Category Archives: Pulse

Welcoming Worship

September 2017 Pulse

One of the simplest but most profound definitions of Christian worship comes from the pen of the influential Russian Orthodox theologian, Georges Vasilievich Florovsky (1893-1979). “Christian worship,” he wrote, “is the response of men to the Divine call, to the mighty deeds of God, culminating in the redemptive act of Christ.”

While worship is “primarily and essentially an act of praise and adoration,” Florovsky explains, it is also “a thankful acknowledgement of God’s embracing Love and redemptive loving-kindness”. Most significantly, the Russian theologian emphasises that because “Christian existence is essentially corporate”, Christian worship must be a communal activity.

This implies that every member of the community of faith must be allowed to participate in the act of praise and adoration that Christians call worship, including people with disabilities.

But as Nancy Eiseland has so starkly pointed out in her book, The Disabled God, the Church’s attitude and response towards the disabled has been ambiguous at best. The Church has often “treated people with disabilities as objects of pity and paternalism”. “For many disabled persons the church has been a ‘city on a hill’ – physically inaccessible and socially inhospitable,” she wrote.

If this observation is correct, then perhaps the Church has been subtly persuaded by the myth spun by secular society that the ideal human being is powerful and capable.

As Jean Vanier puts it, “A society that honours only the powerful, the clever, and the winners necessarily belittles the weak. It is as if to say: to be human is to be powerful.”

Or perhaps the Church’s relationship with the disabled is ambiguous not because Christians belittle them, but rather because we fear them. We fear them because, as Stanley Hauerwas has perceptively pointed out, “they remind us that for all of our pretensions we are as helpless as they are when all is said and done”.

Be that as it may, if the Church is truly the Body of Christ, it must accept as its members believers with disabilities, who, despite their physical or mental impairments, continue to be bearers of God’s image.

The Church must welcome and embrace these “weaker members” and bestow upon them the “greater honour” that they deserve (1 Corinthians 12), by loving them and joyfully celebrating their contributions to its life and witness.

The full acceptance of people with disabilities in the Christian community requires nothing less than a radical change in attitude.

The Church’s welcome of disabled people, therefore, is seen not just in the installation of certain fixtures like ramps for wheelchairs, important though they are. Its welcome is made most evident in the space it creates for people with disabilities to fully participate in its worship and ministry.

Welcoming the disabled does not require the church to design specialised worship services for them, for this could just be a disguised form of segregation. Rather, as Orthodox priest Stephen Plumlee argues, people with disabilities are truly welcomed when they are incorporated “fully in the liturgical activities of the community”.

Able-bodied Christians should never underestimate the extent to which people with disabilities – especially mental disabilities – are able to participate in worship. We are simply unable to fathom how the mysterious operations of divine grace can bring disabled people into intimate communion with God.

But a church that truly welcomes and embraces people with disabilities must also be open to receiving ministry from them, for they too are given gifts with which to build up the Body of Christ.

Most importantly, the presence of people with disabilities can in some ways be prophetic in the sense that it can expose every triumphalism, and every false sense of confidence. In the words of Hauerwas, their presence reminds us of “the insecurity hidden in our false sense of self-possession”.

Taking a slightly different angle, the American National Conference of Catholic Bishops makes the same point thus in its thoughtful 1978 pastoral statement on the handicapped:

“Handicapped people should be gratefully welcomed in the ecclesial community wherein we can benefit from the spiritual gifts, and the self-realisation they share with the rest of us in the Christian community, namely, that ‘we all live in the shadow of the cross’. That shadow reminds us that we are all ‘marginal’ people and hence our need for mutual integration.”

An example close to home is how Wesley Methodist Church encourages families with children with special needs to attend and partake Communion together at their Sunday 5 p.m. Traditional Services, and also have hearing-impaired persons attend their Saturday 5 p.m. and Sunday 9.30 a.m. contemporary worship services. They have also formed an Inclusion Committee with the aim of further integrating persons with special needs in their worship services, small groups, and across the rest of the church.


 

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

Serious Thoughts About Humour

September 2017 Pulse

One of the most distinctive features of being human is the ability of this species to laugh, that is, its ability to create and enjoy humour. This is an ability that other animals – including the primates – do not possess, and any action or reaction that may resemble human laughter in these creatures is simply illusory.

The phenomenon of humour has exercised the minds of philosophers since time immemorial, resulting in the proliferation of different theories.

In Plato’s famous dialogue Philebus, Socrates – Plato’s teacher – takes a negative view of humour by arguing that the real object of laughter is the ‘ridiculous’. The ridiculous in this context is the ignoramus who thinks that he is wise. Thus, as Adrian Bardon puts it, for Socrates ‘laughter results from a feeling of pleasure at seeing others suffer the misfortune of being deluded about their own wisdom’.

This approach to humour – described rather pedestrianly as the superiority theory – is perpetuated by Plato’s student, Aristotle, who in Nicomachean Ethics jettisons all humour except the humour that exposes irrationality. The most celebrated modern proponent of this approach is Thomas Hobbes, who maintains that humour is our amused response to the inferiorities or absurdities of others.

The philosophers who reject this theory of humour – among them, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer and Søren Kierkegaard – argue that although humour indeed has to do with responding to absurdities, but not that of other people, especially the ignorant. Rather humour is the response to absurdities in ideas and in life experiences that frustrate our intellectual expectations.

Thus Kant could write that ‘laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing’. But perhaps it is Schopenhauer who expresses it best when he states that ‘the cause of laughter in every case is simply the sudden perception of the incongruity between a concept and the real objects which have been thought through it in some relation, and laughter itself is just the expression of this incongruity … All laughter then is occasioned by a paradox’.

Whichever theory we may find to be more convincing, what is clear is that only certain creatures, endowed with certain attributes and capabilities, have the capacity for humour. Only rational creatures that possess consciousness – however one may choose to define or describe it – that are aware not only of their environment, but are also self-aware, have the capacity for humour and the ability to laugh.

As Hugh LaFollette and Niall Shanks have pointed out, ‘Humour is possible only for agents whose belief systems manifest hierarchical cognitive richness’. This means that only the human being – made to image his Creator – that has the capacity to make sense of itself and of things around it, is capable of humour.

As LaFollette and Shanks explain (with a touch of humour – pun intended!): ‘We recognise that the dullest normal human can see humour which even the most talented bullfrog would miss. The human not only has more beliefs than the bullfrog (if the bullfrog has any beliefs at all); the nature and complexity of those beliefs differ’.

Any belief is complex because it is always embedded in an intricate web of other beliefs. As Donald Davidson explains: ‘I can believe a cloud is passing before the sun, but only because I believe there is a sun, that clouds are made of water vapour, that water can exist in liquid and gaseous form; and so on without end’.

Human beings not only have what philosophers call ‘first-order beliefs’ – beliefs about the world which they inhabit. Human beings also have beliefs about their first-order beliefs, that is, humans are capable of ‘higher-order’ beliefs that give them some predictive powers and the ability to assess the situation in which they find themselves.

Only such beings may be said to possess ‘a sense of humour’, that is, that ability to see their circumstances in a particular way that enables them (and others like them) to laugh at their predicament.

Or as the psychologist and philosopher Raymond Moody explains: ‘A person with a “good sense of humour” is one who can see himself and others in the world in a somewhat distant and detached way. He views life from an altered perspective in which he can laugh at, yet remain in contact with and emotionally involved with people and events in a positive way’.

The relationship between language, perception and humour is crucial. Not only is it impossible to severe humour from language (understood, of course, in the broadest possible sense), it in fact directly springs from it. This means that only that linguistic animal, the homo sapien, is capable of humour.

Because humour is dependent on perception and language, it is always relational and irreducibly so. Humour, write LaFolletter and Shanks ‘is inherently relational – no event, person or thing is intrinsically humorous … It depends upon the circumstances, the teller (if there is one), the current belief s of the listeners (or viewers), and the relationship (if any) between the teller and the listener’.

But this also means that humour is always context-dependant, and contingent upon the beliefs of the listener.

Although humour can be said to be an important aspect of our humanity and should therefore be valued, many philosophers have also pointed to its important uses. They argue that humour is often employed as a means of ‘liberation’ from threat and as a coping mechanism.

These philosophers see the value of humour in liberating us from certain pressures and vexations by poking fun and laughing at the very things that are normally viewed as threatening and constrictive. As Norman Holland explains: ‘we can state the disposition the other way around, calling the purpose of laughter not so much as glorifying of the self as the minimizing of the distresses menacing the self’.

In the psychoanalytic tradition, Sigmund Freud saw humour as a kind of defense strategy or coping mechanism. This has led others in the tradition to even describe humour as a ‘courage mechanism’, due to its ability to contend with the unpleasant aspects of reality without denying or ignoring the need to confront them (that is, by being escapist).

As the British philosopher Roger Scruton has put it so eloquently, ‘Laughter helps us to overcome our isolation and fortifies us against despair’.




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

 

Discrimination Against Christians

August 2017 Pulse

Reader’s Question: There appears to be a rise in anti-Christian sentiments in America, especially in its institutions of higher learning, where discrimination against Christians is evident. What are the reasons for this attitude? Are there similar anti-Christian sentiments in Singapore?

The stats speak for themselves. And they paint a worrying picture.

According to a survey conducted by LifeWay Research in 2015, more than 63 percent of Americans agree that Christians encounter intolerance in some form and that such incidents are on the rise. The LifeWay study also states that 6 out of 10 Americans believe that religious liberty in the United States is on the decline.

In another survey, conducted by the Public Research Institute in 2017, 57 percent of white evangelical Protestants think that discrimination against Christians in America is quite pervasive.

In American society, there is a subtle but undeniable eclipse of religious language and secularisation of Christian events as the courts debate about the removal of the words ‘under God’ from the pledge of allegiance and as ‘Merry Christmas’ is replaced by ‘Happy Holidays’.

Discrimination against Christians is evident in the universities in the US.

According to The Baltimore Sun (April 23, 2014), Brandon Jenkins was denied admission to the Community College of Baltimore City because of his religious belief. Jenkins said that he was denied admission to the Radiation Therapy Programme because when asked in an interview conducted by college officials what was most important to him, he responded: ‘My God’. The Washington-based American Centre for Law and Justice is handling Jenkins’ lawsuit against the college.

At Sonoma State University, a liberal arts student Audrey Javis was asked to remove her cross necklace because it might be offensive to other students. Javis, a devout Catholic, told Fox News that she felt a sense of outrage. ‘I was very hurt and felt as if the university’s mission statement – which includes tolerance and inclusivity to all – was violated’.

Christian organisations are also being removed from university campuses. In its September 10, 2014, issue The Huffington Post reported that all 23 campuses of the California State University have ‘de-recognised’ Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, an evangelical Christian group with 860 chapters across the United States, because of its Christian beliefs.

These are all disturbing telltale signs of the growing secular hegemony in American society.

The situation is so alarming that, according to The Huffington Post, former GOP candidate Mike Huckabee opined that ‘We are moving rapidly toward the criminalization of Christianity’. Although this is obviously an overstatement, the growing presence of discrimination against Christians in America cannot be denied.

In addition, this development seems to be in tandem with the rise of global anti-Christian persecution documented in books such as Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians (2013) by Paul Marshall and The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution (2016) by John L. Allen.

One reason for this trend is the ascendency of a militant and toxic form of secular humanism in the West that is in essence anti-religion. In rejecting the existence of God – and with it, institutionalised religions – these secular humanists have fabricated the myth of human omnicompetence and might.

The radical anthropocentrism (some would say, anthropomonism) it espouses has mocked traditional monotheistic faiths like Christianity and Judaism for their belief in a non-existence transcendent being by employing the spurious arguments of atheist authors like Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens. But by professing unbounded faith in humankind, secular humanism has in fact erected an altar to a new god, and created a new religion.

This is evident in the writings of the Fathers of secular humanism. For example, in The Social Contract (1762) Jacques Rousseau proposed a civil religion where reverence and obedience are accorded to the sovereign state, whose dogmas and laws supplant those of traditional religions like Christianity.

John Dewey’s My Pedagogic Creed (1897) hailed the teacher in the secular society as a prophet of the true god, who will usher the children they teach into the kingdom of god. Except that Dewey’s true god is not the God of the Bible but the human community, and the kingdom of god about which he speaks is secular society from which religion has been expunged.

But it is precisely because of their anthropocentrism – their idolatrous worship of man instead of God – that makes the secular humanists prone to an insidious form of intolerance (an intolerance that is camouflaged by the rhetoric of inclusivity, diversity, and, yes, tolerance), tyranny and totalitarianism.

Secular humanism maintains that values and morals are nothing but mere opinions and personal preferences – there is no such thing as an objective moral norm. Yet it imposes its own dogmas and standards on society: even the staunchest secular humanist will admit, if he is honest, that he is shaped and guided by dogma.

This is nothing but an instance of self-absolutization.

The absolutist creed of secular humanism has spawned a history of violence and inhumanity. ‘Nobody except certain intellectuals’, writes Richard Bastien, ‘can ignore the fact that the two societies that have systematically fought Christianity root and branch – Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia – have also been the two most grossly inhumane’.

‘And as Western democracies do away with their Christian heritage’, he adds, ‘they become more and more cruel and inhumane. The deliberate starvation of Downs syndrome babies, unrestricted abortion, euthanasia, devaluation of life-giving and life-supporting roles such as motherhood and fatherhood, all bear testimony to the fact that ours is increasingly becoming a death culture like Nazi and Soviet culture’.

The intolerant dogmatism of the secular humanists is made evident in their penchant for closing down debates over opinions and positions they disagree with or are antithetical to their secular creed. They use the rhetoric of ‘hate speech’ or ‘inclusivity’ as political weapons to silence the people they disagree with, thereby disabling genuine public debate.

They assume that they alone have the authority to define ‘hate speech’ and they alone can determine the rules of the game as far as inclusiveness is concerned.

This is profoundly undemocratic!

Thankfully, this venomous form of secularism is not present (if present, it is not influential) in Singapore, a nation that takes pride in its religious diversity. The secularism of the state is not anti-religion, but a kind of ‘procedural’ secularism that celebrates religious plurality and recognises the profound contributions that religion can make to society.

Our constitution allows those who live and work in Singapore not only to profess their faiths but also to propagate them. The secularism of the state is a ‘minimalist’ secularism that respects and protects the religious liberty of its citizens. A survey conducted by the Institute for Policy Studies in 2014 showed that the majority of the respondents ‘agreed that there is religious harmony here’.

While there might be a few here who may find militant secularism attractive, it is doubtful that they are able to unleash the culture war we witness in the US here – at least, not in the foreseeable future.

But religious liberty and harmony in any society is always fragile, not least in this current climate of suspicion and hate.

To prevent religious discrimination brought about by hegemonic secularism, we must protect the religious freedom that we currently enjoy and never take it for granted. And we must strive to ensure that everyone in Singapore – people of different faiths as well as people with no religion – is valued and accorded proper respect.


 

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

 

 

 

 

 

The Third Sex

August 2017 Pulse

In the past few decades, scores of books on homosexuality and transgenderism have poured out from the Christian presses in America, UK and Europe. However, works by Christian theologians and ethicists on intersexuality – a condition which affects 0.1 – 0.2 percent of the population – remains scant and sketchy.

‘Intersexuality has not been properly addressed within recent ethical discussions about sexuality, writes John Hare. ‘One consequence of this omission has been that the rigid and polarized view that humans are clearly and discretely either male or female has gone unchallenged’.

The term ‘intersex’ covers a wide range of conditions that present atypical physical sex in one form or another. These include people (1) with ambiguous genitalia, whose physical appearance is between the male and female genitals; (2) whose genital appearance is not matched with some other physical aspect (e.g., a female vulva with testes); and (3) with unusual chromosomes (e.g., XXY or combination of XX and XY).

Intersex must not be confused with transgender. Transgendered people experience a dysphoria between their biological sex and gender identity, while intersex people have physical features that make their biological sex ambiguous. In the same way, intersex should not be mistaken as homosexuality because it does not have to do with sexual orientation but with biological sex.

In the past – between 1960 and 1990 – it was not uncommon for children born with atypical genitalia to undergo corrective surgery soon after birth. This approach, however, has been largely abandoned because of the serious ethical and psychological issues it presents.

Current approaches include delaying surgery until the children are old enough to understand their condition and explore options for their own bodies. In some cases, treatment does not involve surgery at all because of the belief that intersex people can achieve psychological security about their gender without the need to have a typical genital anatomy.

Intersex has called to question current definitions of biological sex. For example, many legal commentators have pointed out that English law’s emphasis on chromosomes as the decisive factor in determining sex is problematic when it comes to intersex people.

This in turn has created problems in ascertaining the legal status of people with genital anomalies. Needless to say that this has profound implications for marriage law.

In some European countries (e.g., Finland, Portugal and France) the sex of the child can be registered at a later date if it cannot be determined from birth.

Intersex people pose a challenge to the Christian understanding of sex because they do not fit into the neat categories of ‘male’ or ‘female’. This has led some intersex people to think that they are a ‘third sex’.

John Hare echoes the views of some Christian writers when he writes: ‘The existence of intersexuality confounds the tidy categories that some Christian ethicists and church leaders work with and challenges us all to think more deeply about the God-given nature of our sexuality … The condition of intersexuality … draws our attention to the complexity and diversity in the development of human sexuality’.

In similar vein, Susannah Cornwall of the University of Manchester asserts that ‘Theologies which assume everyone is clearly male or female may find themselves uncomfortably stretched when they begin to take into account the experiences of people whose bodies do not fit either category’.

However, despite the undeniable theological and pastoral complexities associated with intersex, the biblical or creational norm of human beings created as either male or female (Genesis 5:2) must be upheld.

As Dennis Hollinger has rightly argued in his book entitled, The Meaning of Sex: ‘Natural sexual conditions and anomalies in no way undermine the creational norms. All distortions in the world must be judged against the divine creational givens’.

‘In a fallen world’, he adds, ‘there will be chaos and confusion that extends even to human sexuality. But the normative structure toward which God calls humanity is not the fallenness of nature; it is, rather, God’s created designs’.

To argue that intersex is one of the distortions of our sin-scarred and fallen world is not to say that atypical genitalia is the result of the personal sins of the people with this condition. It is rather to emphasise that they – like all of us – are part of a world fractured by original sin, a world that is radically different from what the Creator had originally intended it to be.

Christians must regard intersex people as bearers of the image and likeness of God, who must be accorded with equal dignity and value. Christians therefore can never tolerate the discrimination or humiliation of intersex people.

More reflection is needed on the part of theologians, Christian ethicists and pastors on the theological and pastoral issues associated with intersex Christians – issues such as marriage, having children and their full involvement in the life of the Church, including leadership and ordination.

In addition, we must listen very attentively to the experience of intersex people so that we may achieve a deeper appreciation of their struggles and aspirations.

But most importantly, we must accept intersex Christians as members of Christ’s body, the Church. For as Christians, our identity is established in Christ.

As the Apostle Paul puts it: ‘For as many of you as were baptised into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:26-28).


 

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

Art and Obscenity

July 2017 Pulse

Two planned performances in the recently-concluded M1 Singapore Fringe Festival ran into difficulties with the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) due to “excessive nudity”. In ‘Naked Ladies’, burlesque dancer Thea Fitz-James strips and performs an indecent act, and in ‘Undressing Room’, dancer Ming Poon challenges a participant to undress him even as he undresses her.

Both performances were cut from the festival.

In London, Japanese photographer and artist Nobuyoshi Araki achieved both fame and notoriety for his work called kinbaku (or erotic bondage), which features photos of naked or partially-naked Japanese women bound in different poses.

That these works are described as “art” forces one to question if any work can be so “christened”, so long as it has the blessings of the high priests of the art world.

Take for example, Fountain, a 1917 work by Marcel Duchamp that is widely seen as the icon of the 20th century. Art specialists have described the dislodged urinal as the quintessential example of what Duchamp called “ready-made”, a manufactured object into which the artist imbues some mysterious meaning simply by calling it art.

This state of affairs suggests that modern art has lost its way. Art is simply surrendered to the currents of moral and cultural relativism, even as the objective standards by which it was once judged become irrelevant or are simply abandoned.

When this happens, trash can become art, when the official channels of patronage support it. And pornography (like kinbaku) is considered as art if it hangs in the museum or gallery, as if sanctified by its hallowed halls.

As Jonathan Jones has put it so pointedly: “Sell a nude photograph in a gallery shop and you are disseminating art. Move the place of exchange to a grubby north-eastern drinking den… on a dead Sunday afternoon… it all becomes much muckier – ‘pornography’, even.”

This has led Roger Scruton, one of the most astute philosophers of our day, who still cares about those immutable qualities that would distinguish a piece of work as art, to write: “The world of art… is full of fakes. Fake originality, fake emotion and the fake expertise of the critics – these are all around us and in such abundance that we hardly know where to look for the real thing.”

That art is now obsessed with sex and the sexual act – given our post-Kinsey culture – is clearly seen when works of banal obscenity are reverenced as art.

An example of such philistinism in art is the series of prints and statuettes by American artist Jeff Koons that depict couples copulating. Their creator hopes to turn pornography into art and give it spiritual significance and depth.

One of the many reasons why art has degenerated in this way is that our culture, having tried so strenuously to abolish shame, can no longer recognise it or understand its importance.

The revulsion that society once had for the obscene has all but disappeared. The fig leaves – in language, behaviour and thought – have been removed by a culture that is now shame-less.

Another reason is that we have now come to look at sex very differently from the past, having acquired, according to Scruton, “a habit of describing sex in demeaning and depersonalising terms”.

Most importantly, our culture seems increasingly incapable of appreciating beauty – no thanks to the modern iconoclasts for whom beauty is denigrated as a bourgeois concept, too superficial and old-fashioned to be taken seriously by artists.

But in despising Beauty, we will also fail to recognise Truth and Goodness. We will fail to see that good art – true art – can be an epiphany of these transcendentals, without which human life would be meaningless.

True beauty is transformative in that it draws us away from ourselves. As Scruton has once again put it so well: “Beauty tells you to stop thinking about yourself, and to wake up to the world of others.”

We see such beauty in a Michelangelo or a Rembrandt. We see it also in Bach’s Mass and in Mozart’s Requiem.

When art puts us in touch with the true, the good and the beautiful, it becomes in some important ways redemptive. It shows us that despite the ubiquity of sorrow and suffering in our world, life is still meaningful.

Such art can be the conduit of God’s grace.


 

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

Mathematics and Reality

July 2017 Pulse

At a recent Ethos Institute seminar on ‘Science and the Christian Faith’, a participant asked an important question pertaining to the relationship between mathematical models and reality. Mathematicians and philosophers are still debating this contentious issue, and it looks like the jury will be out for some time yet.

I offer these reflections as a theologian and philosopher, and not as a mathematician.

There can be no doubt that mathematics is held in the highest regard in modern society as many believe in its power to unlock the truths of the universe of which we are a part. Mathematics has been triumphantly described as ‘the language of the universe’ because of its ability to depict physical reality with such precision and elegance.

The veneration of mathematics can be traced to the golden age of Greek philosophy. The great Pythagoras could say that ‘All is number’, and Aristotle who came after him could echo his view approvingly by declaring that ‘The principles of mathematics are the principles of all things’.

Closer to our day, Albert Einstein expressed his amazement at the power of mathematics thus: ‘How can it be that mathematics, being after all a product of human thought which is independent of experience, is so admirably appropriate to the objects of reality?’

Mathematicians and philosophers are drawn to mathematics because of its sheer beauty. Whether it’s the mathematical constant π or Einstein’s famous E=mc2, the sheer elegance of mathematical models and the way in which they help us to make sense of the physical world is at once stunning and attractive.

The presence of beauty in mathematics should urge the Christian to contemplate the beauty of God, the Creator of all that is. As mathematician and theologian Paul Schweitzer, S.J., notes: ‘Just as when the beauty of the lilies of the field, the songs of birds, or the smile of the child overwhelms us, in the contemplation of mathematical beauty a window opens onto eternity and one can sense the holy presence of our loving God’.

Mathematicians and philosophers generally agree that mathematics is in some sense related to the physical world, but how this relationship should be understood is still a matter of considerable debate.

In contrast to the so-called mathematical Platonists who believe that mathematical objects and ideas exist independently from the material world, I hold the view that they are mental abstractions of our perceptions of reality. This means that mathematical concepts are grounded in and therefore dependent on the material world.

The history of mathematics itself bears this out as ‘natural numbers’ emerged very early in human consciousness and systems representing numbers can be traced to very ancient times.

‘The counting of numbers’, writes Schweitzer, ‘… arose at the dawn of human consciousness, to make it possible to number the oxen in a herd, or the number of coins in a purse, or the number of people in a tribe. Thus numbers are abstracted from concrete reality’.

Sophisticated systems like multiplication tables can be traced to the Sumerian civilisation during the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Ages. The great Sicilian mathematician, Archimedes, developed a system of numbers that is so sophisticated and precise that it is said that he could calculate the number of grains of sand in the universe! Geometric figures and spaces are also abstractions based on our perceptions and observations of reality concerning spatial relations between objects.

Mathematics, Derek Abbott maintains, is the product of the human imagination that is used to describe or portray reality. Abbott even argues that although the majority of mathematicians claim to hold the Platonist view, they are in fact closet non-Platonists!

But why is the philosophy of mathematics important? It is quite obvious that mathematicians who have very different views about the nature of mathematics could do their work unimpeded.

I think this question is important for at least two reasons.

Firstly, it is important to have a realistic estimate of the power and effectiveness of mathematics. The non-Platonic view, in my opinion, alerts us to the fact that mathematics is a human enterprise and not the ‘miracle’ that some scientists have made it out to be.

Put differently, because perfect mathematical forms do not exist in the physical universe, mathematics is just a mental construct and the models it creates are merely approximations of reality. Seen in this way, mathematics not only has its limits, it is also vulnerable to mistakes and failures.

That said, the precision and effectiveness of mathematics is truly remarkable, prompting Eugene Wigner to write his famous paper entitled, ‘The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Physical Sciences’ in 1960. ‘The mathematical formulation of the physicist’s often crude experience’, Wigner writes, ‘leads in an uncanny number of cases to an amazingly accurate description of a large class of phenomena’.

But lest we get carried away with the perceived omnicompetence of mathematics (which the Platonic approach encourages), we should evaluate its successes more closely.

In response to Wigner’s paper, Abbott wrote a piece entitled, ‘The Reasonable Ineffectiveness of Mathematics’ which, following the arguments of Richard W. Hamming, highlights some areas of human inquiry where mathematics has had lesser success.

He notes, for example, that mathematics has less success ‘in describing biological systems, and even less in describing economic and social systems’. One possible reason why this is so, Abbott speculates, could be the way in which these systems are adaptive and mutable. ‘Could it be they are harder to model simply because they adapt and change on human time scales, and so the search for useful invariant properties is more challenging?’, he asks.

But the question of timescale and the limits of human perception should also give us pause when considering the successful mathematical models. Abbott adds: ‘Could it be that the inanimate universe itself is no different, but happens to operate on a timescale so large that in our anthropcentrism we see the illusion of invariance?’

The second reason is related to the first. A realistic estimate of mathematics would prevent us from embracing a naïve epistemological exclusivism (scientism) that dangerously neglects or ignores other kinds of truth.

While mathematical models have a remarkable way of portraying reality, they are also deficient in a number of ways. For example, they present a world of quantities without qualities. As the philosopher and poet Raymond Tallis has brilliantly put it: ‘The energy in Einstein’s equation is not warm or bright or noisy, and the matter is not heavy or sticky or obstructive’.

Mathematics has a very important place in our lives. However, we must never take the hyperboles of Pythagoras or Aristotle too seriously.

Instead we must follow Tallis’ wise counsel and never neglect other kinds of truth, especially truths that are ‘rooted in the actual experience of human beings that lie beyond mathematics: situational truths saturated with qualities and feelings and concerns, and differentiations of space and time (‘here’, ‘now’)’.


 

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

 

Post-Truth Politics?

June 2017 Pulse

Last November, Oxford Dictionaries declared “post-truth” as the international word for the year 2016. So significant is this expression that Oxford Dictionaries’ Casper Grathwohl even said it could become “one of the defining words of our time”.

“Post-truth”, whose origins can be traced to the early 1990s, is not a new coinage. Yet the remarkable events that took place in the UK in July 2016 and in the USA in September of the same year had made it an ineluctable buzzword.

Oxford Dictionaries defines “post-truth” thus: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

The two events mentioned earlier are of course “Brexit” and the extraordinary journey of Mr Donald Trump to the White House.

In the Brexit episode, “Leave” campaigners repeatedly perpetuated untruths in their effort to convince the British public to abandon the EU. The most startling example is the fraudulent claim by Mr Nigel Farage that it costs Britain £55 million (S$99 million) a day to be a member of the EU.

More alarmingly, vast swathes of the British population appeared to have ignored all the fact-based warnings about the perils of leaving the EU sounded by academics and politicians alike.

In the most acrimonious presidential campaign in the history of the USA, then presidential hopeful Trump told so many lies that one reporter said despairingly “it’s hard to know which ones to cite”.

The fact-checking outfit Politifact has found that 70 per cent of Trump’s “factual” statements can be categorised as “mostly false”, “false” and “pants on fire” untruth.

Of course politicians have always been known to lie, and some commentators have even said that it is virtually part of their job description – although that would be unduly cynical.

The difference here is that in the past, politicians would try very hard to camouflage their dishonesty, believing that voters would care. In the so-called post-truth era, this assumption is abandoned, and politicians lie blatantly and with impunity.

This shift in paradigm is surely disconcerting not just for the champions of liberal democracies for whom facts are sacred. It must surely also be unnerving for countries like Singapore that have rightly prized objective and rational approaches over visceral ones.

There can be no doubt whatsoever that post-truth politics is made possible by the rise of populist movements evident in some countries and the ubiquity of social media. Together, they have ignited and fanned the flames of this new brand of politics.

Is truth important in politics and for society?

Of course it is, for it is only the truth – not lies or falsehood – that will eventually set us free (John 8:32). Surely even those who do not seem to care very much for the truth know this. They know that a society established on the murky foundation of deceptions will soon fall into ruin.

But perhaps the so-called post-truth politics brings to light a deeper malaise that has been festering in Western societies, namely, the deep and sometimes unarticulated distrust of authority and established institutions.

This brings us to another possible ‘take-home’ from these extraordinary events that is perhaps not given the attention it deserves.

It is not uncommon to read commentaries that condescendingly deride the voters – bamboozled as they were by an ocean of misinformation and lies – for being gullible and undiscerning.

Such caricatures are never fair.

Perhaps those who “vote with their hearts” are not always delusional or irrational. Perhaps it is not the case that these voters have given up on the truth but rather that they do not trust the facts – that is, the facts as dished out by authorities whose trustworthiness they have called into question.

Perhaps they are wary of the way in which “academic and scientific research” is sometimes commandeered to advance the agenda of the political elite, and to taunt those who disagree.

Perhaps the so-called pro-truth brigadiers, who rely slavishly on statistics, are the ones who are naïve. Perhaps they have embraced so narrow and reductionist a view of truth that they foolishly think that numbers, figures and charts tell the whole story.

And perhaps this has blinkered their vision to the point that they miss the truth about the hopes and fears, aspirations and struggles of ordinary people.


 

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

Social Science and Its Limits

June 2017 Pulse

Last year, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam announced that the government is increasing funding for research in the social sciences and humanities in Singapore by 45 percent.

‘Our region today is a fascinating and fertile ground for study’, he noted, ‘but scholarship has not caught up with its growing importance. We can and must build up this scholarship in the region that can confirm and spur both policy and the initiatives of societal leaders’.

This move by the government surely must be applauded.

The social sciences have indeed gained much prominence in educational institutions and in society at large in recent times. This is mainly – though not exclusively – because of their perceived ability to offer astute analyses and perhaps even insights into many aspects of social life.

Social science is itself a multi-disciplinary venture that covers or incorporates a wide range of subjects, including economics, political science, sociology, history, archaeology, anthropology, and law.

It is because of its incredibly wide scope that many today have put their confidence in social science to solve the world’s biggest and most pressing problems such as inner-city crime, alternative energy sources, and cyber security.

Like all human enterprises, social science is profoundly influenced by the prevailing culture and zeitgeist. It is therefore no surprise that as a fairly recent discipline (in contrast with the humanities, which can be traced to medieval Europe), social science is profoundly shaped by the secularism that pervades our current ethos.

More specifically, social science works with a materialist view of reality that allows within its explanatory matrix only that which can be subjected to empirical verification. Even when it attempts to describe as complex a phenomenon as religion, social science is compelled to employ a reductionist methodology because of the philosophical materialism it espouses.

Thus the celebrated founders of the economic theory of religion, Rodney Stark and William S. Bainbridge could write with admirable candour that ‘by attempting to explain religious phenomena with reference to actions taken by the supernatural, we assume that religion is a purely human phenomenon, the causes of which are to be found entirely in the natural world’.

This has led theologians like John Milbank to conclude that sociology and social science is synonymous with the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ when it comes to assessing religious accounts of reality. Given the cluster of assumptions upon which the social sciences are based, this is inevitable.

However, the philosophical naturalism that undergirds social science also suggests profound limitations to its assessments of our world and human behavior.

Milbank, for instance, pointed out that social science is unable to understand what it means to say that the Church is a community of faith. It sees the Church as just a huge and complex organization that is no different from other organizations, with its attendant hierarchies, stratifications and internal power struggles.

The Polish scholar Stanislaw Burdzeij may have exaggerated a little when he wrote that ‘For sociologists, church is usually analyzed as an emanation of material interests, to which religious belief is just a cover-up’. But some such assessment of the nature of the Church by social theorists cannot be ruled out given the thoroughgoing secularity of the social sciences.

This gives rise, as some critics have pointed out, to a kind of positivism that, if left unchecked, would result in distorting views of how things really are. The positivism in question has to do with the belief that we have access to facts simply by observation or that we can ‘read’ the world simply by our empirical investigation of it.

Theologian Neil Ormerod has pointed out two serious blind spots of social science, whose vision is blinkered by its scientific method. The first is its inability to penetrate into the problem and reality of evil. And the second has to do with the fact that by ignoring the transcendental character of human life, it fails to give an adequate account of social reality.

Needless to say, not many social theorists would agree with such an analysis.

Be that as it may, I must clarify that I am not arguing here that social science is not an important and valuable enterprise, or that it must not be taken seriously. I believe that it is, and it must.

I am arguing that the sociological imagination alone is not enough if we are to achieve an adequate understanding both of our selves and the world we inhabit. The sociological imagination must be brought into creative conversation with the religious imagination, inspired by the ancient religious traditions, including the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Social science cannot penetrate the enduring meaning of human existence. It cannot provide those necessary values that would serve as the moral ballast for society if it were to flourish in this conflicted world. While social science can offer insights into certain developments that could translate into better policies in service of the common good, it is unable to fully discern the truth about the human condition.

To do that social science must take seriously the religious imagination that the various religious traditions – especially the Judeo-Christian tradition – have inspired.



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

The Betrayal of Medicine

May 2017 Pulse

One of the reasons that the National Council of Churches of Singapore gave for rejecting physician-assisted suicide (PAS) and euthanasia in its 2008 statement is that these actions are “against the very ethos of medical practice”.

The betrayal of medicine’s noblest purpose that the growing acceptance of PAS and euthanasia signifies and accentuates is of course the result of many different but profoundly related developments.

The first of these is the subtle shift of the focus of medicine away from the patient.

According to Edmund Pellegrino, the Hippocratic Oath that has served European and American physicians since the dawn of modern medicine is now under attack both from without and within the medical profession. This is because some are of the view that the values it upholds are unable to address the complex ethical issues presented by emerging medical technologies.

But the rejection of the patient-centric tradition exemplified by the Hippocratic Oath exacts a heavy price because it changes the very character of medicine itself.

As philosopher Dianne Irving has rightly observed, once this tradition was weakened, “bioethics began to replace it with medicine practiced for the greater good of society rather than for the individual patient. That threatens patient welfare and denigrates medicine into a business rather than a profession”.

Another possible contribution to medicine’s betrayal is the secularisation of ethics, as a result of which moral reasoning is bereft of the very assumptions and principles that are supposed to govern it.

To be sure, some ethicists – like Leon Kass and Gilbert Meilaender from the Jewish and Christian traditions respectively – still regard human life as sacred and insist that physicians should be committed to the bodily life of their patients. But such views are gradually going out of vogue, supplanted by a utilitarian ethic couched in heady rhetoric about “the greater good” of society, and about individual autonomy and rights.

Edmund Pellegrino and David Thomasma offer a penetrating diagnosis of the modern predicament in medicine as well as in other fields when they write: “Much of the moral desuetude [state of disuse] into which we believe the professions – medicine, law, even the ministry – have fallen is the consequence of ethical claims without a moral philosophy on which to ground them.”

“Moral arguments based on utility, cost-benefit analysis, contract law, economic restraints, unbridled individualism are all symptoms of ‘moral malaise’,” they add.

Utilitarianism has indeed become the new orthodoxy in biomedical ethics.

“All [leading] bioethicists,” writes Anne Maclean, the perceptive critic of bioethics, accept “some version of utilitarianism”. University of Cambridge Law Professor John Keown agrees. In an interview, he asserts that “in modern bioethics, nothing is, in itself, either valuable or inviolable, except utility”.

Ethicists must therefore shoulder some responsibility for the erosion of moral acumen and for the betrayal of medicine’s noblest ideals.

Theologian Richard John Neuhaus put it starkly: “Thousands of ethicists and bioethicists, as they are called, professionally guide the unthinkable on its passage through the debatable on its way to becoming the justifiable, until it is finally established as the unexceptional.”

We see this happening in so many areas in biomedical ethics, from stem cell research to gene therapy, and from the criteria for ascertaining death to the hydration of PVS patients. We also see this in the debate surrounding PAS and euthanasia.

For example, Peter Singer and utilitarian ethicists like him are constantly pushing the envelope with regard to euthanasia.

Singer envisions an ideal world where all terminally-ill patients would be routinely euthanised. He writes: “Perhaps one day it will be possible to treat all terminally-ill and incurable patients in such a way that no one requests euthanasia and the subject becomes a non-issue; but this is now just a utopian ideal, and no reason at all to deny euthanasia to those who must live and die in far less comfortable conditions.”

For the Christian, medicine is a gift of God, the outworking of His common grace in this fallen world. The true goal of medicine is always to help and to heal, never to harm or to kill.

The utilitarian calculus that is so pervasive in the practice of modern health care is not only alien to the character of medicine. It has also seriously undermined and subverted medicine’s true and highest purpose.


 

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

Lebensunwertes Leben

May 2017 Pulse

In his 1983 article published in Pediatrics, the controversial Princeton University ethicist Peter Singer argues unabashedly that nonhuman animals have greater morally significance than a seriously deformed or disabled human infant.

‘If we compare a severely defective human infant with a nonhuman animal, a dog or pig, for example, we will often find the nonhuman to have superior capacities, both actual and potential, for rationality, self-consciousness, communication, and anything else that can be considered morally significant’, he writes.

Preferential treatment is extended to the disabled infant, he argues – again quite unapologetically – not because of some intrinsic worth it possesses but simply because it is a member of the species homo sapiens, an approach he obviously disapproves of.

In the second edition of his influential book, Practical Ethics (1993) Singer sees people with severe disabilities quite categorically as having ‘a life not worth living’.

Singer’s cruel utilitarianism chillingly reminds us of the dehumanising eugenics of the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s that saw the extermination of certain segments of the population, guided by a similar philosophy – that some human lives can be said to be Lebensunwertes Leben (‘life unworthy of life’).

The killing of disabled people, especially newborns, is a practice that can be traced to antiquity. Despite their indubitable brilliance and enduring influence that can still be discerned in a wide range of topics today – from politics to beauty – the great Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle never prohibited or even called to question the practice, common in classical antiquity, of killing defective babies by exposure.

The Christian writer Miniculis Felix gives us a stark glimpse of the prevalence of infanticide in Greco-Roman society in Octavius where he writes – in a justifiably condemnatory tone – that ‘newly begotten sons [are] at times exposed to wild beasts and birds, or dispatched by the violent death of strangulation …’

In fact, as Darrell Amnundsen has clearly shown, ‘the care of defective newborns simply was not a medical concern in classical antiquity’. Consequently, no law existed in antiquity against the killing of such babies.

The early Christians of course rejected and opposed this practice because according to the Scriptures all human beings without exceptions are created in the image and likeness of God’ (Genesis 1:26-27) and must therefore be valued and protected. This includes the young, the old, the vulnerable and the disabled.

The early Christians therefore extended care to the poor, the sick, the marginalised and the disabled in ways that amazed the society of the time. So counter-cultural were they in showing compassion to the people that society had marginalised and rejected that the early Christians were often described as ‘the third race’.

The early Christians would pick up the infants that were left to die on the streets, in drains or in specially designated pits for unwanted children. They would either care for these children as their own or place them in the orphanages they ran.

Thus, unlike the most influential voices of the ancient Greco-Roman world that recommended with impunity the killing of deformed children (Cicero, De Ligibus, 3.8) and the drowning of ‘children who are at birth weakly and abnormal’ (Seneca, De Ira 1.15), Christians roundly condemn such practices as immoral.

Perhaps the clearest Christian voice in antiquity that protested against such inhumanity is that of Lactantius, who in his Divine Institutes writes: ‘Therefore when God forbids killing, no exception whatsoever must be made. It is always wrong to kill a man whom God has intended to be a sacrosanct creature. Let no one, then, think that it is to be conceded even that newly born children may be done away with, an especially great impiety! God breathes souls into them for life, not for death’.

In the darkest period of the history of modern Europe, a young pastor-theologian spoke with inimitable clarity and unparalleled courage against the evil eugenic projects of the Führer that were responsible for the mutilation and murder of untold numbers of Jews and people with disabilities.

In his unfinished book, Ethics published shortly after his execution by the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke out against the utilitarian principle which demeans human life and violates its God-given dignity: ‘Life created and preserved by God possesses an inherent right, completely independent of social utility … There is no worthless life before God, because God holds life itself to be valuable’.

Bonhoeffer warns of what he called ‘the aristocratic philosophy of life which glorified strength and power and violence as the ultimate ideals of humanity’.

This warning, sounded in the last century, has not lost its relevance and urgency in the present. In fact, we may say that in the wake of the current myth of human perfectability inspired by the bewildering advances in bio- medicine and technology, this warning has taken on a pertinence and currency that Bonhoeffer could not have possibly imagined.

While the Christian Faith rejects the morbid glorification of weakness (which unfortunately can be discerned in some recent discussions about disability – but that’s another story!), with its radical concept of the suffering God, it does suggest another way of looking at and understanding weakness that is truly redemptive.

And it is this way of looking at the other that has led Christians like Lactantius in the third century and Bonhoeffer in the twentieth to speak out against the manifest atrocities of their day and to advocate an ethic of love that regards even the most vulnerable and disabled members of their societies as bearers of the divine image, whose lives must be cherished and protected and whose dignity should never be violated.



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