Tag Archives: Roland Chia

Serious Thoughts About Humour

September 2017 Pulse

One of the most distinctive features of being human is the ability of this species to laugh, that is, its ability to create and enjoy humour. This is an ability that other animals – including the primates – do not possess, and any action or reaction that may resemble human laughter in these creatures is simply illusory.

The phenomenon of humour has exercised the minds of philosophers since time immemorial, resulting in the proliferation of different theories.

In Plato’s famous dialogue Philebus, Socrates – Plato’s teacher – takes a negative view of humour by arguing that the real object of laughter is the ‘ridiculous’. The ridiculous in this context is the ignoramus who thinks that he is wise. Thus, as Adrian Bardon puts it, for Socrates ‘laughter results from a feeling of pleasure at seeing others suffer the misfortune of being deluded about their own wisdom’.

This approach to humour – described rather pedestrianly as the superiority theory – is perpetuated by Plato’s student, Aristotle, who in Nicomachean Ethics jettisons all humour except the humour that exposes irrationality. The most celebrated modern proponent of this approach is Thomas Hobbes, who maintains that humour is our amused response to the inferiorities or absurdities of others.

The philosophers who reject this theory of humour – among them, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer and Søren Kierkegaard – argue that although humour indeed has to do with responding to absurdities, but not that of other people, especially the ignorant. Rather humour is the response to absurdities in ideas and in life experiences that frustrate our intellectual expectations.

Thus Kant could write that ‘laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing’. But perhaps it is Schopenhauer who expresses it best when he states that ‘the cause of laughter in every case is simply the sudden perception of the incongruity between a concept and the real objects which have been thought through it in some relation, and laughter itself is just the expression of this incongruity … All laughter then is occasioned by a paradox’.

Whichever theory we may find to be more convincing, what is clear is that only certain creatures, endowed with certain attributes and capabilities, have the capacity for humour. Only rational creatures that possess consciousness – however one may choose to define or describe it – that are aware not only of their environment, but are also self-aware, have the capacity for humour and the ability to laugh.

As Hugh LaFollette and Niall Shanks have pointed out, ‘Humour is possible only for agents whose belief systems manifest hierarchical cognitive richness’. This means that only the human being – made to image his Creator – that has the capacity to make sense of itself and of things around it, is capable of humour.

As LaFollette and Shanks explain (with a touch of humour – pun intended!): ‘We recognise that the dullest normal human can see humour which even the most talented bullfrog would miss. The human not only has more beliefs than the bullfrog (if the bullfrog has any beliefs at all); the nature and complexity of those beliefs differ’.

Any belief is complex because it is always embedded in an intricate web of other beliefs. As Donald Davidson explains: ‘I can believe a cloud is passing before the sun, but only because I believe there is a sun, that clouds are made of water vapour, that water can exist in liquid and gaseous form; and so on without end’.

Human beings not only have what philosophers call ‘first-order beliefs’ – beliefs about the world which they inhabit. Human beings also have beliefs about their first-order beliefs, that is, humans are capable of ‘higher-order’ beliefs that give them some predictive powers and the ability to assess the situation in which they find themselves.

Only such beings may be said to possess ‘a sense of humour’, that is, that ability to see their circumstances in a particular way that enables them (and others like them) to laugh at their predicament.

Or as the psychologist and philosopher Raymond Moody explains: ‘A person with a “good sense of humour” is one who can see himself and others in the world in a somewhat distant and detached way. He views life from an altered perspective in which he can laugh at, yet remain in contact with and emotionally involved with people and events in a positive way’.

The relationship between language, perception and humour is crucial. Not only is it impossible to severe humour from language (understood, of course, in the broadest possible sense), it in fact directly springs from it. This means that only that linguistic animal, the homo sapien, is capable of humour.

Because humour is dependent on perception and language, it is always relational and irreducibly so. Humour, write LaFolletter and Shanks ‘is inherently relational – no event, person or thing is intrinsically humorous … It depends upon the circumstances, the teller (if there is one), the current belief s of the listeners (or viewers), and the relationship (if any) between the teller and the listener’.

But this also means that humour is always context-dependant, and contingent upon the beliefs of the listener.

Although humour can be said to be an important aspect of our humanity and should therefore be valued, many philosophers have also pointed to its important uses. They argue that humour is often employed as a means of ‘liberation’ from threat and as a coping mechanism.

These philosophers see the value of humour in liberating us from certain pressures and vexations by poking fun and laughing at the very things that are normally viewed as threatening and constrictive. As Norman Holland explains: ‘we can state the disposition the other way around, calling the purpose of laughter not so much as glorifying of the self as the minimizing of the distresses menacing the self’.

In the psychoanalytic tradition, Sigmund Freud saw humour as a kind of defense strategy or coping mechanism. This has led others in the tradition to even describe humour as a ‘courage mechanism’, due to its ability to contend with the unpleasant aspects of reality without denying or ignoring the need to confront them (that is, by being escapist).

As the British philosopher Roger Scruton has put it so eloquently, ‘Laughter helps us to overcome our isolation and fortifies us against despair’.




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

 

Repentance and Forgiveness

September 2017 Credo

Reader’s Question: Does the Bible teach that Christians should forgive the unrepentant?

Christians are commanded to forgive because they worship the God who forgives. In Matthew 6:15, we read: ‘… if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses’.

But are Christians required to forgive those who have wronged them even if the offenders remain unrepentant? What, if any, is the relationship between forgiveness and repentance?

Christians are divided on this issue. Some Christian writers, like R. T. Kendall, believe that forgiveness should be given unconditionally, even to offenders who are not repentant and who continue in their offense.

However, the majority of Christian theologians and spiritual writers maintain that forgiveness should only be extended to offenders who are truly repentant. Based on passages like Ephesians 4:32, where Paul exhorts his readers to forgive ‘one another, as God in Christ forgave you’, they maintain that we should forgive as God forgives (See also Colossians 3:13).

How does God forgive? It is clear in Scripture that God does not forgive the stiff-necked and unrepentant sinner. In fact, the Bible explicitly teaches that only the repentant will receive divine forgiveness and the blessings of salvation (Mark 1:15; Luke 13:3, 5; Acts 3:19).

There are numerous passages in the NT that underscore that forgiveness is premised on repentance. For example, in Luke 17:3 we read these words of Jesus: ‘Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him’.

In this passage, the subjunctive ‘if’ (Greek: ean) sets the condition for forgiveness. This passage therefore clearly teaches that forgiveness should always be conditioned upon repentance.

Matthew 18:15-17 helps us to look at this issue from another angle. Here Jesus gives specific instructions on how to deal with a member of the community (suggested by the descriptor ‘brother’) who has sinned.

Several attempts must be made to convince the person of his sin, but if all these attempts fail and the offender refuses to listen and repent, ‘let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector’ (v 17).

In Matthew’s Jewish-Christian community, ‘Gentile’ denotes ‘heathen’. ‘Tax collector’ is here used as a derogatory term since the Jews despise people in this profession. Commenting on the force of Jesus’ injunction, Donald Hagner writes: ‘Thus the unrepentant offender is not simply put out of the community but categorized as among the worst sort of persons’.

This passage again stresses that forgiveness is only offered to the repentant sinner.

Christians who maintain that forgiveness is not dependent on repentance but must be extended unconditionally to the offender often point to Jesus’ words on the cross: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34). Kendall, for instance, argues that Jesus asked God to forgive the people who crucified him without expecting them to first repent of their wrongdoings. Of Jesus’ executioners Kendall writes: ‘There was not only an utter absence of repentance, but also total contempt’.

Jesus’ prayer should not be understood as an anomalous departure from the general biblical principle that forgiveness must be preceded by repentance. As the NT scholar Noval Gledenhuys has shown, Jesus’ prayer demonstrates his ‘earnest longing that his persecutors should be given another chance to repent before otherwise inevitable judgement is executed on their sins!’

Jesus is the very embodiment of that unconditional love that the Bible calls agape, a love that is extended even to one’s enemies. It was this agapic love that compelled Jesus to pray for his torturers and executioners (Cf., Matthew 5:44).

The Dutch NT scholar William Hendricksen paraphrases Jesus’ prayer thus: ‘In thy sovereign grace cause them to repent truly, so that they can be and will be pardoned fully’.

Stephen, the first martyr of the Church, emulated his Lord when he prayed ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’ just before he died at the hands of his persecutors (Acts 7:60).

Jesus’ prayer therefore does not breach the principle that forgiveness is conditioned upon repentance. Rather it shows his magnanimity and willingness to forgive his executioners.

The prayer therefore teaches us that Christians must be always willing to forgive their offenders when they repent. This brings us back to the Lucan passage discussed above. Luke 17:4 reads: ‘and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, “I repent”, you must forgive him’. To love with agapic love is to be always willing to forgive.

In doing so, we are imaging our gracious God, who is always willing to forgive us of our sins when we confess them in penitence (1 John 1:9).

However, to offer forgiveness without repentance is to cheapen grace itself, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer has perceptively pointed out when he wrote: ‘Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance’. Unconditional forgiveness also devalues the theological and spiritual significance of repentance.

The advocates of unconditional forgiveness often argue that if we refuse to forgive the offender unless he repents, we will be weighed down with hatred and mired in bitterness. While this can certainly be true for some people, it is not necessarily the case.

Christians are called to love everyone (even their enemies) unconditionally regardless of whether they express remorse for their wrongdoing. It is possible to love someone in the biblical sense (i.e., with agapic love), with a love that is never resentful (1 Corinthians 13:5), even when an unsettled issue continues to persist.

The advocates of unconditional forgiveness have wrongly conflated the command to love others (which is unconditional) and the command to forgive one’s offenders (which is conditional). Or, they have wrongly assumed that to love someone in the biblical sense necessarily requires Christians to automatically and unconditionally forgive their offenders.

The ultimate goal of forgiveness is reconciliation, the healing of relationship. This is just not possible if there is no repentance on the part of the wrongdoer, that is, if the offender denies that he has committed an offense or if he does not show remorse.


 


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

Mathematics and Reality

July 2017 Pulse

At a recent Ethos Institute seminar on ‘Science and the Christian Faith’, a participant asked an important question pertaining to the relationship between mathematical models and reality. Mathematicians and philosophers are still debating this contentious issue, and it looks like the jury will be out for some time yet.

I offer these reflections as a theologian and philosopher, and not as a mathematician.

There can be no doubt that mathematics is held in the highest regard in modern society as many believe in its power to unlock the truths of the universe of which we are a part. Mathematics has been triumphantly described as ‘the language of the universe’ because of its ability to depict physical reality with such precision and elegance.

The veneration of mathematics can be traced to the golden age of Greek philosophy. The great Pythagoras could say that ‘All is number’, and Aristotle who came after him could echo his view approvingly by declaring that ‘The principles of mathematics are the principles of all things’.

Closer to our day, Albert Einstein expressed his amazement at the power of mathematics thus: ‘How can it be that mathematics, being after all a product of human thought which is independent of experience, is so admirably appropriate to the objects of reality?’

Mathematicians and philosophers are drawn to mathematics because of its sheer beauty. Whether it’s the mathematical constant π or Einstein’s famous E=mc2, the sheer elegance of mathematical models and the way in which they help us to make sense of the physical world is at once stunning and attractive.

The presence of beauty in mathematics should urge the Christian to contemplate the beauty of God, the Creator of all that is. As mathematician and theologian Paul Schweitzer, S.J., notes: ‘Just as when the beauty of the lilies of the field, the songs of birds, or the smile of the child overwhelms us, in the contemplation of mathematical beauty a window opens onto eternity and one can sense the holy presence of our loving God’.

Mathematicians and philosophers generally agree that mathematics is in some sense related to the physical world, but how this relationship should be understood is still a matter of considerable debate.

In contrast to the so-called mathematical Platonists who believe that mathematical objects and ideas exist independently from the material world, I hold the view that they are mental abstractions of our perceptions of reality. This means that mathematical concepts are grounded in and therefore dependent on the material world.

The history of mathematics itself bears this out as ‘natural numbers’ emerged very early in human consciousness and systems representing numbers can be traced to very ancient times.

‘The counting of numbers’, writes Schweitzer, ‘… arose at the dawn of human consciousness, to make it possible to number the oxen in a herd, or the number of coins in a purse, or the number of people in a tribe. Thus numbers are abstracted from concrete reality’.

Sophisticated systems like multiplication tables can be traced to the Sumerian civilisation during the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Ages. The great Sicilian mathematician, Archimedes, developed a system of numbers that is so sophisticated and precise that it is said that he could calculate the number of grains of sand in the universe! Geometric figures and spaces are also abstractions based on our perceptions and observations of reality concerning spatial relations between objects.

Mathematics, Derek Abbott maintains, is the product of the human imagination that is used to describe or portray reality. Abbott even argues that although the majority of mathematicians claim to hold the Platonist view, they are in fact closet non-Platonists!

But why is the philosophy of mathematics important? It is quite obvious that mathematicians who have very different views about the nature of mathematics could do their work unimpeded.

I think this question is important for at least two reasons.

Firstly, it is important to have a realistic estimate of the power and effectiveness of mathematics. The non-Platonic view, in my opinion, alerts us to the fact that mathematics is a human enterprise and not the ‘miracle’ that some scientists have made it out to be.

Put differently, because perfect mathematical forms do not exist in the physical universe, mathematics is just a mental construct and the models it creates are merely approximations of reality. Seen in this way, mathematics not only has its limits, it is also vulnerable to mistakes and failures.

That said, the precision and effectiveness of mathematics is truly remarkable, prompting Eugene Wigner to write his famous paper entitled, ‘The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Physical Sciences’ in 1960. ‘The mathematical formulation of the physicist’s often crude experience’, Wigner writes, ‘leads in an uncanny number of cases to an amazingly accurate description of a large class of phenomena’.

But lest we get carried away with the perceived omnicompetence of mathematics (which the Platonic approach encourages), we should evaluate its successes more closely.

In response to Wigner’s paper, Abbott wrote a piece entitled, ‘The Reasonable Ineffectiveness of Mathematics’ which, following the arguments of Richard W. Hamming, highlights some areas of human inquiry where mathematics has had lesser success.

He notes, for example, that mathematics has less success ‘in describing biological systems, and even less in describing economic and social systems’. One possible reason why this is so, Abbott speculates, could be the way in which these systems are adaptive and mutable. ‘Could it be they are harder to model simply because they adapt and change on human time scales, and so the search for useful invariant properties is more challenging?’, he asks.

But the question of timescale and the limits of human perception should also give us pause when considering the successful mathematical models. Abbott adds: ‘Could it be that the inanimate universe itself is no different, but happens to operate on a timescale so large that in our anthropcentrism we see the illusion of invariance?’

The second reason is related to the first. A realistic estimate of mathematics would prevent us from embracing a naïve epistemological exclusivism (scientism) that dangerously neglects or ignores other kinds of truth.

While mathematical models have a remarkable way of portraying reality, they are also deficient in a number of ways. For example, they present a world of quantities without qualities. As the philosopher and poet Raymond Tallis has brilliantly put it: ‘The energy in Einstein’s equation is not warm or bright or noisy, and the matter is not heavy or sticky or obstructive’.

Mathematics has a very important place in our lives. However, we must never take the hyperboles of Pythagoras or Aristotle too seriously.

Instead we must follow Tallis’ wise counsel and never neglect other kinds of truth, especially truths that are ‘rooted in the actual experience of human beings that lie beyond mathematics: situational truths saturated with qualities and feelings and concerns, and differentiations of space and time (‘here’, ‘now’)’.


 

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

 

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.

The Mind That ‘Sees’

June 2017 Credo

This article is written in response to a request by one of the visitors of the Ethos Institute website. It has to do with the Christian’s experience of God. What do Christians mean when they say that they have a personal knowledge and experience of God? What do Christians mean when they say that they sense his presence?

One of the most important, if arguably also the most neglected topics in recent Christian discourse, is what may be described as a ‘Christian theology of religious experience’.

Despite the fact that spiritualities of all sorts – from exercises in mindfulness to New Age mysticism – have been in vogue for some time, Christian theologians generally (and evangelical theologians, in particular) have not given the issue of religious experience the serious theological attention it deserves.

Christians of every denominational stripe and tradition claim to have personal knowledge of and relationship with God. Many Christians have also testified that there were occasions when they were able to sense the presence of God in their lives.

Such assertions are, of course, premised on the Christian understanding of God.

The God who reached out to us in love and grace has invited us into a covenantal relationship with him. He is not an absentee God, distant and aloof. Rather he is Emmanuel, the God who is always with us.

But what do Christians mean when they say that they are able to sense God’s presence? How are we to understand the Christian’s perception and experience of God?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines perception as the ‘awareness of the elements of environment through physical sensation’. Perception, it adds, is the ‘physical sensation interpreted in the light of experience’.

Based on such definitions, the Christian claim that it is possible to perceive the divine becomes even more baffling, if not incredulous. For, unlike the pagan idols that are made of wood and clay, the God whom Christians worship is spirit, invisible to human eyes (John 1:18). The Creator is not a part of the created order, and therefore cannot be known by sensory perception like the material objects of this world.

But although the Creator of the universe is spirit and therefore cannot be perceived by our creaturely senses and finite minds, he has revealed himself in such a way that makes our knowledge of him possible.

In John 1:18, alluded to earlier, we are told that although no one has seen God, the Son of God has made him known in the incarnation. Put differently, by taking upon himself human flesh and coming as Jesus of Nazareth, the second person of the Trinity has made the invisible God visible.

Paul could therefore declare in Colossians that the Son ‘is the image of the invisible God’ (1:15). Scripture, both the Old Testament and the New, bears witness to the incarnate Son of God through whom the invisible God is known.

Not only did God make himself an object of this world in order to reveal himself to us, he also accommodated his revelation in such a way that we are able to receive and understand it. This notion of ‘divine accommodation’, which was brilliantly developed by the great Reformer John Calvin, helps us to understand the mode that divine revelation has assumed that makes it possible for human beings to know God.

Peter Enns explains: ‘This is what it means for God to speak at a certain time and place – he enters their world. He speaks and acts in ways that make sense to them. This is surely what it means for God to reveal himself to people – he accommodates, condescends, meets them where they are’.

The objective basis for your knowledge of God sketched very briefly here is extremely important.

The knowledge of God does not arise subjectively from our inner being, our mind or our soul. Rather, it is objective. We know God because the eternal Son has become a human being, and because the Bible bears witness to him.

However, there is a subjective aspect to our knowledge of God – and this brings us closer to the heart of our topic. Just as the Son of God has made our objective knowledge of the invisible God possible in the incarnation, so the Holy Spirit enables us to subjectively apprehend and appropriate this knowledge by faith.

The early Fathers of the Church often speak of the spiritual senses (sensus spiritualis) that the Holy Spirit awakens in the regenerate soul of the believer, enabling him to perceive spiritual things.

The Spirit forms in the believer a sensorium that makes him receptive to God. The spiritual senses do not work against the natural senses but in concert with them, giving the Christian a greater capacity for God.

As the great Swiss Roman Catholic theologian of the last century, Hans Urs von Balthasar, puts it: ‘The spiritual senses are the human range of senses adapted to the riches and the variety of the paths taken by God in his revelation, with the capacity simultaneously to “see his glory”, “hear his word”, “breathe his fragrance”, “taste his sweetness” and “touch his presence”’.

The spiritual senses that Christians are given at regeneration enable them, through the out-workings of divine grace, to ‘sense God’s presence’ and ‘experience him’. They enable the mind that is renewed by the Spirit to ‘see’ a deeper spiritual reality.

Such experiences can come to us during worship and prayer, or as we read the Bible. But we can also experience the presence of God as we perform mundane activities like driving to work or washing the dishes.

At this juncture, I would like to sound a note of caution by highlighting two very important points.

The first is that the relationship between the objective revelation of God in Jesus Christ and the subjective appropriation of that revelation made possible by the Spirit must never be severed from each other. The means that all subjective religious experiences – regardless of how powerful and compelling they may be – must be subjected to Scriptural assessment and critique.

This we learn from Scripture itself. In the wake of false teachings in the Church, the Apostle John writes: ‘Beloved, do not believe any spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone into the world’ (1 John 4:1).

Secondly, although we have been discussing how the individual Christian may know or perceive God, it must be stressed that Christian experience is always ecclesial in nature. That is to say, our personal and individual experiences of God must always be evaluated and guided by the universal Church’s experience of God.

Privileging our subjective religious experiences over the ecclesial is extremely dangerous. It has led many to theological error and spiritual ruin.


 

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.

 

The Betrayal of Medicine

May 2017 Pulse

One of the reasons that the National Council of Churches of Singapore gave for rejecting physician-assisted suicide (PAS) and euthanasia in its 2008 statement is that these actions are “against the very ethos of medical practice”.

The betrayal of medicine’s noblest purpose that the growing acceptance of PAS and euthanasia signifies and accentuates is of course the result of many different but profoundly related developments.

The first of these is the subtle shift of the focus of medicine away from the patient.

According to Edmund Pellegrino, the Hippocratic Oath that has served European and American physicians since the dawn of modern medicine is now under attack both from without and within the medical profession. This is because some are of the view that the values it upholds are unable to address the complex ethical issues presented by emerging medical technologies.

But the rejection of the patient-centric tradition exemplified by the Hippocratic Oath exacts a heavy price because it changes the very character of medicine itself.

As philosopher Dianne Irving has rightly observed, once this tradition was weakened, “bioethics began to replace it with medicine practiced for the greater good of society rather than for the individual patient. That threatens patient welfare and denigrates medicine into a business rather than a profession”.

Another possible contribution to medicine’s betrayal is the secularisation of ethics, as a result of which moral reasoning is bereft of the very assumptions and principles that are supposed to govern it.

To be sure, some ethicists – like Leon Kass and Gilbert Meilaender from the Jewish and Christian traditions respectively – still regard human life as sacred and insist that physicians should be committed to the bodily life of their patients. But such views are gradually going out of vogue, supplanted by a utilitarian ethic couched in heady rhetoric about “the greater good” of society, and about individual autonomy and rights.

Edmund Pellegrino and David Thomasma offer a penetrating diagnosis of the modern predicament in medicine as well as in other fields when they write: “Much of the moral desuetude [state of disuse] into which we believe the professions – medicine, law, even the ministry – have fallen is the consequence of ethical claims without a moral philosophy on which to ground them.”

“Moral arguments based on utility, cost-benefit analysis, contract law, economic restraints, unbridled individualism are all symptoms of ‘moral malaise’,” they add.

Utilitarianism has indeed become the new orthodoxy in biomedical ethics.

“All [leading] bioethicists,” writes Anne Maclean, the perceptive critic of bioethics, accept “some version of utilitarianism”. University of Cambridge Law Professor John Keown agrees. In an interview, he asserts that “in modern bioethics, nothing is, in itself, either valuable or inviolable, except utility”.

Ethicists must therefore shoulder some responsibility for the erosion of moral acumen and for the betrayal of medicine’s noblest ideals.

Theologian Richard John Neuhaus put it starkly: “Thousands of ethicists and bioethicists, as they are called, professionally guide the unthinkable on its passage through the debatable on its way to becoming the justifiable, until it is finally established as the unexceptional.”

We see this happening in so many areas in biomedical ethics, from stem cell research to gene therapy, and from the criteria for ascertaining death to the hydration of PVS patients. We also see this in the debate surrounding PAS and euthanasia.

For example, Peter Singer and utilitarian ethicists like him are constantly pushing the envelope with regard to euthanasia.

Singer envisions an ideal world where all terminally-ill patients would be routinely euthanised. He writes: “Perhaps one day it will be possible to treat all terminally-ill and incurable patients in such a way that no one requests euthanasia and the subject becomes a non-issue; but this is now just a utopian ideal, and no reason at all to deny euthanasia to those who must live and die in far less comfortable conditions.”

For the Christian, medicine is a gift of God, the outworking of His common grace in this fallen world. The true goal of medicine is always to help and to heal, never to harm or to kill.

The utilitarian calculus that is so pervasive in the practice of modern health care is not only alien to the character of medicine. It has also seriously undermined and subverted medicine’s true and highest purpose.


 

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.

God is Love

May 2017 Credo

In 1 John 4:8, we find the briefest but most profound description of God: ‘God is love’. Christian philosophers and theologians have long pointed out that the message that God is love is one that is totally new and unheard of in any culture or religious system. This idea cannot be harmonised with the Absolute of Plato, the Brahma of Hinduism and the Allah of Islam.

This has prompted theologians like Emil Brunner to assert in his Dogmatics that ‘God is love’ ‘is the most daring statement that has ever been made in human language’.

In God’s dealings with Israel recorded in the pages of the OT, God’s love is made manifest again and again in his faithfulness to his chosen people, despite their unfaithfulness towards him.

Thus Brunner could write: ‘God’s faithfulness to his unfaithful people springs out of an incomprehensible love, for which the “foolish” love of Hosea for his unfaithful wife is both the most daring parable of the love of God and also one which is chosen by God himself’.

In the NT the love of God is demonstrated supremely in Jesus Christ. The oft-quoted verse from the Gospel of John shows the extent of the divine love: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ (Jn 3:16).

It is important to note that God’s love is neither only lavished nor dependent on his creatures. To say that God is love is to underscore the fact that love is what God immutably and eternally is. Put differently, God’s love is not dependent or contingent upon there being creatures for him to love.

This means that in the eternal God there is that mutual self-giving that is love. This reminds us of just how important the doctrine of the Trinity is to our understanding and conception of God. Because the one God is Being-in-communion, the koinonia and mutual indwelling of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, there is in the eternal life of the Trinity a love that is free, total and unconditional.

However, to say that in the triune God there is the mutual self-giving that is love is not to endorse the idea that God loves himself. Theologians like John Frame, for example, understand divine love as ‘God’s self-love’. There are attendant dangers in conceiving of divine love in this way.

Although in human experience, love is somehow always tainted with self-centredness, we must be careful never to project this onto God. To speak of the divine love as ‘God’s self-love’ is to suggest that God is in some sense self-centred. It is to suggest that God’s love is not directed at another, but is instead turned inward towards himself.

Put differently, to speak of the divine love in this way is to already push the Trinity into the background and to conceive of God – however unreflexively and non-deliberately – as a monad.

Thus, Wolfhart Pannenberg rightly asserts in the first volume of his three-volume systematics that we must oppose ‘the statement that God is he who eternally loves himself’. Because the one God is triune – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – our understanding of divine love must be understood in light of the eternal relationship of the three persons.

Thus, we should not conceive of God as loving himself eternally. We must say instead, with Pannenberg, that ‘from all eternity the Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Father, and the Spirit loves the Father in the Son and the Son in the Father’.

However, even the concept of the mutual indwelling of the three persons of the Godhead in each other (perichoresis) poses some dangers. Perichoresis should not lead us to think that the one loves the other only because he sees himself in the other.

Pannenberg explains: ‘If, however, the one loves self in the other instead of loving the other as other, then love falls short of the full self-giving which is the condition that the one who loves be given self afresh in the responsive love of the one who is loved’.

God is love. This means, as we have seen, that God’s very nature is love. This further means that God loves not because he has to answer to a law outside of himself. As Ron Highfield has put it so profoundly, ‘[God] is completely free and totally himself in his action’.

Finally, it must be pointed out that the God who is love is also holy. The divine love that the Bible refers to is the love of the God who is holy. But in the same way, the holiness about which Scripture speaks is that of the God who is love.

Some theologians are uneasy with placing holiness and love so closely together. This is because holiness suggests distance, while love creates koinonia. Holiness signifies glory and sovereignty, while love has to do with surrender, sacrifice and selflessness.

So great is the perceived contrast between holiness and love that theologians like Jack Cottrell ask: ‘How can God fulfil the requirements of both love and holiness towards sinners at the same time?’ Convinced that this is almost impossible, Cottrell argues that before the fall, the two attributes were in ‘perfect harmony’. But the fall has placed them ‘in a state of tension and opposition’.

But to think of God in this way is to over-anthropomorphize him – it is to impose human limitations on him. Just as nothing outside of God or other than him can determine or direct his love, so no contingent reality can compromise his holiness.

God is eternally and unchangeably holy love. There is no dilemma, no tension in God.



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.

 

Lebensunwertes Leben

May 2017 Pulse

In his 1983 article published in Pediatrics, the controversial Princeton University ethicist Peter Singer argues unabashedly that nonhuman animals have greater morally significance than a seriously deformed or disabled human infant.

‘If we compare a severely defective human infant with a nonhuman animal, a dog or pig, for example, we will often find the nonhuman to have superior capacities, both actual and potential, for rationality, self-consciousness, communication, and anything else that can be considered morally significant’, he writes.

Preferential treatment is extended to the disabled infant, he argues – again quite unapologetically – not because of some intrinsic worth it possesses but simply because it is a member of the species homo sapiens, an approach he obviously disapproves of.

In the second edition of his influential book, Practical Ethics (1993) Singer sees people with severe disabilities quite categorically as having ‘a life not worth living’.

Singer’s cruel utilitarianism chillingly reminds us of the dehumanising eugenics of the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s that saw the extermination of certain segments of the population, guided by a similar philosophy – that some human lives can be said to be Lebensunwertes Leben (‘life unworthy of life’).

The killing of disabled people, especially newborns, is a practice that can be traced to antiquity. Despite their indubitable brilliance and enduring influence that can still be discerned in a wide range of topics today – from politics to beauty – the great Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle never prohibited or even called to question the practice, common in classical antiquity, of killing defective babies by exposure.

The Christian writer Miniculis Felix gives us a stark glimpse of the prevalence of infanticide in Greco-Roman society in Octavius where he writes – in a justifiably condemnatory tone – that ‘newly begotten sons [are] at times exposed to wild beasts and birds, or dispatched by the violent death of strangulation …’

In fact, as Darrell Amnundsen has clearly shown, ‘the care of defective newborns simply was not a medical concern in classical antiquity’. Consequently, no law existed in antiquity against the killing of such babies.

The early Christians of course rejected and opposed this practice because according to the Scriptures all human beings without exceptions are created in the image and likeness of God’ (Genesis 1:26-27) and must therefore be valued and protected. This includes the young, the old, the vulnerable and the disabled.

The early Christians therefore extended care to the poor, the sick, the marginalised and the disabled in ways that amazed the society of the time. So counter-cultural were they in showing compassion to the people that society had marginalised and rejected that the early Christians were often described as ‘the third race’.

The early Christians would pick up the infants that were left to die on the streets, in drains or in specially designated pits for unwanted children. They would either care for these children as their own or place them in the orphanages they ran.

Thus, unlike the most influential voices of the ancient Greco-Roman world that recommended with impunity the killing of deformed children (Cicero, De Ligibus, 3.8) and the drowning of ‘children who are at birth weakly and abnormal’ (Seneca, De Ira 1.15), Christians roundly condemn such practices as immoral.

Perhaps the clearest Christian voice in antiquity that protested against such inhumanity is that of Lactantius, who in his Divine Institutes writes: ‘Therefore when God forbids killing, no exception whatsoever must be made. It is always wrong to kill a man whom God has intended to be a sacrosanct creature. Let no one, then, think that it is to be conceded even that newly born children may be done away with, an especially great impiety! God breathes souls into them for life, not for death’.

In the darkest period of the history of modern Europe, a young pastor-theologian spoke with inimitable clarity and unparalleled courage against the evil eugenic projects of the Führer that were responsible for the mutilation and murder of untold numbers of Jews and people with disabilities.

In his unfinished book, Ethics published shortly after his execution by the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke out against the utilitarian principle which demeans human life and violates its God-given dignity: ‘Life created and preserved by God possesses an inherent right, completely independent of social utility … There is no worthless life before God, because God holds life itself to be valuable’.

Bonhoeffer warns of what he called ‘the aristocratic philosophy of life which glorified strength and power and violence as the ultimate ideals of humanity’.

This warning, sounded in the last century, has not lost its relevance and urgency in the present. In fact, we may say that in the wake of the current myth of human perfectability inspired by the bewildering advances in bio- medicine and technology, this warning has taken on a pertinence and currency that Bonhoeffer could not have possibly imagined.

While the Christian Faith rejects the morbid glorification of weakness (which unfortunately can be discerned in some recent discussions about disability – but that’s another story!), with its radical concept of the suffering God, it does suggest another way of looking at and understanding weakness that is truly redemptive.

And it is this way of looking at the other that has led Christians like Lactantius in the third century and Bonhoeffer in the twentieth to speak out against the manifest atrocities of their day and to advocate an ethic of love that regards even the most vulnerable and disabled members of their societies as bearers of the divine image, whose lives must be cherished and protected and whose dignity should never be violated.



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.

Gender Chaos

April 2017 Pulse

At Brighton College, one of the most prestigious private schools in Britain, gender distinct uniforms have been abolished. This means that the students in the school could choose to wear trousers or a skirt, a blazer or a bolero jacket.

Teachers in some preschools in America are not allowed to call the children “boys and girls” because to do so would promote unhelpful gender stereotypes.

In its 2015 Report, the Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee suggests that Britain should adopt the ‘self-declaration’ model that is currently used in Ireland, Argentina, and Denmark. Instead of undergoing sexual reassignment surgery, transgendered people should be allowed to simply declare the sex of their choice by filling a form.

The LGBTQI community has produced a glossary that lists a bewildering number of different expressions of gender and orientations. These include skoliosexual (people who are attracted to transsexual people), genderqueer (people who think of themselves either as pangender or genderless), third gender (people who do not identify with either male or female), and many more.

Gender-neutral language has also been introduced in some circles, where “Ze” replaces “he” and “she” and “Hir” replaces “his” and “hers”.

These are just some of the many examples of the chaos and insanity surrounding gender in modern society.

The traditional binary model that presents men and women as different and that insists that the difference between them is fundamental has been called to question. “There is no way that six billion people can be categorised into two groups”, asserts Dr Jack Dreshner, a member of the American Psychiatric Association.

Indeed the term “binary” is now regarded in some quarters as pejorative and even as carrying the same offense as terms like “racist”, “sexist” and “homophobic”. Gender fluidity – the idea that gender is not fixed but mutable – is now the new orthodoxy, and it is even promoted as a lifestyle choice.

The origins of this new dogma can be traced to the 1970s when postmodern philosophers and feminists argued that gender is not a matter of biological fact but a social construct.

Michel Foucault challenged the essentialism of the Enlightenment view of sexual identity, arguing that it is in fact a social construct that can always be negotiated and redefined.

Judith Butler argues that our understanding of what it means to be a man or a woman is very much shaped by the gender scripts that we receive from our culture. And as we perform these scripts, the gender it constructs is somehow etched into our bodies and psyches.

Needless to say, these conceptions of human sexuality and gender are antithetical to the teachings of Scripture, which clearly present the duality of sexes (the binary model) as the Creator’s intention for human beings (Genesis 1:27).

Reflecting on this passage, Karl Barth concludes that “We cannot say man without having to say male or female and also male and female. Man exists in this differentiation, in this duality”. Put differently, the distinction between male and female, their equality before God and their fundamental mutuality are indispensable to our understanding of the meaning of human existence.

In addition, although sexual differentiation cannot be said to only serve the procreative purpose, procreation would not be possible without it.

All this means is that although gender has to do with the complex relationship between biological sex and behaviour, it is in fact not as fluid as the postmodern deconstructionists have made it out to be.

In its document on human sexuality, the Evangelical Free Church of America rightly states that “All of human existence, including sexuality, has been damaged by the fall into sin”.

However, it should be pointed out that the fall has not only resulted in perversions in our sexual desires, habits and behaviour. It has also introduced serious distortions to our understanding of human sexuality and gender that has resulted in the current confusion.

This new orthodoxy concerning gender, therefore, should not be greeted in a cavalier manner as if it is just a benign social experiment or a harmless quirk in culture. The dysfunctions it legitimises and the irrational intolerances it advocates can create an oppressive hegemony, a new tyranny that deprives society of certain rightful freedoms.

It must therefore be challenged and rejected.


 

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.

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.