses that we were made in God’s image and shows itself to be mis-shaped and corroded by human rebellion against God.[3]

Another author, Craig A. Carter, argues that implicit in Niebuhr’s thesis is the view that Christendom is the desirable state of culture, and one that should be restored. “The essence of the idea is the assertion that Western civilization is Christian”.[4] Niebuhr, in Carter’s view, is simply offering various methods by which that restoration might occur. A broader expression of this criticism might be that the West has laboured under the influence of Emperor Constantine’s success in integrating Christian structures and practices into the Roman Empire of the fourth Century. The contemporary Church is questioning whether ‘Constantinianism’ is a desirable project.

Social critics have suggested that Niebuhr’s conception of culture is already infected by modernist distinctions between high and low culture, between European high aesthetics and more grassroots cultural phenomena. In other words, culture is as much Madonna as Mahler, Lady Gaga as Lord Byron. It is football, dancing and gardening as much as it is fine art and classical music.

In summary, Niebuhr has provided an enduring but approximate way of describing the relationship between Christianity and culture. In reflecting on the nature of his thesis, it has struck me that there is no one category to which many Christians would happily subscribe. Most Christians see in each category something important about the way they do, or should, relate to their culture. There may be a way of understanding why this is the case.

A Christological Proposal regarding Christ and Culture

In Christian theology, Jesus plays a central role. In fact Christology is the study of the many and various understandings of him; from teacher (rabbi) to member of the Trinity, to co-Creator, to Son of Man, and so forth, Jesus is the centre of the faith. The Bible passage in Colossians 1:15-20 helps us to see the comprehensive role that is given to Jesus in Christian faith:

15The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (New International Version).

Such an all-encompassing vision of Christ’s importance leads me to consider the manner in which He may be central to understanding the relationship between Christians and culture. Could it be that each of the aspects of Niebuhr’s paradigm corresponds with different roles that Jesus Christ is given in the Bible?

Christ is against culture in his role as Judge, declaring what is righteous and shunning evil. Christ is of culture in his humanity, being fully human but bearing divinity at the same time. He is the perfect expression of Man. Christ is above culture in his Lordship, a doctrine that is both contemporary and eschatological for Christians (“now and not yet”), while we wait for his glory to be revealed. And Christ is transforming culture; he began as co-Creator (with the Father and Spirit), and continues as ‘new creator’, the one through whom peace and reconciliation is being achieved.

Where the Church is emulating Christ, it can take on each of these roles in relation to the culture, as is fitting in time and place: judge, full participant, ‘lord’ (or authority), and transforming servant. The only aspect of the Niebuhr paradigm for which such a christological focus doesn’t work is to see Christ and culture in paradox, for this involves the acknowledgement of sin and failure. Where Christians are ‘always just, always sinner’, Christ himself remained perfectly obedient to God. Perhaps this is addressed in a Bible passage such as 2 Corinthians 5:21, which speaks of Christ “becoming sin” for us. This difficult concept (a sinless man who becomes sin but remains perfect) is best understood in terms of substitutionary theory: the sinless Christ substituted for the sinful man, such that Christ is treated as if he were a sinner.

Nevertheless, this particular difficulty with Christ and culture in paradox does not detract from the overall value of analyzing one’s stance towards the culture in terms of whichever role of Christ is most significant for any given time or circumstance.

For example, in assessing an ethical issue, it may be appropriate for the Church to take a stance as ‘judge’ of the culture, critiquing an evil law or process. Or it may be appropriate for Christians to fully participate in a culture, as citizens—for example, as part of an Olympics or a public festival of unity. At times, it will be appropriate for Christians to express the authority of the Church; I would suggest this is the case if a central doctrine of Christianity is being declared illegal or inadmissible. And it is certainly important that Christians act as “salt and light” to transform a culture, offering the good blessings of the Christian worldview to a world in need. An area where this might apply is in contributing to social services.

Overall, it is valuable to reflect christologically on the connection between Christ and culture, to determine, situation by situation, what attitude or stance Christ himself might take to a particular cultural moment or event or issue. This is likely to result in any or all of Niebuhr’s positions being valid and appropriate as a summary of how the Church and the culture might relate.

Building culture

As all governments understand, culture is something that can be built. The construction of culture can take a long time, but it need not. Sometimes, events or decisions shape a culture decisively in a short time period: the events of September 11, 2001 in America changed the country’s culture overnight. Technology changes behaviour rapidly, bringing about new cultural expressions (for example, the iPod very quickly changed the way music was purchased and appreciated).

But, if T.S. Eliot is correct, the deepest changes to culture emerge from changed beliefs. When the Bible informs belief, cultures are affected. This effect can be for the good of the culture; in fact, in every part of the Niebuhr paradigm, the relationship between the Church and the culture is for the good of the culture. Even the ‘Christ against culture’ approach includes a desire that the culture ‘see the light’ so that integration and acceptance might be possible.

An example of the cultural impact of beliefs can be found in India. The caste system in India allows, indeed insists, that not all people are equal. Some are born into situations that label them for life as inferior, even as untouchable. Things that happen to you in life are a result of karma, and history cannot fight the forces of karma, fate, nature or even entrenched culture. Such beliefs flow over into how one treats the sick, whether babies have rights, and whether a person is more valuable than an animal. As Indian Christian philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi writes in his book addressing the importance of the Bible for culture-shaping, “Notions of human dignity and rights came to India with Christian education”.[5]

The effects of Christianity on any particular culture will be unique in some elements, and general in others. Christianity contributes to many aspects of a culture, not just a narrow sector of it. The history of the impact of Christianity on a nation is always rich, complex and fascinating. As Christianity continues to grow and develop in Asia, I look forward to seeing how Asian Christians seek to relate to the culture through the wide lens of Christology, in all of its dimensions, and am very happy to be a small part of thinking about how best this can be done.


Dr. Greg Clarke

Dr Greg Clarke is CEO of Bible Society Australia, the nation’s oldest continuously operating organisation. His doctorate is in literature, and he has published books on a range of topics including the life of Jesus, spirituality in The Da Vinci Code and the Bible’s teaching about the end of the world.


[1] T.S. Eliot, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, Faber & Faber, London, 1948, p.33. See also his The Idea of a Christian Society, Faber & Faber, London, 1939.

[2]  H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, Harper & Row, New York, 1951.

[3]  D.A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2008, p.49.

[4]  Craig A. Carter, Rethinking Christ and Culture: A Post-Christendom Perspective, Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, 2006, p.14.

[5] Vishal Mangalwadi, The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western CIvilisation, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 2011, p.66.

Interrogating Multiculturalism

July 2016 Pulse

In June 2011, I wrote an article for The Straits Times on multiculturalism in Singapore at the invitation of the The United Nations Alliance of Civilisation. In the article, I argued that the Government’s approach has succeeded in fostering social cohesion in multi-racial Singapore. I suggested that the Singapore model could provide insights on how the West could address some of the conundrums it is experiencing with state multiculturalism.

Multiculturalism is no doubt one of the defining features of Singapore history and society. Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, is right to identify multiculturalism as one of the ‘soft powers’ of the nation-state, together with leadership and governance.

The Bible provides a number of powerful pictures of cultural diversity. For example, in Revelation 7:9 (ESV), we have the wonderful portrayal of the multitude “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” praising God in the new creation.

Ethnic and cultural diversity are not the result of human rebellion and sin. They are part of God’s good creation, an expression of the inexhaustible originative genius of the Creator. Cultural diversity should therefore be celebrated.

Undergirding this great diversity is a profound unity. The story of the creation of Adam and Eve underscores the fact that human beings from every race and culture share the same genetic ancestry. And, as Genesis 1:26 makes clear, all human beings are created in the image of God and are thus equally valued and loved by their Creator.

The Incarnation brings out the importance of our shared humanity and the value of cultural and ethnic identity in a way that is at once profound and elegant. In taking up our humanity, the eternal Son of God affirmed its goodness and value. And in coming as a Jew in the Incarnation, the Son underscores the significance of ethnic identity.

Human rebellion and sin, however, has distorted and perverted the unity and diversity of the human race in grave and destructive ways.

Firstly, it introduced enmity and mutual suspicion into cultural diversity, fracturing human relationships and turning ethnic identity into an idolatrous ethnocentricity. Secondly, as the story of the Tower of Babel indicates, it promoted a false unity that is in fact a species of tyrannical totalitarianism.

Sin can also corrupt our philosophies and practices of multiculturalism, causing them to be short-sighted, parochial and alienating.

Multiculturalism could easily be hijacked by postmodern relativism that insists that morality is relative to particular cultures. Such moral relativism, when mixed with the rhetoric of tolerance and a penchant for political correctness, could foster the belief that members of one culture have no right to make judgements about the practices of another culture or tradition.

In some cases, even legitimate observations or criticisms could lead to charges of racism, Islamophobia or homophobia. For example, Thilo Sarrazin was asked to step down from his position on the board of the Deutsche Bundesbank for writing a book that criticised Muslim immigrants for refusing to integrate into German society.

Here then is the unsettling irony: Imbued with moral relativism, multiculturalism can become an extremely intolerant ideology.

Multiculturalism could also promote a species of irrationalism and a naïve emotionalism that can unleash chaos in public life and may prove detrimental to social stability. By substituting slogans – “racism”, “intolerance”, “Islamophobia”, and “homophobia” – for rigorous thought, multiculturalism could induce a subtle but destructive intellectual and moral stupor.

Multiculturalism may sometimes use the language of “cultural rights” to legitimise traditional practices even though they violate the dignity of certain members of the community. Female genital mutilation, which is practised in certain Asian and North and Central African countries as well as immigrant groups and which is deemed demeaning and unethical by many, is a case in point.

On its own, multiculturalism appears quite incapable of resolving the conflict between “cultural rights” and universal rights.

Finally, multiculturalism could lead to the radical insularisation of individual ethnic communities that may cause societies to become fractured, fragmented and divisive.

This is largely the problem with multiculturalism in Europe, which led Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the former French President Nicholas Sarkozy to declare it an “utter failure”. David Cameron hit the nail on the head when he said that state multiculturalism in Europe has not worked because it has “failed to provide a vision of society”.

Instead of engendering a more inclusive society, multiculturalism can foster a segregating parochialism that alienates communities from each other and from the rest of society.

Multiculturalism is about acknowledging, respecting and celebrating our cultural differences and particularities. But it should also be about how we must transcend these particularities in order that we may build our common life together.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was originally published in the December 2016 issue of the Methodist Message. 

Dying Faithfully: Biblical & Theological Perspectives

July 2016 Feature Article

A statement made by a former archbishop of the Church of England in July 2014 caused quite a stir among Christians, not only in his own denomination, but also among others. Retired archbishop George Carey commented on how his views about physician assisted suicide (PAS; or “assisted dying” as Carey called it) had changed. He wrote, “The fact is that I have changed my mind. The old philosophical certainties have collapsed in the face of the reality of needless suffering.”[1] That this statement came from Carey, considered an evangelical, was a surprise to many.

Carey’s arguments for his changed views had to do with the nature of God’s love and the reality of  immense suffering (which he now considers to be meaningless suffering) of many terminally-ill patients. According to him, the loving God would not allow such meaningless suffering and would accept and endorse such patients choosing to end their suffering. Carey said that his previous arguments of the “slippery slope” (the argument that allowing PAS would open a can of other problems) and potential abuse by powers have become less convincing. Carey’s position was supported by the liberal archbishop Desmond Tutu. What Carey said brought some degree of confusion, so much so that the incumbent Church of England archbishop issued a statement to clarify the church’s unchanged position on the matter. [2]

The Situation Today

We now have increasing public discussions on dying, a topic that is usually not the subject of normal social conversations. But two things have changed that. Firstly, the rapid development of medical science and technology poses novel dilemmas for patients, and their families and physicians, when life can be prolonged, even in its terminal stages, through medical technology. Secondly, the erosion of long-held moral foundations and the rise of individualistic ideas of right and wrong have introduced intense debates on how society should proceed in this “brave new world.” There is an increasingly popular view that personal happiness is the summum bonum  (highest good) of life, thus absolutizing the freedom of choice and personal autonomy. It is, therefore, argued that each patient has the right to choose to die when suffering with terminal illness that is considered meaningless and unbearable. Theologians such as David Wells address this morally confusing ideas by showing that we live in an age when our understanding of ourselves as moral beings has been eclipsed by extreme forms of individualism and consumerism that have resulted in people becoming “moral illiterati” and “morally vacant”.[3]

The noble task of medicine is to find cures for illnesses that patients suffer. However, when one is diagnosed to suffer from an incurable and terminal illness, there are people who will find every means possible to find a cure or to prolong their life. Some desperately hold on to life, clutching at every straw offered. They travel and try whatever “cure” is available whether by doctors or charlatans until their deteriorating medical condition stops them. Commercialised medicine and the development of a wide range of untested alternative medicines do not help the situation. At the same time, doctors attempt to prolong the patient’s life using new tools and techniques. With increasing costs of medical treatment, this can be a grossly expensive but futile business.

It is for this reason that there are some people who are horrified by the thought of having their lives prolonged unnecessarily by extraordinary medical means – in a situation when death is imminent and unavoidable. Along with this, there are also others who, in the context of the pain and hopelessness of terminal illness, prefer to end their lives earlier through euthanasia. They consider it their individual right to make such a decision.

Some Definitions

Euthanasia is “the intentional killing by act or omission of a dependent human being for his or her alleged benefit.”[4] The word “intentional” is emphasised here.  If death is not intended, it is not an act of euthanasia.[5]

Euthanasia can be voluntary (where the patient makes the decision) or involuntary (where others make the decision for the patient). It can also be active (for example, by giving lethal injections) or passive (for example, the withholding of food and water and customary care). When it is voluntary, it can be carried out directly by a physician (by, say, giving a lethal injection). Alternatively it can be achieved through PAS, when the doctor makes available to the patient the means by which he can take his own life. Voluntary euthanasia can also be carried out by acts of omission, as mentioned above. Such acts can also be involuntary, when the medical staff withhold food and medicines.[6] This would be considered as euthanasia as the intention is to speed up the death of the patent, that is, to kill the patient.

While euthanasia and PAS seek to shorten life, an Advance Medical Directive (AMD) seeks to prevent the unnecessary prolonging of life through extraordinary medical measures, which are heroic in their efforts but futile. Therein is the difference between euthanasia and AMD. In AMD, while heroic medicine is withheld to a dying patient, palliative care is not – which means that food and water are given, along with painkillers and other symptomatic medication to relieve the suffering of the patient. For these various reasons, from a Christian perspective, AMD is morally acceptable while euthanasia is not.

What does the Bible Say?

Our moral compass to deal with such a difficult and sensitive issue as the needs and rights of a dying patient must be found in the Bible, which has an authoritative place for faith and practice. What does the Bible say? What follows is a meditation on a Bible text that can help us to elucidate some important theological principles that can guide us in our thinking and actions. The text comes from a book in the Old Testament that deals with inexplicable and intense suffering (from our human perspective) in the life of a man called Job. The poor man does not have the advantage of listening to the dialogue that takes place between God and Satan. All he experiences is blow after blow in his life and the sudden and rapid deterioration in his personal circumstances. In many ways, his situation is akin to a patient who is suddenly struck with terminal illness, and whose world crashes in on him or her.

The key text is Job 2:3-10.

God Owns Us (Possession)

In this text, God has a wager with Satan. Initially, in an earlier wager (Job 1), God had allowed Satan to take away all of Job’s children (and therefore future), and possessions. But in spite of his devastating losses, Job was still faithful to God. He “did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing” (Job 1:22). God was pleased with Job’s unshakeable faith, and made it known to Satan, which leads to the second wager.

Satan said, “A man will give all he has for his own life. But stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face” (Job 2:4). He claimed that Job’s faith would change when his own body is struck and when he has to physically suffer. Confident of his servant Job’s steady faith, God gave permission to Satan to strike Job with illness and physical pain. But there was one condition. God limited what Satan could do to strike Job’s body with illness by telling him, “but you must spare his life” (Job 2:6). Why did God set this limit?

Satan is always slipping errors and falsehood in his speech. In this instance, he refers to Job’s “own life” (Job 2:4). But does Job’s life belong to him? The answer is No.

God created man and owns his life.

God created us in His image (Gen 1:27). He breathed His breath of life into the form of man he made from the dust, and man became a living being (Gen 2:7). When we die, our spirit returns to God (Ecc 12:7 – the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it). The fact that God made us in His image and that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps 139:14) means that we have a God-given dignity and our lives are precious.

Here in the book of Job, these truths that God is our Creator and the One who has given us life is reiterated. In Job 1:21, we read: “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.” God is the giver of life, and also the taker of life. He alone possesses that right and power. The book also acknowledges that “The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life” (Job 33:4; this statement was made by Elihu, one of Job’s counsellors).

For the Christian, God’s ownership is a double ownership – He owns us as our Creator and as our Saviour. We are therefore to honour God with our whole lives, including our bodies, because we have been purchased and redeemed by Christ. Thus we read in 1Cor 6:19-20, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own;  you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” We do not belong to ourselves, but to God. He alone has the right to give life and take it away.

This truth is further emphasised when we read Rom 14:7-8 NIV – “For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone.  If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” No one stands alone on his own, claiming absolute rights over his life and death. Because we are related to God (as Creator and Saviour), because we belong to Him, we do not have the right to take our own lives, or to take someone else’s life. Any discussion of personal autonomy must also deal with the important question of responsibility, especially relational responsibility. We are accountable to God because we are related to Him as His creation.

Our days are numbered by God.

Amid his inexplicable suffering, Job patiently and wisely spoke to God, “Man’s days are determined; you have decreed the number of his months and have set limits he cannot exceed” (Job 14:5). He acknowledged God’s authority over his life and God’s pre-determination of his life span, which means that God has also determined when and how his life would end. The psalmist declared the same truth when he told God, “My times are in your hands” (Ps 31:15).

This knowledge that God has already set our days is further expressed in Ps 139:16 – “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be”.  In this great psalm, God’s intimate involvement in the creation of life is acknowledged. God is not a distant power who is not interested in all the details of our life. Rather, He is always present, from whose presence we cannot really escape. Such an intimate involvement in our lives on the part of God means that even our death is a matter of personal concern to Him. He had already determined how and when we will die, even before we were born. The time of our death is decided by God. It is He alone who has the authority to put to death and bring to life (Deut 32:39).

During His public ministry, Jesus often said, “My time has not yet come” (Jn 2:4; 7:1-9). But when it was time for Him to be sacrificed on the cross, He said that His time had come (Jn 12:23, 27; 17:1). The timings of our death are determined by God because it is He who numbers our days. It is for this reason that Job says: “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away” when referring to birth and death (Job 1:21).

Job, therefore, refused to follow his wife’s rather heartless and insensitive advice: “Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9). She was asking Job to commit suicide for he was in much pain and in a terrible condition. There is nothing said about she caring for her husband and seeking to alleviate his pain. She does not pray to God for help. Perhaps she became cynical when she saw how terribly Job suffered. So she considered that death would be better than for Job to suffer. But the man did not seem to die easily, in spite of his severe physical condition (we must remember that God had forbidden Satan to take Job’s life. Only God had that authority).

Job was told by his wife to curse God, and therefore to stop trusting God, for in her mind God was not going to do anything about Job’s suffering. She asked job to die. How would he do that? She was asking him to end his life (commit suicide)[7] and bring his suffering to an end. But Job considered her suggestion foolish. “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10). He saw God’s hand even behind his sufferings. He respected God’s sovereignty, and thus “did not sin in what he said” (Job 2:10).

The way God has created us, we are meant for relationships – with God and others. Even in death, these relationships remain important. Our relationship with God is paramount and our choices must recognise His sovereignty, presence, and grace.

God Forbids Murder (Prohibition)

Euthanasia, in whatever form, involves murder and suicide. It is not only taking into our hands the right that belongs to God, but it is also a contravention of God’s moral Law. The sixth commandment declares, “You shall not murder” (Ex 20:13). That the taking of another person’s life is morally wrong is clear. Bible scholars would also consider this commandment as prohibiting the taking of one’s life. It is for this reason that suicide was considered in the church as an act against divine Law.

Is suicide wrong?

There are seven cases of suicide in the Bible: a. Abimelech (Judg 9:54), b. Samson (Judg 16:29-31), c. Saul and his armour bearer (1Sam 31:3-6), d. Ahithophel (2Sam 17:23), e. Zimri (1Kgs 16:18); and f. Judas (Mt 27:5).

All of them (except Samson) are presented in negative light. These were ungodly men acting in desperation and disgrace. Samson’s case may have been seen differently as an act of martyrdom and self-sacrifice. Thus, though he is not a model of godly living, he makes it to the list of heroes of the faith in Heb 11:32. Suicide is thus quite consistently seen in Scripture as morally wrong.

For this reason, suicide has been considered by the church as sinful.[8] In some periods, suicide was in fact associated with “the unpardonable sin” leading to the idea that one who commits suicide is disqualified from heaven (because unlike a murderer, he would not have any opportunity to repent of his sinful action). However, over time, the church has come to see suicide not as the unpardonable sin, and more sensitivity and pastoral care has been extended to families of those who tragically commit suicide. But this in no way diminishes the Bible’s serious view of suicide, for such an act offends God by denying God the right over our lives and death, and it breaks God’s prohibition.

This is one key reason why Christians have made known their opposition to euthanasia and PAS. Moreover, the medical profession has also generally spoken against euthanasia and PAS because it goes against the doctor’s Hippocratic oath, promising that the physician will never do anything to deliberately bring harm to his patients.[9]

In God’s Hands, No Suffering is Meaningless (Providence and Purpose)

One of the arguments, and it is a powerful argument, used by those who seek to legitimise euthanasia and PAS, is the great suffering that some terminally ill patients suffer. This is all the more poignant when the suffering patient pleads to be put to death so that their misery can end. Hence, some argue that their request should be met through “mercy-killing”. It is called that because killing the patient is seen as a merciful act.

It is indeed extremely unsettling to see a patient suffer intense agony when in the throes of impending death. Should his death be speeded up so that his sufferings can end? Would this be a merciful act?[10] Our previous reflection on the truth that God created us and owns us, and has determined our days, and that He is present and concerned for us would help us to think more deeply about this problem. We also need to reflect on the reality of suffering, and how we should view it and handle it.

Suffering and Ultimate Meaning

There is no doubt that Job suffered greatly, more than we can imagine. He was desperate to find some meaning in his suffering. His friends tried to explain it but their explanations did not satisfy Job; they in fact became accusatory in nature and made his suffering worse. Sometimes suffering is inexplicable. We may be able to explain suffering in a broad general sense[11], but it is often difficult to explain an individual’s particular suffering.[12]

In Job’s case, God finally spoke above all the human voices. He did not give any specific answer or explanation for Job’s sufferings – which reflects how we often experience suffering and God’s relative silence in it. The book of Job, however, gives the reader a bird’s eye view of things. The reader is made aware by the narrator of the story of the heavenly scenes and can hear the dialogue and wager between God and Satan. There is a heavenly drama to which the sufferer, Job, is not privy to. While we can see the full picture, Job suffers in the darkness of inexplicable loss and agony. But at the end, God steps in and puts an end to Job’s misery, blessing him more with far more than what he had before his excruciating trial (Job 42:12).

We may not be able to explain why someone suffers in a particular way, but we also know that God allows suffering for purposes best known to Him at that time, but the wisdom of which will be made known in the future when it will be explained how that suffering was redemptive and how “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). This does not mean that we do nothing to relieve the sufferings of others. Christian love demands that we do all we can to alleviate human suffering. The parable of the Good Samaritan told by Jesus (Lk 10:25-37) shows the lack of concern on the part of the religious professionals who do nothing to help the dying man on the road. It is the Samaritan traveller who shows Christian love by helping the wounded man.

How can we apply this in the case of a terminally ill patient? If the person is suffering much, we must acknowledge it and empathise with him. Trying to explain why he is suffering in that particular way is often unhelpful, a lesson we can learn from the blundering efforts of Job’s friends. Neither do we have the right to put an end to the patient’s suffering by terminating his life. Neither the patient nor we have that right. But we can still do something to bring relieve to the person’s suffering by caring for him. There are various things through palliative care that the patient can be helped – from medical alleviation of the pain to providing human company and dignity to the person. While we may not be able to explain why the person is suffering in that way, we can still help to mediate God’s presence.

Suffering and God’s Presence

Jesus suffered greatly when He died on the cross. It was not only physical in nature (for he was brutally beaten and crucified) but also social and spiritual. His death was a public event; He was stripped and hung in humiliation, and felt abandoned by God. In the depths of His sufferings, He cried out to His Father in heaven, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46). Was there any ultimate meaning in His suffering? Yes, because He suffered for us, to save us. In having suffered, He also offers us His wounded hands, His precious company, especially when we suffer.

The apostle Paul suffered much for the gospel – from painful beatings to near death experiences. In all of it, he was confident that his sufferings could be explained by an overarching principle. Though we may lose control in our suffering, God does not. He allows suffering for His own purposes, though we may not see it in a given moment of suffering. Paul therefore, could write, “we rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Rom 5:3).

More than seeing ultimate purpose, Paul enjoyed Christ’s presence especially in times of suffering. Writing from the restrictive conditions of a Roman prison, he opened his heart to say, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Phil 3:10). Paul enjoyed the sweetest fellowship with Jesus when he suffered.

God may not explain why we are suffering at a particular moment, but He offers us His comforting and strengthening presence. We can rest in the mystery of that presence, and trust that “our momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2Cor 4:17). We may not fully know what went on in Job’s heart and mind when he was suffering, but surely one reason for his faithful resilience was that though he could not find any plausible meaning for his suffering, he knew in his heart that God had not abandoned him, that God was present even in the pain.

For a dying patient, what we can do to help is to mediate God’s presence. We can encourage the patient to experience the comforting presence of God. This is often experienced when God’s community gathers around the suffering person.

Suffering and God’s Community

We cannot use suffering as a reason to kill someone (an idea that is present in the suggestion made by Job’s wife). But we can do something to relief someone’s suffering. As a community, we can ensure that no one suffers alone, and without comfort and help. The Christian community ought to gather around the dying person. There are also hospices, where dying patients can be cared for and helped to die as comfortably as possible and with dignity.[13] Modern medicine can also help sufferers find some relief from pain.

When King Saul was critically wounded in battle, he asked his armour bearer to kill him, but he refused. Saul was obviously in great pain, but he was more fearful of being abused by his enemies (1Sam 31:4). Saul then committed suicide. It was a miserable end for the king, who died alone. There was no community to help him.

We saw earlier how the good Samaritan helped the wounded man who was left to die on the road (Mt 22:37-40). The Samaritan brought the man to an inn to be cared for, and “took care of him” (Lk 10:34). It is a little detail that is often missed. We can imagine the Samaritan sitting by the bedside of the badly wounded man, consoling him and attending to his needs throughout the night. He had the heart of a care-giver. He could not do it alone, and therefore recruited the innkeeper to be part of the caring team. Because he had to attend to other matters, he told the innkeeper to “Look after him” (Lk 10:35). Thus a community of caregivers was formed for the poor traveller who was left half dead on the road.

The church is asked to “do likewise” (Lk 10:37). We are to love our neighbours as ourselves, as commanded by the Lord Jesus (Mt 22:37-40). Terminally ill persons must not be abandoned or disposed of through euthanasia, but be cared for in community. In such communities they will be able to discover love and dignity, care and concern.

How Do We Go Forward?

Euthanasia is wrong because it contravenes God’s law and challenges His sovereignty.  It will produce societal decline and loss of human dignity.[14] We have no right to legitimise or practice it. There are two fallacies that it is based on.

Firstly, it has to do with the “cure or kill” ideology.

This ideology can be described so: Try to cure the patient using medicine, but if the patient cannot be cured, then it is acceptable to kill him (or let him take his life). If this way of thinking is allowed to take root, it will grow into other monstrosities, the signs of which are already emerging where euthanasia or PAS are now legalised.[15]

Society should instead cherish a “cure or care” mindset. That is to say, if we are unable to cure patients, then we must care for them compassionately. Even in terminal illness, patients can be cared for through palliative medicine. Most people become depressed in such situations because of their pain or loneliness. However through caring palliative medicine (which can help the patient in his pain), and loving care provided by caregivers, a person in such conditions can die with dignity and hope. When euthanasia becomes an easy way out, then it can become a convenient way of “disposing” terminally ill patients whom society and families may not have the compassion or time to care for. That would be disastrous for any society. American philosopher Daniel Callahan aptly observes, “Euthanasia … is an act that requires two people to make it possible, and a complicit society to make it acceptable.”[16] The kind of society that legalises euthanasia would be one that would threaten human dignity and create the loss of trust and mutual respect. Moreover, those who are elderly, seriously ill or disabled would eventually face the threat of coming under the shadow of euthanasia, as it is expanded in its application.[17]

The second ideology is that death is better than suffering.

The motive for this is: Avoid suffering at all costs. Such an ideology fails to understand the redemptive effects of suffering (cf. 2Cor 4:16-18). We should not put ourselves or others to death just because we are suffering. Moreover, in terminal illness, palliative medicine exists that can assist patients who are suffering.

In the strong grip of his personal illness and agony, Job utters words of hope against the depressing circumstances that he was in. He declared, “I know my Redeemer lives” (Job 19:25). This truth is further elaborated in the New Testament and in the testimonies of countless believers who had approached death and suffering with the unshakeable faith of the gospel of Jesus. The ultimate hope of escape from pain is not death but resurrection (Rev 21:4).

Conclusion

No one should be allowed to die alone or with pain that can be reduced through medicine and loving care. But we have no right to take their life. Neither should they take their own. We do not have that right because our lives belong to God.

The term “euthanasia” means “good death”. It leads us to ask the question, “What is a good death?”  A good death is to die in God’s hands. When Jesus gave up His life, He prayed, “Father into your hands I commit my spirit” (Lk 23:46), a habit adopted by His followers (Acts 7:59). In the history of pastoral care, especially in the uncertain times of medieval days when plagues and sudden death were common, the primary aim of pastoral care was to help people to die well. It follows that knowing how to die well will help one to also live well. A good death comes from a life lived in seeking to know Christ and to become like Him in death (Phil 3:10).


GWY_8581

Bishop Emeritus Dr Robert M Solomon (PhD, Edinburgh) served as Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore from 2000-2012. He had served previously as a medical doctor, church pastor, principal of Trinity Theological College and president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore. Dr Solomon has degrees in medicine, theology, intercultural studies, and a PhD in pastoral theology from the University of Edinburgh. He has contributed many articles to books, theological dictionaries and journals and authored 20 books, including ‘The Race’, ‘The Conscience’, ‘The Enduring Word’, ‘The Virtuous Life’, ‘The Sermon of Jesus’ and ‘Apprenticed to Jesus’. He now has an active itinerant ministry of preaching and teaching in Singapore and abroad.


[1] “Lord Carey: I support assisted dying”, Telegraph, 12 July 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/10963195/Lord-Carey-I-support-assisted-dying.html.

[2] “Archbishop of Canterbury criticises George Carey’s support for ‘right to die’”, The Guardian, 15 July 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/jul/15/archbishop-canterbury-george-carey-right-to-die.

[3] David F. Wells, Losing our Virtue: Why the Church must Recover its Moral Vision (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1998), 13.

[4] R. K. Sharma, Concise Textbook of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology, 2nd edn. (New Delhi: Elsevier, 2008), 162.

[5] See Roland Chia, The Right to Die? A Christian Response to Euthanasia (Singapore: Genesis, NCCS, 2009), 28-29 for a discussion on the principle of double effect, where a medical intervention (such as giving increasing dose of morphine to alleviate a patient’s pain) may result in his death. As the intention was not to kill the patient but to relieve his pain, his unfortunate death is morally acceptable. It is different from euthanasia where the aim is to speed up the death of the patient.

[6] Roland Chia has rightly maintained that “the removal of the feeding tube from a PVS [persistent vegetative state] patient is a form of passive nonvoluntary euthanasia. Roland Chia, The Right to Die?, 27.

[7] Views vary among scholars as to the character and faith, or lack of it, of Job’s wife. She may have lost faith in God and saw no hope for Job. The only recourse was for him to die. Perhaps she asked him to curse God as “an indirect way of committing suicide”. Francis I. Andersen, Job, The Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Leicester, England; Downer’s Grove, US: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984), 93.

[8] St Augustine of Hippo was influential in his views that suicide was “self-murder” and was morally as reprehensible, if not more than murder. See Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (New York: Modern Library, 1950), Bk 1:24, 25.

[9] The traditional Hippocratic Oath, originating in classical times, says: “I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody if asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect.  Similarly, I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy.  In purity and holiness will I guard my life and my art.” See Kevin V. Ergil, Ancient Healing: Unlocking the Mysteries of Health and Healing through the Ages (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, Ltd.: 1997), 76. The World Medical Association has consistently expressed its opposition to the legalization of euthanasia and PAS through repeated statements. Its most recent statement in 2015 reiterates its position: “Physician-assisted suicide, like euthanasia, is unethical and must be condemned by the medical profession. Where the assistance of the physician is intentionally and deliberately directed at enabling an individual to end his or her own life, the physician acts unethically. However the right to decline medical treatment is a basic right of the patient and the physician does not act unethically even if respecting such a wish results in the death of the patient.” See its website, http://www.wma.net/en/30publications/10policies/p13/.

[10] In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II points out that what may be termed “mercy killing” may not really be merciful. “In reality, what might seem logical and humane, when looked at more closely is seen to be senseless and inhumane.” See John Paul II, The Gospel of Life (New York: Random House, 1995), para 64, 116.

[11] See John Breck, The Sacred Gift of Life: Orthodox Christianity and Bioethics (New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000), 216. Breck offers several spiritual benefits of suffering: it creates humility before God, dependence on Him, sanctifies us, and helps us to share in the mission of Christ.

[12] Stanley Haeurwas, Naming the Silences: God, Medicine, and Suffering (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990). Hauerwas, a Christian theologian and ethicist, asserts that trying to explain suffering, especially in the case of children suffering terminal illness, is a pursuit in vain. Though we may not agree with all his conclusions, his argument that modern medicine’s “noisy” technological interventions in the face of suffering and death is a denial of the mystery of suffering and a distortion of reality that leads people to look to modern medicine as a god who would provide answers or solutions, is surely a point well worth reflecting on.

[13] There are many Christian books that have come out of hospice ministries. Two examples are Sheila Cassidy (a doctor), Sharing the Darkness: The Spirituality of Caring (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1988) and Deborah Howard (a nurse), Sunsets: Reflections for Life’s Final Journey (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2005).

[14] See Robert Solomon, “A Good Death?” ETHOS Institute, https://ethosinstitute.sg/a-good-death/.

[15] In Belgium, children “in great pain” can be legally euthanized since early 2014. See “Belgium’s parliament votes through child euthanasia”, BBC News, 13 Feb 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-26181615. Also a prisoner suffering from “mental anguish” was given permission by a national legal body to pursue physician assisted suicide in Sept 2014. His doctors eventually refused to provide such assistance, and he was referred to a psychiatric institution. See “Belgian rapist Van Den Bleeken refused ‘right to die’”, BBC News, 6 Jan 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-30699780.

[16] Daniel Callahan, “When Self-Determination Runs Amok”, in Bioethics: An anthology, 2nd edn., Helga Kuhse and Peter Singer, eds. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 381–5.

[17] The Netherlands was the first country to legalise euthanasia and PAS. Studies and official reports show that doctors have contravened rules and procedures and euthanized thousands of patients without their consent. See John I. Fleming, Euthanasia, the Netherlands, and Slippery Slopes, Southern Cross Bioethics Institute, Adelaide, South Australia, Bioethics Research Notes Occasional Paper No.1, June 1992, http://www.bioethics.org.au/Resources/Online%20Articles/Other%20Articles/Euthanasia%20the%20netherlands%20and%20slippery%20slopes.pdf.

 


What is Theology?

July 2016 CREDO

In the ‘Preface’ of his famous work, the Proslogion (English: Discourse on the Existence of God) published in 1078, the medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury announces its main theme as ‘faith seeking understanding’ (Latin: fides quaerens intellectum). In doing so, Anselm was following the great fifth century theologian Augustine, whose approach is summed up thus: ‘I believe in order to understand’ (Latin: credo ut intelligam).

Many theologians (especially in the Latin tradition) agree that ‘faith seeking understanding’ is a good definition of theology.

The English word ‘theology’ is a combination of two Greek words: theos which means God, and logos which means speech or thought. Theology is therefore the Church’s speech about God that is faithful to his revelation in Jesus Christ (the incarnate Word), and the Bible (the written Word).

The Church receives God’s self-disclosure in Christ by faith, which itself is a gift made possible by divine grace. Faith may be broadly described as the Church’s trust in the God who has made himself known in Jesus Christ.

Faith, however, must not be seen as just a matter of holding certain propositions to be true. It is the commitment of the whole person to the reality of God.

Faith is a human response to God. As my teacher, the late Colin Gunton, puts it: faith is a ‘responsive movement of the heart, responsive to God’s awaking movement into the world in reconciliation’.

But, as Gunton is quick to add, faith is a human response that is always enabled by the Spirit of God: ‘This human response, like all authentic human action, is the gift of the Spirit who enables people to become what they will be by relating them to God the Father through Christ’.

The definition of faith as the Church’s trusting assent to God in his revelation should not lead to the mistake – so common today – of reducing faith to subjective religious experience. Faith therefore must not be seen as a leap in the dark or as blind trust. If faith is the means by which the Church appropriates the objective revelation of God, then it is inextricably bound to knowledge, the knowledge of the living God.

Put simply, faith has to do with knowledge and understanding.

And because faith has to do with the knowledge of God, the Church’s quest to understand what she by faith holds to be true is not at all inimical to the nature of her faith.

The church’s quest for a deeper understanding of the mysteries of God in his revelation begins and ends in faith. As Karl Barth has put it, faith is both the terminus a quo (English: ‘point of origin’) and terminus ad quem (English: ‘destination’) of the Church’s thinking about God.

In her quest to understand the truths about God that she has received by faith, the Church employs reason as a tool. Faith and reason are therefore not to be separated like oil and water, and theology is neither a flight from logic nor a denial of human rationality.

Anselm’s understanding of theology puts a check on the modern propensity to put asunder what God himself has joined. Faith and reason are not antithetical to each other. In the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, faith and reason can work in harmony with each other in the Church’s quest for deeper insights into God’s revealed truths.

As Pope John Paul II has so brilliantly put it in his remarkable encyclical Fides et Ratio (English: ‘Faith and Reason’): ‘Faith and reason are like wings on which the spirit rises to the contemplation of truth’. ‘Faith asks that its object be understood with the help of reason’, asserts Pope John Paul II, but ‘at the summit of its searching, reason acknowledges that it cannot do without what faith presents’.

It must be remembered that the Proslogion, where Anselm’s definition of theology is found, is a written in a form of a prayer. This fact is pertinent because it disabuses us from thinking that theology is a purely intellectual activity.

Although theology in some respects demands great intellectual energy and scholarly rigour, it is in essence a spiritual activity. Bishop Kallistos Ware of the Greek Orthodox Church is therefore absolutely right in pointing out that in the strict sense of the word theology refers to the contemplation of God himself.

Theology can never be reduced to just an academic pursuit. Prayer and theology must therefore be wedded together.

As the fourth century Christian ascetic Evagrius of Pontus has famously put it, ‘The one who prays is a theologian; the one who is a theologian, prays’. And Hans Urs von Balthasar, the great Roman Catholic theologian of the last century insists that one can only do theology ‘on one’s knees’.

What is not immediately obvious in Anselm’s famous definition (although it is assumed by Anselm himself) is that theology is always a communal – or better still, an ecclesial – activity. ‘The Church receives the faith theology seeks to understand, forms individuals in it (including theologians), and hands it on to them’, observes Bruce Marshall.

Theology can never be private endeavour or an activity severed from the life of the Church. In his famous essay, The Humanity of God Karl Barth maintains that theology can be carried out only in the context and in the service of the Church:

… theology cannot be carried on in the private lighthouses of some sort of merely personal discoveries and opinions. It can be carried on only in the Church – it can be put to work in all its elements only in the context of the questioning and answering Christian community and in rigorous service of its commission to all men.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 

 

Satire and Responsible Journalism

July 2016 Pulse

In 2011, Charlie Hebdo (CH) published a cover cartoon featuring three rolls of toilet paper, each labelled ‘Bible’, ‘Koran’ and ‘Torah’. In case the message is missed, the cartoon is accompanied by the headline ‘In the toilet, all the religions’ (French: ‘Auchiottes toutes les religions’).

In another cartoon, published in November 2012, the three persons of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – are depicted as sodomising each other. Mocking Cardinal Vingt-Trois, an outspoken opponent of gay marriage, the headlines read: ‘Cardinal Vingt-Trois has three fathers’ (French: ‘Mgr Vingt-Trois a trios papas’).

CH repeatedly justifies its offensive cartoons in the name of ‘freedom of speech’, a prized ‘virtue’ in Western liberal democracies. In addition, CH seeks to escape blame by choosing a genre that it thinks will automatically accord it with unbounded liberties, namely, satire.

Although satire has been used to good effect by journalists, history has shown that its relationship with journalism is beset by problems and difficulties.

This is not because the goals of satire are irreconcilably at odds with those of journalism (in fact, their goals can be strikingly similar). Rather, it is because the use of satire can – and many times have – degenerate into sophomoric mockery that betrays its nobler purposes.

But what exactly is satire suppose to achieve? Satire draws attention to contemporary events and circumstances in a comic way in order to amplify their absurdity. It is a form of burlesque, but with a noble end in mind: to expose evil and to bring shame to people who have acted irresponsibly, offensively or ignorantly.

The purpose of satire is therefore to bring about positive social change. As Tim Parks, Professor of Literature and Translation at IULM University in Milan, explains: ‘Its raison d’être over the long term is to bring about change through ridicule; or if change is too grand an aspiration, we might say that it seeks to give us a fresh perspective on the absurdities and evils we live among, such that we are eager for change’.

This means that a piece of satirical work has failed if it does not bring about positive change, encourage people to think in a more enlightened way or behave more responsibly.

Used wrongly or irresponsibly, satire can cause untold damage to society with the distortions and innuendos it suggests. As Parks put it: ‘The worst case is when satire reinforces the state of mind it purports to undercut, polarizes prejudices, and provokes the very behaviour it condemns.’

These are precisely the transgressions that CH has committed in the name of satire by publishing the irresponsible and offensive cartoons.

The scatological depiction of the sacred texts of Christianity, Judaism and Islam is not only disrespectful. It is demeaning and downright detestable. The same can be said for CH’s depiction of the Trinity. These satirical cartoons have failed to achieve the goals of satire because it is impossible to see how they can effect positive social change.

Instead, in publishing these cartoons, the fiercely secular and atheistic CH has revealed the ugly face of liberal intolerance and bigotry. To the millions of people around the world who have embraced the very religions that CH has reviled, these cartoons are surely hurtful, even hateful.

CH has certainly raised the question of the ethical responsibility of journalism vis-à-vis freedom of speech.

Responsible journalism must ensure that its reports and statements – regardless the genre in which they are presented – must always be at the service of truth. This, in part at least, means that distorting and damaging stereotyping must be scrupulously avoided. The journalists’ or the publication’s own biases and prejudices that might inspire such stereotyping must be checked.

In addition, ethically responsible journalism must try its best to minimize harm. This means manifesting sensitivity in its coverage by taking cognisant of social and cultural differences. But it also means treating people of faith and their religions respectfully, regardless of the personal convictions of journalists or the corporate philosophical and ideological commitments of the publication.

CH’s failure to abide by these fundamental principles is blindingly obvious.

But it should also be obvious that even in liberal democracies like France, freedom of expression is never and can never ever be absolute. No nation can survive for long if ‘freedom of speech’ is a principle so sacrosanct that any restrictions imposed on it is anathema and regarded as its unlawful violation.

Thus, in Italy and Germany, images that depict or even are suggestive of Fascism or Nazism are illegal. And, in CH’s France, denial of the Holocaust is a crime.

Freedom of speech, therefore, cannot be used by CH to defend their impunity. Neither can its cleverly coined self-description as Journal irresponsable (English: ‘irresponsible newspaper’) immunise it from criticisms about its ethics and practices.

In our increasing conflicted world, where factions and tensions continue to spread and fracture relationships resulting in civilizational clashes, the media can do much to inform and even to enlighten – that is, to offer fresh perspectives that expose our stubborn prejudices and challenge our biases.

Artful satire can be used to good effect to bring to light sinister pretensions and sordid and manipulative uses of power that often mar social and political life. It can help us to achieve a clearer and truer vision of our world and our collective responsibilities in it.

Satire can and should only be used in the service of truth.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was originally published in the December 2016 issue of the Methodist Message. 

 

 

Who Is Responsible?

June 2016 Pulse

Without doubt one of the most fascinating and rapidly developing fields in modern technology is robotics. From surgical robots to DNA nano-robots capable of bipedal motion, the advances in this field in the past decade have been so staggering and surreal that they seem more like the stuff of science fiction.

But accompanying the robot revolution are numerous complex philosophical, ethical and legal issues that have profound social implications.

As Paolo Dario has observed, the changing nature of robotic engineering from a discipline where robots perform tasks assigned by humans to one where robots work alongside humans, presents new and profound ethical challenges.

One of the more perplexing issues that the newly minted ‘roboethics’ (first coined at a conference in Italy in 2004) has to deal with has to do with the question of responsibility. Simply put, who should be held responsible when a robot does harm?

For example, who should bear the blame when a military robot malfunctions and kills civilians instead of enemy combatants – the designer, the manufacturer, the programmer, the operator or the robot itself?

When the robots in question are merely machines controlled directly by users, the questions of liability and responsibility are quite similar to those of other machines like cars, and therefore pose no new ethical problems. The responsibility for robot failure may rest on the designer, manufacturer or user, depending on the causes of the malfunction and the circumstances.

Here, we must distinguish between two types of responsibilities.

When a user deliberately directs the robot to cause harm, both the user and the robot may be said to be causally responsible for the harm, but only the user (not the robot) is morally responsible. This is because the robot, controlled by the user, has no choice of its own.

But what about semi-autonomous or autonomous robots that are capable of performing tasks by themselves, without direct or explicit human control? Who should be held responsible for the failures of such robots? Can autonomous robots be said to be morally responsible for the harm it caused?

Put differently, can autonomous robots be considered as moral agents?

Some ethicists argue that in order to achieve clarity on this question, we must go to the source of any robotic moral agency.

The actions of the robot are based on software that begins as a code programmed by human beings. The robot is therefore an amoral agent and cannot be said to be morally responsible for its actions because it is unable to behave independently from the way it is programmed.

However, with increasing sophistication in programming and artificial intelligence (AI), the picture becomes much more complex.

The philosopher of science Peter Asaro has suggested a continuum of moral agency with reference to robots, beginning with robots that are wholly amoral to those that may be considered as fully autonomous moral agents, depending on the sophistication of their programming.

He suggests that we should think of different tiers of robots that are above the amoral status in this continuum of moral agency. The first tier comprise what he calls ‘robots with moral significance’, by which he means robots that are able to make decisions with ethical consequences.

Asaro describes the second tier of ‘moral’ robots are machines ‘with moral intelligence’. This category of robots differs from ‘robots with moral significance’ in the sense that these robots are able to assess the ethics of a particular cause of action because moral precepts are imbued in their programming.

Even more superior to these robots are the machines that belong to the third tier that possess what Asaro calls ‘dynamic moral intelligence’. These machines not only have the ability to reason morally but they are also able to learn new ethical lessons from their experiences and even develop their own moral codes.

Finally, we have agentic machines that are fully moral. For Asaro, this would mean that such machines would have acquired self-awareness, possess some form of consciousness, have a sense of self-preservation and could even feel the threat of pain or destruction (death).

If this final stage were possible – and many scientists and philosophers remain sceptical – it would raise serious philosophical and theological issues of the possible ‘personhood’ of such machines.

Be that as it may, each advance in robotics would present different moral and legal challenges.

For many years, Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics have provided the framework for thinking about issues of liability and responsibility.

The Laws are as follows: (1) the robot may not injure a human being or through inaction allow a human being to be injured; (2) the robot should obey orders given by the human being except when the orders are in conflict with the first law; and (3) the robot must protect its own existence, but in doing so it must not transgress the first or second law.

But with highly autonomous and intelligent robots (those belonging to the third and fourth tiers), these laws no longer apply. In fact, as Daniel Howlader has rightly observed, ‘To create machines that can make their own choices, be aware of their existence, and at the same time subordinate that free will to the benefit of humanity is frankly unethical’.

Here, the question ‘Who is responsible?’ must not only be looked at from a different angle but radically broadened. The question must be directed not to just at the designer, manufacturer, programmer, user and the robot itself. It must be directed at society as a whole for allowing some kinds of machines to come into existence in the first place.

As researchers Pawel Lichocki, Peter Kahn and Aude Billard have poignantly put it, in designing and building robots, ‘We might be motivated by the beauty of our artifacts. Or by their usefulness. Or by the economic rewards. But in addition we are morally accountable for what we design and put into our world’.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was originally published in the December 2016 issue of the Methodist Message. 

As Good as Dead

June 2016 Pulse

One of the most disturbing moral fictions in the field of medicine in our time is the so-called neurological criteria for determining death that equate brain death with the death of a human being.

This new approach was proposed in 1968 by an Ad Hoc Harvard Medical School Committee as a supplement to the traditional cardio- respiratory criteria in order to address the issue of “obtaining organs for transplantation”. In 1970, Kansas became the first state to accord this new definition legal status. Today, many countries in the world, including Singapore, accept the neurological determination of death.

According to the Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA) adopted by most American states, brain death is the “irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem”. Brain death is accepted as the legal definition of death because the brain is deemed as the body’s central integrator.

The neurological determination of death is theologically, philosophically and ethically problematic.

To equate brain death with the death of a human being is to embrace a fallacious and dangerously reductive view of what it means to be human. The brain cannot be seen as the central integrator of the human body, responsible for uniting what is otherwise a mere collectivity of organs.

The materialist philosophy that undergirds the neurological criteria must be challenged and rejected from the standpoint of Christian anthropology.

It is a serious misnomer to claim that the person in irreversible coma and diagnosed as “brain- dead” is dead. As Dr Peter Bryne puts it, forcefully underscoring the obvious: irreversible coma “is a term for someone who’s alive, not someone who’s dead”.

Although it is extremely rare for comatose patients diagnosed as brain dead to regain consciousness, there have been a number of documented cases. For example, the Journal of California Nurses for Ethical Standards reported the gruesome case of a brain-dead patient who put his arm around the nurse in the operating room as the surgeon was about to retrieve his beating heart for transplantation.

It is extremely disturbing that advocates have elected to discount brainstem functions like the maintenance of a normal body temperature, production of hormones via the hypothalamic- pituitary glands, normal blood pressure and neurogenic control of heartbeat in brain-dead patients as inapplicable or insignificant for determining death.

“Somatic survival” in brain-dead patients must not be brushed aside so superficially. A few examples will suffice to illustrate the conundrum this phenomenon presents to proponents of the brain- based criteria for death.

The brain-dead body is known to react to incisions during organ removal. The blood pressure rises considerably even as the heartbeat quickens. That is why in some hospitals the brain-dead patient is put under general anaesthesia for the surgery!

To prevent a brain-dead body from developing diabetes insipidus, which may cause organ damage, various forms of hormone treatment are usually administered. However, many brain-dead patients do not develop diabetes insipidus at all, indicating residual pituitary function and hence brain function.

Doctors are also known to keep on life support a pregnant woman diagnosed with brain death, in the hope that her child will be delivered alive. The Daily Mail recently reported that a Canadian woman gave birth to a premature but healthy baby one month after she was diagnosed as brain-dead.

This has prompted bioethicists like James J. Hughes to maintain that the death “at issue in the brain death debate is not an empirical reality, but a social category: ‘social death’ ”.

The neurological approach is fundamentally flawed and should not be accepted as the unambiguous basis for determining death. It confuses prognosis and diagnosis in a way that has grave and far-reaching moral consequences.

The human being cannot be simply reduced to his brain function. Brain death cannot be equated with the death of the human being. Brain death cannot even be regarded as a sign of death or as an indication of the time of death.

The advocates of the brain-based definition of death will no doubt insist that a patient diagnosed with brain death is as good as dead. But a patient who is “as good as dead” is not dead – he is still alive! And it is morally wrong and reprehensible to hasten the death of such a patient by harvesting his organs.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.