Tag Archives: religion

Social Science and Its Limits

June 2017 Pulse

Last year, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam announced that the government is increasing funding for research in the social sciences and humanities in Singapore by 45 percent.

‘Our region today is a fascinating and fertile ground for study’, he noted, ‘but scholarship has not caught up with its growing importance. We can and must build up this scholarship in the region that can confirm and spur both policy and the initiatives of societal leaders’.

This move by the government surely must be applauded.

The social sciences have indeed gained much prominence in educational institutions and in society at large in recent times. This is mainly – though not exclusively – because of their perceived ability to offer astute analyses and perhaps even insights into many aspects of social life.

Social science is itself a multi-disciplinary venture that covers or incorporates a wide range of subjects, including economics, political science, sociology, history, archaeology, anthropology, and law.

It is because of its incredibly wide scope that many today have put their confidence in social science to solve the world’s biggest and most pressing problems such as inner-city crime, alternative energy sources, and cyber security.

Like all human enterprises, social science is profoundly influenced by the prevailing culture and zeitgeist. It is therefore no surprise that as a fairly recent discipline (in contrast with the humanities, which can be traced to medieval Europe), social science is profoundly shaped by the secularism that pervades our current ethos.

More specifically, social science works with a materialist view of reality that allows within its explanatory matrix only that which can be subjected to empirical verification. Even when it attempts to describe as complex a phenomenon as religion, social science is compelled to employ a reductionist methodology because of the philosophical materialism it espouses.

Thus the celebrated founders of the economic theory of religion, Rodney Stark and William S. Bainbridge could write with admirable candour that ‘by attempting to explain religious phenomena with reference to actions taken by the supernatural, we assume that religion is a purely human phenomenon, the causes of which are to be found entirely in the natural world’.

This has led theologians like John Milbank to conclude that sociology and social science is synonymous with the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ when it comes to assessing religious accounts of reality. Given the cluster of assumptions upon which the social sciences are based, this is inevitable.

However, the philosophical naturalism that undergirds social science also suggests profound limitations to its assessments of our world and human behavior.

Milbank, for instance, pointed out that social science is unable to understand what it means to say that the Church is a community of faith. It sees the Church as just a huge and complex organization that is no different from other organizations, with its attendant hierarchies, stratifications and internal power struggles.

The Polish scholar Stanislaw Burdzeij may have exaggerated a little when he wrote that ‘For sociologists, church is usually analyzed as an emanation of material interests, to which religious belief is just a cover-up’. But some such assessment of the nature of the Church by social theorists cannot be ruled out given the thoroughgoing secularity of the social sciences.

This gives rise, as some critics have pointed out, to a kind of positivism that, if left unchecked, would result in distorting views of how things really are. The positivism in question has to do with the belief that we have access to facts simply by observation or that we can ‘read’ the world simply by our empirical investigation of it.

Theologian Neil Ormerod has pointed out two serious blind spots of social science, whose vision is blinkered by its scientific method. The first is its inability to penetrate into the problem and reality of evil. And the second has to do with the fact that by ignoring the transcendental character of human life, it fails to give an adequate account of social reality.

Needless to say, not many social theorists would agree with such an analysis.

Be that as it may, I must clarify that I am not arguing here that social science is not an important and valuable enterprise, or that it must not be taken seriously. I believe that it is, and it must.

I am arguing that the sociological imagination alone is not enough if we are to achieve an adequate understanding both of our selves and the world we inhabit. The sociological imagination must be brought into creative conversation with the religious imagination, inspired by the ancient religious traditions, including the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Social science cannot penetrate the enduring meaning of human existence. It cannot provide those necessary values that would serve as the moral ballast for society if it were to flourish in this conflicted world. While social science can offer insights into certain developments that could translate into better policies in service of the common good, it is unable to fully discern the truth about the human condition.

To do that social science must take seriously the religious imagination that the various religious traditions – especially the Judeo-Christian tradition – have inspired.



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.

Islamophobia Phobia

March 2017 Pulse

After a closed-door meeting with 60 Madrasah students in March this year, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam spoke to the press about the dangers that Islamophobia poses to the social fabric of Singapore.

The origin of the term “Islamophobia” is somewhat obscure. However, it is clear that by the late 1990s, the term had already entered into mainstream political and social discourse.

In 1997, the U.K.-based Runnymede Trust issued a report entitled ‘Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All’, in which Islamophobia is defined as “unfounded hostility towards Muslims, and therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims”. In its 2001 Durban conference, the United Nations describes Islamophobia as a form of prejudice.

Islamophobia, Minister Shanmugam argues, “will be destructive to the soul and spirit of Singapore that we have created – a multi-racial and multi-religious community where we embrace all races and live as one community”.

The Minister is, of course, right.

If Islamophobia refers to irrational and closed-minded prejudice and discrimination against all Muslims, it should be resolutely condemned without qualification. No community should bear the blame for the atrocities perpetrated by a few of its members in the name of the religion that the community espouses.

However, in condemning Islamophobia, one must also take with equal seriousness the obverse problem, which some have described as “Islamophobia phobia” – the fear of being accused of being Islamophobic.

Islamophobia phobia must be taken seriously because of its potential to impose an irrational self-censorship that impedes the objective criticisms and genuine debates necessary for any society to flourish. This may in turn induce a dangerous societal paralysis that would put both the security of our societies and the safety of their members in jeopardy.

Examples of such paralysis and its tragic consequences are not hard to find.

In 2009, Major Nidal Hasan went on a shooting rampage that killed 14 people at Fort Hood. Although a number of his fellow officers and superior officers were aware of Hasan’s jihadist sympathies, they kept quiet about it for fear of being accused of bigotry.

Perhaps the most appalling example of the paralysis caused by Islamophobia is the shocking spate of sexual exploitation of children in Rotterham.

Between 1997 and 2013, Pakistani gangs have reportedly subjected at least 1,400 children in the South Yorkshire town to unconscionable sexual abuse. The official inquiry report revealed that although the police, city authorities and child protection agencies knew what was happening, they chose to turn a blind eye because they were afraid of being accused of “racism” and “Islamophobia”.

It is pertinent to note that Islamophobia is itself a somewhat murky notion that is often sloppily used by politicians, activists and the media. Important distinctions are often ignored, especially when the term is used rhetorically or as a slogan.

However, understanding the distinctions between criticism and fear, and between criticism and contempt or hatred of Muslims is absolutely critical if we are to have an objective assessment of the issue. Once these distinctions are not in view, anyone who criticises the Muslim community will very quickly be condemned as a fear-mongering Islamophobe.

In his statement to the press, Minister Shanmugam rightly pointed out that Islamophobia plays “right into the hands of the terrorists”. This is because such attitudes can cause Muslims to feel that they are being marginalised and discriminated against, and this would make them more vulnerable to radicalisation.

It should, however, be pointed out that the notion of Islamophobia (in distinction to the reality it describes) can also be used by extreme Islamists to further their cause. They can use it to silence and even criminalise all criticisms (however legitimate the criticisms may be), and to portray Muslims as victims.

It is therefore quite illuminating to compare how gay activists in the West have been using “homophobia” with how Muslim activists are using “Islamophobia” to serve their respective agendas.

As William Fitzgerald puts it, “just as gay activists and their enablers in the media and the courts have managed to criminalise criticism of homosexuality in many places in the West, Muslim activists have succeeded in criminalising criticism of Islam in the same places”.

The idea of Islamophobia – employed by certain people in certain ways – is therefore potentially as dangerous as the thing itself!



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.

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.

 

The Myth of Secular Neutrality

December 2015 Pulse

Secularists have long ridiculed religion by portraying it as dangerous and divisive. Secularism, they insist, is not only objective since it is based on the natural sciences and empirical rationalism; it is also more tolerant and neutral, and therefore the best guarantor of social peace.

Secular neutrality has been brandished about as if secularism is the ultimate solution to maintaining equity and peace in a plural and diverse society where different religions, moralities and ideologies are competing for attention and assent. In the realm of politics, the secular state alone is said to be the best arbiter of conflicting commitments and visions.

According to them, the public square must be secular if the debates are to be fair and rational. Religious voices must be either excluded altogether or effectively muted if society is to achieve a ‘reasonable’ consensus on the most complex issues and challenges it faces.

But the secular neutrality championed by the most fervent evangelists of secularism is nothing but a myth. Secular neutrality does not exist because secularism is a philosophy of life, an ideology, and, as some would even argue, a religion of sorts.

That secularism is a philosophy of life, a worldview, is evident in the fact that one has to embrace a number of metaphysical ideas to be a secularist.

An orthodox secularist must believe that the material world is all that there is, and that all talk about God and the afterlife is, in the final analysis, irrational. He must believe that human beings are the source of all meaning and value. And if like most secularists he is also one who believes in physicalism, he must believe that we are hardwired (neurologically and genetically) by evolution to make sense of our world in this way.

Secularism also promotes a certain moral vision. Many secularists favour the way of understanding moral responsibility that philosophers call utilitarianism. That is why the philosopher Robert C. Solomon could describe secularist morality as a form of “naturalised spirituality”.

If worldview is defined as a set of life-regulating beliefs, secularism certainly satisfies this definition. But secularism is also a religion of sorts because its key beliefs are embraced by faith, despite its claims that they are grounded in science and reason.

Furthermore, secularism also has its rituals and its priests like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens who promote its worldview. Secularism therefore has a missionary thrust; it is a proselytising ‘religion’.

If what I’ve argued thus far is sound, if secularism is a worldview or a philosophy of life, then it cannot be neutral. Thus, by privileging secularism we are in fact saying that this worldview, this way of looking at reality, is superior to other accounts.

The myth of secular neutrality therefore allows a certain metanarrative to hold sway. And this has given rise to a new hegemony, a kind of ideological and cultural imperialism.

The myth subtly but powerfully presents secularism as the default position of rational people of goodwill by portraying secularism to be what it is not. And once secularism achieves its hegemonic aspirations, it accords itself with the power to define the role of religion in politics and in the public square.

The myth of secular neutrality is therefore democracy’s worse enemy. By pretending to be a friend of democracy, the myth in fact renders modern secular societies undemocratic by shutting down alternative voices.

As Hunter Baker has perceptively argued, “Secularism acts politically against its competitors and defines them as what it is not”. The myth of secular neutrality is therefore chiefly responsible for the tyranny of secularism.

By portraying secularism to be what it is not, the myth presents religion as the problem and secularism as the impeccable solution. The refrain that many secularists often sing is “religion is dangerous and divisive, but secularism is tolerant, fair and neutral”.

This assertion is either naïve, delusional or deceptive because any belief system can be said to be dangerous if its advocates are prepared to coerce others by law or by force to practice that belief. Insofar as secularism is a philosophy of life (and I have established that it is), it also can be dangerous.

Are secularists guilty of such coercion? Secularism, asserts Robert Kraynak, “is highly intrusive in the imposition of secular liberal values”.

It is not difficult to find evidence for this, especially in the West. We see it in how schools systematically indoctrinate young people in secular humanism, free expression of religion is prohibited, and sexuality and the family are redefined.

Secular neutrality is a dangerous myth. It promotes intolerance and disrespect.


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 July 2015 issue of the Methodist Message.

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

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).

Religion, Public Policy and Human Flourishing

In recent years, academics here have been arguing that Singapore has to revise its social compact due to rapidly changing circumstances, both at home and globally.

Founded on strong fundamentals – individual responsibility and self-reliance, economic growth and jobs for all, and a social security system that is based on savings and home ownership – the current social compact has served the country well over the past forty years. It has enabled the Government to deliver high standards of healthcare, education, and housing without imposing an enormous burden of public spending.

But a number of developments such as globalisation, a more volatile economy and an aging population, have necessitated a revision of the current social compact.

However, not all the troubles of society are due to circumstances beyond our control. In fact, scholars have shown that some of the policies of the Government have in fact worsened the inequalities that already prevail in our society.

One example is the excessively liberal foreign worker and immigration policies that have resulted in inequality and wage stagnation. Another is the Government’s quest to transform Singapore into a ‘global city’ that has caused the income of those at the higher end of the labour market to be raised artificially, thereby widening the income gap.

The Government is well aware that its policies have not always been helpful in addressing the pressing concerns of society. In his keynote address at the Singapore Perspectives 2012 conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said, quite candidly, that ‘Our policies are not sacrosanct. But let’s keep a sense of perspective as we discuss how we should evolve and improve them’.

To construct a new social compact in the wake of these new challenges requires nothing less than an imaginative leap. The British philosopher Roger Scruton has quite brilliantly defined imagination as ‘a going beyond the given’.

Imagination plays an important role in almost every aspect of human life. It is needed whenever we make judgements about values. Imagination is indispensable in planning and decision-making, as alternatives are entertained and as possible ‘worlds’ that are better than the status quo are explored.

Imagination is therefore requisite for ordering society for human flourishing. In order to improve the lives of Singaporeans, the Government must ‘go beyond the given’.

How is this new compact being re-imagined by our leaders? How must social policies be recalibrated in order to promote the wellbeing of all Singaporeans?

High on the agenda is the problem of inequality, which must receive urgent attention. The Government is well aware of the fact that inequality negatively affects the wellbeing of society.

In their 2009 study, R. Wilkinson and K. Pickett noted that high inequality in society is detrimental to all its members, not just the poor. Their study also showed that inequality in society could not only cause stress, anxiety, and depression, but might even encourage behaviours such as drug use and criminality.

In his address DPM Shanmugaratnam states unequivocally that ‘we cannot resign ourselves to widening inequality … We have to try to contain inequality, and ameliorate its effects on our society’. The Government is thus determined to address this issue, not just superficially by minor tweaks in certain policies, but through a comprehensive and holistic reassessment of Singapore’s economic and social policies.

But the Government also acknowledges that for society to flourish, the poor, the sick, the disabled and elderly must never be forgotten. In his address at the opening of the new session of Parliament on 16 May, President Tony Tan Keng Yam placed special emphasis on the vulnerable and the elderly in our society.

‘We will strengthen safety nets to help the vulnerable and elderly cope with the vicissitudes of life’, he pledges. Further in the speech, he reiterates this commitment: ‘We will pay particular attention to vulnerable Singaporeans, including low-wage workers and our elderly’. The President then delineated a series of initiatives aimed at improving the lives of Singaporeans.

Christians here of every stripe can and must wholeheartedly endorse these goals because they resonate so profoundly with the teachings of Scripture and the Christian tradition. In fact, with its rich theological heritage and profound moral vision, the Christian community has much to contribute to public discourse on the wellbeing of society.

Against the many agent-oriented versions of the pursuit of wellbeing (eudaimonisms) – ancient and modern – the Bible presents a radically different vision of social flourishing, based on the second love command of Jesus (Mark 12:31). Moral responsibility towards one another, implied in Jesus’ command, is an integral aspect of the Christian concept of justice. In addition, for the Christian tradition, justice must be wedded to mercy and compassion.

It was the great fifth-century theologian, Augustine, who insisted that vulnerability and compassion must be included in our conception of human flourishing. In City of God Augustine writes: ‘But … what is compassion but a kind of fellow feeling in our hearts of the misery of another which compels us to help him if we can? This impulse is the servant of right reason when compassion is displayed in such a way as to preserve righteousness, as when alms are distributed to the needy or forgiveness extended to the penitent’.

The wellbeing of society is dependent on how its members regard and treat each other. This means that society’s flourishing requires its members to be concerned for one another’s wellbeing, not merely their own.

In his magisterial work, Secular Age, the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor observes perceptively that the history of Christianity reveals a profound tension between flourishing and renunciation. According to the Christian understanding, writes Taylor, ‘the believer … is called on to make a profound inner break with the goals of flourishing … they are called on, that is, to detach themselves from their own flourishing … to that renunciation of human fulfilment to serve God in the other’.

In concluding his May address, President Tan looks to the future with optimism as he prepares the nation to celebrate its Golden Jubilee: ‘Our best years lie ahead. We have not overcome all our challenges, but we are determined to do so, and we will. Singapore remains a home that brings out the best in us … As we approach our 50th anniversary of independence, let us pledge ourselves anew to build a better, brighter Singapore’.

The wellbeing of society is the responsibility of all its members, not just that of the Government. The Christian community must work with the Government and other faith communities to build a just and compassionate society so that all may flourish. Only in this way can Singapore truly become a home that endears.


Dr Roland Chia


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

Morality, Democracy and Marriage

September 2015 Pulse

On 24 May 2015, the citizens of Ireland voted to legalise same-sex marriage, making the predominantly Roman Catholic country the first in the world to do so by popular vote. 1,201,607 or 61% of the voters said ‘Yes’ to same-sex marriage in a landmark referendum, while 734,300 voted against.

Ireland’s political leaders of every stripe were united in welcoming the decision. Prime Minister Edna Kenny said that the vote ‘disclosed who we are – a generous, compassionate, bold and joyful people.’ Deputy Prime Minister Joan Burton agreed and called it a ‘magical, moving moment’, while Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said that it was ‘a huge day for equality.’

The Irish referendum has much to teach us about religion, culture, morality and public opinion.

But the one important lesson that stands out is that this incident makes clear that, despite its obvious merits, the democratic process does not guarantee that morality will be upheld and that democracy in and by itself is unable to provide a clear moral compass for society.

One glaringly obvious weakness of the democratic process and indeed of democracy itself is that it is premised on opinions. Voters may feel that they are in control because of their active participation in a process that allows them to determine the outcome by choosing from an array of options and viewpoints. But in reality, it is those who set the agendas – sometimes by reducing complex issues to simplistic sound bites – that are in control.

In a sense, voting is akin to the capitalist economic system that is often allied to democracy. The producers dictate the agenda, and the consumers are simply taken up in choosing from the different opinions available in the competitive marketplace of ideas.

In addition, the sloganeering that sometimes accompanies the democratic process often obscures and obfuscates important issues even as it impedes rational deliberation on these issues.

For example, supporters of same-sex marriage portray themselves as passionate and uncompromising champions of equality. Same-sex marriage is all about equality, they emphatically declare. It is about allowing two people who love each other to enter into this union called marriage regardless of their sex or gender.

The traditional view of marriage, they insist, violates the principle of equality because it discriminates against same-sex couples who wish to get married. They therefore often compare laws against same-sex marriage with antimiscegenation laws that support the unjust system of white supremacy by prohibiting interracial marriage.

But the analogy to antimiscegenation, and with it the appeal to equality, fails on a fundamental point. Antimiscegenation has to do with whom one is allowed to marry, and not with what marriage is essentially about. The issue with same-sex marriage, however, concerns the essential meaning of marriage.

Put differently, antimiscegenation laws are not put in place to change the fundamental definition of marriage. They are there in order to prevent the possibility of a genuine interracial marriage from being realised or recognised.

The same-sex marriage debate is different. By insisting that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, the proponents of same-sex marriage are not simply expanding the pool of people eligible to marry; they are redefining marriage itself.

In using the analogy of antimiscegenation, supporters of same-sex marriage are in fact implying that race and sex are equally relevant to the essence of marriage.

This assertion is simply false! Race is never relevant to the intrinsic nature of marriage. Sex, however, always is.

In addition, if equality is the only basis for determining who can marry whom, then proponents of same-sex marriage must also support open, temporary, polygynous, polyandrous, polyamorous and incestuous unions as long as they are between or among consenting adults who love each other.

Rational argument and sound judgement are sometimes submerged under the loud sloganeering, aggressive lobbying and charged emotions that many times accompany the so-called democratic process.

For the Christian, marriage is not a social or legal construct. It is a special covenantal relationship between a man and a woman instituted by God (Genesis 2:22-24). In this union called marriage, the man and the woman are permanently and exclusively committed to one another.

Marriage provides the proper relational context for the man and the woman who have become ‘one flesh’ to bear and rear children. It is not only a union that makes procreation possible, but it also provides the natural social order for children to be raised and nurtured.

The structure of marriage is so basic that it is found universally across cultures and religious traditions. As Robert George has rightly pointed out, ‘the demands of our common human nature have shaped (however imperfectly) all of our religious traditions to recognise this natural institution.’

If this is indeed the case, the question that must be put to modern societies is whether the meaning and structure of marriage can be radically revised by a ballot box? Or, to put the question differently and more generically, can morality be democratized?

The answer must surely be ‘No’. The Christian understanding of human sinfulness suggests that morality must be based on more impeccable foundations than the fleeting views of the majority. Human sexuality, marriage and the structure of the family must be established on the design and purposes of the Creator.

As Robert Kraynak has so perceptively put it in his intriguing and provocative book, Christian Faith and Modern Democracy: ‘We must face the disturbing dilemma that modern liberal democracy needs God, but God is not as liberal or as democratic as we would like Him to be.’


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.

Secularism and its Discontents

August 2015 Pulse

The American sociologist Peter Berger is perhaps one of the most interesting scholars of secularism and religion. In his book The Sacred Canopy published in 1967, Berger presented the famous secularisation thesis which postulates that as modernity advances, the influence of religion will diminish and eventually disappear altogether.

Thirty years later, however, Berger changed his mind. In The De- secularisation of the World published in 1999, Berger and his colleagues abandoned their earlier hypothesis because “the theory seemed less and less capable of making sense of the empirical evidence from different parts of the world”. Berger, who now could speak of the “myth of secularisation”, argues that modernisation and secularisation are not synonymous.

Secular philosophers and scholars are also beginning to acknowledge the limits of secularism. For example, the eminent atheist German philosopher Jurgen Habermas argues emphatically that secularists must take religion seriously because of the enormous contributions it has made to civilisation. He adds that the philosophy and values that the Judeo- Christian tradition has inspired are still important in modern moral and scientific life.

This is not surprising. Theologians have long maintained that it is secularism – not religion – that is an anomaly and must offer compelling justifications for its own outlook.

Can secularism do this? Can it present a substantial and comprehensive rationale and ethic for the moral and social life?

As a vision of reality, secularism has been shown to be wanting and impoverished. Even its extravagant claims of neutrality and as the supreme guarantor of social peace have been rightly challenged.

As a vision of reality, secularism has been shown to be wanting and impoverished. Even its extravagant claims of neutrality and as the supreme guarantor of social peace have been rightly challenged.

Let us begin with the myth of secular neutrality. Far from being philosophically and ideologically neutral, secularism is a way of understanding and constructing reality. It is a worldview.

To be a secular humanist, one needs to embrace certain commitments like “God does not exist” (atheism) and “the physical world is all that there is” (scientific materialism), none of which can be established on scientific grounds. It takes a lot of faith to be a secularist.

On its own secularism is unable to offer a moral vision that is indispensable for human societies to flourish. Irving Kristol writes perceptively that “The philosophical rationalism of secular humanism can, at best, provide us with a statement of the necessary assumptions of a moral code, but it cannot deliver such a code itself.”

That Western secular humanists can speak eloquently of values like dignity, freedom and rights is largely because secularism is parasitic on the Judeo-Christian tradition it denounces. But it is precisely because it has rejected the tradition that provides the philosophical and theological foundations for these values, that secular ethics will willy-nilly drown in the sea of relativism.

Secularism often appeals to the Enlightenment myth of the triumph of reason. But experience has repeatedly shown that reason alone is unable to forge a universal consensus, especially when the issue in question is complex and contentious.

Nietzsche is exactly right when he says that no man of reason would rejoice in the death of God. For if God is truly dead, reason’s demise will soon follow.

For if God is really dead, truth itself would dissipate. What is left is an ocean of conflicting and clashing opinions, preferences, and assertions. As the Catholic philosopher Michael Novak has pointed out: “If all is chance, random and inherently meaningless, reason has no North Star and its needle spins mindlessly”.

Because secularism fails to offer a substantial vision for the moral and social life, it is also unable to articulate the meaning of human existence. And in a meaningless world, the purpose of human action becomes frustratingly murky.

On its own, secularism must remain silent in the face of suffering because it simply does not have the resources to respond to human tragedy. What has secularism to say to the weak and the vulnerable, asks Novak, “that it does not borrow directly from Judaism and Christianity?”

The great 20th century theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg perceptively notes that “Secular culture itself produces a deep need for meaning in life and therefore also for religion”. Secularism raises a bitter protest, but offers no answers.

And it is perhaps the very impotence of secularism that has led to what G.K. Chesterton has memorably described as the “revolt into orthodoxy”. It has caused atheists like Francis Collins and many others to put their faith in God.


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 March 2015 issue of the Methodist Message.

 

Christian Spirituality in a Time of Resurgent Spirituality

August 2015 Feature Article

There was a season in world history when excessive confidence and trust was conferred on science, technology, and the place of the mind.  At the same time, suspicion and cynicism was directed at spirituality, subjectivity, and the place of the heart.

The mood of that season has since given way to a new season where the resurgence of spirituality is evidenced.  The age of globalization characterized by movement, change, disruption, and displacement has fueled spiritual thirst as well as increasing the number of options to satisfy deep spiritual longing.

In this article, I will present two growing stands of spirituality which have been observed.

The first strand which is readily discovered in popular secular culture affirms spirituality decoupled from God and religion.  The second strand found in growing numbers of churches is shaped by consumer oriented desire to be culturally relevant.  Both strands pose a challenge to historic Christian faith.

Finally, a third stand which focuses on the commitment to follow Christ is presented as the basis of authentic Christian spirituality and the aspiration which Christians should strive toward.

Spirituality decoupled from God and religion

The first strand of spirituality that is growing in prominence in a world of global flows is a form that is decoupled from God and religion.

Within this strand of spirituality is a yearning for spiritual experiences which exclude God and religious institutions.  Both the growing secularization of society as well as the loss of confidence in traditional religious institutions have contributed to the move toward this strand of spirituality.

A significant aspect of this stand of spirituality lies in its commitment to a particular understanding of transcendence.  The experience of transcendence is the sense of mystery and wonder when in union with something much larger that the human self.

While traditionally the experience of transcendence has been associated with union with God up there, this strand of spirituality gravitates toward union with the world down here.

Spirituality in this strand therefore celebrates without any reference to God, the exponential growth in understanding of the natural and supernatural world, the strength and tenacity of the human spirit, the breathtaking affordances and enablement of new technologies, the global diversity and multiplicity of human perspective, the awesome wonder at the universe’s mysteries, and even the angst of the world of complex human existence.

It presents a non-theistic vision of spiritual life and highlights the nature of the search for spiritual meaning in an increasingly secularized society.

Together with the secularization of society, the increasing lack of confidence in traditional religious institutions has also contributed toward the movement toward a spirituality which is decoupled from God and religion.  The unfortunate reality about traditional religious institutions is that they often grow powerful, exercise authoritarianism, are slow to address issues of abuse and injustice, remain inward looking, and are slow to adapt to changes in culture.

Kinnaman and Lyon’s study of outsider perceptions of Christianity revealed six points of skepticism and objections raised.  Christians were thought of as hypocritical, too focused on getting converts, antihomosexual, sheltered, too political, and judgmental (Kinnaman and Lyon 2007).  Likewise Kinnaman’s later study revealed reasons why Christian youth were leaving the church.  The reasons include the church being overprotective, shallow, antiscience, repressive, exclusive, and didn’t allow room for doubt (Kinnaman 2011).

While the studies were conducted in the United States, the sentiments are often echoed in many other parts of the world with deep implications for families, churches, schools, and Christians in the marketplace. 

Both the secularization of society and a lack of confidence in religious institutions have thus fueled the growth of this first strand of spirituality.  Faith, hope, trust, and wonder remain, but are arrived at without an appeal to God or religion.  While skepticism toward spirituality has not been lost, a new skepticism toward Christianity is evidenced and proliferated within institutions of higher learning, in the popular media, and by influential cultural elites.

Spirituality shaped by cultural relevance

The second strand of spirituality that is growing in prominence in a world of global flows is a form within churches that enthusiastically and unreservedly seek to move with the times.  In a fast changing world, the race toward relevance has resulted in significant changes not just of the external forms of church, but also in the inner nature and character of its accompanying spirituality.

A metaphor that aptly describes the church in a changing world is “a young person with white hair.” For the church to remain relevant in every generation, its external form needs to be renewed and adapted.

Equally, for the church to remain faithful to its roots, it cannot lose fundamental aspects of its character to the forces of change.  In their quests for relevance however, some adaptive churches have began to take on a character that is best described as “young person with colored hair.”

The slowness to recognize the extent to which cultural influences have become mixed in and rooted in the church today is paralleled in the way coffee is served and drunk today.  In its most basic and unadulterated form, coffee is served black.  In many popular coffee chains however, coffee is served as flavored Frappuccinos.

In the contemporary consciousness, coffee is an appealing beverage only because of the sweeten flavors of Frappuccino, and not because of the coffee per se.  Presented with the alternatives of a cup of black coffee and a Frappuccino containing only coffee essence, it would not be surprising if some insist that the Frappuccino was proper coffee while at the same time rejecting the real thing.

This muddle finds parallel in the church today and is observable in many successful, fast growing churches and their fan bases.  In David Wells’ words, these churches “appear to be succeeding, not because they are offering an alternative to our modern culture, but because they are speaking with its voice, mimicking its moves.”

Quite unlike the first strand of spirituality described which challenges the church from without, this second strand and its growing popularity challenges the church from within and is rooted in a consumer-driven posture of the heart.

Spirituality shaped by commitment to follow Christ

If the first strand of spirituality is decoupled from God and religion while the second an embodiment of trending socio-cultural influences, a third strand is marked by a deep commitment to know and follow Christ.  In a crowded, noisy world with a supermarket of spiritualities on offer, this strand stands apart and requires special attention and intentional cultivation.

The call to follow Christ is always issued amidst rival and competing voices.

In addition, when recognized, the call provokes differing degrees of receptivity.  The call invites all to recognize the identity of Christ as king of the universe and head of the church.  It bids all to enter into a discipleship relationship with the Master.

Finally, it summons all to appropriate the benefits of his sacrificial death on the cross, the power of his resurrection over sin and death, and the offer of hope both in this life and the next.

What animates a spirituality shaped by a commitment to Christ is the passionate desire to follow him and to imitate his ways.  This deep yearning and ambition is clearly exampled in the life of the apostle Paul who modeled his life after Christ and called others to follow in the same spirit (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; 2 Thess. 3:9).

Rodney Reeves comments on the core elements of this Christ-centered, life-altering spirituality embraced by Paul:

Since the gospel was more than a set of beliefs–it was a way of life–Paul believe his life revealed the gospel of Jesus Christ: he was crucified with Christ, he was buried with Christ and he was raised with Christ. Participation in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ was the template of Paul’s spirituality.

Spirituality shaped by commitment to Christ builds on the decision to follow him and grows toward maturity by pursuing the things Christ calls his disciples to become and live for.

Evidence of this strand of spirituality would include repentance from wrong doing, daily dying to self, embodying a spirit of service and sacrifice, demonstrating trust and dependence on God, and possessing a concern for the things that matter to the Master.  It upholds its integrity by resisting dilution and domestication of the gospel and by understanding that following Christ is not like bringing a puppy back home for personal amusement.

Bringing a puppy home requires some adjustment in personal lifestyle but still preserves a person’s status as the puppy’s master.  Following Christ however is better conceived as bringing a new master home.

That being the case, followers will need to note the adjustments in lifestyles, behaviors, and thinking that Christ demands of all aspects and arenas of life.  Having it any other way would be tantamount to preserving the rhetoric of following Christ while failing to uphold the reality in practice.  It would be to advance the great irony of following Christ on one’s own terms, not on His terms.

Concluding Words

The world we live in today is a world of global flows, shifting boundaries, and porous walls.  It is a world where our community, congregation members and children are exposed to different forms of spirituality.  It is also in the context of this world that Christians are called to develop authentic Christian spirituality.

Perhaps the invitation to develop authentic Christian spirituality in such as world can be compared to how fish we eat is served to us.  If developing Christian spirituality in an era past can be compared to being served fish with bones removed, developing Christian spirituality in the present age can only be compared to being served fish with bones on.

Eating becomes an exercise of wisdom and good judgment.  Under such conditions, it is necessary to discern what is beneficial, to distinguish from what needs to be spit out, and to know how to aid casualties along the way.



Dr Calvin Chong
is Associate Professor, Educational Ministries at the Singapore Bible College. His teaching and research interests include orality studies, hermeneutics, new educational technologies, designing learning experiences, the impact of narratives on worldview and values, conflict resolution/reconciliation, and contemporary urban missions and youth issues.