Tag Archives: truth

Post-Truth Politics?

June 2017 Pulse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is truth important in politics and for society?

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

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

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

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

Such caricatures are never fair.

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

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

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

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


 

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

Vestiges of the Divine

November 2016 CREDO

‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God’, declares the Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. ‘It will flame out, like shining shook foil’. In these words we find an echo of a similar but more ancient attestation found in the Psalter, Israel’s Hymnbook: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaim his handiwork’ (Psalm 19:1).

Paul, in his letter to the Christians in Rome, makes the same point when he argues that God’s ‘eternal power and divine nature’ can be clearly perceived ‘in the things that have been made’ (Romans 1: 20).

Together, they bear witness to the fact that the invisible Creator has left his mark on the universe he has fashioned, and that in the created order there can be found what may be described as traces or vestiges of the divine. The theologians of the Church have described this variously as God’s ‘universal’, ‘general’ or ‘natural’ revelation.

In the modern period, where science is perceived to have almost full monopoly of the truth, the concept of revelation has fallen out of favour. This is because in the hands of modern scientism, the concept of truth itself has undergone a certain metamorphosis. Truth is no longer understood as impressing itself on the knower. Instead, truth is something that is discovered, and consequently controlled by the rational agent.

On such an account of truth, revelation not only appears to be at odds with autonomous reason. It also seem quite unnecessary, since revelation – as philosophers like Fichte argue – only brings to the fore what autonomous reason already knows to be the case.

Christians must reject this view for two reasons. Firstly, it creates too sharp a divide between discovery and revelation, authority and autonomy. And secondly, it in fact makes the concept of revelation in general and God’s revelation in particular redundant.

Concerning the dichotomy between revelation and discovery, can we not say that there is a sense in which modern science itself is dependent on a kind of revelation? Even the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant is of the view that reason must learn from nature. In his famous Critique of Pure Reason, Kant asserts that ‘Reason … must approach nature in order to be taught by it’.

One would do well to take seriously Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s maxim that ‘all Truth is a species of Revelation’.

And with regard to the marginalising of revelation itself, the history of modern theology has shown just how fruitless it was for theologians to follow this trajectory. Think for instance of John Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious (1696) or Matthew Tindal’s Christianity as Old as Creation (1730). Such theologies have led Christians to the murky waters of either deism or liberalism.

Contrary to these modern proposals, the theologians of the Church have always insisted that God has revealed himself universally in the world he has brought into being. So important is this truth that a document of Vatican I anathemises those who deny it.

Thus, its canon on revelation unequivocally states that ‘If anyone says that the one, true God, our creator and Lord, cannot be known certainly from the things that have been made, by the natural light of human reason: let him be anathema’.

In addition, the Church has always taught that the created order or the cosmos possesses a certain rationality because it was created by God.

The great Romanian Orthodox theologian of the last century, Dumitru Stăniloae, puts it this way: ‘… the rationality of the cosmos attests to the fact that the cosmos is the product of a rational being, since rationality, as an aspect of a reality which is destined to be known, has no explanation apart from a conscious Reason which knows it from the time it creates it or even before that time, and knows it continually so long as that same Reason preserves its being’.

Furthermore, the cosmos was organised in a way that corresponds to our capacity for knowing. To quote Stăniloae once again: ‘The cosmos – and human nature as intimately connected to the cosmos – are stamped with rationality, while man (God’s creature) is further endowed with a reason capable of knowing consciously the rationality of the cosmos and of his own nature’.

God has created the cosmos and man in this way so that he can reveal himself through both. This means that the cosmos possesses rationality not only because God had created it, but also because God had created it so, in order that it can be a vehicle or medium of his revelation.

Thus, theologians as diverse as Irenaeus in the second century and Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth could argue that the world points to the existence of God. For example, in his famous cosmological argument for the existence of God Aquinas maintains that the existence of the world presupposes an uncreated Creator.

This brings us back to the false dichotomy between revelation and discovery we noted earlier. To say that the facticity of the created order points to its Creator is not to suggest that the rational observer merely discovers the divine in it. The Spirit of God is constantly at work, making explicit that which is implicit in the creation.

Put differently, the Spirit is at work in revealing the imprints of the Creator found in his handwork. This means that the revelation of God – even his revelation in the creation – can never be reduced to some impersonal reality.

As Bonaventure, the contemporary of Aquinas, has repeatedly reminded us: God is not the disinterested unmoved mover that stands aloof from the world. He is the foundation of self-communicating love, and is therefore always personally and intimately at work in the world he has created. This is true in his revelation as well, both his special revelation in Christ and his general revelation in creation.

Roland Chia (suit)_Large


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

 

 

What is Theology?

July 2016 CREDO

In the ‘Preface’ of his famous work, the Proslogion (English: Discourse on the Existence of God) published in 1078, the medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury announces its main theme as ‘faith seeking understanding’ (Latin: fides quaerens intellectum). In doing so, Anselm was following the great fifth century theologian Augustine, whose approach is summed up thus: ‘I believe in order to understand’ (Latin: credo ut intelligam).

Many theologians (especially in the Latin tradition) agree that ‘faith seeking understanding’ is a good definition of theology.

The English word ‘theology’ is a combination of two Greek words: theos which means God, and logos which means speech or thought. Theology is therefore the Church’s speech about God that is faithful to his revelation in Jesus Christ (the incarnate Word), and the Bible (the written Word).

The Church receives God’s self-disclosure in Christ by faith, which itself is a gift made possible by divine grace. Faith may be broadly described as the Church’s trust in the God who has made himself known in Jesus Christ.

Faith, however, must not be seen as just a matter of holding certain propositions to be true. It is the commitment of the whole person to the reality of God.

Faith is a human response to God. As my teacher, the late Colin Gunton, puts it: faith is a ‘responsive movement of the heart, responsive to God’s awaking movement into the world in reconciliation’.

But, as Gunton is quick to add, faith is a human response that is always enabled by the Spirit of God: ‘This human response, like all authentic human action, is the gift of the Spirit who enables people to become what they will be by relating them to God the Father through Christ’.

The definition of faith as the Church’s trusting assent to God in his revelation should not lead to the mistake – so common today – of reducing faith to subjective religious experience. Faith therefore must not be seen as a leap in the dark or as blind trust. If faith is the means by which the Church appropriates the objective revelation of God, then it is inextricably bound to knowledge, the knowledge of the living God.

Put simply, faith has to do with knowledge and understanding.

And because faith has to do with the knowledge of God, the Church’s quest to understand what she by faith holds to be true is not at all inimical to the nature of her faith.

The church’s quest for a deeper understanding of the mysteries of God in his revelation begins and ends in faith. As Karl Barth has put it, faith is both the terminus a quo (English: ‘point of origin’) and terminus ad quem (English: ‘destination’) of the Church’s thinking about God.

In her quest to understand the truths about God that she has received by faith, the Church employs reason as a tool. Faith and reason are therefore not to be separated like oil and water, and theology is neither a flight from logic nor a denial of human rationality.

Anselm’s understanding of theology puts a check on the modern propensity to put asunder what God himself has joined. Faith and reason are not antithetical to each other. In the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, faith and reason can work in harmony with each other in the Church’s quest for deeper insights into God’s revealed truths.

As Pope John Paul II has so brilliantly put it in his remarkable encyclical Fides et Ratio (English: ‘Faith and Reason’): ‘Faith and reason are like wings on which the spirit rises to the contemplation of truth’. ‘Faith asks that its object be understood with the help of reason’, asserts Pope John Paul II, but ‘at the summit of its searching, reason acknowledges that it cannot do without what faith presents’.

It must be remembered that the Proslogion, where Anselm’s definition of theology is found, is a written in a form of a prayer. This fact is pertinent because it disabuses us from thinking that theology is a purely intellectual activity.

Although theology in some respects demands great intellectual energy and scholarly rigour, it is in essence a spiritual activity. Bishop Kallistos Ware of the Greek Orthodox Church is therefore absolutely right in pointing out that in the strict sense of the word theology refers to the contemplation of God himself.

Theology can never be reduced to just an academic pursuit. Prayer and theology must therefore be wedded together.

As the fourth century Christian ascetic Evagrius of Pontus has famously put it, ‘The one who prays is a theologian; the one who is a theologian, prays’. And Hans Urs von Balthasar, the great Roman Catholic theologian of the last century insists that one can only do theology ‘on one’s knees’.

What is not immediately obvious in Anselm’s famous definition (although it is assumed by Anselm himself) is that theology is always a communal – or better still, an ecclesial – activity. ‘The Church receives the faith theology seeks to understand, forms individuals in it (including theologians), and hands it on to them’, observes Bruce Marshall.

Theology can never be private endeavour or an activity severed from the life of the Church. In his famous essay, The Humanity of God Karl Barth maintains that theology can be carried out only in the context and in the service of the Church:

… theology cannot be carried on in the private lighthouses of some sort of merely personal discoveries and opinions. It can be carried on only in the Church – it can be put to work in all its elements only in the context of the questioning and answering Christian community and in rigorous service of its commission to all men.


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. 

 

Returning to Basics on SG50?

December 2015 Feature Article

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Notes:

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

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

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

The Limits of Freedom

October 2015 Pulse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlie Hebdo has clearly transgressed those limits.

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

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

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


Dr Roland Chia


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

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

Unpardonable Sin

What was Jesus referring to when he spoke of the unpardonable sin?

Throughout the history of the Church, Christians of every stripe have wondered about the meaning of Jesus’ statement regarding the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit which is recorded in all three synoptic Gospels (Matt 12:31-32; Mark 3:28-30; and Luke 12:10). In Mark, Jesus is recorded as saying: ‘I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin’. Some Christians, like the Welsh preacher Peter Williams in George Borrow’s Lavengro, are worried that they might have committed this sin.

In order to understand what Jesus meant by the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit we must explore the context in which this statement is located in the synoptic Gospels. At the outset, it must be pointed out that Matthew and Mark sets this statement in a similar context, while Luke places it in a different context thereby bringing to this statement a slightly different meaning.

In Mark’s account, the scribes or experts of the law went to Galilee from Jerusalem to assess the miracles of Jesus, particularly his ministry of exorcism. They came to the conclusion that Jesus was himself possessed by the prince of demons, Beelzebub, by whose power he was able to dispel demons (Mark 3:22; Cf., Matt 12: 24). In Canaanite culture, Beelzebub was the name of a god, ‘the lord of the high places’, but for the Jews this name refers to the ruler of the abyss, the abode of demons. Jesus pointed out the absurdity of the suggestion that evil would work against itself: ‘How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand’ (Mark 3:23-24; Cf., Matt 12:25-27).

At this point, Jesus made the statement regarding blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, a sin for which there is no forgiveness. In Matthew and Mark, therefore, the context suggests that the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit has to do with not only the refusal to recognise and acknowledge the work of God but with confusing God’s work with that of Satan. Those who are guilty of this sin have ascribed the Holy Spirit’s activity to demonic agency. In rejecting the redemptive work of God, those who commit this sin have, by implication, refused to accept God’s offer of salvation. In this sense, the ‘unpardonable sin’ is also the ‘eternal sin’. In his commentary on this passage in Mark, Robert Guelich writes: ‘One is culpably refusing God’s offer and thus sealing one’s own eternal judgement by committing the sin for which by definition there is no forgiveness’.

Luke places this saying of Jesus in a different context, giving it a slightly different meaning. He does give an account of the charge by the religious leaders that it was through Beelzebub, the prince of demons that Jesus was able to cast out demons (Luke 11:14-26), but this does not provide the context for the statement on the blasphemy of the Spirit. Instead the statement about the sin against the Holy Spirit is sandwiched between Jesus’ warning that whoever disowns him will ‘be disowned before the angels of God’ (12:9) and his assurance that the Spirit will teach his disciples how to reply their inquisitors (12:11). This suggests that the unpardonable sin, for Luke, is the apostasy committed by the persecuted disciple who refuses to receive help from the Spirit.

Put differently, in Matthew and Mark, the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit has to do with confusing God’s work with demonic activity. In Luke, the unpardonable sin is apostasy – the believer’s repudiation of Jesus as Lord.

Some scholars ask if Peter had committed the unpardonable sin in the Lucan sense when he denied the Lord three times before Jesus’ crucifixion. And what about Paul? Was he also guilty of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit in the Matthean-Markan sense when he persecuted Christians and even tried to make them blaspheme (See Acts 26:11)? Evidently not! A distinction must be made between a human failure – as in the case of Peter – and the persistent hardening of oneself against God. Peter repented of his failure, and was forgiven and restored by Jesus. As far as Paul was concerned, scholars believed that he acted out of ignorance and unbelief and therefore received mercy. Paul was receptive to the revelation that he received while travelling to Damascus. But if Paul had rejected that revelation and continued to persecute Christians, he would have been guilty of the ‘eternal sin’.

This means that there is always forgiveness for the repentant sinner, even if he has blasphemed against the Holy Spirit. We have this assurance in 1 John 1:9, which states, quite categorically, that God will always forgive the repentant sinner. But if this is the case, why did Jesus say that ‘anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven’ (Luke 12:10)? It is possible that Jesus was referring to the person who has so hardened himself against God that he is beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness. In other words, the blasphemy against the Spirit is such that one does not repent of it. And because there is no repentance, there can be no forgiveness. This how the sin of blasphemy becomes ‘unpardonable’.


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 Bible Speaks Today, February 2015.

The Success of a Hoax: The Da Vinci Code, Culture and The Church

In many ways The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown which was published in 2003 is an anomaly in recent publishing history. The thriller,   Brown’s   fourth novel, received glowing reviews from leading newspapers and magazines, and held its place on the New York Times best-seller list for a remarkable sixty weeks. A reviewer from the New York Times describes   it   as   ‘a   riddle-filled, code-breaking, exhilaratingly brainy thriller ’, while The Library Journal raved, ‘This masterpiece should   be   mandatory   reading’. The Chicago Tribune said that the book contained ‘several doctorates’ worth of fascinating history and learned speculation’.

So what is The Da Vinci Code? Is it a one-hit wonder?  Is it a fad? Is it a novel? Why should Christians be bothered with it?

On the surface, The Da Vinci Code is, of course, a novel.  It has a story, a plot, and various characters to play out the story. But The Da Vinci Code is more than this. It claims to deconstruct the history of the church and its traditional teachings regarding Christ. By Brown’s own admission, the novel hopes to provide an alternative account of the history of Christianity. ‘Since the beginning’, Brown asserts, ‘history has been written by the “winners” (those societies and belief systems that conquered and survived)’. ‘My sincere   hope’,   he continues,   ‘is that The Da Vinci Code, in addition to entertaining people, will serve as an open door to begin their own explorations’.

Why is The Da Vinci Code so successful? And why is it being taken so seriously by so many readers and by the mainstream media?

On an immediate level, the answer lies in the genre that Brown has chosen to communicate his theories. In his website, Brown admits that the theories that he presents are not new.   What   is novel is that for the first time such theories are expounded in the format of a popular thriller. In his chosen format, Brown could entice the reader until the latter is fully absorbed into the ‘secret’ that he unveils. As one reader puts it, ‘I found myself, unwillingly, leaving the   novel, and time and time again, going online to research Brown’s research – only to find a new world of historic possibilities opening up for me’.

But on a deeper level, the novel panders admirably to the ambiguities and ambivalence of our culture – its suspicion and even deep-seated distrust for institutionalized religions like Christianity on the one hand, and its spiritual restlessness on the other. As Carl Olson and Sandra Miesel put it in their book, The Da Vinci Hoax, ‘The Da Vinci Code is custom-made fiction for our time: pretentious, posturing, self-serving, arrogant, self- congratulatory, condescending, glib, illogical, superficial, and deviant.  It has managed to tap into the deep reservoir of spiritual longing, restlessness, distrust, suspicion, and credulity’.

Philip Jenkins has argued convincingly in similar vein in The New Anti-Catholicism:  The Last Acceptable Prejudice that ‘the main reason for the book’s popularity is deeper, a fundamental suspicion of traditional claims to authority, where they conflict with contemporary ideas and standards, especially over sex and gender. It mainly illustrates a broader suspicion about orthodoxy generally, and the idea that the truth is out there’.

Many decades ago, G. K. Chesterton wrote perceptively that ‘Truth, of course, must of necessity be stranger than fiction, for we have made fiction to suit ourselves’. The Da Vinci Code is able to enjoy such a huge success precisely because ours is a culture that no longer has respect or patience for truth. It is a culture that has sought to blur the boundaries between fiction and reality, myth and truth. In many ways The Da Vinci Code is the ideal postmodern myth, pulp-fiction style. ‘We have made fiction to suit ourselves’.

The success of the book can be further attributed to the fact that many people do not care   that they are historically illiterate. As historian James Hitchcock has put it pointedly,

The Da Vinci Code can be viewed as merely an ephemeral artifact of popular culture, but its immense sales ensure that it will have influence on people who never read serious books. Brown has found a formula for becoming rich: sex, sensationalism, feminism, anti-Catholicism, and the occult. But it is also obvious that he sincerely hates Christianity and sees himself as   engaged in an anti-crusade. The culture is ripe for such a debased book, so that even professing Christians are being seduced by it.

Should Christians take the book seriously? Since the appearance of The Da Vinci Code, a steady stream of reviews, articles, essays and books have been written by Christians to debunk its claims. Seminars, conferences and classes are organised to expose the gross historical inaccuracies of the book and the agenda of its author. Some churches have organised comprehensive projects to educate their congregations and the Christian public.

Not everyone, however, is convinced that such efforts are necessary. Some are of the opinion that Christians have over- reacted, while others feel that the enormous interest in the book is just a harmless fad.

I think Christians should take the book seriously. Imagine if someone were to write a novel that argues that the Holocaust never really happened, and that it was fabricated by a group of powerful Jews, who used the ‘myth’ to attain for they power and fortune. Or imagine a novel that claims that the prophet Mohammed was a violent alcoholic and a homosexual.  Such novels should be rightly condemned, not just by the relevant religious communities but also by a majority of critics and readers. The Da Vinci Code claims that Christianity is fraudulent, that the church is a misogynist, violent institution, and that Jesus was a mere mortal. Christians have every right to respond to such claims.

But there is another reason why Christians should take the book seriously. And that is because the book has caused much confusion even among Christians. One Christian reader wrote, ‘Honestly, [reading the book] shook my whole faith. I realise that the book is fiction, but much of what he wrote about seemed like it was based on historical facts aside from the characters. Since I am not a Christian scholar I don’t even know where to begin to refute such   claims’. The issues raised in the book must be addressed because there are Christians who need guidance and help.

However, it is not enough for the church to organize seminars to address the issues raised by The Da Vinci Code. The success of the book, and the confusion that it has caused among Christians should remind the church of the importance of its teaching ministry. The church neglects this important ministry only at its own peril. In

2004, I published a brief review of The Da Vinci Code in the Methodist Message. I think the words I wrote in the concluding paragraph of the review still ring true and bear repeating as I end this essay:

… the success of the book should  serve  as  a  wake- up call for the Christian church. It should challenge Christians to know their own history and to steep themselves in the apostolic tradition that shapes their faith. It serves as a clarion call for Christians to take theological truth seriously.


Dr Roland Chia


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

Celebrating Easter With J. S. Bach

For more than a decade I have made it a point during the holy week to listen to all of the extant Passions of the brilliant Baroque composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, and also his magnificent Easter Oratorio on Resurrection Sunday. Not only was Bach a musical genius who brought Baroque music to its zenith, he was also an astute theologian, with a profound grasp of the Lutheran tradition to which he belonged. As the composer and musician in the great Church of St Thomas in Leipzig, Bach was not only steeped in the great musical tradition of the Reformation, he also possessed profound knowledge of the writings of the Reformer Martin Luther and the tenets of the Lutheran orthodoxy of his day. His commitment to the Lutheran tradition is further evidenced by his long friendship with his librettist, Erdmann Neumeister, Leipzig’s most eminent defender of orthodoxy and author of 400 books.

Bach’s familiarity with and creative appropriation of Scripture, Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms and the Book of Concord is evident everywhere in the sacred cantatas of the composer. The characteristic JJ (Jesu Juva, ‘Jesus Help’) at the beginning of his scores and SDG (Soli Deo Gloria, ‘To God be the Glory’) at the end indicate the profound piety of the composer. Schönberg is surely right in asserting that J. S. Bach is tied with religion in a way that no other composer was.

Bach wrote at a time when the rationalism of the Enlightenment in Europe was tightening its grip on both university and church in Germany, with the goal of expunging from religion all claims and dogmas that fail the test of reason. For instance, Hermann Samuel Reimarus, a brilliant contemporary of Bach, challenged the traditional interpretation of Christ’s death on the cross by arguing that ‘it was clearly not the intention or the object of Jesus to suffer and to die’. Rather, Jesus’ intention, according to Reimarus, was to build an earthly kingdom and to free his people from the bondage of Roman rule.

When he realized that his bold preaching had offended the authorities and put his life in jeopardy, Jesus began ‘to quiver and to quake’, and tried to hide from sight. When Judas betrayed his hiding place, Jesus, believing that he was a messenger from God, expected God to deliver him from the hands of the authorities. But when deliverance did not occur, the crucified Jesus uttered the bitter and desperate cry recorded in the Gospels, ‘Eli, Eli Lama Sabachthani? My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ Remairus concluded that ‘It was in this that God had forsaken him, it was in this that his hopes had been frustrated’.

It is therefore not surprising that Reimarus would propose a bizarre theory that challenges the traditional understanding of the resurrection of Christ. The disciples, who had attained fame through the ministry of their rabbi, stole the body of the dead Jesus, hid it and then fabricated a tale of the resurrection and the return of Christ.

Against this sinister distortion of the significance of the death and resurrection of Christ, Bach boldly declares that the death of Christ, the Son of God incarnate, is the greatest expression of the love of God. Thus, in the soprano aria in his Matthew’s Passion, ‘In love my Saviour now is dying’, Bach could declare: ‘It is out of love that my Saviour intends to die, / Although of sin and guilt He knows nothing, / So that my soul should not have to bear / Everlasting damnation / And the penalty of divine justice’. Jesus did not recoil when he realised that his ministry had offended the authorities; he did not fear for his life, and tried to escape arrest. Rather Jesus presented himself willingly in obedience to the Father’s will, setting his face towards Jerusalem and Golgotha.

Furthermore, the death of Jesus was not the tragic death of a deluded revolutionary, as Reimarus had argued. Jesus died as one who bore the sins of the world, so that we should not have to bear the ‘everlasting damnation’ and ‘the penalty of divine justice’ that we rightly deserve. Against the revisionist approach of his contemporaries like Reimarus, Bach unwaveringly presented the atonement as satisfaction, thereby aligning himself with the Reformers and the eleventh century theologian, Anselm. As Jaroslav Pelikan has rightly observed, ‘the Anselmian doctrine of redemption as satisfaction rendered through the blood of Christ is a crimson thread that runs through Bach’s Passion According to Saint Matthew from beginning to end’.

Just as Bach would reach back to the Reformers (especially Luther) and to the medieval theologian, Anselm in his Passion According to Saint Matthew, so he would appeal to the Greek Fathers, chiefly Gregory of Nyssa in his Saint John Passion, which celebrates the great theme of Christus Victor. Bach’s Saint John Passion is infused with this theme, from the choral shouts proclaiming Jesus as ‘Herr’ (‘Lord’) to the transformation of the sixteenth-note figures of the strings to a crescendo, a grand, rising sequence. In the ‘deepest lowliness’ of the incarnation and the cross the lordship, power and glory of the Son of God is made manifest.

Through the cross and resurrection, the incarnate God confronts and defeats his enemies. Musically, Bach uses the turba choruses (i.e., choral pieces that contain the words spoken by the characters in the story) to emphasise the role of Christ’s enemies. These choruses, to use the description of Karl Geiringer, were used with good effect because of their ‘strongly wild, passionate, and disturbing character’. The cross and resurrection signals God’s triumph over the forces of evil, the defeat of the ‘prince of this world’ (John 16:11) and the ‘god of this world’ (2 Cor 4:4). Like Luther, Bach took the devil very seriously, and would not acquiesce to the demythologized and abstract accounts of evil that is often presented by the rationalists of the Enlightenment.

The definitive victory of God over the forces of evil is emphasized in the words of Jesus, ‘It is finished’, which Bach skilfully sets to a descending line to depict the expiration of the dying Jesus. Even in the midst of presenting the final and definitive victory of God, Bach would not casually and hurriedly bypass the death of Christ. Thus Bach invites us to take time to contemplate fully the ‘bad’ on this Friday that we call ‘good’. The death of Christ is real, and the sorrowful, meditative aria follows appropriately his last words. But this aria is not simply the celebration of the death of a hero. If it were only that, then Reimarus could surely also sing its words with conviction. For Bach, this is the death of the Hero, the Lion of the tribe of Judah.

Thus, the significance of Jesus’ declaration ‘It is finished’ could only be properly understood in the way Luther explicates it: ‘God’s Lamb has been slaughtered and offered for the world’s sin. The real High Priest has completed the sacrifice. God’s Son has given and sacrificed His body and life as the ransom for sin. Sin is cancelled, God’s wrath assuaged, death conquered, the kingdom of heaven purchased, and heaven is unbarred’. That is why in the second part of the aria, a shout of triumph bursts forth as the B minor adagio turns to a D major allegro and the full orchestra now accompanies the alto soloist as she sings: ‘The hero of Judah triumphs with power / and closes the battle’. The death of Christ has conquered death itself, and the resurrection marks the victory of God, the dawn of a new age.

But it is Bach’s magnificent Easter Oratorio that best captures the victory and joy of the resurrection of Christ. Bach composed music to the lyrics of the famous librettist, Picander, whose poetic paraphrasing follows closely the account of the resurrection in Mark 16:1-8. Beginning with the instrumental overture which can be divided into two parts – the joy of the resurrection and its melancholy aftermath – Bach masterfully shapes the attitude with which the believer must embrace this glorious truth. After the sinfonia and duet, Bach has Mary Magdalene utter these words in the alto recitative, ‘O cold mind of men! / Where has the love gone, / Which you owe to the Saviour?’ as if directing them to the sceptical rationalists of his day.

It is in the bass recitative towards the end of the Oratorio that Bach unequivocally declares the orthodox faith in the resurrection of Christ through the lips of the evangelist John: ‘We are glad, / That our Jesus lives again, / And our heart, / Just now melted and wavering in sadness, / Forgets its pain / And thinks about songs of joy; / For our Saviour lives again’. The theme of Christus Victor is once again emphasized in the tutti final chorus, which declares that ‘Hell and the devil are overcome; / Their gates are destroyed. / Rejoice, ye redeemed tongues, / So that it is heard in heaven.’

Bach’s Easter Oratorio depicts two responses to the great truth of the resurrection of Christ. There is the exuberant burst of rhythmic energy and the glorious sounds of trumpets which shout ‘hallelujahs’. But Bach knows that there is more than one way to say ‘hallelujah’, and so the Oratorio also invites a more contemplative response as the believer steps back as it were and reflects in overwhelmed amazement at this miracle of miracles. Bach shows that both the flourishes of trumpets and tympani and the somber sinfonia in E minor are appropriate responses to the glorious resurrection of Christ!

  1. S. Bach has through the years taught me many things about what it means to be a Christian and a theologian. He has taught me to be courageous in the face of the shifting sands of culture and the pervasiveness of secularism and scepticism. The truth of the Gospel does not require our defence; it is well capable of standing on its own, and the chief responsibility of the Christian is to bear witness to it with integrity – to tell it as it is. Beneath the architectonic brilliance and complexity of Bach’s music is the unflagging desire of the composer to simply tell it as it is. Bach strenuously resisted the effort of the Enlightenment to tear the two asunder, to sever theology from spirituality.

Bach, more than any other composer, has taught me the relationship between worship and theology, between what the Orthodox theologians have termed as the lex orandi (the law of prayer) and the lex credendi (the law of belief). Bach strenuously resisted the effort of the Enlightenment to tear the two asunder, to sever theology from spirituality. For the Thomaskantor, liturgy and theology are of a piece. And nowhere is this demonstrated more clearly and powerfully than in his Passions and sacred cantatas which resist the tendency found in Reimarus and others to distinguish the ‘historical Jesus’ from the ‘Christ of Faith’. These lessons are still pertinent for the church today, four centuries removed from that in which the Baroque composer lived and wrote.

May we in this postmodern climate of relativism and despair learn from Bach to tell it as it is – to proclaim humbly and courageously the Gospel of the resurrected Christ, in all its profundity, mystery and wonder!


Dr Roland Chia


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

The Postmodern Turn

May 2015 Pulse

‘Postmodern’ is a word that seems to appear very frequently in both print and conversation these days. This dreadful coinage can be traced to the 1930s, but it was probably not until the 1970s that it began to receive wide and serious attention in academia and popular culture.

Postmodernism is a complex idea because it refers not only to cultural sensibilities but also to the way we have come to look at reality itself. It points to a sentiment as well as to a philosophy. Postmodernism in fact signifies a monumental shift in outlook that has affected every aspect of contemporary culture, including science and the arts.

In addition, the prefix does not indicate a peaceful and quiet departure from modernity. Rather it is iconoclastic: it points to the radical demolition and rubbishing of everything that modernity purports to cherish. As David Harvey puts it, postmodernism represents ‘for the most part … a wilful and rather chaotic movement to overcome all the supposed ills of modernism’.

However, this view of postmodernism – as a virulent crusader against modernism – sometimes obscures the fact that despite its loud protestations the former is in some profound ways parasitic to the latter. As Ihab Hassan has so perceptively pointed out in The Dismemberment of Orpheus, ‘The postmodern spirit lies coiled within the great corpus of modernism … It is not really a matter of chronology: Sade, Jarry, Breton, Kafka acknowledge that spirit’.

Christian theologians have in some measure welcomed the postmodern critique of what may be broadly described as the ‘Enlightenment Project’. For example, theologians concur with postmodernism’s rejection of the reductive rationalism of the Enlightenment that has excluded important human experiences such as religion. In similar vein, theologians have also endorsed postmodernism’s critique of scientism, the exaggerated estimate of the competence of science that is so pervasive in western cultures.

These important agreements notwithstanding, there is also much in postmodernism that Christians must not only criticise but also roundly reject.

According to Jean-François Lyotard of the Institute Polytechnique de Philosophie of the Universite de Paris in Vicennes, France, postmodernism can be chiefly characterised as the incredulity toward metanarratives. By metanarratives, Lyotard refers to ‘any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse of this kind making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectic of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working spirit, or the creation of wealth’.

In rejecting metanarratives, postmodern thinkers insist that no single worldview, ideology or vision of reality can claim universal assent. We find in postmodernism a kind of naïve egalitarianism, a ‘democratisation’ of worldviews that prohibits the privileging of one over the other.

According to postmodernism, Christians cannot insist on the universal significance of the Gospel because the narrative of the salvation of fallen humanity in Jesus Christ must be seen as just one religious account of reality among many others.

Closely related to the rejection of metanarratives is the postmodern aversion to the notion of objective truth. Just as there is no grand scheme within which reality must be understood, so there is also no objective truth, no truth-claim that can command universal allegiance.

Truth is relativised and inextricably tied to communities, ethnic groups, and other contingent factors. There is no such thing as Truth, only truths. There is no absolute dogma, but only a plurality of disparate, incommensurable and conflicting truth-claims.

Postmodern relativism extends beyond philosophy and epistemology to include morality as well. Walter Stace defines moral relativism thus: ‘Any ethical position which denies that there is a single moral standard which is applicable to all men at all times may be called a species of ethical relativism. There is not, the relativist asserts, merely one moral law, one code, one standard’. Underscoring the implications of this, Richard Brandt describes the moral relativist as someone for whom conflicting ethical opinions are all valid.

The postmodern rejection of objective truth also has implications in hermeneutics, the theory of interpretation. According to some postmodern philosophers, there is no inherent meaning in a text. Others would argue that even if there is one it cannot be gleaned by the reader, especially one that is historically removed from the text. Consequently, meaning is not supplied by the text but by its reader whose reading of the text is profoundly influenced by his own historical and cultural locations and existential questions from which he cannot extricate himself.

All this has profound implications for the Christian church – its gospel, Scriptures and doctrine.

Needless to say, Christians could neither affirm the postmodern rejection of objective truth nor its moral relativism. The Christian doctrine of revelation asserts that the Church’s truth-claims concerning God is objectively grounded in the divine self-disclosure. And while Christians concur that certain metanarratives like that of hegemonic secularism stemming from Enlightenment rationalism must be challenged, God’s plan for the world as disclosed in Scripture cannot be subjected to postmodern incredulity.


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.