3 October 2022
The Covid-19 pandemic illustrates a complex issue which requires many disciplines to understand and tackle. Broadly speaking, it is a public health crisis which requires medical knowledge to treat; the use of mathematical models to understand how the virus mutates and spreads; economics to calculate the impact of lockdowns; and psychology to mitigate the negative impact of a pandemic on human behaviour while still attempting to build healthy people and communities. Many of us can now converse quite knowledgeably on these areas, even though we may not have studied these disciplines in any great detail.
This pandemic illustrates the kind of world that we live in today—complex and inter-connected. As Christians, who desire to meaningfully engage the world and be salt and light therein, we need to be able to understand such problems by seeing the big picture, and drawing connections and finding meaningful patterns. From a Christian worldview, those patterns will be informed by our understanding of who God is, how he acts in the world, and what the purpose and end of history is. Starting from this worldview then, we look at events and challenges in the world and try to understand these complexities. We can then speak to the situation with appropriate words of life and truth.
However, many in the church are unfamiliar with taking this broad approach. This is partly because Christians tend to draw strong lines between the sacred and secular, the one being good and the other being bad. Those lines are artificial, for God created the whole world and all things in it, visible and invisible; and Christ has reconciled all things to himself (Col 1:16-20). After all, “this is my Father’s world, and though the wrong seems oft’ so strong, God is the ruler yet”, as the old hymn reminds us.
Furthermore, Christians are not well-versed nor comfortable with looking at the big picture in life and in the world. Education tends to be geared towards dividing subjects into smaller parts, so as to aid understanding and leading into specialisation. For example, in medicine, there are many fields of specialisations and subspecialties: there is the field of oncology (the study of cancers), then sub-specialities such as cancer of the nose or in the liver. In theological education, there are the traditional divisions between biblical studies, theology, and practical theology, and each with subspecialties within, such as the intertestamental period.
While such division helps to give a deeper understanding of a topic, sometimes that is at the expense of seeing the big picture. For example, our bodies are one whole, fearfully and wonderfully made, and what affects one part affects the whole body, as well as our emotional and spiritual well-being. Most of us know ourselves well enough and can make those connections: When we have a headache, we find that not only does our whole body not feel good, our emotions and spirits are also down. Thus, isolating sickness into just one part of the body is not meaningful. In the same way, should not knowing and understanding the doctrine of the Trinity lead to Christians loving their neighbours and so treating them with greater love and respect? Unfortunately, these connections are not always readily made.
When Christians compartmentalise their theology from their practice and their beliefs from their actions, it leads to actions done out of pragmatism or convenience, rather than theological conviction. The church thus needs to embrace and become more comfortable with complexity, something so necessary today. Indeed, Christians already have the resources to do so.
The Timeless Truths of Scripture
The Word of God is timeless. As evangelicals, we believe in its continued relevance in personal and corporate life today. We need to read the Word with fresh eyes plumbing its depths for guidance for this day. For example, when I first did my theological studies in the late 1990s, there was hardly any mention about creation care and environmental ethics, nor about the dimensions of honour and shame in culture. Today, some 20 years later, these are two topics which I believe are essential, and which I teach in my classes. These were two holes in the gospel which have been filled.
There is certainly pressure from the outside world to “update” our understanding of these biblical foundations, for example, in the areas of sexual relations, but there are enough counterweights against that view. Biblical scholar and bishop N.T. Wright exclaimed that he was “surprised by Scripture” and how the Bible had much to say on topics which may seem either very modern, or which we think it may not have much to say, like science and religion, the ordination of women, and Christian involvement in political life of society (see his book Surprised by Scripture ). Let us be bold and study the Scriptures deeply.
Adopt a Multi-Disciplinary Approach
Knowing the Word is only one part of appreciating complexity. The other part is to take a multi-disciplinary approach to the questions of life. As the pandemic has shown, issues and problems are broad and require various disciplines to unpack. The Singapore universities are taking that route, as they engage with an interdisciplinary world (Tan Eng Chye, “Universities need to tear down subject silos”, Straits Times, September 10, 2020).
Within theology, then, we should break down the walls between the traditional disciplines such as biblical, theological, and practical theology, so that all these inform our living and being in the world. The issues of the world are not laid out along disciplinary lines, and the church needs to blur these unnecessary divisions as well. Furthermore, Christians need to embrace other disciplines because they illuminate our lives. All truth is God’s truth, and we can use all disciplines, from algebra to zoology, in our quest to better understand God’s world and how Christians can engage it.
John Wesley may not have undertaken formal study in other disciplines, but he opened his eyes to what was going on in the world and asked questions. In his “Thoughts on the Scarcity of Provisions”, he asked the key question “why”, concerning what was wrong in his world: Why are thousands of people starving, when there seems to be sufficient food in the world? Why is the price of food so dear, that ordinary people cannot afford it? He then made rudimentary conclusions about the economics of his day, recognising spiritual evils such as greed, and suggesting ways of taxation that can help ease the burden on the poor. Asking questions draws us into deeper understanding of these issues. We think that Christians must have all the answers and so come across as preachy. Instead, by asking provocative questions, we would be compelled to explore, and go deeper.
As we walk into a post-pandemic world, we are reminded that Christians have the means to face the issues and complexities of that world. We can then continue to engage meaningfully and provide good responses to that world of the “new normal”.
Kwa Kiem Kiok teaches in the areas of mission and interdisciplinary studies at Biblical Graduate School of Theology.