Category Archives: Pulse

Big Data, Ethics and Society

March 2019 Pulse 

We live in an age where we witness a truly unprecedented explosion of data – its collection, sharing and analytics. The phenomenon that came to be known as Big Data has impacted every sector of society – economics, politics, policing, security, science, education, policy, health care, public health, etc – in profound ways.

Although definitions vary, Big Data can refer to (1) the data or information collected, known as datasets, and (2) the process of analysing these ‘big’ datasets. ‘Big’ points either to the quantities and the electronic sizes of the data accumulated (gigabytes, terabytes, petabytes, etc) or to the techniques and technologies employed to analyse the data. As Brent Mittelstadt and Luciano Floridi explain, ‘The latter approach defines “big” in procedural rather than quantitative terms, by connecting the size of the dataset to its complexity, understood in terms of computational or human effort necessary for analysis.’

Big Data has to do with the volume, variety and velocity in which information or data is generated, processed, analysed and used.

In today’s world, the volume that data is generated is truly staggering. We are no longer thinking only in terms of terabytes (one million million [12 zeros]).  We are thinking in terms of exabytes (one quintillion, that is, a million raised to the power of five [18 zeros]) and zettabytes (one sextillion, that is, one million raised to the sixth power [21 zeros]). Scientists have estimated that by 2025, the Internet will exceed the brain capacity of the entire human population on planet Earth!

The variety of the data generated is equally mind-blowing. As Kord Davis points out, ‘Performance metrics from in-car monitors, manufacturing floor yield measurements, all manner of healthcare devices, and the growing number of Smart Grid appliances all generate data.’

In addition, because we leave our digital footprints and a trail of personal information whenever we use the Internet, Big Data impinges upon individual lives in unprecedented ways. Eric Freeman and David Gelernter, who coined the term ‘lifestream’, describe this phenomenon thus:

… a time-ordered stream of documents that functions as a diary of your electronic life; every document you create and every document other people send you is stored in your lifestream. The tail of your stream contains documents from the past (starting with your electronic birth certificate). Moving away from the tail and toward the present, your stream contains more recent documents – papers in progress or new electronic mail; other documents (pictures, correspondence, bills, movies, voice mail, software) are stored in between. Moving beyond the present and into the future, the stream contains documents you will need: reminders, calendar items, to-do lists.

The velocity in which we generate, acquire, process and output data has increased exponentially even as the number of sources and the variety of formats grow at an ever-faster pace. According to a report from IBM Marketing Cloud published in 2016, 90% of the data in the world today have been created in the preceding two years alone, at 2.5 quintillion bytes a day!

The ramifications of Big Data on institutions, organisations, businesses, nations and individuals are still unfolding and therefore cannot be fully anticipated at this point in time. More significantly, Big Data forces both stakeholders and society alike to re-conceptualise and recast the familiar social and ethical issues and concerns surrounding information technology. As the Council for Big Data, Ethics and Society points out, ‘Big data’s broad ethical consequences strain the familiar conceptual and infrastructural resources of science and technology ethics.’

What, then, are some of the pressing ethical concerns surrounding Big Data? I list a few in the remaining space of this article.

Privacy and Consent

The issue of privacy is invariably highlighted and discussed in the literature on Big Data ethics. Unlike the past when data collection was limited by human perception and cognition, in the era of Big Data the collection of data by information technologies is now automated and autonomous. The scope of the data has also expanded and grown exponentially over the past two decades. This unique characteristic of the age of Big Data has made privacy and personal safety an even more important and pressing issue.

Alongside the issue of privacy is that of informed consent. Traditional approaches to informed consent, where consent is sought from individuals who participate in a single study, no longer applies. This is because Big Data is designed to reveal unintended and even unexpected connections between data points. ‘Broad’ and ‘blanket’ consent mechanisms (as opposed to single-instance consent) have been suggested, but these are not without their own problems.

Ownership

The next ethical issue has to do with ownership. As the European Economic and Social Committee explains, the issue of ownership ‘revolves around how to consider a user’s data that was produced after processing the original dataset: are they still a user’s data, or do they belong to the company that carried out the analyses? Or to the company that collected the original data?’

The concept of ownership is further complexified by the question of rights. This has led some to speak of two forms of ownership, as the rights to ‘control’ data, and as the rights to ‘benefit from’ data. ‘Control’ ownership suggests that the data subject has the right to restrict undesired uses of the data, while ‘benefit’ ownership refers to his right to utilise Big Data for his personal benefit.

The ownership question has sparked complex debates on ethics, legislation and public policy.

Surveillance and Security

The availability of more data and the advancement of technology has made it possible not only to track an individual, but also to generate insights into his behaviour. The ubiquity of CCTVs, positioning capabilities in mobile devices (GPS), the use of credit and ATM cards for payments and withdrawals all contribute to the surveillance and profiling of individuals.

While the ease of tracking has undoubtedly benefited society in some ways like ensuring public safety and swifter and more efficient police investigation of crimes, they have also come with a cost. The diagonal and non-directional nature of surveillance that takes place across the different levels of society can limit the liberties of members of society in subtle ways.

The second issue is security. In January 2019, The Guardian reported that data breaches in Yahoo in 2017 compromised 3 billion accounts. Other breaches include Marriott International (500 million customers), Linkedln (164 million), Sony’s PlayStation Network (77 million), Uber (57 million) and Ashley Madison (31 million). Institutions in Singapore have also had their fair share of data breaches in recent months, due to the work of malicious hackers or fraudsters.

Social Ramifications

Besides these serious ethical concerns, there are also a number of social ramifications of Big Data that should never be trivialised. One major concern is that Big Data can force a digital divide in society, thereby worsening the inequality that already exists. Digital divide refers to the difficulty that some face in accessing services delivered by new technologies due to their unfamiliarity with them.

Big Data can also lead to the de-humanisation and discrimination of individuals and groups when opinions and perceptions are formed on the basis of their digital identities (information about them obtained from different sources). The Norwegian Data Protection Authority explains that this takes place when ‘we are no longer judged on the basis of our actions, but on the basis of what all the data about us indicates our probable actions may be.’

In other words, Big Data can ‘de-incarnate’ individuals by presenting distorting abstractions and caricatures that feed prejudice, discrimination and even hatred in a process known as the dictatorship of data.

The final question that we must consider is that of epistemology. There is a tendency in both mass media and industry to adopt a disturbingly naïve approach to the ‘facts’ presented by Big Data. They work on the assumption that Big Data is ‘objective’ and that it has the ability to reveal reality without the need for interpretation and critical assessment.

According to this epistemology, data is supposed to be able to ‘speak for themselves’ and the ‘truth is already there, waiting to be discovered’, implying that there is no need for theory or hypothesis. For example, confidence is placed in ‘data-driven science’, whose authority and impeccability are judged by the amount and the compelling quality of data it presents.

This mythological view of Big Data, which, as it were, signals the ‘end of theory’, will have serious consequences if it goes unchallenged.

As we celebrate the promise of Big Data and what it can offer to society, we must also be cognisant of the dangers that lurk in the brave new world of information technology. We must be aware not only of the complex ethical issues such as privacy, ownership and security. We must also be alert to the harmful distortions it introduces to the many things we take for granted such as human identity, dignity, value and relationality, and how they may undermine our society.



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.

Bettering Humans

March 2019 Pulse

Since the mid-nineties, doctors in America have been prescribing human growth hormones to healthy children whose projected adult height is in the bottom first percentile – five feet three inches for boys and four feet, eleven inches for girls – in order to make them taller.

For many years, a biotech company based in New Jersey called Memory Pharmaceuticals has been developing memory enhancing drugs or ‘cognitive enhancers’ (sometimes dubbed the ‘Viagra of the brain’) and targeting the 76 million baby-boomers in America who are experiencing age-related memory loss.

These examples are just the tip of a large iceberg of what some philosophers and ethicists have been calling enhancement technologies, arguably the fastest growing and one of the most troubling developments in our biotech age. ‘Enhancement technologies’ is the hypernym that refers to the use of genetics, cybernetics, nanotechnologies, neuroscience, pharmaceuticals, etc., for human enhancement.

Enhancement technologies therefore refer to the use of technology to increase certain physiological or mental attributes that could not be achieved naturally. Height increase and memory enhancement are examples of the goals to which such technologies are directed.

The myriad of ethical and social issues raised by the use of biotechnology for enhancing human capabilities have been well rehearsed in the burgeoning literature of the subject. Many worry that enhancement technologies will exacerbate the injustices that already obtain in current biotechnologies and their applications.

For example, they may worsen social inequality because only the wealthy would be able to enjoy the benefits of these cutting-edge technologies. This could further result in the creation of two classes of humans – the enhanced and the unenhanced – thus further stratifying a society already polarised by racial and economic divides.

One could easily add to the list of social woes that the use of such technologies could bring about – rabid social discriminations, and even eugenics.

Despite these concerns, some advocates and visionaries of human enhancement are not satisfied with merely augmenting and strengthening existing capabilities. Their aim is to use these new technologies to create, where possible, novel human capabilities such as infrared vision.

The vision of these prophets is therefore to so radically transform the human being so as to transcend human nature itself. This, of course, raises profound theological and philosophical questions not only about human nature, but also if there is indeed such a thing as human nature to begin with.

To be sure, many transhumanists do believe in some broad and general sense that the concept of human nature has some utility because it enables us to distinguish the human from an animal or machine. In fact, the very term ‘transhumanism’ suggests that there is a ‘human nature’ that science and technology must now seek to transcend.

However, with the advancement of genetic science and cybernetics what constitutes ‘human nature’ has become so fluid that it defies any dogmatic description.

For example, in editing the genetic material of the germline certain transhuman traits may be introduced and irreversibly transmitted to future generations. For better or for worse, that trait now becomes part of human nature, although there’s nothing ‘natural’ about it. And in advanced cybernetics, the answer to the question where do the machine end and the human being begin might no longer be as straightforward as when computers and machines were external to the human body.

Enhancement technologies also raise the difficult issue of the extent to which we should allow human creativity – our scientific knowledge and technological prowess – to remake what we are. Put differently, they raise the important and pressing question about whether moral limits should be imposed on science and technology, and how such limits should be determined in the first place.

In its paper on human enhancement, the Conference of European Churches states that while human creativity must surely be encouraged, ‘there are eventually limits’. And it is in recognising these limits that we achieve greater sobriety about our scientific and technological endeavours.

The first step in recognising these limits is to acknowledge our own finitude as creatures. ‘The notion of humans as the image of God’, states the Conference, ‘embodies a fundamental distinction. God is eternal and unlimited, but humans are created and finite’.

In addition, we must also acknowledge the limits of our science and what it can or cannot achieve achieve. ‘Not everything is possible for science to solve, human ingenuity to engineer, or medicine to cure’, states the Conference baldly. To recognise these limits is to jettison that triumphalistic view of science called scientism.

The second step is to acknowledge that we are fallen creatures. ‘Our Christian heritage teaches us to be sceptical of romantic notions of unrestrained human improvement and scientific progress, not only because of finitude but also our moral failings … The borderlines between good and evil can be crossed all too easily’.

The quest for human enhancement reveals something profoundly disturbing about the human condition. It points to an innate sense of unease with our own humanness and creatureliness, or, as Helmut Thielicke puts it, our sinful protest against finitude. In seeking to remake ourselves, to defy the finitude in which we are confined, we reveal the depth of our rebellion against the one made us the kind of creatures we are, who sets the limits – our Creator.

Here is where the scientific community can benefit from the wisdom that can be found in the religious traditions, especially Christianity. It helps us to evaluate the human and cultural enterprise of science and technology and those who shape and apply them.

While the technological imperative urges the scientific community to pursue everything that science has made possible, the Christian tradition raises difficult and inconvenient questions.

In doing so, it emphasises the point that if the scientific enterprise is to be conducted profitably, that is, for human flourishing in the most holistic sense, if science is to achieve its proper goals, these questions are unavoidable.

The technological imperative is fixated with the question of what our science and technology are capable of, what they can do. The questions raised by the Christian faith have to do with whether there are immoral and illicit ways to use the powers that our science and technology have placed in our hands.

Christian faith teaches us that morality not only concerns the things that we must do but also the things that we must refuse to do.



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.

Descent into Barbarity

February 2019 Pulse

Last month, Democrats in New York passed a bill that allowed women to abort their infant for any reason and at any point of pregnancy up to the moment of birth.

‘A standing ovation for abortion?’, writes Ashely McGuire in USA Today. ‘That’s what New York’s Reproductive Health Act got in the Senate chamber when it passed last week. Lawmakers and bystanders stood and applauded a law that legalized abortion all the way up until birth, for any reason.’

This lunacy has spread to the state of Virginia where Democrats there tried to emulate their counterparts in New York by issuing a bill to revise existing abortion laws. On The WTPO’s Ask The Governor, Ralph Northam, Virginia’s Governor, in support of the bill, openly made this shocking comment:

So in this particular example, if the mother is in labour, I can tell you exactly what would happen, the infant would be delivered, the infant would be kept comfortable, the infant would be resuscitated if this is what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physician and the mother.

Commenting on the governor’s remarks on the proposed legislation, Ben Shapiro writes in The Daily Wire: ‘This is pure infanticide … This is a statement that a fully-formed infant, born alive, ought to be murdered if the mother says the infant ought to be murdered.’

The Daily Wire reported that the governor of Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo, a Democrat and nominal Catholic, also advocated for the new legislation following her gubernatorial counterpart in New York. In addition, this new legislation also seeks to repeal current laws against the gruesome practice of partial abortion. As Steve McCann explains, this means that the law would now allow ‘delivering a healthy baby alive then killing it by crushing its skull and suctioning out the brain as it emerges from the womb.’

Alluding to the Wade decision of 1973, Governor Ralph Northam said in a press conference (to applause from the audience) that this new legislation will protect the full autonomy of women. Since Roe v Wade, states across America have been exploring how permissive they can be with their abortion laws.

This new abortion law signals western liberal society’s further descent into barbarity. It exemplifies what Pope John Paul II provocatively described more than twenty years ago as the ‘culture of death’ in his encyclical letter The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae). This is a culture that inflicts unconscionable violence on human life and conspires against the weak, the sick and the vulnerable, often in the name of personal autonomy and liberty.

The devaluation of human life has long been given voice by scholars like Peter Singer who is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. In his controversial book entitled Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics (1994), Singer repudiates the view that human life is sacred and that all human lives have equal claims to preservation. His staunch advocacy for the legalization of abortion, infanticide and euthanasia is evident in many of his writings.

Challenging the precepts of traditional morality, Singer replaces them with the ‘new commandments’ that stem from the preference utilitarianism he espouses and promotes. For example, the ‘old commandment’ which says that we must treat all human life as of equal worth is replaced by the new, which insists that the worth of human life varies considerably.

The old precept ‘be fruitful and multiply’ is replaced by Singer’s new dogma that we should bring children into the world only if they are wanted. Note the passive voice in the statement (‘if they are wanted’) that engenders ambiguity: wanted by whom? The mother? The parents? The state?

Christians must roundly and resolutely condemn any legislation that allows an innocent child (whether unborn or born) to be killed ‘for any reason’ and in the name of personal autonomy.

The human being is created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27) and endowed with inviolable dignity and worth. Scripture categorically prohibits homicide (Exodus 20:13) because human life is sacred. As Pope John Paul II has rightly pointed out, ‘Laws which legitimize the direct killing of innocent human beings through abortion or euthanasia are in complete opposition to the inviolable right to life proper to every individual.’

The Church has throughout her history consistently, unequivocally and unreservedly opposed and condemned abortion and infanticide. For example, in the second century document called The Didache, we find this injunction: ‘Do not murder a child by abortion or kill a newborn child.’ Echoing this clear instruction, the great theologian of Latin Christianity, Tertullian, writes:

For us [Christians], murder is once and for all forbidden; so even the child in the womb, while yet the Mother’s blood is still being drawn on to form the human being, it is not lawful for us to destroy. To forbid birth is only quicker murder.

 In similar vein, the sixteenth century reformer, John Calvin, condemns abortion in the strongest possible terms when he writes: ‘The foetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being, and it is a monstrous crime to rob it of the life which it has not yet begun to enjoy.’

In our time, theologians like Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer have likewise condemned the killing of innocent children by abortion. ‘Destruction of the embryo in the mother’s womb,’ writes Bonhoeffer in Ethics, ‘is a violation of the right to life which God has bestowed on this nascent life … And is nothing but murder.’

Edward Scharfenberger, the Catholic bishop of Albany, has written to the Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, to express his deep concern about the new law:

Although in your recent State of the State address you [Gov. Cuomo] cited your Catholic faith and said we should ‘stand with Pope Francis,’ your advocacy of extreme abortion legislation is completely contrary to the teachings of our pope and our Church. Once truth is separated from fiction and people come to realise the impact of the bill, they will be shocked to the core. By that time, however, it may be too late to save the countless lives that will be lost or spare countless women lifelong regret.

Christians must join their voices to this venerable chorus to oppose such legislations. They must see abortion and infanticide for what they truly are, namely, the wanton murder of innocent children. Together with Vatical II they must see abortion and infanticide as nothing less than an ‘unspeakable crime.’

The Church can never be passive or silent in the face of such an atrocity. She must protest against and oppose the culture of death, for as Pope John Paul II has again put it so eloquently and powerfully: ‘Every threat to human dignity and life must necessarily be felt in the Church’s very heart.’



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.

Embryo Editing

February 2019 Pulse

On 25 November 2018, the MIT Technology Review reported that a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, claimed to have created the first CRISPR-edited babies. In the first of five YouTube videos posted on the same day, He announced that ‘Two beautiful little Chinese girls, Lulu and Nana, came crying into the world as healthy as any other babies a few weeks ago’.

This landmark case has profound ramifications for the ongoing debate among scientists, ethicists and theologians surrounding the ethics of human gene editing.

He and his team worked with couples where the fathers are HIV-positive. Employing a relatively new technology called CRISPR/Cas 9 they deactivated a single gene called CCR5 in the embryos created through in-vitro fertilisation and then implanted them in the mothers. CCR5 is the protein that the HIV viruses use to gain entry into human cells. Its deactivation would therefore theoretically prevent or reduce the risk of infection.

He and his team were not the first scientists to use CRISPR on human embryos. In 2015, Chinese scientists Canquan Zhou and Junjiu Huang used CRISPR to remove the gene that causes the blood disorder known as β-thalassema when it is mutated. And in 2017, Shoukhrat Mitalipov and his team at the Oregon Health and Science University used the same technology to successfully extract a genetic variant from embryos that causes a deadly heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

The difference between the earlier studies and the one conducted by He and his team is that the latter has disabled a normal gene to reduce the risk of a child from getting an infection – they did not remove a defective gene that predisposes an individual to a particular disease. In addition, the infection in question can be prevented by other means, such as safe sex-education or the use of anti-viral drugs.

Scientists have found He’s editing to be incomplete because some cells have silenced copies of CCR5 while others do not. They have also pointed out that CCR5 is not the only protein that transports HIV and that some strains of the virus can enter the cell through another protein called CXCR4. Deactivating CCR5 therefore does not guarantee immunity.

He’s work has resulted in a furore in the scientific community. Ethicists and biomedical watchdogs have condemned the work as ‘monstrous’, ‘unconscionable’ and ‘a grave abuse of human rights’. The Southern University of Science and Technology, where He and his team worked, claimed that it was unaware of the project and immediately launched an investigation. Its preliminary statement described the work as a ‘serious violation of academic ethics and standards’.

This case has once again brought to the surface the serious ethical questions related to genetic research in general and genetic engineering (in this case, gene editing) in particular. It is impossible to address all these issues in the brief compass of this article. I can only provide here a very brief sketch of the moral and ethical issues related to gene editing in a human embryo.

Moral Status of the Embryo

First and foremost, we must clarify the moral status of the human embryo. According to the Christian faith, the human being is a creature made in the image and likeness of his Creator (Genesis 1:26-28) and therefore possesses inviolable dignity and value from its conception. This means that the human embryo must be regarded as a person worthy of our respect and protection. The human embryo therefore must never be treated merely as human tissue that is created in the laboratory, experimented upon and then discarded.

To cause the death of a human embryo in the name of science is to violate the Nuremberg Code (1948), which states that ‘No experiment should be conducted, where there is an a priori reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur’. Those who are of the view that gene editing does not violate human dignity fail to take into consideration the fact that in perfecting the technology and technique, thousands of human embryos are routinely subjected to research and subsequently destroyed in laboratories across the world.

Off-Target Results

Gene editing, whether conducted in an adult subject or an embryo, is often accompanied by significant risks, some of which scientists are unable to fully anticipate at this point. For example, there is always the potential of error in editing the gene of an early embryo, which some scientists have described as off-target genetic effects.

As the term suggests, off-target genetic mutations occur when the technology employed hits a DNA sequence that is not its intended target. Because of the nature of gene editing, even minor off-target hits may have major consequences. This is especially the case when the subject is a developing embryo. Such mistakes could result in genetic abnormalities or the onset of disease in the foetus as it develops or during adulthood.

Another possible risk of gene editing in embryos is mosaicism. As a result of the intervention, the embryo may come to possess two different populations of cells (a mosaic of edited and unedited genes) with two distinct genotypes.

Several studies have shown that mosaicism is especially common when the CRISPR/Cas 9 system is used on embryos. Studies have also indicated that mosaicism can result in major phenotypic changes that can adversely affect the health of the child. Some known genetic disorders that are directly attributed to mosaicism include: Down syndrome, Klinefelter syndrome and Turner syndrome.

Epigenetics

Scientists and ethicists are also concerned about the way in which gene editing in embryos may affect the epigenetic code that controls the thousands of genes within each cell and determines whether they are switched on or off. They believe that editing the gene of an early embryo could result in changes in the epigenetic information that may have adverse consequences on the health and wellbeing of the offspring.

While we have certainly made great strides in bio-medicine and technology, the fact remains that we are only beginning to understand the genetic factors that regulate embryological and foetal development. That is why leading biologists like Jennifer A. Doudna of the University of California and David Baltimore, the former president of the California Institute of Technology, are calling for a worldwide moratorium on human genome editing.

Future Generations

Besides inflicting possible harms to the embryo, scientists are also concerned that genome editing in embryos could have adverse consequences for future generations that are difficult to predict at this point in time. This is because the genetic modifications made to a developing embryo can potentially be irreversibly transmitted down the line.

Scientists working on the human genome must take seriously their responsibility for future generations. Mark Frankel and Audrey Chapman have rightly cautioned the scientific community, which often displays ‘too great a readiness to attempt to control the genetic inheritance of our offspring’, to carefully consider the consequences that their work might have on their children’s children.

The theologian Donald Mac-Kay has argued that Jesus’ command to love one’s neighbour (Luke 10) extends even to future generations. And in the context of the present discussion, that love is expressed in the careful evaluation of how our current scientific interventions might benefit or harm our children.

In its instruction on bioethical issues, Dignitatis Personae, the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith of the Roman Catholic Church provides some clear perspectives on the issues we are considering. Dignitatis Personae is clearly in favour of certain forms of gene therapy. For example, it explicitly states that ‘Procedures used in somatic cells for strictly therapeutic purposes are in principle morally licit’.

But a bright line is drawn when it comes to genetic modifications on the germline or the early embryo that may have unpredictable consequences for the future generation.

The moral evaluation of germ line cell therapy is different. Whatever genetic modifications are effected on the germ cells of a person will be transmitted to any personal offspring. Because the risks connected to any genetic manipulation are considerable and yet not fully controllable, in the present state of research, it is not morally permissible to act in a way that may cause possible harm to the resulting progeny (emphasis on original).

Much more can be said about this important and complex issue. But I hope that this brief discussion has sufficiently shown that there are profound theological and moral reasons why gene editing in human embryos should not be permitted.



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.

Clarifying Inter-faith Dialogue

January 2019 Pulse

In a recent interview published by The Straits Times, Mohammad Alami Musa, said that faith communities in Singapore ‘are still at the lower level of inter-religious engagement and discussion, unlike America, Canada or Britain, where the level of inter-religious dialogue and communications is advanced’.

The Head of Studies of the Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies added that ‘It is not enough for religious leaders to sit around and have a meal and bring the press in and take a photo of them drinking and eating together. That is good, but we need to go beyond that with regard to dialogue and conversation’.

Given the current global situation in which acts of atrocities and violence are repeatedly committed in the name of religion and where tensions between religious communities are at their tipping points, the call for faith communities to be more concerted in their efforts to foster friendly dialogue and engagement cannot be more urgent.

Christians should not shun such interfaith engagements, but should instead actively participate in them. Indeed, in the past 15 years or so, the National Council of Churches in Singapore has been actively involved in dialogue with other faith communities, especially the Muslim community (mostly through the Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura or MUIS).

However, it is extremely important that we have a clear understanding of the nature and purpose of such interfaith conversations. There are a number of approaches to dialogue, proposed by religionists of a certain philosophical or theological persuasion (some of whom are Christians), that we should be quite critical of if we are to take the Bible and the teachings of the Church seriously.

For the orthodox Christian[1], dialogue cannot be conducted on the basis of the religious and epistemological relativism associated by pluralists like Paul Knitter and Stanley Samartha. For them, dialogue demands that participants regard the truth-claims of their respective religions as tentative, inconclusive, and therefore in principle open to radical revision.

For example, in his book No Other Name? Paul Knitter (a liberal Anglican) insists that ‘dialogue is not possible if any partners enter it with the claim that they possess the final, definitive, irreformable truth’. Based on such a criterion, evangelical Christians would find it quite impossible to participate in dialogue because it would require them to deny that the claim that ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’ is ‘final, definitive, irreformable truth’.

In the same way, evangelical Christians would be very wary of interfaith dialogue if they were required to follow the rules prescribed by the Indian theologian, Stanley Samartha (Church of South India). In his book Courage to Dialogue, Samartha insists that no religion should claim to have absolute status. ‘A particular religion can claim to be decisive for some people’, he writes, ‘and some people can claim that a particular religion is decisive for them, but no religion is justified in claiming that it is decisive for all’.

For scholars like Knitter and Samartha, the participants of interfaith dialogue are all searching for an ever-greater insight and appreciation of the truth that no particular religion can claim to fully possess. As Knitter puts it, ‘dialogue must be based on the recognition of the possible truth in all religions’. It is only when the truths of the various religions are weaved together into a kind of spiritual and theological tapestry that the Truth (with a capital ‘T’) may be discovered.

For orthodox Christians, interfaith dialogue cannot be understood in this way. Dialogue cannot be seen as a common search for the truth.

This approach to dialogue would require Christians to hold the view that God’s revelation in Christ and in Scripture is incomplete, that the Christian Faith possesses only some aspects of the truth. According to this approach, Christians must be open to the truths found in other religions that are also necessary for ‘salvation’, however salvation may be conceived in the pluralist view.

Christians cannot accept this approach because we believe that God has revealed himself supremely in his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. In accordance with Scripture, the inspired Word of God, Christians maintain that ‘there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given upon man by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12).

Does this mean, then, that Christians should not participate in interfaith dialogue, and that such activities are futile? I believe that the Christian who embraces and embodies these truths can still be fruitfully involved in interfaith dialogue, but not on the basis of the assumptions of writers like Knitter and Samartha – and certainly not on their terms.

In 2002, the National Council of Churches published a paper that outlines a Christian theology of religion. In that paper, it also discusses interfaith dialogue and argues that the fundamental purpose of dialogue for the orthodox Christian is to achieve greater understanding of the religious other. Interfaith dialogue or engagement is but an inescapable aspect human sociality, especially in a multi-religious country like Singapore.

‘Understood in this way’, the Council explains, ‘dialogue between members of different religions can be seen to be an aspect of the larger matrix of social intercourse between persons. Dialogue is a “natural” process of interaction, sharing, evaluation, discovery and respect that characterises every conversation between persons’.

The Council added that through dialogue, ‘we seek to discover one another, understand each other, appreciate our differences and develop respect for each other even as we cherish our common aspirations and commitments’. Dialogue can therefore go a long way in breaking down social barriers, exposing and correcting misconceptions, and dispelling prejudices.

Such engagements should therefore be honest and open. It should be conducted with civility and respect. And, as Alami has rightly cautioned in the interview, interfaith engagement should not be limited to specially orchestrated and sanitised gatherings, and characterised by superficial exchange of pleasantries.

Rather it must be enacted in the rough and tumble of everyday life, amidst its energies and messiness (‘dialogue of life’). And interfaith relations must achieve a certain character and depth that would spur different communities to work together for the common good of the society to which they belong (‘dialogue of action’).

The approach of the Council is in harmony with the 1991 document published by the Vatican entitled, Dialogue and Proclamation which states that ‘In the context of religious plurality, dialogue means “all positive and constructive interreligious relations with individuals and communities of other faiths which are directed at mutual understanding and enrichment”, in obedience to truth and respect for freedom’.

It goes without saying that genuine and robust interfaith engagement requires a profound theology of religions grounded in Scripture and tradition.

It is a theology of religions that clearly and unapologetically affirms the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, while at the same time acknowledging that the various religions contain moments of truth due to general revelation. On the basis of such a theology, Protestant Christians can, together with the theologians of Vatican II, declare that the Church should reject ‘nothing of those things that are true and holy’ (Nostra Aetate 2) found in the religions.

The presence of the ‘things that are true and holy’ in the other religions makes dialogue possible. But more importantly, as the documents of Vatican II also stress, the truth found in the religions ‘is considered by the Church to be a preparation for the gospel’ (Lumen Gentium 16).

This brings us to a very important point in the Christian understanding of interfaith dialogue.

For the Christian, interfaith dialogue can never be seen as an end in itself. Dialogue must always be understood as part and parcel of the Christian community’s mission of bearing witness to the grace and love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. It is an aspect of the ministry of reconciliation that God has given to his people (2 Corinthians 5:11-21).

The evangelical Christian can therefore fully and unreservedly declare with the Roman Catholic Church that ‘Interreligious dialogue is a part of the Church’s evangelising mission’ (Redemptoris Missio, 1990)

Note

[1] In this article, I use ‘orthodox’ and ‘evangelical’ interchangeably to refer to Christians who believe in the primary authority of Scripture as the written word of God, and whose interpretation of the Bible is guided by the Tradition 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.

 

The Internet of Things: Ethical and Social Concerns

January 2019 Pulse 

Imagine that your humble refrigerator is able to replenish your food supply by taking stock of individual items and ordering them directly from the supermarket. And imagine that your smart fridge is able to monitor your diet and purchase only the foods that are good for your health.

Now imagine that the computer in your home is able to track your whereabouts by GPS on your mobile phone. It can turn on the light and air conditioners in your house as you are parking the car, and unlock the front door as you approach it.

Welcome to the brave new world of the Internet of Things (IoT)!

IoT may be described as an integrated ecosystem where there is an increasing cyber-physical-biological interconnectivity, linking devices, systems, data and people. According to Andrew Whitmore et al., ‘The core concept is that everyday objects can be equipped with identifying, sensing, networking and processing capabilities that will allow them to communicate with one another and with other devices and services over the Internet to achieve some useful objective’.

Pundits believe that IoT can increase efficiency, create opportunities and respond to a variety of needs. IoT, it is said, can empower people through technology, and technology through intelligence. Other commentators, reflecting on its potential impact, have gone so far as to argue that IoT must not be seen only as the Internet of ‘things’. It will eventually become the Internet of ‘mind, body and soul’ – the Internet of ‘behaviour’ and even of ‘life’.

The size of the IoT is projected to be immense. Some commentators estimate that by 2020, there will be 20-50 billion things connected as part of IoT, and that 1.7 trillion U.S. Dollars will be invested in these technologies. This has led Tim O’Reilly to predict that ‘This wave of technology has more chances of reimagining swathes of the world than anything we’ve seen before. This is really going to disrupt everything’.

How will this emerging technological phenomenon – which is part and parcel of the Information Revolution – affect society? How will it change the way we live, and the way we relate to one another? What are the ethical concerns surrounding this integration that promises to blur the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres?

Safety

One of the main issues surrounding IoT is safety. By assembling an ecosystem of integrated sensors, processors and actuators we have in fact created what Adam Henschke has called a ‘network of vulnerability’. An incalculable number of things could happen that would result in serious (in some cases, very serious) consequences.

For example, the Internet connection may slow down at a particular point, suddenly shutting off critical life supporting devices. Or take self-driving cars, which are expected to be a common feature on our roads in the near future. The crashing of an IoT system can result in physical car crashes and loss of lives.

People with criminal intent can also exploit this vulnerability. Henschke describes a hypothetical case where a malicious actor exploits the vulnerability in the phone to manipulate linked devices, like the car. He then locks children in the car on a hot day until ransom is paid.

Privacy

The second issue associated with IoT has to do with privacy. The problem of online privacy has been with us since the beginning of the Internet and Social Media Revolution. But IoT greatly accentuates the problem because it creates such an informationally rich environment that governing it and protecting the privacy of its users will be very challenging, if not impossible.

In addition, IoT is organised in such a way that seemingly innocuous data can carry the personal information of users. As Henschke explains:

‘… what the IoT represents is not just a vast capacity to collect and store information on people, but the capacity for that information to be aggregated, analysed, and communicated to people far beyond those receiving the initial information. This means that increasingly intimate elements of our lives can be revealed by the collection of seemingly innocuous data’.

It is not difficult to see how such data can be misused and exploited.

Security

The third issue is security. The smart devices that are in the market today already pose the challenge of informational security. For example, strangers can easily access the camera in our smart phones remotely. In a similar way, hackers can access personal information in our phones and computers. The security mechanisms that come with these devices often provide inadequate protection.

IoT will predictably sharpen the tension between individual privacy and the use of personal information. Existing privacy laws have shown themselves not only to be difficult to interpret but also challenging to enforce. As IoT technologies become more pervasive and intrusive, privacy protection will become ever more challenging. As Francine Berman and Vinton Cerf put it, ‘personal information will become more valuable to a diverse set of actors that include organizations, individuals, and autonomous systems with the capacity to make decision about you’.

To compound the problem, the information that is variously obtained can be reused. As Peter Drahos and John Braithwaite point out, ‘Information doesn’t wear out. It [can] be endlessly recycled [and] repackaged’. To return to the example of the smart fridge, information about your shopping and eating habits obtained from it can be used to target advertising.

Some have called for an IoT ‘Bill of Rights’ that gives users the basic right to op out or delete data. But even if they have these rights and the know-how to remove the data, they may be able to do so. According to Berman’s and Cerf’s realistic assessment, ‘it may be infeasible or impossible for an individual to control all the data generated about them by IoT systems’.

Informed Consent

Related to the problem of the reusability of data is that of informed consent. According to the principle of informed consent, the source of the information must be informed about who is using that information, where they are using it, and what for. His consent must then be obtained before the information can be used.

But, as Henschke has pointed out, ‘given the range of devices, the networks that arise between devices and the potential for multiple users are so vast that prediction is close to impossible’. And if it is impossible for suppliers of the products and services to predict the full range of the uses of the source’s information, then obtaining the source’s informed consent will also be quite impossible.

Accountability

Another important consideration related to the proliferation of autonomous systems is accountability.

A good example is the autonomous vehicle, which is required to make many decisions without human assistance as it navigates traffic. We may expect automobile companies to take responsibility for faulty engines or brakes. But who should be held accountable when an autonomous vehicle is involved in a serious accident that caused fatalities?

To be sure, this question relates to other kinds of autonomous or semi-autonomous entities, such as robots programmed to function with minimal human supervision or control. But as Berman and Cerf have rightly argued, ‘As systems take on more decisions previously made by humans, it will be increasingly challenging to create a framework for responsibility and accountability’.

Impact on Society

The question about how IoT will impact and change human self-understanding and sociality has not been sufficiently explored thus far. IoT has the potential to reshape human abilities and capacities beyond existing forms of ‘enabling technologies’, and in ways that we are unable to clearly foresee. In IoT, the challenges of the control of technological processes and the ramifications of actions mediated by technology are magnified.

As the European Commission’s (EC) report puts it:

‘In IoT the traditional modern construction of the subject – the subject of knowledge and the moral subject –, still pervading most current ethical and legal concepts, has to confront the complexities of the duty to know in context where knowledge can be limited, as well as the hybridized interactions between subjects and objects, agents and actors (object behaving subject-like)’.

Finally, when IoT becomes pervasive in society, it will introduce a division (a ‘digital divide’) and inequality in society. Those who are knowledgeable and skilled will be empowered to master the new technologies and take advantage of them to the fullest. They are able to choose which technologies they wish to use, protect themselves from abuses and opt-out from certain services and networks. But as the EC report points out: ‘Those who cannot keep the pace with the pervasiveness will progressively become deskilled, disempowered and unknowledgeable’.



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.

Via Dolorosa (The Way of Sorrow)

December 2018 Pulse

In February 2015, Gay Byrne, host of the Irish religious television programme The Meaning of Life, asked militant atheist Stephen Fry what he would say to God if he found himself standing before Him at the Pearly Gates.

Fry replied with his characteristic sting: “Bone cancer in children: what’s that about?” He then proceeded with a lengthy diatribe on how evil must be the God who would so cruelly inflict such terrible suffering on little innocent children.

There is a sense in which Fry may be forgiven for working with that particular understanding of divine agency that informed his view of God. There are, after all, Christian writers who have postulated this concept of divine sovereignty and providence, and have – for example – attributed the tragedy of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami to the direct expression of the divine will.

The Orthodox theologian Bentley Hart rightly rejects such views as serious distortions of the biblical portrait of God.

“Such a God,” writes Bentley perceptively in The Doors of the Sea, “at the end of the day, is nothing but will, and so nothing but an infinite brute event; and the only adoration that such a God can evoke is an almost perfect coincidence of faith and nihilism.” Such an incoherent view of God, Hart points out, only provides ammunition for critics of the Christian faith (like Fry).

The God whose very nature is love cannot be the direct cause of suffering and evil. Their presence point to the fact that we inhabit a world that has come under the divine curse because of human rebellion and sin – a world that is sorely in need of redemption.

Although God cannot be said to be the author of suffering, He can use the trials and difficulties that we experience to fulfil His own purposes for us (and for the world). This is especially true for the Christian who trusts in God in the midst of the tribulations of life.

In the hands of the sovereign God, suffering can be a pruning tool to excise that which is unholy in our lives – the darkness in our souls that stunts our spiritual growth. In the mysterious outworking of divine grace, suffering removes our reticence and causes us to draw closer to God.

As Pope John Paul II put it in his apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris (Salvific Suffering), for the Christian, “suffering must serve for conversion, that is, for the rebuilding of goodness in the subject, who can recognise the divine mercy in this call to repentance.”

I should clarify at this point that suffering in and by itself is never virtuous. Neither is it a sign of holiness and/or means by which we attain greater intimacy with God. As we have seen, suffering, and the evil that gives rise to it, is an antithesis to the purposes of God.

Lent summons us to grateful contemplation of the suffering and death of the Son of God on the cursed tree, for the salvation of sinful humanity and the restoration of the fallen creation, showing that the evil and suffering that plague this world was never part of God’s original intention.

But the Passion of Christ has not only brought redemption to this fallen world, it has also translated all human suffering into a new situation. “In the Cross of Christ not only is the Redemption accomplished through suffering, but also human suffering itself has been redeemed”, wrote the late pontiff.

This means that for the Christian, the death and resurrection of our Lord throw salvific light on human suffering in the most penetrating way. Although suffering is an evil that must be resisted, the Christian knows that God can use it to accomplish the good (Romans 8:28).

The resurrection of Christ demonstrates that evil and suffering do not have the last word. For a day will come when suffering will be totally eradicated, when “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore” (Revelation 21:4).

Those who live with this hope can declare together with the Apostle Paul that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).

Thus, because of Christ’s death and resurrection, the Christian can walk the via dolorosa (the way of sorrow) with faith, courage, and hope.



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.

A Decent Society

December 2018 Pulse

In his erudite and captivating book, Conscience and Its Enemies (2013), Robert George discusses the essential features of a decent society. According to the Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, the three pillars on which a decent society rests are (1) respect for the human person, (2) the institution of the family, and (3) a fair and effective system of government and law.

As a Roman Catholic, George established these foundations of a decent society on the basis of Catholic social doctrine (rooted in the teachings of the Bible and Christian tradition) as well as natural law.

The first pillar has to do with taking seriously the inviolable dignity of every human being. The Bible distinguishes the human creature from the rest of God’s creation by emphasising that it alone is the bearer of the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27).

‘The divine image is present in every man’, declares the Catechism of the Catholic Church. ‘It shines forth in the communion of persons, in the likeness of the unity of the divine persons themselves’.

When a society recognises, values and respects the human person, writes George, its institutions ‘and the beliefs and practices of the people, will be such that every member of the human family, irrespective not only of race, sex, or ethnicity but also of age, size, stage of development, or condition of dependency, is treated as a person – that is, as a subject bearing profound, inherent, and equal worth and dignity’.

A society that fails or refuses to nurture respect for the human person and acknowledge the sanctity of human life will embrace an inhumane utilitarianism that tramples upon the dignity of the individual for the sake of some nebulous ‘greater good’.

The second pillar is the institution of the family. With characteristic perceptiveness and clarity, George writes: ‘The family, based on the marital commitment of husband and wife, is the original and best ministry of health, education and welfare’.

For Pope John Paul II, the family is fashioned in such a way that it reflects the triune God himself. In his Letter to Families (1994), the late pontiff states that ‘the primordial model of the family is to be sought in God himself, in the Trinitarian mystery’. The family as a ‘communion of persons’ (communio personarum) is grounded in the triune God, who is Being-in-Communion.

So foundational and important are families to society that where they fail to form or where too many break down, writes George, ‘the effective transmission of the virtues of honesty, civility, self-restraint, concern for the welfare of others, justice compassion, and personal responsibility are imperiled’.

The third pillar of a decent society, according to George, is a fair and effective system of government. Based on the biblical revelation of the sinfulness of our fallen humanity, George provides an argument for the need for law and government that is consistent with Scripture (Romans 13) and the Christian tradition.

Law and government are necessary, he writes quite plainly, ‘because none of us is perfectly virtuous all the time, and some people will be deterred from wrongdoing only by the threat of punishment’.

Together with conservatives, past and present – e.g. Edmund Burke (in the 18th century) and Roger Scruton (in ours) – George believes that law and government are meant to protect the safety and morals of society and advance general welfare.

It should be quite obvious to many that we live in the world in which each of these pillars has come under assault – sometimes by totalitarian regimes and their dehumanising ideologies, and sometimes in the name of the ideals of modern liberal democracy, such as autonomy and rights.

In countless clinics across the world, foetuses are being routinely killed because women want to exercise autonomy over their bodies and parents want to exert their rights.

Take, for example, the routine abortion of foetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome.

Iceland could boast that no babies with Down are born there. This is not due to the ‘genetic exceptionalism’ of Icelanders, but the policy of prenatal screening and abortion. It is reported that in the United States, 90 percent of babies diagnosed with Down are aborted because genetic counsellors having been pushing this option very hard.

Canada legalised euthanasia in June 2016. Since then, over 1,029 patients have been euthanized. The Canadian Paediatric Society reported that doctors and paediatricians are increasingly asked by parents to euthanize their disabled or dying children or infants. Pro-life doctors who refuse to be party to this are required by law to refer their patients to other doctors who would provide the service.

Abortion and euthanasia are just two of many examples of the assault on the human person that we witness in modern civilised society.

Marriage and family have also been subjected to severe battery in our time.

The growing acceptance and legalisation of same-sex marriage has radically redefined marriage and altered the structure of the family. In fact, such legislations have in effect resulted in the abolition of marriage.

Science and technology have also contributed to the assault on the family. One example is assisted reproductive technologies that ‘create’ a child with the genetic contribution from a third party – through the use of donor gametes.

 Attacks on the family are also not uncommon in the academy, especially in the West.

George explains: ‘The line here is that the family, at least as traditionally constituted and understood, is a patriarchal and exploitative institution that oppresses women and imposes on people forms of sexual restraint that are psychologically damaging and that inhibit free expression of personality’.

The assault on government and law is seen most acutely in the totalitarian governments in modern history. Within regimes like Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China, all power is located in the particular leader or group that controls everything, from politics to culture. In such regimes, the only form of power is the political.

But the rule of law has come under assault even in democratic countries, not just in totalitarian ones. This happens when ideology is allowed to shape the law, and the rule of law is manipulated and bent according to the ideological whims of the powerful. When this occurs, the rule of law is nothing but the rule of politics.

Christians in different vocations – teachers, doctors, civil servants, politicians, policy-makers, lawyers, judges, etc – must strenuously resist and oppose the forces that would destroy the moral and social fabric of society.

They must do their best to promote the three pillars of a good society – respect for the human person, preservation of the family and a fair and effective system of government and law – and prevent society from coming into the grips of the new barbarism.



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.

Difficult Love

November 2018 Pulse

In 2017, ISIS detonated bombs at two Coptic churches in Egypt during their Palm Sunday services that killed at least 45 worshippers.

The first explosion, which killed 27 people and injured 78, took place in the Mar Girgis church located in the city of Tanta, about 90 km from Cairo. The second explosion took place three hours later at St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church, killing 18 and wounding 35.

Days after the incident, a journalist spoke to the widow of Mr Naseem Faheem, the Christian guard who was killed at St Mark’s Church. “I’m not angry at the one who did this”, she said, with her children by her side. “I’m telling him, ‘May God forgive you, and we also forgive you. Believe me, we forgive you.’ ”

Mr Amir Adeed, arguably the most prominent talk show host in Egypt, was stunned when he heard what the widow said. “How great is this forgiveness you have!”, Amir exclaimed, his voice cracking. “If it were my father, I could never say this. But this is their faith and religious conviction.”

Naseem’s humble widow embodies and so profoundly exemplifies that radical self-forgetting love that the Bible calls agape.

There are a number of passages in Scripture with the injunction for Christians to love their neighbours, including their enemies:

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” (Luke 6:27-28, NIV)

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” (Romans 12:14)

“Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing…” (1 Peter 3:9, NIV)

Agape is a difficult love. It calls us to do something that clearly goes against our inclinations. By calling us to love our enemies, the very people who hate us and who have either done us harm or wish to do so, agape stretches human love beyond its limits.

The American Catholic social activist Dorothy Day, who has poured out her life to serve the poor and disenfranchised, confronts the impossible possibility of such love with undisguised honesty.

“All men are brothers,” she wrote, “but how to love your brother or sister when they are sunk in ugliness, foulness, and degradation, so that all the senses are affronted? How to love when the adversary shows a face to you of implacable hatred, or just cold loathing?”

The command to love our enemies is a call to love in the way God loves. In Paul’s epistle to the Romans, he tells us that while we were sinners (i.e., God’s enemies – see Romans 5:10), God showed His love through the sacrificial death of Christ (Romans 5:8). On the cross of Calvary, Jesus prayed that God the Father would forgive the people who tortured and crucified Him (Luke 23:34).

Thus, in loving an adversary who emanates only “implacable hated” or “cold loathing”, we reflect in our lives the very ‘agapic’ love of God.

Approached from another angle, in loving others in this way, we become more human, for to be human is to be the bearer of the image and likeness of God.

But is such love even possible? Naseem’s widow has clearly demonstrated to us that it is. Agape is possible because of the power of the Spirit who dwells in us.

Following the approach exemplified by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Dorothy suggests that we could begin to love in this way by seeing Jesus in the other. “Jesus is disguised and masked in the midst of men, hidden among the poor, among the sick, among the prisoners, among strangers,” she wrote, no doubt with Matthew 25:35 in mind.

But decades of selfless service to the poor and marginalised have disabused Dorothy of all puerile idealism. ‘Agapic’ love is never easy, and very often she feels that her “love is too small”.

But Dorothy recognises that the Bible commands such love, and obedience requires nothing less than a strenuous act of will. In her book, On Pilgrimage, she put this again in manifest honesty: “If you will to love someone, you soon do… It depends on how hard you try.”

For Dorothy – as it should be for all Christians – loving our neighbour is not an option for those who have themselves received the forgiveness and love of God. It is a responsibility.


 

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.

Normalizing Homosexuality: How Should Christians Respond?

November 2018 Pulse

Reader’s Question: How should Christians respond to the attempts to normalize same-sex relationships?

Without a doubt, the LGBT advocacy movement may be said to be one of the most successful in modern history. Within a short space of fifty to sixty years (slightly beyond one generation), we have seen the seismic shift in cultural sensibilities, from viewing homosexual behaviour as a reprehensible taboo to legalizing same-sex marriage.

These winds of change are not only blowing in liberal societies in the West, but are also felt in more conservative countries in Asia. The ruling of the Taiwanese Constitutional Court on 24 May 2017 that same-sex couples have the right to marry is a case in point.

LGBT advocates have exerted influence in different sectors of society – education, business, media and even religion – taking full advantage of the internet and social media to advance their agenda. Some have tried to repeal prohibitive laws against homosexual conduct by challenging the constitutionality of such legislations.

The main strategy of these advocates is to convince the world that homosexuality is normal, that people who are same-sex attracted are born that way. Many have appealed to the modern concept of sexual orientation and insist that the genetic and neurological basis for homosexuality is well supported by science.

If homosexual orientation has a biological basis, then discrimination against people with same-sex attraction amounts to bigotry and the infringement of their fundamental rights and liberties – so goes the argument.

How should Christians respond to the obvious agenda of LGBT activists to normalize homosexuality in society? Because of the multi-faceted nature of the LGBT strategy, the Christian response must take different forms and be made at various levels of society.

Church

 We begin with the Church. A recent study conducted by the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity revealed that the majority of church leaders and young adults think that not enough is being done to educate Christians on the LGBT issue.

Pastors and leaders could do more to help members appreciate what the Bible and the Christian tradition teach about sexuality, marriage and family through sermons, seminars and discussion groups. They must also be aware of the work of revisionist scholars who try to show that the Bible only prohibits certain forms of homosexual acts but not faithful homosexual relationships. And they must be able to show how these arguments are fundamentally flawed.

In addition, the church must also engage members who are struggling with same-sex attraction, and create an environment of trust where they can receive prayer, support and encouragement to choose obedience.

The National Council of Churches of Singapore has also played an important role in addressing this issue, and will continue to do so. In 2003, the Council issued a statement that clearly articulates its position on homosexual behavior and current legislations (377A) against such behavior. It also urged the government not to put in place liberal policies that would promote the homosexual lifestyle.

The Council has continued to intermittently address the issue since its 2003 statement whenever it has been necessary to do so.

Parents

Parents have a special responsibility to nurture their children in such a way that they would take the teaching of the Bible and the Church on human sexuality seriously. A number of studies have shown that the home environment and parental guidance play an important role children’s understanding of sexuality.

Parents should be willing to discuss with their children the liberal notions about sexuality that they may encounter in social media and in popular TV networks such as Netflix. They should also take an interest in the books and website articles that their children might be reading.

Education

One of the strategies that LGBT activists employ to normalize homosexuality is to influence public education – its curriculum, policies of inclusivity and ethos. Here, Christians involved in public education at various levels – from ministers to policy makers to principals and teachers – must be especially vigilant.

Parents should also take a special interest in what their children are being taught and the books they are required to read, especially on topics like sexuality and the family.

In Singapore, vendors are engaged by the school or the Ministry of Education to provide sexuality education in public schools. Christian principals and teachers should be aware of the background of the vendors and their views on human sexuality. Parents must likewise be aware of the assumptions and values of the vendors engaged by their children’s schools.

Social Policies

Christians involved in shaping policies should try to prevent the promotion of radical views on sexuality or the gay lifestyle. This includes, for example, granting licenses to operate explicitly gay bars or clubs or to organize big public events that promote the LGBT cause.

Much of the rhetoric for allowing LGBT to organize themselves in ways that make their presence more prominent in society revolves around cherished ideals and values such as inclusivity, equality and rights. For Christians, these values are important, but they must always be tempered by other considerations that are of no less importance, such as morality and the well-being of society.

Here, Christian politicians and civil servants can also play a crucial role in checking the information posted on government websites. For example, in 2014 the Health Promotion Board of Singapore posted its ‘FAQs on Sexuality’ that encourages readers (mostly youths and young adults) to explore their own sexuality.

The FAQs used the Kinsey Scale that originated from Alfred Kinsey, a controversial sex researcher who argued that human sexuality is fluid and therefore cannot be neatly classified as either heterosexual or homosexual. This theory has been refuted by a number of studies that show that human sexuality is not as fluid as Kinsey would have us believe. They indicate that the majority of adults are distinctly heterosexual while a small minority has homosexual or bisexual tendencies.

The National Council of Churches of Singapore flagged this with the authorities. Unfortunately, the reference to the Kinsey Scale has not been removed from the FAQs and the document still promotes a version of the Kinseyan theory of sexuality.

Christian civil servants should try to prevent the publication of materials for public consumption if there is cause to believe that they are either based on dubious science or promoting liberal theories about sexuality.

Politicians

Christian politicians play an important role in preventing the normalization of homosexuality in society. For example, in 2007 when the status of Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalizes male homosexual sex was discussed in Parliament, a number of Christian (and some non-Christian) MPs argued against its repeal.

In his speech in Parliament Christopher de Souza argued that a ‘repeal of 377A will not merely remove an offence. It is much more significant than that. Because of the concept of negative liberty, the removal of section 377A puts homosexual lifestyle on par with heterosexual life. It is to accord both lifestyles a sense of parity’.

De Souza goes on to show the undesirable consequences that the promotion of this lifestyle would have on marriage, spousal rights, adoption, and education. Christian politicians must have the courage to make such arguments even in the face of domestic pressures and global trends.

Conclusion

Much more could of course be said on this important subject. What is offered here is merely a sketch of how Christians at various levels and playing different roles can respond to this threat.

However, Christians must always assert their influence in a civil and respectful manner. Ours is a religiously and ideologically plural society that is subjected to numerous influences. In this multicultural and multi-religious context, the Christian position on this issue (on any issue for that matter) is often reduced to one viewpoint amidst many conflicting and competing opinions.

The church, however, must never be cowered by this. She must always speak the truth clearly, courageously and without compromise. But she must always do so with gentleness and love. But above all, the church must pray for those in authority so that they may always seek the welfare of the nation and not simply act for the sake of political and economic expediency.



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.