Tag Archives: individualism

Paganising Christianity

September 2016 Pulse

The unprecedented emergence of religious fundamentalism and fervour across the globe in the final decades of the last century has led to the demise of the so-called secularisation theory proposed by philosophers and sociologists in the 1960s. Instead of being made obsolete by the seemingly unstoppable advance of secularism, the religions are experiencing something of a revival.

This phenomenal “re-sacralisation” has brought to the surface spiritual sensibilities or predilections that are best described as “neo-pagan”. In her insightful book, New Age and Neo-pagan Religions in America, Sarah Pike helpfully characterised neo-pagan beliefs and practices as eclectic and inclusive, “traditional” and inventive, embracing both old and new.

This new religiosity is nourished and energised in different ways by a confluence of diverse (and sometimes seemingly contradictory) cultural forces that are at work in our world: postmodernism, consumerism, individualism, relativism, anti-authoritarianism, secularism, panpsychism (all things have consciousness) and many others.

Unfortunately, this new syncretism has infiltrated the Christian church, resulting in the creation of “bastard faiths”, a term coined by the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. The poisonous commingling of neo-pagan occultism, secularism and Christianity has given birth to such profound and serious distortions that the Gospel of Christ itself is undermined, resulting in what the Apostle Paul has called “a different gospel” (2 Corinthians 11:4).

Examples of the miscegenation (or inter-breeding) of Christianity with neo-pagan elements are not difficult to find.

Take the so-called “Health and Wealth Gospel”. Unknown to many, this unorthodox teaching is in fact a toxic blend of Christianity and New Thought Metaphysics.

Kenneth Hagin – the father of the “movement” – was greatly influenced by the Pentecostal preacher E. W. Kenyon, who in turn drew heavily from Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802-1866), the alleged founder of New Thought.

Quimby taught that sickness and suffering originate from the mind, and that they are the result of incorrect thinking. He believed that we could eradicate suffering by creating a new reality through positive visualisation and positive confession.

Hagin and the health and prosperity teachers simply “baptised” this New Thought doctrine with their distorted concept of faith. Following Kenyon’s dictum, “What I confess, I possess”, they fused their understanding of faith with positive confession.

Another example of this deadly syncretism is found in the teachings and practices of the self-styled apostles and prophets of the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR). The most prominent leaders of this movement include Bill Johnson, Bill Hamon, Rick Joyner, Mike Bickle, Lou Engle, Patricia King and Che Ahn.

Perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of NAR is their acquiescence to and legitimisation of neo-pagan and shamanistic practices such as contact with angels (or spirit guides), angel orbs, portals of glory, teleportation and ‘grave-sucking’ (the belief that one can obtain the anointing of the deceased servants of God by visiting their graves).

While some of these preachers introduce these teachings and practices covertly to their unsuspecting followers, others promote them quite openly.

For example, in his 2006 book Dreaming with God, Bill Johnson of Bethel Church, Redding, asserts that it is mistaken to think that New Age practices like clairaudience (the ability to perceive sounds or words from outside sources in the spirit world) are from the devil. According to Johnson, they are “tools that God has given us for success in life and ministry”.

In similar vein, Jonathan Welton argues in an essay in The Physics of Heaven (2012) that occult practices like auras and clairvoyance (gaining information through extrasensory perception) are actually God’s gifts to the Church that the practitioners of the New Age have stolen. The Church must therefore reclaim that which is rightfully hers.

Welton writes: “I have found throughout Scripture at least 75 examples of things that the New Age has counterfeited, such as having a spirit guide, trances, meditation, auras, power objects, clairvoyance, clairaudience, and more.”

“Every time a counterfeit shows up”, he continues, “take it as the Lord presenting you with an opportunity to reclaim … the Church’s stolen property.”

About two millennia ago, in a letter addressed to a Church besieged by heresy, the Apostle Paul warns: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” (Colossians 2:8, ESV)

In the wake of this new religiosity, the Church of today must take this warning from Scripture with complete seriousness.

Roland Chia (suit)_Large

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. This article is first published in Methodist Message.

 

The Limits of Freedom

October 2015 Pulse

On a chilly January morning this year, two heavily-armed Islamic terrorists barged into the offices of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris and fired 50 shots, killing 11 people and injuring 11 others. The terrorists shouted “Allahu Akbar” (“God is the greatest”) in an attack that was a violent retaliation to the weekly’s denigrating cartoon caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed.

The Charlie Hebdo incident has sparked one of the most ferocious debates in recent memory on the most sacrosanct of all human rights in Western societies, namely, the freedom of speech – and its corollary, the freedom of the press.

In response to the horrific massacre, French President François Hollande reportedly said: “An act of exceptional barbarism has just been committed here in Paris against a newspaper – a newspaper, i.e. the expression of freedom – and against journalists who had always wanted to show that in France they could always work to uphold their ideas and to enjoy the very freedom the Republic protects.”

While it is inconceivable that anyone would endorse the unconscionable and murderous brutality of the terrorists, Hollande’s defence of an unbridled exercise of freedom must be subjected to interrogation and criticism.

At the heart of the debate on freedom, especially freedom of speech, is whether there are or should be limits. Are there certain things that cannot be said, or circumstances in which things cannot be said?

Without doubt, the clearest articulation of freedom of expression as a basic human right is found in Article 19 of the 1947 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

In Western societies, freedom of expression and that of the press are deemed indispensable for the ‘three Ds’: Development, Democracy and Dialogue. Once freedom is constrained, these ‘three Ds’ – so important to progress and human flourishing – would also be greatly hampered.

However, to champion the freedom of expression is surely not to suggest that its exercise is unlimited. There is something incredibly naïve – even vulgar – about the insistence on the right to exercise unbridled freedom that has reverberated in the heated rhetoric surrounding the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

The fundamental issue in the Charlie Hebdo incident concerning freedom of speech, then, is that a distortion has been inadvertently created because the importance of this basic right has been exaggerated.

Such exaggerations are not just the predilection of the French. It is given voice by the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who in his Declaration of Independence wrote that “the freedom of speech is the greatest good in a free democratic society and prevails over the other constitutional rights”.

But freedom can never be the only or the greatest virtue, and its protection cannot mean that other equally important virtues without which society cannot hold – like truth, justice and respect – must be set aside.

Respecting the right of individuals to express their views does not mean that society should no longer be concerned for the truth, for what is right and wrong. Without a moral compass, the diversity of opinions and viewpoints expressed in freedom will become nothing but ‘noise’. And the very truth that the freedom of speech is supposed to help society arrive at will be obfuscated by such ‘noise’.

Similarly, the emphasis on the basic human right to free speech must be placed alongside the equally important imperative that we respect the beliefs of others. Respect for freedom of expression and respect for the religious beliefs and symbols of others are not in conflict but work together for the common good.

Thus, Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) states that
“Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.”

Put differently, there are limits to the exercise of freedom. And it is only in recognising that boundaries are intrinsic elements to freedom, and that human relationships must also be shaped by other virtues, that society can truly flourish.

Charlie Hebdo has clearly transgressed those limits.

Perhaps our understanding of the meaning of freedom would deepen and mature when we appeal to not just the language of rights but also the language of responsibility. When this happens, freedom is not seen only as our basic right to do as we please or say what we want.

When the language of responsibility is commandeered, our understanding of freedom becomes other-oriented instead of self-centred: we are freed from our own self- absorption, and we begin to learn to love, respect and serve our neighbour with our freedom.

This basic Christian understanding of freedom – as freedom from sin and freedom for service – will surely add depth to the sometimes superficial secular accounts of liberty inspired by an atomised individualism.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.
This article was originally published in the May 2015 issue of the Methodist Message.

What’s Wrong with Human Rights

One of the great achievements of the previous century is the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948. The Declaration was composed soon after the end of the Second World War when experiences of the horrific carnage are still fresh in the collective memories of its crafters.

Translated into at least 375 languages and dialects, the UDHR is established on the philosophical premise that ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’ (Article 1). It emphasises that ‘Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status’ (Article 2). As I have argued elsewhere, Christians should have no difficulties accepting the fundamental principles enshrined in the UDHR because they enjoy broad scriptural warrant and endorsement.

It is becoming increasingly obvious, however, that the language of rights alone is not sufficient to encourage civility in modern society. The right to freedom of expression is a case in point. Article 19 of the UDHR reads: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’.

That the insistence on such rights alone is unable to foster social cohesion and ensure civility in our multicultural societies is brought to our attention by the furore over the publication in 2006 of the notorious cartoons of the prophet Mohammed by the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten. Amidst protests and criticisms by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of the paper staunchly defends his decision with this terse statement: ‘We do not apologise for printing the cartoons. It was our right to do so’.

A very different and more recent incident brings to the fore the same problem concerning the inadequacies of the exclusive use of the language of rights in society. It concerns the proposal to build an Islamic Centre and mosque near Ground Zero in New York City. Critics of the project argue that building an Islamic Centre just two blocks away from the World Trade Centre, the site of the 9/11 attacks is a blatant insult to the victims of the terror attacks that were perpetrated in the name of Islam.

In a speech at a White House dinner celebrating the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, U.S. President Barack Obama defended the project by appealing to the rights of Muslims to practise their religion: ‘But let me be clear, as a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practise their religion as anyone else in this country … That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community centre on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.’ Obama’s statement is supported by Article 18 of the UDHR that deals with the question of religious freedom.

Both these examples illustrate the fact that rights alone are insufficient for civilising societies. This is especially true in modern liberal societies where the language of rights is often embedded in a cultural ethos shaped by secularism and individualism. If human rights are to be properly understood, other values must also be brought into the picture. Put differently, human rights discourse must be located within a broader and more robust ethical matrix. It is my view that an account of human rights must be anchored by an ethics of obligation. Any human right, it must be pointed out, has as its counterpart some obligation. In fact, it is interesting to note that in the history of moral philosophy, theories of obligations antedate theories of rights.

It is therefore useful to think of the priority of obligations over rights. As Simone Weil has put it so perceptively in her book, The Need for Roots: ‘The notion of obligations comes before that of rights, which is subordinated and relative to the former.’  It is perhaps beneficial for society to provide a counter-balance to its excessive appeal to the language and rhetoric of human rights by giving more attention to moral obligations.

Moral obligation is in fact stressed in Article 10 of the UDHR which states that the exercise of freedoms carries with it duties and responsibilities. The sense of moral obligation introduces sanity to the modern emphasis on rights. In the case of the derogatory cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, the emphasis on moral obligation would mean that the rights of free speech and expression must be limited and constrained by other important considerations, not least the obligation to respect other rights and the rights of others. The sense of moral obligation would keep the emphasis on the freedom of speech sane and civil by insisting that freedom does not confer an unconditional licence to intimidate, insult or incite hatred.

The ethics of obligation also brings with it an important corrective to the stark individualism that frames modern human rights discourse. The concept of obligation implies relationality and community – the relationship between the ‘obligation bearers’ and their ‘beneficiaries’, so to speak. And it is precisely on this critical issue that Obama’s White House speech disappoints.

Although Obama did allude to the sensitive nature of the proposed Islamic Centre near Ground Zero, the emphasis of his speech was mainly on the rights of Muslims. Even when he made a swift but clumsy about-turn later (which his office roundly denies) due to mounting criticisms of his endorsement of the project, his emphasis is still misplaced: ‘I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.’  The weight is still placed on rights when it should be placed on moral obligations.

The Christian ethic of love requires that concern for one’s moral obligations towards others (i.e., their interests and the rights) be given priority over one’s own interests and rights. It is on the basis of the Christian ethic of love that we should understand Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians: ‘Each of you should not look only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others’ (Phil 2:4). For it is only in serving one another in this way that the interests, rights and welfare of everyone are taken seriously and respected.


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 Trumpet (TTC).

Contending with Gaia

Feb 2015 Pulse

In the past five decades, debates on the environment have seen a notable shift from anthropocentric to biocentric thinking. Theologians, philosophers and ethicists generally acknowledge that the traditional human-centric approach cannot adequately address concerns about the welfare of animals and the environment. This shift is further precipitated by the current concerns about climate change.

In his 1979 book, Gaia: A New Look at Life, James Lovelock, an independent scientist and futurist proposed a theory that provided the basis for philosophers and scientists to think about humans and their environment. ‘The Gaia Hypothesis’, Lovelock writes, ‘states that Earth’s surface conditions are regulated by the activities of life … This environmental maintenance is effected by the growth and metabolic activities of the sum of organisms, i.e., the biota’.

Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis is based on a number of assumptions, not every one of which can be said to be in agreement with current scientific understanding.

The first assumption is that every living organism in the planet in some ways influences the external environment. Gaia works on a grand vision of organic harmony, where the myriads of different species that populate the earth act in concert to produce and maintain the necessary conditions for life.

In other words, according to Lovelock, the biosphere is self-regulating and is therefore capable of preserving the conditions conducive for life. The Gaian earth is a single organism that has evolved precisely in the way that it has to ensure the preservation of life.

Most scientists are critical of Lovelock’s hypothesis, and some have even called it a pseudoscience. They maintain that Lovelock’s understanding of evolution is antithetical to the Darwinian theory. While Darwin postulates the competitive model with his idea of ‘survival of the fittest’, Lovelock advocates the cooperation model.

Be that as it may, many people are attracted to the sheer elegance of Lovelock’s hypothesis because it presents a geo-physiological way of understanding our planet and the life it supports. The hypothesis urges us to look beyond the purpose or telos of individual organisms, and to consider their collective contribution to the survival of the planet.

When we evaluate the Gaia hypothesis in light of the Christian understanding of God, the creation and human beings several serious problems present themselves.

At the outset, it is important to note that Gaia is a hypothesis about the nature of living organisms and how they relate to one another. Although it is in part based on current scientific knowledge, it is by-and-large a philosophical construct. In fact, Gaia hypothesis can be even said to be a kind of myth, quite similar to the myth of evolutionism.

One fundamental problem with Gaia is that it fails to make the distinction between organisms. There appears to be no ontological difference between human beings and algae. Every living organism is blended into what proponents of ‘deep ecology’ call ‘a single life force’. The distinction between self and non-self is obliterated: human and bacteria share the same ‘consciousness’.

Although Gaia wishes to address the stubborn anthropocentrism that continues to lurk in the way we think of nature, it has swung to the other extreme. In failing to acknowledge the ontological distinction between human beings and other creatures, it has also failed to give an account of human uniqueness.

This is at odds with the Christian understanding of human beings as bearers of the divine image, that are at once continuous and discontinuous with the rest of God’s creation. And in failing to recognise human uniqueness, Gaia is unable to conceive of the proper relationship between man and the natural order.

Theologians rightly saw that the peculiar naturalism of Gaia has subjected human behaviour to its own brand of biological determinism. The atheist Richard Dawkins has famously asserted that ‘We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes’.

Although Lovelace would not put it in quite the same way, he would have no quarrels with Dawkin’s general intuition. Such a view, if taken seriously, would spell the end of any meaningful way of thinking about human freedom and morality.

As it stands Gaia does not in principle encourage responsible human behaviour towards the natural order. For if nature has an intrinsic ability to adjust and achieve equilibrium, why is there a real need for human beings to take care of the natural environment?

In fact, Lovelock explicitly rejects the idea of ‘resource management’ because it implies that human beings have the ability to somehow ‘manage’ the earth. Lovelock believes that human beings do not have this ability, despite the great achievements of science and technology.

Stewardship, for Lovelock, bespeaks of a certain kind of arrogance. It is perhaps another instantiation of anthropocentrism.

Both Christian and secular conservationists, who stress the importance of responsible stewardship, have great difficulties with the implications of Gaian theory on environmental ethics.

Finally, Gaia postulates that nature is the fundamental reality. In fact, according to the hypothesis, the biosphere is what is ultimately real.

One on level, then, we could say that Gaia presents a new version of naturalism. But in its attempt to sacralise reality by portraying the earth as one living and conscious organism, Gaia may also be accused of promoting a form of pantheism. And with its allusions to teleology or purpose, Gaia may also be said to be implicitly reviving a version of the anima mundi, the mothering earth.

That is why Gaia is so popular among New Age enthusiasts. It inspires what has been described as eco-paganism. Modern theosophists like Alice Bailey and David Spangler have associated Gaia with the theosophical Earth Logos. And New Age leaders like Otter and Morning Glory G’Zell of the Church of All Worlds have described themselves as priest and priestess of Gaia.

How did Gaia, which started life as a unifying theory about living organisms, become a religious symbol? Gaia has inspired the imagination of a culture that is at once dissatisfied with a stifling individualism and a suffocating secularism. It has provided our postmodern culture with a sense of community and inter-connectedness as well as a re-enchanted nature.

Gaia is therefore more than simply a hypothesis about biota or organic life on this planet. It provides with an insight into the restlessness that characterises a culture that is on a quest for a more profound vision of reality than the one science and technology are able to offer.


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 Methodist Message.