Tag Archives: politics

The Politicisation of Science

August 2018 Pulse

The Swedish meteorologist working in the UK, Lennart Bengtsson, is without doubt one of the most respected climate scientists in the fraternity. In April 2014, Bengtsson joined the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a think tank that raised questions concerning the current ‘consensus’ on climate change based on data.

Bengtsson pointed out that climate change predictions that are based on computer models might not give the true picture of the actual state of global warming. ‘Since the end of the 20th century’, he said, ‘the warming of the Earth has been much weaker than what climate models show’.

Note that Bengtsson did not deny that global warming was occurring. He merely raised the scientifically valid question about the accuracy of model simulations and pointed out that observational results have differed.

Shortly after raising this issue, Bengtsson faced the ire of the climate community for challenging the prevailing orthodoxy. He came under such unbearable pressure from his colleagues that he was forced to resign from the think tank.

‘I have been put under such an enormous group pressure in recent days from all over the world that has become virtually unbearable for me’, he writes. ‘If this is going to continue I will be unable to conduct my normal work and will even start to worry about my health and safety’.

He adds: ‘Colleagues are withdrawing their support, other colleagues are withdrawing from joint authorship, etc. I see no limit and end to what will happen’.

The politicisation of science is an inevitable fact, argues Roger Pielke in The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics. Politics is enmeshed in many of the hot-button issues raised by the biological sciences, including evolution, stem cell research and protection of endangered species.

‘The only time you can stay above the fray is when you are a grad student’, says Pielke in an interview. ‘The minute you have to file a grant proposal with NSF or NIH, you’re in the realm of connecting science with the world outside of science’.

That science should be the candidate for politicisation should not surprise us. In the modern world, scientific authority is replacing religious authority, and the pronouncements from the scientific community have achieved the status of dogma. ‘The scientists have spoken’ appears to be an updated version of ‘This is the Word of the Lord’.

Science has ventured beyond the laboratories and exerted its influence in almost every aspect of society. Science has pontificated on how parents should raise their children, how relationships should be conducted, how we should have sex and what food we should eat.

In an age of moral relativism, as politicians find it more and more difficult to justify their agendas and ideologies by moral arguments, science has become an invaluable ally. The authority of science is asserted surely but subtly in our habits of discourse across the disciplines.

For example, with regard to climate change, Sir David Read, the vice-president of the Royal Society, is reported to have said: ‘The science very clearly points towards the need for us all – nations, businesses and individuals – to do as much as possible, as soon as possible, to avoid the worst consequences of climate change’.

The profound significance of the definite article before the word ‘science’ must not be missed. As Frank Furedi puts it, ‘“The Science” is a deeply moralised and politicised category’. Science is hailed as an authority that demands almost unquestioning submission.

The politicisation of science is an extremely complex and multifaceted phenomenon.

One the one hand, we have politicians commandeering scientific evidence – albeit selectively and at times even dishonestly – to advance their own political agendas. On the other, we also see scientists jumping on this bandwagon and aligning their scientific findings to certain ideological commitments.

Politicians and scientists could respond to the same published research in dramatically opposing ways, depending on which side of the political fence they happen to be situated. A case in point is the 2003 paper published in Climate Research that argued that from a millennial perspective climate changes in the 20th century are unremarkable.

Advocacy groups comprising politicians and scientists who oppose the Kyoto Protocol on climate change praised the paper as a sterling example of ‘sound science’. But the groups that supported the Protocol immediately denigrated it as ‘junk science’.

This example makes it painfully clear that issues like global warming are no longer of just scientific concern. They have become political causes. As Kim Holmes observes, ‘Political activism has so penetrated the science of climate change that one can barely tell the difference between a United Nations conference of scientists on global warming and a rally of political activists lobbying governments to adopt controls on carbon emissions’.

To make matters worse, there is also considerably bullying going on in the scientific fraternity. Those who dare to question the findings and conclusions of the majority or contradict the prevailing orthodoxy are sometimes humiliated and ostracised.

Such baneful attempts to shame and shun dissenters go against the spirit of science, which encourages open inquiry. But it shows just how politicised science can be in our modern world.

It should be noted that both the political right and left are guilty of the politicisation of science, even as they blame each other for this crime. So, if as Pielke points out the politicisation of science is a fact of life, what should our response to this state of affairs look like?

For the Christian, both science and politics are moral activities that should be carried out in the service of the truth. While the politicisation of science cannot be entirely avoided, one should nonetheless always strive for an ever-greater objectivity and truthfulness.

To begin with, scientists should be more self-conscious of their political commitments and scrupulously avoid conflating science with ideology in a way that is misleading.

In addition, scientists should also make it clear to the public when they are engaged in advocacy. And instead of merely championing a particular cause, scientists should clarify how the data allows for a variety of policy choices.

Pielke and others have argued that both scientists and politicians must understand the difference between politics and policy. The political perspective is necessarily narrow, limiting the range of alternatives as it pursues a particular agenda and desired outcome.

However, as Pielke explains in an article entitled, ‘When Scientists Politicise Science’, ‘For science, a policy perspective implies increasing or elucidating the range of alternatives available to decision-makers by clearly associating the existing state of scientific knowledge with a range of choices’.

One way in which science can be depoliticised, Pielke suggests, is to ‘ask scientists to participate in the process of connecting science with policy alternatives, to explicitly consider what alternatives are and are not consistent with scientific understandings in relation to different valued outcomes’.

Finally, both scientists and politicians need to achieve a more realistic appreciation of the possibilities and limits of science. Sobriety is the best response to scientism’s distorting portrayal of science and its alleged omnicompetence.

A sober appreciation of science would lead us to conclude that although science is helpful in many ways, it can never be the sufficient basis for solving the world’s problems. By itself, science cannot even resolve political debates on important issues.

To accord science with the competence it does not in fact possess and to use it for political ends is to court disaster for the human community.

As Daniel Kemmis perceptively argues: ‘… the repeated invocation of good science as the key to resolving complex ecosystem problems has itself become bad science. What is infinitely worse is that this bad science is all too readily made the servant of bad government’.


 

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

Post-Truth Politics?

June 2017 Pulse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is truth important in politics and for society?

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

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

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

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

Such caricatures are never fair.

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

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

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

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


 

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

Religion, Public Discourse and the Common Good

November 2016 Pulse

Without doubt, one of the most important – if highly contentious – ideas in political and social philosophy today is that of the common good.

Although the idea is once again in vogue in recent public and academic discourse, its origins can be traced to Aristotle, who refused to designate a government just if it neglected to pursue the common good. As the Greek philosopher and scientist put it in his famous work Politics: “The good is justice, in other words, the common interest.”

It should be emphasised that the envisioning and quest for the common good is the responsibility of every member of society, not just that of the government. Participation is key. As The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states: “Participation is a duty to be fulfilled by all, with responsibility and a view to the common good.”

This is especially the case in modern democratic societies.

In our postmodern and culturally pluralistic societies, it is sometimes difficult to arrive at a notion of the good that can be truly described as common, shared by communities with very different cultural sensibilities and habits.

However, it is important not to exaggerate the incommensurability of the different cultures. As the Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon has perceptively pointed out – against the instincts of some postmodern fundamentalists – “Where basic human values are concerned, cultural diversity has been exaggerated.”

Be that as it may, cultural differences can sometimes become an impediment to social life by obfuscating important issues and should therefore be taken seriously. That is why in the quest for a shared vision of the good, the participation of every member of society in the deliberative process is extremely important.

“In a society where everyone has a share in government,” writes Robin Lovin, “the deliberative process cannot be irrelevant to the search for the common good.”

Does religion have a role in this deliberative process?

Many secularists – even those of a benign variety – question the legitimacy of religion’s contribution to debates about the political and economic wellbeing of society. Procedural secularists – namely, those who do not oppose religion per se, but insist that public debates should be kept secular – assume that religion and politics simply do not mix, and that the former’s participation in public debate would result in confusion instead of clarity.

Such misgivings, however, are unfounded.

Not many people would doubt the sterling achievement of the United Nations in promulgating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, in the aftermath of the atrocities of World War II.

But what is sometimes missed is that this document was put together not only with the input of diplomats from different countries, but also that of scholars and intellectuals from different faith communities.

The Declaration shows that it is quite possible for people shaped by different philosophical and religious traditions and who belong to divergent political and economic systems to have common convictions about what it means to speak of the rights of a human being.

But there is another reason why religion – especially Christianity – should not be excluded from the ongoing effort to envision the common good. Its presence can in some important sense challenge our idolatries, the myriad of “isms” to which we give our unquestioning allegiance.

To say this is not to naively suggest that religions are somehow immunised from perversions. Indeed, some of the most sinister idolatries can parade under the banner of religion.

It is to recognise that religion can encourage certain important ways of seeing and of thinking about what it means to be human or what it means to be a community that is forgotten, obscured or simply absent in secular accounts.

Even a secular philosopher like Jürgen Habermas recognises this. In his famous 2005 essay “Religion in the Public Sphere”, Habermas notes that “Religious traditions have a special power to articulate moral intuitions, especially with regard to vulnerable forms of communal life.”

Against the oft-repeated refrain about the divisiveness of religion, religious traditions like Christianity – with its emphasis on equality and justice – can in fact help society achieve a clearer vision of the common good by exposing and correcting veiled intolerances and fanaticisms.


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.

 

Secular Intolerance

October 2016 Pulse

In November last year, The Straits Times reported that, according to Attorney-General George Brandis, Australia is experiencing an “alarming emergence” of religious intolerance. “Members of the Christians faiths”, Australia’s top law officer reportedly said, “are routinely subject to mockery and insult by prominent writers and commentators” (ST, 4 Nov 2015).

To be sure, Australia is not the only country to witness the surge in public attacks on religion by atheists. This phenomenon is seen across Europe and even in America, making plain what Christian theologians have known to be true all along – that secular tolerance is a myth.

Atheists and secular humanists have for a long time demonised religion, blaming it for intolerance and violence, and held up secularism as the bastion of tolerance and freedom. As British journalist Matthew Parris has so provocatively and unabashedly put it, “Godlessness is a humanising force”.

However, it is not very difficult to show just how vacuous and deceptive such rhetoric is in reality.

For example, on 15 Sep 2001, just four days after the horrific events in New York, Richard Dawkins laid the responsibility for the unconscionable act of violence at the door of religion.

“To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind”, he said scornfully, “is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Do not be surprised if they are used”.

Dawkins was applauded for his courage, but this surely is a typical example of secular bigotry.

In recent years, secular intolerance has reared its head in a number of famous court cases involving the central Christian symbol, the cross.

In Lausti v Italy, the atheist applicant Mrs Soile Lausti sought to have the cross or crucifix removed from classrooms across Italy. Their presence in the public square, argued the applicant, tantamount to coercion and even indoctrination.

In Eweida and Chaplin v United Kingdom, the applicants Nadia Eweida and S. Chaplin sought the right to wear the cross visibly in the workplace. Eweida’s employer, British Airways, had insisted that the cross she wore around her neck should either be hidden or removed.

It would be a mistake to think that these examples are rare exceptions, quirky blips on an otherwise admirable record of secular tolerance.

The dark history of secular intolerance can be traced to its birth during the great cultural and intellectual movement in 18th century Europe called the Enlightenment. Although the Enlightenment is a complex movement that can be variously characterised, its most venerated thinkers were fiercely anti-clerical and antagonistic to revealed religion.

For example, Voltaire, one of the Enlightenment’s most eloquent advocates of tolerance, is also well-known for his ferocious and relentless attacks against Jews, Catholics and Calvinists, and for rubbishing the most cherished tenets of Christianity. Karl Marx, arguably one of the most important heirs of Enlightenment rationalism, sought nothing less than the “abolition of religion”.

The philosopher John Gray has exposed the intolerance of secularism with brutal honesty. Tracing the roots of the violence perpetrated by atheist regimes in the 20th century, Gray, himself an atheist, observes that “the mass murders of the 20th century were not perpetrated by some latter-day version of the Spanish Inquisition. They were done by atheist regimes in the service of Enlightenment ideas of progress”.

Secular intolerance comes in many different guises in modern society.

It may be seen in the erroneous view of religion – widely advanced by secularists – as being only concerned about “spiritual” matters, thereby forcing the conclusion that religion has no place in the public square where political and social issues are debated.

Secular intolerance may appear in the argument that because religious language is incommensurable with other forms of public discourse (a fallacious view), religious actors in the public square must put aside their theological and religious commitments and adhere to a hegemonic secular rationality euphemistically referred to as “public reason”.

Secular tolerance is a myth.

This myth has been used again and again by public intellectuals, politicians and the media not only to discredit the church and Christianity, but religion in general.

It is therefore in the interest not only of Christians and people of faith but also of society as a whole that the myth of secular tolerance is exposed and challenged.

Roland Chia (suit)_LargeDr 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.

 

 

Interrogating Tolerance

September 2016 Pulse

In his study on the history of toleration, Alan Levine observes that ‘Toleration is one of the most attractive and widespread ideas of our day. It is a cornerstone of liberalism, a key protection for both individual citizens and minority groups, and in general is the predominant ethos of all moral civilizations in the modern world’.

There is little reason to question the veracity of Levine’s observation. But the ubiquity of the concept of tolerance in our time and the proliferation of its use in a variety of contexts has, ironically, obfuscated its meaning and resulted in serious confusions that may be detrimental to human sociality.

Academics and politicians who employ the language and rhetoric of tolerance to address different issues have sometimes presented tolerance as a moral virtue. This tendency is also found in the writings of some theologians and ethicists.

However, it is important to recognise the fact that toleration or tolerance has to do with politics, not so much with morality or religion. Both the genesis of this idea and its immediate and subsequent applications bear this out quite clearly.

The idea of toleration that arose in seventeenth century Europe – and famously expounded by John Locke in Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) – was purposed to solve to the problem of religious diversity and conflict that had become acute at the time. Toleration made possible the peaceful co-existence of the different religious groups within society.

Seen in this light, toleration has much to do with politics and very little to do with ethics and even less to do with religion. As Jonathan Sacks has pointed out, toleration is the answer to the question: How shall people with different faith convictions live together? Toleration’s concern is not truth but political order and civic peace.

Toleration, then, is about managing difference and the threat that it poses. Or, as Wendy Brown puts it toleration is a strategy for ‘regulating aversion’. It is the ‘mode of incorporating and regulating the presence of the threatening Other within’. But if Brown is right, if toleration is in essence just a way of negotiating the mean between rejection and assimilation, toleration is a political necessity rather than a virtue.

The seldom-explored relationship between tolerance and power is vital to our understanding of the true nature of tolerance. To tolerate is in some sense always to stand in the position of power and judgement over the tolerated. Tolerance points to the normative standing of the tolerant and the liminal standing of the tolerated.

As Wendy Brown explains: ‘It reconfirms, without reference to the orders of power that enable it, the higher civilizational standing of those who tolerate what they do not condone or share – their cosmopolitanism, forbearance, expansiveness, catholicity, remoteness from fundamentalism’.

The withholding of tolerance is similarly an expression of power. It suggests that that which cannot be tolerated is barbaric, but without in any way implicating the cultural and societal norms of the party that makes this judgement.

Tolerance has, at best, a tenuous relationship with morality. To be sure, weaved into the idea of tolerance is a basic moral impulse – a sense of right and wrong. Thus, tolerance must be distinguished from preference or taste because it requires that a moral judgement be made on the thing tolerated.

Put differently, I tolerate an action or a practice not because I think that it is morally neutral. Rather, I am certain that it is morally wrong, but I am willing to allow it. Tolerance therefore presupposes disagreement on something that is of moral significance.

But this leads to an interesting question: if an action or practice is morally reprehensible to me (e.g., abortion or euthanasia), why should I tolerate it?

It is here that the relationship between tolerance and morality becomes murky and dubious. Tolerance, which makes sense only when moral convictions are taken seriously, seems to insist that these very convictions must either be given up or relativised.

As Bernard Williams has perceptively pointed out, such is the paradox of tolerance: the very thing that makes tolerance necessary has also made it impossible.

But tolerance’s relationship with morality is also tenuous in another sense, especially in our postmodern climate where the truth upon which morality depends has become illusive. It is in such a cultural ethos that the rhetoric of tolerance can be truly at home.

As S. D. Gaede has wryly put it in his book, When Tolerance is No Virtue: ‘Tolerance is a value that conforms nicely to the world we live in. Having pretty much decided that truth is not attainable, we have made tolerance of a plurality of truths a virtue. Having no truths worth defending, we have made nondefensiveness a mark of distinction’.

This attempt to interrogate tolerance, to question its innocence, so to speak, does not suggest that we should reject tolerance or ignore its usefulness. Tolerance must of course be preferred to incivility and violence.

Such analyses however change the status of tolerance – from a transcendental virtue to a strategy of governance, a way of negotiating differences in order to achieve social peace and cohesion.

This is not an idle exercise. For only when the nature of tolerance and the role that it plays in our pluralistic society is properly understood can its abuses be prevented.


Roland Chia (suit)_LargeDr 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.

 

Returning to Basics on SG50?

December 2015 Feature Article

In her inimitable style as one of Singapore’s leading writers of fiction and non-fiction, Catherine Lim [1] offers articles that might allude to the political mood of a young nation that has almost come of age. In her oft-witty and politically nuanced contributions, interspersed movingly with her own reminiscences, Catherine Lim also shares some of the aspirations and fears of what it is going to be like for the next 50 years for Singapore. One article in particular gives a foreboding scenario of Singapore’s 80th anniversary celebrations set in the alarming context of the China Co-Prosperity Sphere, hence putting to rest any remnant ‘Western’ hegemonic influence.

Nevertheless significant questions remain in my mind about Singapore’s future. What sort of nation do we wish to see, now that we have entered the post Lee Kuan Yew era? What sort of politics should we practise, in view of the nascent but increasingly credible opposition movement? How do we maintain the level of apparent sophistication that has been built up in the short time of practically one generation since the 1960s, with their concomitant high expectations and demands?

I often take heart, as an accidental emigrant who left Singapore in 1986 and having visited the island on countless occasions since, that Lee Kin Mun (otherwise affectionately known as “Mr Brown”) often captures the current political mood of Singapore. From this enduring satirist and lyricist comes the latest song in celebration of SG50, though with a slight sardonic tone about loyalty, and a characteristic refrain:

“We are an island … we’re a city … we’re a nation … just getting started …”

Is Singapore as a young nation really just getting started? Starting from what and where? Are we not deluding ourselves in thinking that we are a first-world country and truly a miracle or exception in a so-called third world context? [2] Should we, as a highly secular and deeply materialistic society, not return to some sort of basics so as to help us reflect critically on our journey? What has the Church to offer in such challenging socio-political, economic and cultural circumstances where our values are intricately shaped?

In his magisterial yet accessible style, Rowan Williams [3] challenges us about our calling as Christian disciples, having already been blessed with the restoration of our humanity through our baptism with Christ. In a real sense, he strongly encourages us to return to basics. Drawing on the important imagery from the Old Testament and more importantly, from the life and ministry of Jesus, how are we to act as Christians in today’s world and how do we engage with its messy reality? For many centuries the Church has thought of Jesus as anointed by God to live out a three-fold identity: that of prophet, priest and king. The baptised person, the Christian, identifies with Jesus in these three ways of being human.

First, what does it mean to be a prophet? Old Testament prophets generally do not just tell about the future; they act and speak to call the people of Israel back to their own essential truth and identity. They act and they speak for the sake of a community’s integrity, its faithfulness as to who it is really meant to be. The prophets were constantly saying to Israel: “Don’t you remember who you are? Don’t you remember what God has called you to be? Here you are, sitting down comfortably with all kinds of inequality, injustice and corruption in your society. Have you completely forgotten what you’re here for?” The prophet spoke truth to power at the heart of the Establishment, and in the New Testament John the Baptist paid with his own life. They were not afraid to rock the boat!

Williams goes on to say that in reflecting the life of Jesus, we who are Christians need to exercise our minds and critical faculty, we need to question and uncomfortably, we need to be prophetic with one another. We need to be constantly reminding one another what we are here for. “What do you see? What’s your vision?” Who are you really accountable to?”

More importantly, the prophetic role of the church cannot be underestimated. We need to continue questioning the assumptions on which our society is currently based. “What’s that for?” “Why do we take that for granted?” So in the wake of the SG50 celebrations, when the euphoria has somewhat subsided, and when the reality sets in with another commuting day in over-crowded MRT trains, might we ask if there’s really no limit to efficiency and productivity in an island city-state with no natural resources? Hence the need for the Church to be extra vigilant and prophetic as it has always been throughout the ages, and dare I say that a truly prophetic church is a truly growing (I do not mean simply numerical growth) church!

Secondly, what does it mean to assume the priestly role? In the Old Testament, a priest is someone (usually a man in those ancient times) who interprets God and humanity to each other. He is someone who builds bridges between God and humanity, especially when that relationship has been wrecked. He is someone, in the very traditional understanding of priesthood, who by offering sacrifice to God (through the Eucharist) re-creates a shattered relationship. We who are baptised Christians are therefore drawn into the ‘priestliness’ of Jesus; we are called upon to mend shattered relationships between God and the world, through the power of Christ and his Spirit. It is a deeply Trinitarian task.

We are in the business of building bridges and we seek to be peacemakers, not trouble makers, living in hope to rebuild situations where there is suspicion and prejudice, lack of respect and integrity, damage and disorder. This naturally includes our environment, Mother Earth, and all our personal and social relationships, as well as our ecumenical and inter-faith encounters. Again, in the wake of the SG50 celebrations when the euphoria has died down, when the reality sets in with construction and other projects that need to be completed let alone on time, how might we continue to accommodate the aspirations of the ‘foreign’ worker whose labour and sacrifice has much contributed to Singapore’s success? At a time when many countries have allowed immigration-related issues to ride on populist politics, how might we continue to build bridges between the ‘indigenous’ Singaporean and the ‘other’ in a confined space that appears over-populated? What has the biblical experience of the exile to offer the Church in this regard, bearing in mind the migrant foundations of Singapore society?

Thirdly, how does Christian discipleship bear the hallmark of kingship or royalty? In ancient Israel, the king was someone who spoke for others to God. Though the king also had a sort of priestly role, the king had the freedom to shape the law of the land and the justice of his society. He could make justice a reality or not a reality, though many kings had failed to follow God’s path and went on their own ways. The king, who had power and authority if used rightly and wisely, was meant to uphold the cause of the poor and lowly, and doing justice for the needy. In the process, Williams maintains, the king will know God! By directing and shaping human society in the path of God’s justice, we seek to show in our relationships and engagement with the world something of God’s own freedom, God’s desire for peoples and the nations to heal and to restore.

So, in the wake of the SG50 celebrations when the euphoria has finally dissipated, and when the reality once again sets in with the ever urgent need to care for those who have been marginalised by the years of relentless drive towards success, how might the predominantly sleek, affluent and middle-class Singaporean Church address such an injustice? What might we do to reflect truly the justice of God in situations of hidden poverty, the problem of long-term affordability of health and social care, and the viability of old age living in the midst of ever increasing costs of living and almost non-existent welfare benefits, and a fragile nation-state in a sea of geopolitical uncertainties?

Williams aptly summarises the essential basis of our Christian discipleship for the contemporary world:

‘So the [baptised] life of a Christian is a life that gives us the resource and strength to ask awkward but necessary questions of one another and of our world. It is a life that looks towards reconciliation, building bridges, repairing broken relationships. It is a life that looks towards justice and liberty, the liberty to work together to make human life in society some kind of reflection of the wisdom and order and justice of God’.

However, Williams rightly adds a word of caution as to how we should approach this three-fold identity. If we are only prophets, then we fall into the danger of being constantly negative in our dealings with each other and the world; we could in fact fall from being critical into being too cynical. If we are only priestly, then we get too caught up with wanting to achieve reconciliation without the due process of asking the right questions; we want to hurry on to the end of the story and not bother too much with the difficult middle bit, the process of questioning. And, if we are only concerned with kingship and royal freedom and justice, we would be in danger of constantly thinking about control and problem-solving. The Christian disciple, to be whole, needs to embody all three aspects that Jesus himself had embraced in his own life and ministry. The three become integral parts of one life, not just bits of our individual and corporate calling. I much believe that these three aspects of our Christian calling must be further honed through our willing engagement with the messiness of life.

Given that Singapore has always prided itself as a meritocratic and pragmatic society, built on seemingly harmonious but rather tenuous inter-cultural and inter-ethnic relationships, the call is ever more urgent for its Church to be truly prophetic, priestly and bearing the marks of royalty to a young nation-state stepping into an unknown future.


Andy LieAndy Lie (TTC Alumnus, 1986) is of Indonesian Chinese origin but grew up in Singapore from the late 1950s onwards. A long-standing Reader in the Diocese of Newcastle, Church of England, he is currently part-time Ecumenical Officer for the Northern Synod of the United Reformed Church. He and his family have now lived in the UK for almost 30 years. He has experience in inter-faith relations, and has also worked in the health service, and university and voluntary sectors.


Notes:

[1] Catherine Lim, Roll Out the Champagne, Singapore! An exuberant celebration of the nation’s 50th birthday. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2014.

[2] “The Singapore Exception: A Special Report.” The Economist, July 18th-24th 2015.

[3] Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible Eucharist, Prayer. London: SPCK, 2014. Please see especially Chapter 1, and I am indebted to Williams for the summary of his thoughts in what follows.

The Two Kingdoms: A Christian Perspective on Church and State in Singapore

October 2015 Feature Article

From the “culture wars” and heated debates over casinos, abortion, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) issues, to evangelistic efforts and charitable works, many wonder what the proper relationship between religion and state should be.

Aggressive secularists argue that Christians should not “impose” our religion on others in a multi-religious society like Singapore and “keep religion separate from politics”. Some Christians think that we should not be concerned about “politics”, but should focus on “preaching the Gospel”. Others think that we should be deeply concerned about laws like Section 377A of the Penal Code which criminalises sodomy.

How should Christians understand the relationship between Church and State?

It is well-known that Jesus did not come as a political Messiah to establish an earthly kingdom. As then-Minister for National Development S. Dhanabalan once said, “one of the reasons why Jesus Christ disillusioned the Jews of His time was… that He refused to become a political leader to help the Jews throw off the Roman yoke. And He was interested in changing individuals, not the society directly, but change society by changing individuals.”[1]

Nevertheless, we can learn much about the roles of Church and State in Jesus’ response when the Pharisees asked whether they ought to pay taxes to Caesar. Referring to the image of Caesar on a denarius, Jesus replied them, “render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21, KJV)

During the Protestant Reformation, German reformer Martin Luther saw in Jesus’ profound statement a distinction between Two Kingdoms which God has ordained: first, the Kingdom of God (the Church) which He rules through His Gospel and, second, the Kingdom of the World (the State) which He rules through His Law.

This became known as the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, the basis for much of our modern understanding of the Separation of Church and State.

The Doctrine emphasises that the Church should focus on preaching the Gospel for the salvation of all. As a result, it is not the role of the Church to govern matters of life and property, which are matters for the State.

On the other hand, the State should devote its full time to governing temporal matters, as servants sent by God “to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right” (1 Peter 2:14ff). Just as the Church should respect the political independence of the State, the State should also respect the autonomy of the Church in its religious affairs. For example, the State has no right to dictate how the Church should preach the Gospel, choose its clergy, or conduct itself in worship.

The Protestant emphasis on justification by faith led to a third principle – freedom of religion – which is now recognised as a fundamental human right. Since faith is the work of the Holy Spirit and “a free work, to which no man can or should be forced”, human authority should not try to coerce religious belief.

Because human authority is delegated by God, there are limits to human government. Hence, if any human authority commands things that are contrary to God’s Laws, we should “obey God rather than men”, as the apostles did when the Sanhedrin commanded them to stop preaching in Jesus’ name (Acts 5:29ff). In a modern context, Christians should exercise conscientious objection by refusing to participate in abortions or same-sex marriages, even when threatened with punishment.

The final principle is that of vocation (i.e. God’s calling). Implicit in Jesus’ teaching to “render unto Caesar” and “render unto God” is a call to discipleship; if the denarius belonged to Caesar because it bore his image, then we ought to render ourselves to God because we bear His image (cf. Genesis 1:27)! It is a call to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:29).

Thus, each of us is called to live out the Gospel in full wherever God has called us, whether as pastors, politicians, teachers, doctors, lawyers, or any other vocation. Given that disciples of Jesus Christ are ‘in’ but not ‘of’ the world (John 17:6-19), we cannot ignore political developments around us. Instead, a faithful preaching of the Gospel will always minister holistically to people at all levels of their being, i.e. heart, soul, mind and strength (emotionally, spiritually, intellectually and physically).

Taken holistically, the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms has several important implications for the Church in Singapore.

Firstly, the Church and pastors should always focus on preaching the full counsel of the Gospel both in season and out of season, including on “controversial issues” such as the sanctity of human life from conception and the sanctity of marriage, and to equip believers for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17). We should never compromise our calling to speak the truth in love, however politically-incorrect certain parts of the Gospel may be for the season.

Secondly, while it is not the vocation of pastors to advocate for political causes, it falls to individual Christians to minister the Gospel at our workplaces, schools or in the public square where God has placed us. Furthermore, in a democratic society like Singapore, each individual Christian can and should exercise his or her rights to freedom of speech and religion to speak truth to power.

Thirdly, in the midst of an increasingly complicated world, we should remember that politics is not salvation. While a godless world has to rely on human politics to build its Tower of Babel – its own idea of utopia here on earth – we look to Christ our true salvation, whose kingdom “is not of this world” but “from another place” (John 18:36).

Ultimately, as citizens of Two Kingdoms and “aliens” in this world, we know that God’s kingdom is both here and not yet. Meanwhile, we are each called to remain faithful with all that God has entrusted to us as we look to the day that Jesus will return as King to manifest His kingdom in full.


Darius-Lee-202x300

Darius Lee is a lawyer in private practice and a member of the Global Young Reformers Network Steering Committee of the Lutheran World Federation. Darius holds religious freedom, marriage and the sanctity of human life in high regard, and has defended these important values and rights on various platforms. He has written about his journey of discipleship and passion for matters of justice and righteousness in his book, ‘Like a Fire in My Bones: A Journey of Discipleship’.

 


Notes:

[1] Maintenance of Religious Harmony Bill, Singapore Parliament Reports (23 February 1990) at col. 1170

Is democracy the best system of government, according to the Christian view?

IT IS IMPORTANT to state at the outset that the Christian faith neither provides an ethos for, nor does it have a stake in any form of political ideology or order, including democracy. Christianity is fundamentally concerned with justice and would support any political system that could ensure it. Indeed, the Church has survived and functioned in almost every conceivable political environment in its long history.

The Neros, Hitlers and Stalins of history have not succeeded in obliterating the Church or in putting out the flames of the Gospel. Even the Cultural Revolution did not succeed in wiping out the Church. Once the smoke cleared, the Christians who were driven underground began to emerge in large numbers. Not only has the Church survived these regimes, it has also, in some cases, succeeded in humanising even the worst political conditions.

Although the Church cannot be said to have a stake in democracy, it would broadly endorse the ideals and values it symbolises and promotes. This does not mean that Christianity requires a democracy, as some Christian thinkers like Michael Novak have argued. Neither does it imply that, as a political system, democracy is flawless or infallible. The Church could endorse the values espoused by democracy simply because they are not inimical to the Church’s understanding of human beings, and its broad vision of the State and human society.

For instance, the Christian concept of the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility is best understood in light of the command God gave to the first humans to take care of creation (Gen 1:28). This implies that human beings are God’s chosen deputies in the governance of the world. In political culture, this understanding further implies that human beings are always both subjects and citizens, and that no human being should be treated only as a subject.

Christians of every stripe and theological persuasion must therefore endorse the statement promulgated by the World Council of Churches in 1948 that human beings “must never be made a mere means for political or economic ends”. “Any tendencies in State and society depriving man of the possibility of acting responsibly”, it continues, “are a denial of God’s intention for man and his work of salvation.”

Democracy is a system of government that, as least in principle, assures opportunity for citizens to assume part of the responsibility for the future of their common lives in society. A democratic government makes it possible for citizens to change the course of the State when there is a collective sense that it is on the wrong track, or help to keep it on the right track.

Of course, Christians have, in the course of history, exercised this responsibility and succeeded in bringing about changes even in non-democratic political systems. But the point to be made here is that democracy provides the most direct opportunity for citizen participation – it is a system that makes it possible for everyone to contribute. Democracy is perhaps the best system of government currently available for human beings to discharge their duties in response to the divine mandate in Genesis.

The positive Christian appraisal of democracy must, however, be qualified by a healthy dose of theological realism. The Christian doctrine of human finitude implies that no human creation is perfect and flawless. In addition, the Christian doctrine of sin insists that no human enterprise or ideology is incorruptible. This simply means that in its recognition that democracy is the best available system of government, the Church must be careful never to make it into an ultimate. In evaluating the merits of democracy, Christians must take heed of Philip Wogaman’s terse but wise assertion: “It [democracy] is a human thing; it is not God.”

It is pertinent to note that democracy does not always guarantee justice. Democracy in essence is the rule of the majority, although in theory the rights of the minority are respected. This means that when the decisive majority of the populace is dominated by greed or mean-spiritedness, democracy will not always ensure that justice or even fairness will prevail. This further implies that the democratic process does not really ensure that policies are directed at the common good, since the definition of the latter is left to the ruling majority.

A realistic assessment of democracy must be cognisant of the sobering fact that in the history of human civilisation, benevolent monarchs and aristocrats have sometimes served their people better than the representatives elected by the people.

ALSO SOBERING IS THE FACT that democracy has sometimes facilitated evil. Historical examples like McCarthyism in the United States and the Nazi period in Germany, where multitudes are mindlessly swept up in tides of hysteria, are stark reminders of the profound flaws inherent in democracy. Democracy and its institutions have not always succeeded in addressing unhealthy competition that destroys the very fabric of society. Neither have they always succeeded in fostering solidarity and cooperation.

It is therefore naïve to think that democracy and its institutions alone are able to ensure justice and the common good. Democracy as a system of government may be superior to other approaches, but it requires a certain kind of society to provide it with the necessary moral ballast. As Richard John Neuhaus has put it so well, “Politics is in largest part the function of culture, and at the heart of culture is morality, and at the heart of morality is religion.”

A democratic system that truly serves the common good by acknowledging, respecting and protecting the dignity of every citizen requires the moral compass provided by the great religious traditions, especially Christianity. Secularism on its own cannot provide such support simply because it lacks the multifaceted wisdom and rich moral resources that the great religious traditions can 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.

Patriotism in perspective

In what ways can nationalism or patriotism become idolatrous?

MANY PHILOSOPHERS AND SOCIOLOGISTS have observed that the rise of modern secularism has not erased man’s need for religion.

Although it is perfectly true to say that modern man has by and large lost faith in the traditional religions, his need for religion – which is very much alive – has led him to create new ones. This observation corresponds to the Christian view that holds that because God has created humans for fellowship with Him, they are profoundly and incorrigibly religious beings.

Religion, one may say, is hardwired in the spiritual DNA of homo sapiens. The old “secularisation” theory, which argues that the irreversible process of secularisation in the modern world would lead to the gradual but sure disappearance of the sacred, is now largely debunked. Instead, modernity has witnessed a disconcerting metamorphosis of the sacred in other dimensions of human life, such as economics or politics.

Philosophers have coined the term “secular sacredness” to describe the phenomenon. The things of the world are invested with an aura of sacredness and attached to a system of beliefs, myths, rituals and symbols that can only be described as religious. Politics is often treated as a form of “secular” or “civil” religion (the latter term was coined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century). In the modern secular world, the nation has the ability to inspire total commitments and loyalties in the way religions used to. Scholars have long noted that the decline of Christianity in the West as the predominant public religion has been supplanted by nationalism. The religious vacuum that the decline of Christianity has left is filled with the sacralisation of the nation.

Social analyst Mark Jurgensmeyer could therefore write: “Secular nationalism, like religion, embraces … a ‘doctrine of destiny’. One can take this way of looking at secular nationalism a step further and state flatly, as did one author writing in 1960, that secular nationalism is ‘a religion’ ”.

Scholars have pointed out that civil religions often borrow elements from traditional religions while creating new rituals and sensibilities that confer sacred status on democratic institutions and symbols. Modern secular (liberal) democratic societies are in some ways just as “liturgical” as traditional religious societies. It is noted as a matter of fact that many people become conscious of citizenship through semi-ritual practices (election, ceremonies and music) and symbols (flags and images). In secular countries, citizenship is often tied to these symbols and rituals that were invented precisely to express as well as reinforce devotion to the nation-state.

One of the most poignant examples is the flag, which many scholars consider to be the central symbol of nationalism. The many “liturgical” rites created around the flag are simply fascinating: there are rituals for “saluting” the flag, “dipping” the flag, “lowering” the flag, and “hoisting” the flag. In some countries, men bare their heads when the flag passes by. People write poems and sing songs (hymns?) about the flag.

These practices are commonplace in most countries and should not in themselves be a cause for alarm for Christians. I have in many places stressed that the Bible does not prohibit the Christian from being patriotic and from taking pride in their country. But when rational pride becomes irrational worship, or when the kingdom of this world becomes indistinguishable from the Kingdom of God, then nationalism, which in itself is legitimate, becomes a perversion and an abomination. It becomes idolatry. And this can happen quite subtly: when patriotic ceremonies and celebrations elicit an unquestioning and uncritical love for the country, and when orators create a secular deity out of the state by extolling its glories, elevating its heroes (secular saints?), and insisting on the infallibility and purity of its policies.

THIS IS PRECISELY THE PROBLEM with Nazism, the example par excellence of the sacralisation of politics and the idolatry of nationalism. The political religiosity of Nazism is based on the deification of the Aryan race, the cult of blood, anti-Semitic hatred and the supremacy of Hitler.

As the Italian historian Emilo Gentile put it: “The political religion of Nazism, with the assistance of expert propagandistic direction, took the liturgical representation of the mass to new heights and culminated in the adoration of the Fürher.” The lure of Hitler was so powerful and the nationalism that he generated so persuasive that even some prominent Christian theologians were swayed to organise the German Christian movement in conformity to the Nazi-State.

Karl Barth denounced this “Yes to Hitlerism” as “one of the worst illusions in an age that was rich in illusions”. Together with other theologians, he composed the Barmen Declaration of 1934 that acknowledges that Jesus Christ, as He is attested in Scripture, “is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death”. It goes on to say: “We reject as false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation”.

The Barmen Declaration therefore continues to be an important document today because it reminds us of the real danger of the sacralisation of politics that would nourish an idolatrous nationalism.

QUOTE:

THE NAZISM EXAMPLE

“The political religiosity of Nazism is based on the deification of the Aryan race, the cult of blood, anti-Semitic hatred and the supremacy of Hitler.”

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