Tag Archives: creator

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.

 

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.

 

The Unchanging God

March 2017 Credo

‘They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but you are the same, and your years have no end’ (Psalm 102:25-26). So writes the Psalmist, as he reflects on the temporal nature of all created things – however excellent – compared to the unchanging permanence of their Creator.

Passages that speak of the unchanging nature of God are scattered throughout the Bible. In Malachi 3:6, the fact of God’s unchanging or immutable nature is categorically declared by the Creator himself: ‘For I, the Lord, do not change …’ And in his epistle, James testifies that ‘Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow or change’ (James 1:17).

The doctrine of divine immutability – that the eternal Creator of the universe does not change because he cannot change – has occupied a central place in the Christian understanding of God since the beginning of Christianity. Divine immutability not only distinguishes the Creator from the created order – which is always in flux and subject to change – it sets him apart from other notions of deity found in the Ancient Near Eastern and the Greco-Roman worlds.

But this concept has not only been misunderstood, it has also been subjected to serious distortions.

Part of the reason why misconceptions of divine immutability had arisen in history of theology is the uncritical incorporation of Hellenistic philosophy into the Christian understanding of God. Such metaphysical adulterations have resulted in a notion of divine immutability that renders God immobile and sterile – for movement, it is argued, suggests change.

This idea of immutability as immobility is further reinforced by certain conceptions of eternality. The Bible clearly depicts the Creator as eternal, without beginning or end. But eternality, according to some philosophical accounts, is equated with timelessness.

This means that the eternal God must be motionless and inactive – for movement suggests sequence, which in turn in some sense implies change. Because of these metaphysical aberrations, to speak of divine immutability is to picture him in an ‘eternally frozen pose’, to use J. I. Packer’s memorable expression.

But this conception of God is totally alien to the Creator and Redeemer that the Bible speaks about, who is actively involved in the affairs of the world, especially those of his people.

In rejecting this erroneous view of divine immutability, and in an attempt to recover something of the biblical testimony of God as dynamic and responsive to his creatures, some modern theologians have swung to the other extreme. They have constructed a God who is so vulnerable to the contingencies of history and who can be so profoundly affected by human actions that even his grand purpose for the world can be thwarted or derailed.

We see this in some versions of process theology and open theism.

Such approaches, however, are distortions because they paint a picture of a God who is not sovereign, all-powerful and wise. In this sense, our conception of divine immutability can give the other divine attributes a different hue.

Any attempt to understand what it means to say that God is immutable or unchanging must avoid the two opposite errors of equating immutability with immobility on the one hand, and of forming a picture of God whose will and purpose are completely malleable, subjected to human actions, on the other.

Furthermore, any attempt to speak of divine immutability must take absolutely seriously the entire counsel of the Word of God. It must resist the temptation of privileging some biblical passages over others, even if it enables us to avoid some theological conundrums.

Thus, for example, in Numbers 23:19 we read: ‘God is not a man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind’. But in Ezekiel 16: 42, we have these words: ‘So will I satisfy my wrath on you, and my jealousy shall depart from you. I will be calm and will no more be angry’ – suggesting a change of mind.

Attempts to explain the passages that speak about God changing his mind by describing them as anthropomorphic – as attempts to depict God in human terms – are not always convincing. The question remains: do these passages say something true about God?

How, then, are we to understand what the Bible means by divine immutability? Space allows us to only outline an answer to this question.

To speak of divine immutability is to maintain that God’s being and nature does not undergo any change – it is to say that God is perfect. God does not experience any qualitative change: he neither grows nor diminishes.

Divine immutability also suggests that God’s character is consistent – he is not good today, but evil tomorrow. God is always just, always merciful, always loving. Divine immutability therefore suggests that God is always trustworthy.

And finally, divine immutability points to the fact that God’s purpose and plan for the world that he has created are unchanging. God will accomplish whatever he has purposed to achieve when he brought the world into being.

This understanding of the unchanging nature of God addresses the deficiencies in the concept of immutability that is distorted by Hellenistic philosophy on the one hand, and the view espoused by process theology and open theism on the other.

It corresponds closely to the biblical testimony about an unchanging God who is profoundly and intimately involved in the creation, the loving and faithful God who has made a covenant with his people.



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.

Divine Transcendence and Immanence

February 2017 Credo

In the Eastern Church, the Trisagon is usually sung before the Prokeimenon of the Gospel and the reading of the Epistle. Known as Ter Sanctus in Western Christianity, this ancient prayer celebrates the holiness and transcendence of God with the familiar words taken from Isaiah 6:3: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts …’

The transcendence of God is everywhere attested to in the Bible. In Psalm 113: 5-6, the psalmist declares: ‘Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth?’

And in Isaiah 55, a passage well known to Christians of all stripes, the transcendence of God is depicted in light of his unfathomable ways: ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’ (vv 8-9).

It was belief in the utter transcendence of God that marked out the Israelites from the ancient world, leading them not only to reject all forms of idolatry but also the reverencing of all earthly sovereigns as divine, even at great political and social cost.

To speak of the transcendence of God is to emphasise his absolute uniqueness. As Emil Brunner explains: ‘Transcendence of essence means that God is God alone, and that his “Godhood” is absolutely and irrevocably different from all other forms of being’. Put differently, divine transcendence points to God’s ‘wholly otherness’, his absolute distinction from the creation.

The concept of divine transcendence must always be accompanied by the concept of divine immanence if theology is to achieve a more balanced understanding of the God revealed in Scripture. For the Bible portrays God as the transcendent Creator who is also intimately involved in the world he has sovereignly brought into being.

As Donald Bloesch puts it: ‘If we conceive of God as infinitely other, we must at the same time envisage him as infinitely close. If we picture him as wholly transcendent, we must at the same time allow for the truth that he is radically immanent in the sense of being present with us and for us’.

The immanence of God has to do with his active presence in the whole of creation. Scripture attests to this in various ways. For example, in Jeremiah 23: 24, the Lord declares: ‘Can a man hide himself in secret places to that I cannot see? … Do I not fill heaven and earth?’ The divine immanence signals God’s closest and most intimate relationship with the world, but without ever compromising his transcendental otherness.

To quote Bloesch again: ‘… he is never immanent without being essentially transcendent, just as he does not remain transcendent without making himself for our sakes immanent’.

Understanding the relationship between the divine transcendence and the divine immanence is extremely important if modern theology is to navigate safely across the metaphysical labyrinth and avoid the Charybdis of deism and the Scylla of pantheism.

Deism so emphasises divine transcendence that the god it creates is for the most part an absentee deity, aloof to the affairs of the world. Pantheism, on the other hand, privileges divine immanence in such a way that the distinction between God and the world is erased.

In contemporary theology, it was Karl Barth, the great Swiss German theologian who emphasised the importance of the otherness of God – his utter transcendence – more than any other theologian in his long and bitter battle against the theological liberalism of his day.

Liberalism envisions the divine immanence in such a way that the work of God is often conflated with the historical and political processes. The gap between God and human beings is narrowed and even blurred, and the enterprises fanned by human ideologies and ambition are often confused with the divine purpose.

Such immanentism has made the liberal Protestant churches of Barth’s day susceptible to the Nazi ideology and agenda.

In response, Barth emphasised the infinite and qualitative distinction between God and the world, his utter transcendence. God cannot be gleaned from our observation of the empirical world – hence Barth’s rejection of the natural theology of liberal Christianity. He is only known by revelation, which comes from above.

For Barth, human beings can never succeed in domesticating God or coercing him into endorsing their most ambitious political and social projects. The transcendent God, who is ever immanent in his creation, remains forever sovereign.

Christians worship the God who is at once transcendent and immanent without attempting to unravel this unfathomable mystery. Christians worship the Creator and Sustainer of the universe who dwells in the hearts of human beings (John 14:23; 1 Corinthians 3:16), the God who is exalted but never remote.

As Gregory of Nyssa has declared: ‘God’s transcendent power is not so much displayed in the vastness of the heavens, or the luster of the stars, or the orderly arrangement of the universe or his perpetual oversight of it, as in his condescension to our weak nature’.



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.

Is the Universe Absurd?

December 2015 Pulse

In an interesting essay published in 1998, the well-known Australian populariser of science Paul Davies asks a provocative question: ‘Is the Universe Absurd?’

In crafting his answer, Davies begins by pointing out the marvellous things about our universe that scientists have uncovered but could not fully explain. He mentions the rational way in which the universe appears to be ordered, the intelligibility of nature and what he calls the ‘lawfulness’ of the universe that makes it dependable.

The overwhelming evidence of design however does not lead Davies to embrace traditional theism or even to conclude that God exists. ‘Simply declaring that God made the world and selected a judicious set of laws offers no real explanation at all’, he writes. As one would expect, Davies rejects the argument that God had caused the Big Bang, labelling such arguments (quite unfairly) as conjuring the ‘God of the Gaps’.

Yet Davies appears to be totally dissatisfied with attempts of atheists to address the question of the purpose or lack thereof of the universe. ‘Having insisted that everything in the world can be explained in terms of natural laws, when it comes to the origin of the laws themselves a mental backflip is performed: the system of laws must simply be accepted as brute fact, they say. The laws exist reasonlessly’, he writes.

Davies rightly points out that the strategy taken by naturalists would lead to the rather gloomy conclusion that the universe is absurd, a conclusion he rejects. He is adamant that the answer to the question about the purpose of the universe cannot be found in what is to him abstract metaphysical commitments – atheism or theism – but in ‘pursuing our scientific investigations in a spirit of humility and openness’.

Let us be very clear about what Davies is saying here. He is not proposing a form of ‘natural theology’: unlike medieval theologians like Thomas Aquinas, Davies is not saying that we could attain to some general knowledge about God through our empirical study of the world.

Davies is rather asserting that it may be possible for science to discover the purpose of the universe by studying its structures and laws. That is, the universe will ‘explain’ its purpose to us if we were to listen attentively and humbly to it.

There are number of interesting moves that Davies makes in his arguments that blatantly reveal his assumptions.

I shall highlight just two. Firstly, despite emphatically eschewing metaphysical commitments such as theism or atheism, Davies is in fact holding to a set of assumptions that can only be described as ‘metaphysical’ in nature.

Secondly, in assuming that science or scientific investigations can help humankind understand the purpose and meaning of the universe, Davies appears to be working with a certain philosophy of science called scientism that is rejected by many philosophers and scientists.

For example, the Roman Catholic theologian John Haught who has worked for decades on the relationship between theology and science writes: ‘Natural science is simply not equipped to respond to such momentous issues as whether there is a point to the universe, or whether it is friendly toward us’.

‘If scientists such as Einstein and Weinberg undertake nevertheless to address such matters’, Haught adds, ‘they must surely realise that their opinions are not a part of science, but conjectures about science’.

Nevertheless, the question that Davies asks is an important one. The question is nicely put by the 17th century German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: ‘The first question which should rightly be asked is, Why is there something rather than nothing?’ It is a question that has plagued ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle.

Unlike Davies, many Christian theologians, philosophers and scientists are quite convinced that science on its own is unable to answer the questions concerning the origin and purpose of the universe. Theologians maintain that the natural sciences can to some extent help us to understand how the world works. But it is unable to tell us why there is a world in the first place.

Nor can the purpose of the universe be gleaned from our observation and study of it. To speak of the purpose of the universe is not only to refer to the reason for its existence but to also suggest directionality and goal, its teleology. To speak of purpose is to appeal to mind and will.

Christian theologians therefore argue that the purpose of the universe is to be found in the mind and will of the Creator who brought it into being out of nothing. Put differently, the answers to the questions why there is a universe and what is the purpose of its existence can only be found in the revelation of God, the Creator.

On the basis of this revelation in Scripture, Christians can say confidently that the wonderful and mysterious universe we inhabit is not absurd because God had lovingly created it. And because God is sovereign, his creation will attain the goal or telos for which he had intended for it.

In this regard, the older atheists like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus were more realistic and perhaps also more honest than Davies in their admission that if there is no God the universe and human life is meaningless. Sartre could speak of the ‘nausea’ of existence, while Camus in his brief novel The Stranger could conclude that universe is indeed absurd if there is no God to give it meaning.


Dr Roland Chia


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

Transhumanism

What is Transhumanism? And how should Christians respond to its philosophy?

The twenty-first century has been described by some as the ‘Age of Bio-technology’. Advances in science and technology, especially in cybernetics and nanotechnology, are so rapid and significant that futuristic techno-utopians or ‘technopians’ are predicting that it would soon be possible for scientists to engineer ‘better’ human beings who are not vulnerable to certain weaknesses and diseases. In fact some have predicted that the future that awaits humankind is ‘trans-human’ in that these new technologies will enable the human race to possess powers beyond our imagination.

The World Transhumanist Association based in the United States defines transhumanism as a ‘sort of humanism plus’. Transhumanists believe that human beings can ‘better themselves socially, physically, and mentally by making use of reason, science and technology’. At the heart of the transhumanist movement, therefore, is the desire to create a utopia by improving ‘humankind and humanity in all their facets’.

In June 2000, the first artificial retinas were implanted in the eyes of three patients in Chicago suffering from retinis pigmentosa, which enabled them to see. The implants, which are 2mm in diameter each, 1/1000 of an inch thick, converts -3500 microphotodiodes that changes light energies into electrical impulses, which in turn stimulate the functioning nerves of the retina. This is the exciting world of ‘cybernetics’, the science which attempts to combine living organisms with machines.

The journal Science published a report in its June 2000 issue that scientists Edwin Jager, Olle Inganas and Ingemar Lundstorm have successfully developed a synthesized micro-robot that can move micrometer-size objects and manipulate single cells and cell-sized particles in an area of 250 x 100 micrometers.

The term ‘nanotechnology’ was brought to public consciousness by Eric Dexler in his book, Engines of Creation, first published in 1986. The term refers to precision machining with the tolerance level of a micrometer or less. Imagine a robot so small that it can be sent into the human body to detect and destroy malignant cells and cancers. Imagine using these micro-robots as immune machines to detect and combat infection. Imagine robots that could repair or replace damaged tissues and non-cellular connective tissue materials such as the extracellular matrix, or remove atherosclerotic plaque in coronary and cerebral arteries.

Although none of these technologies exist presently, scientists believe that these nanorobots will be a reality in the near future, and that their appearance will revolutionize medicine. Inspired by the promises of cybernetics and nanotechnology, transhumanists look forward to a future in which the limitations and the burdens of the present can be overcome by science and technology. Transhumanists therefore could speak of an alternative immortality.

The transhumanist vision can be critiqued from various angles from the Christian perspective. The optimism that transhumanism exudes regarding the future betrays the fact that its ideology is very much influenced by the Enlightenment. Its confidence in science and technology to secure a promising future for (post-) humanity merely shows that it has given scientism a new face. Scientism is the view espoused by some that the natural sciences (and its close cousin, technology) not only has the ability to unlock the mysteries of the universe, but also the ability to solve all the problems we currently face.

Science is here presented as revealer and saviour, the roles which the Christian Faith properly accords to God alone. Its confidence in science and technology, and its very optimistic view of human nature has led transhumanism to boldly present its own secular ‘eschatology’. It envisions a posthuman future in which, according to Katherine Hayles, ‘there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulations, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot technology and human goals’.

Because transhumanism is a secular ideology, it has no conception of the divine, and so no understanding of the radical nature of human sinfulness. Seen from another perspective, however, transhumanism presents itself as something of a religion. Although it is a secular ideology, it is in some ways profoundly religious. It has deified science and technology, and gives them the powers to change human nature itself, and to bring about ‘eschatological’ perfection through the emergence of a posthuman race, the cyborgs.

At its very heart, transhumanism despises the nature that human beings now possess, with all its frailties and limitations. The goal of the transhumanist is to press towards the posthuman future in which homo sapiens become techno sapiens (‘transhuman’ is short for transitional human).  Hence the transhumanist writer Bart Kosko could assert: ‘Biology is not destiny. It was never more than tendency. It was just nature’s first quick and dirty way to compute with meat. Chips are destiny’. In similar vein, Kevin Warwick, another transhumanist writer could declare: ‘I was born human. But this was an accident of fate – a condition merely of time and place. I believe it’s something I have the power to change’.

At every turn, transhumanism presents itself as not just inimical to the teachings of the Bible and the Christian tradition, but as antithetical to them. The Christian Faith teaches that we are fearfully and wonderfully made by our Creator to bear his image. Our nature is not an accident, but a gift from our Creator. The Christian Faith speaks about sin and the fall which affects all that we do – even our science – and from which we must be saved. That salvation comes only from God, who in his love and grace has sent his only begotten Son to die on the cross for sinful humanity. Nothing from human culture, not even the most profound science and the most precise technology, can bring about salvation.

The Christian Faith teaches that God alone will bring about a new creation at the eschaton, a new heavens and a new earth. It speaks about the resurrection, not the ‘borgification’ (from the word ‘cyborg’) of humanity! In the final analysis, transhumanism presents itself as another attempt at constructing a Babel. It is as much a defiant expression of self-reliance as a manifestation of a sinful and perverse titanism of the human spirit.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.
This article was published in The Bible Speaks Today, January 2015.

Thinking about Disability

In recent years, a number of fine monographs have been published on disability from the Christian perspective. Many of these publications have encouraged deeper and more nuanced reflection on the complex issues associated with our understanding of people with disabilities. They have also helpfully brought to light some prejudices that have subtly shaped certain societal attitudes, norms and conventions. Embedded deeply in our collective consciousness and in our culture is the proclivity to view disability in generally negative terms. Disability is often seen as a ‘tragedy’ or a ‘problem’. Consequently, the disabled person is often looked upon as an object of charity. This medical model of disability (about which I have more to say later in this article) is very influential and pervasive in modern society.

Our attitude towards people with disabilities is sometimes tellingly betrayed by language that habitually if unconsciously makes the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’. We should never dismiss this as just a question of language. Such distinctions reveal the psychological and relational distance between ‘normal’ people (an expression that must be subjected to careful theological analysis and critique) and disabled people, a distance mostly due to the former’s perception of the alien-ness and strangeness of the latter’s condition. Very often our response to a person with disability is not dependant on our understanding of his or her experience. Rather it is based on what psychologists call sympathetic imagination, that is, the uneasy feelings aroused within us as we put ourselves in the place of such people. Again, it is imperative that we should never take this sentiment lightly. Sympathetic imagination arguably may well be that powerful visceral impulsion behind the support for euthanasia, eugenics and abortion.

It is this amorphous and often unarticulated dread of disability that leads certain members of society to stigmatise people with disability. In his classic treatment of the subject entitled, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, Erving Goffman explains that a person possesses a stigma if he or she is marked by ‘an undesired differentness from what we had anticipated’. A stigma is something that we project onto the person who does not conform to our ideas of normalcy. As Goffman points out: ‘One can therefore suspect that the role of normal and the role of stigmatized are parts of the same complex, cuts from the same standard cloth’. Once stigmatised, people with disabilities are treated as taboos. Like the stigma, the taboo is also a social construct based on how the dominant group defines nature or the natural. That which does not fit into our concept of the normal is deemed deformed and dysfunctional. And this includes people who are crippled, maimed and diseased. The intellectually challenged – the idiot, retarded and imbecile – must also join their ranks.

One of the reasons why disabled people are perceived so negatively is the prevalence of the medical model of disability. In criticising this model, I am not disparaging the marvellous advances in medicine and biotechnology that have alleviated human suffering, including that of disabled persons. But in reducing disability only to a problem of diagnosis and treatment, the medical model has fostered a narrow and even jaundiced understanding of disabled people. Because of the medical model, disability is often seen as a liability from the standpoint of society. Needless to say, this perspective is so powerful in modern society that many disabled persons see themselves as victims of personal tragedy and as a burden to society. ‘The medical model and its stress on cure and rehabilitation’, writes theologian Thomas Reynolds perceptively, ‘not only fails to address this broader issue, it inadvertently perpetuates processes of disempowerment, exclusion, and isolation, concealing deeper attitudinal, employment-related, educational, and architectural obstacles to genuine inclusion’.

In order for society to reflect more deeply on disability, a more profound vision of what it means to be human and of human sociality is needed. I believe that Scripture and the great theological traditions of the Church can inspire such a vision. The most profound teaching of both Scripture and tradition is that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27), and therefore must be valued, respected and loved. This includes the disabled person, who even in his or her disabilities, mysteriously and beautifully reflects the Creator. On the basis of this theological premise, it follows that the person with disabilities, like every human being, possesses innate, sacred and inviolable rights that must be respected and honoured. At the heart of this Christian teaching is the conviction that no disability, handicap or impairment, however severe and crippling, can rob the disabled person of his or her dignity as a creature made in God’s image.

The disabled, according to the Christian understanding, should never be stigmatised or regarded as taboo. They must never be seen as a liability or as a burden to society. Rather, in a profound sense their presence enables us to discover the deepest meaning of our shared humanity. The disabled opens up to us new vistas of human existence, and avail to us fresh insights into personhood. They point us to the true nobility and dignity of a human being as the privileged bearer of the divine image and thus enable us to get in touch with the essence of our own being. The disabled in some ways also ‘force’ us to acknowledge our own vulnerability and neediness (perhaps that is precisely why we shun them!). They remind us that we too are part of this fallen reality, and thus in need of the promised healing, restoration and salvation in Christ. And they teach us how to wait patiently for God’s salvation. Put simply, in their limitations and suffering, the disabled quietly teach us how to be.

As the community of believers who has experienced the saving and transforming grace of God, the Church should openly and lovingly welcome people of disabilities. She should do so not condescendingly out of pity, but generously, recognising the disabled other as a person whom God loves. Christian hospitality is motivated by the unconditional and generous love of God that Christians have received in abundance in Christ: ‘We love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:19). Such hospitality creates a relationship of reciprocity where mutual giving and receiving takes place in the spontaneity of agape love. In welcoming people of disabilities the Church must not only ask what she can do for them. She must also empower the disabled to find their own place in the community and to creatively use their gifts to build up the Body of Christ. And it is in this relationship of mutual love and respect, what the Bible calls koinonia, that both the one who welcomes and the one who is welcomed are transformed by the power of the Spirit.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was published in Word@Work (March 2014).

The Wonders of Creation

In the opening chapters of the Bible, the mystery of creation is presented in beautiful poetic language (Genesis 1 and 2). The passages speak of how God brought about this splendidly diverse universe by simply speaking the word of command: God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light. These passages point to the almightiness of the Creator who is not dependent on any pre-existing material to fashion the creation, but created it ‘out of nothing’ (ex nihilo), as early theologians of the Church pointed out. But Genesis is not the only book in the Bible that speaks of God’s marvellous creation. The Psalms contain some of the most eloquent statements about the Creator.

Psalm 19 speaks most beautifully of how the splendours of God’s creation reflect and point to the Creator. The psalm opens with this marvellous declaration: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge’. The psalmist celebrates the majesty, glory and honour of God the Creator as he contemplates His handiwork.

Christian theologians and poets throughout the centuries have insisted that it is possible to get something of a glimpse of the glory and magnificence of the Creator by prayerfully contemplating the created order. The poem of the great 19th century English poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins entitled, ‘God’s Grandeur’ immediately comes to mind: ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; It gathers to greatness, like the ooze of oil / Crushed …’ Together with the ancient psalmist, these Christian writers see the vestiges of the glory of God in the beauty of the creation.

But the ability to discern the Creator in the structures of the material world is not confined only to poets, theologians and mystics. Modern physicists and cosmologists are beginning to see that the universe we inhabit has an order that is profoundly, remarkably and delicately balanced. For example, in order for life to exist there must be an abundant supply of carbon, which is formed by the combination of three helium nuclei. But the combination must be so exact that if there is a variation of slightly more than one percent either way, the universe could no longer sustain life. Or take the distance between the sun and the earth. A modification of only two percent of the current distance, scientists say, would result in the total annihilation of life. If the earth is too near to the sun, water would evaporate and the earth will be too barren to sustain life. However, if the earth is too far from the sun, temperatures would plunge to the point that life is no longer possible.

Another important observation that scientists have made has to do with gravity and the amount of matter – i.e., galaxies, diffuse gas, ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’ – in the universe. Again, the balance must be just right. This has led some scientists to conclude that there must be an extraordinary imposition of constraints on the initial cosmic energy density in order for a universe like ours to come into being. As British cosmologist and astrophysicist Baron Martin Rees put it: ‘If this ratio were too high relative to a particular “critical” value, the universe would have collapsed long ago; had it been too low, no galaxies or stars would have formed. The initial expansion speed seems to have been finely tuned’. Rees alludes to the anthropic principle, which is made popular by John Barrow and Frank Tipler’s landmark book The Anthropic Cosmological Principle published in 1986. The anthropic principle simply points to the remarkable and extraordinary combination of factors necessary to bring about the universe that we inhabit. Barrow maintains that this remarkable confluence of factors, which he calls ‘nice laws’, would be very difficult to explain without reference to God.

It would be too much to argue that the anthropic principle or the fact that our universe is so magnificently ‘fine-tuned’ serves as proof for the existence of God. There is a sense in which one can never prove (in the way scientists broadly understand the word) or disprove the existence of God. But it would not be outrageous (and here is the apologetic value of this discovery) to say that these scientific observations about the universe suggest that it is not unreasonable to postulate the existence of the Creator. In fact, as some philosophers and theologians have rightly pointed it, to suggest the existence of a Creator is arguably more credible than to suggest speculative theories like the multiverse. But for the believer, these scientific discoveries testify to the wonders of the creation and the ever-greater wonder of its Creator. They enable him to join the psalmist in declaring: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands’.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was first published in The Bible Speaks Today (March 2013).