Tag Archives: prophetic

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.

Discipleship of the Mind

Many Christians are familiar with the Great Commandment recorded in Luke 10:27: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with your entire mind. Love your neighbour as yourself’. This Commandment urges believers to love God with their whole being. Believers are commanded to love God not only with their hearts and souls; they must do so also with their minds. As James Sire has pointed out in his provocative book, Habits of the Mind, this means that ‘thinking is integral to our call to be what God wants us to be’. As Christians we are called to think, and to do so as well as we can with our God-given intelligence. When we apply our intellect in this way, we express our love for God and we glorify him.

Some Christians, however, fail to see this. They have adopted an anti-intellectualism, which, at first blush, may even sound pious. After all, was it not the Apostle Paul who wrote, ‘For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God … For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength’ (1 Cor 1:18, 25)? Such piety, however, is fallacious. The message of the cross is folly to those who are perishing because they approach it with distorted perspectives and from erroneous vantage points. Thus, when Paul speaks of the gospel as ‘folly’, he is being ironic. As Os Guinness has put it so eloquently, ‘Only in relation to a genuine folly foolish enough to pretend it is wise does true wisdom come to be seen and treated as folly’. The gospel, for Paul, is not folly but true wisdom!

Anti-intellectualism is the spiritual corrosion that will cripple the Church and compromise her witness in society. Writing primarily about the subtle but alarming changes in American evangelicalism that took place from the 1970s, theologian David Wells observes the disturbing shifts in emphasis from doctrine to life and from theology to spirituality. Wells laments that evangelical Christians in America have generally ‘lost interest … in what the doctrines of creation, common grace, and providence once meant for Christian believers’. He adds, somewhat despairingly, that ‘it is enough for them simply to know that Christ somehow died for people’. It would be a mistake to think that this observation has little to do with Christians in Singapore. A simple survey of the titles on display at some of our Christian bookshops would give a rough but not inaccurate indication of the theological literacy of Christians here. The displacement of theology in the life of the Church brought about by anti-intellectualism will severely weaken the Church.

Anti-intellectualism will also severely compromise Christian witness in society. The Church is commissioned to proclaim the Gospel to the world and part of this has to do with the Church’s prophetic engagement with society. Christians believe that the Gospel is public truth and as such it is not just relevant to a select group of people. The Christian faith therefore refuses to be privatized and shut off from the public square. A public Gospel therefore requires a public theology. Anti-intellectualism in the Church, however, can prevent Christians from engaging faithfully and meaningfully in public discourse. In fact, anti-intellectualism will severely cripple the Church’s confidence in participating in such engagements. And this will in turn seriously compromise the witness and influence of Christians in the public square.

On the basis of the first of Jesus’ commandments, we must say, quite simply and directly that anti-intellectualism is a sin. In refusing to use the minds that God has given to us as part of our praise to him, we have disobeyed this commandment. We have simply failed to love God fully, with our whole being. Beyond all excuses, evasions and rationalizations, Christians must recognize anti-intellectualism for what it truly is. Only then will Christians be able to address the problem. But even here, an important qualification must be made. In rejecting anti-intellectualism our goal is not academic or intellectual respectability, but faithfulness to the commands of Jesus. The discipleship of the mind is not about intellectualism (the sin on the other extreme end of the spectrum!) or intellectual snobbery. It is about loving God with our minds by allowing God’s Word to govern our thinking.

The command to love God with our minds, then, presents a two-fold challenge for Christians. In the first place, it emphasizes the importance of the intellect. Put differently and quite simply, the command challenges Christians to think. But more importantly, this command challenges Christians to think Christianly, that is to think theologically, to allow Scripture and the tradition of the Church to inform and shape their thinking. This is what the discipleship of the mind is all about! It is about being so immersed in the worship, life and doctrines of the Church that our perspectives, our worldviews and our values are entirely molded by the Gospel. It is about not conforming to the ‘pattern of this world’ but being transformed through the renewal of the mind (Rom 12:2). It is about developing a habit of mind that sees the world through the lens of the Gospel.

To think Christianly therefore requires the Christian to be grounded in Scripture and in the doctrines of the church. But thinking Christianly does not only mean thinking about Christian topics. It has to do with allowing the Word of God to govern our thoughts on every possible aspect of life – education, career, raising children, politics, medicine, science, the arts, entertainment, leisure. Thinking Christianly therefore engages the whole person in the whole of life. As such, it is more than just an intellectual activity.

In addition, to think Christianly is to conduct our lives in obedience to God. The Christian doctor who knows that the Bible teaches the sanctity of human life would refuse to perform an abortion or euthanize his patient. The Christian politician who understands the biblical demand for justice would oppose policies that would marginalize certain sectors of society. There is a profound relationship between thought and life, thinking and doing, worldview and ethics. The challenge for Christians to think Christianly is therefore always a challenge to radical discipleship. This is because thinking Christianly is always premised on the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom.


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 Trumpet (TTC).