Saturday, December 26, 2015

Grace, mercy, revolution, romance, ....

Thanks to a generous Christmas gift from my mother-in-law I went with my wife and daughter to a splendid live production of the musical Les Miserables.



The sets for this production were absolutely stunning.
Previously, I have written about some of the reasons why I like the musical so much.
 It manages to consider a compelling and coherent story while engaging with a smorgasbord of themes: law versus grace, personal identity, poverty, humour, prostitution, exploitation, justice, romance, youthful idealism and naivety, sacrificial service, power, heavenly hope, the promise of political revolution, violence,  ....

The overall theme is that of Valjean's redemption, following the mercy he receives at the beginning from a priest who he stole from. The priest who says (sings)
May God's blessing go with you.  
And remember this, my brother See in this some higher plan 
You must use this precious silver To become an honest man 
By the witness of the martyrs 
By the Passion and the Blood God has raised you out of darkness 
I have bought your soul for God! 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Some implications of Emmanuel

One puzzling and stunning concept that is central to Christmas is that of the incarnation (God becoming human). Emmanuel is "God is with us". In Jesus God identifies with our humanity, our hopes and joys, our struggles and suffering, our sin and brokenness, our frailty, ...

What does this mean for living as a follower of Jesus? It means we must identify with others in all their complexity, diversity, brokenness, and need.

I find particularly challenging the example of Servants to Asia's Urban Poor. The first of their 5 ministry principles is Incarnation.
We intentionally live with the urban poor, learning from them, building genuine relationships, participating in their lives and struggles, learning their language and their culture, and working out how Jesus’ love can best be shown in their context.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Whole confusion about cosmic evolution

Recently I was asked to comment on the book, “The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution, and the Power of Love” by Ilia Delio. Here are my thoughts.

I am in sympathy with some of the values and aspirations of the book. I certainly think theology cannot be completely divorced from science, grand narratives are important and inspiring, holistic [rather than reductionist] perspectives can be valuable, community rather than individualism, love trumps all, … However, I have severe reservations on how Ilia Delio tries to justify these perspectives.

Science has such a powerful influence and credibility in our culture that there is pressure for people to claim that their theological and/or political views have a scientific basis. Marx claimed evolution supported communism. Andrew Carnegie claimed evolution supported capitalism. Richard Dawkins claims evolution supports atheism. Some theologians claim evolution supports theism. They can’t all be correct. This problem arises because the philosophical interpretation of any scientific knowledge is debatable. Science is science and philosophy is philosophy.

Most of Ilia Delio’s discussion of science seems to be based on popular books. Unfortunately, most such books oversimplify the actual science and present it with a philosophical baggage and breath-taking implications that many actual scientific practitioners would balk at. For example, Fritjof Capra stopped doing physics more than 30 years ago. He wrote a best seller the “Tao of Physics” that claimed quantum theory supported Eastern religions. A critique is hereDavid Bohm was a very distinguished theoretical physicist, but from the 1960s he pursued speculative ideas such as “implicate order” that are not really taken seriously in academic physics.

Much is made in the book of “quantum entanglement” to justify that we are all interconnected. In the lab one can now create a unique situation where the quantum state of a few atoms are entangled. However, in normal and natural systems atoms are not entangled. The individual atoms and molecules in the cells in your body are not entangled. Furthermore, my wife and I are not entangled! Thus, I find the discussion on pages 24-29 debatable and problematic.

It should be stressed that the term “evolution” used here is not the well-established scientific theory that describes and explains biological change and diversity. This is made clear on the top of page 19. Rather “evolution” is some universal principle that applies to everything! This is just a philosophical claim that has no more scientific basis than my claim that the Biblical narrative provides the grand narrative which makes sense of everything [without scientific details].  Similarly, the Omega point, advocated by Teilhard de Chardin, and described on page 20, is just a philosophical speculation for which there is no scientific evidence.

Overall, though what is most disappointing to me is the lack of confidence in the Biblical narrative to provide the grand story. The standard view of liberal theology is that science has undermined the authority and reliability of the Bible and so we have to look elsewhere and particularly to science for inspiration and guidance. I know there are many subtle issues and people certainly need to give up on simplistic readings of the text; e.g, that Genesis 1-3 is historical/scientific record. However, once you read it theologically, paying due attention to literary genre and historical context, I think the main “conflict” issues are taken care of.

I don’t think we need “evolution” to make sense of the Christian life. Orthodox theology [whether Augustine, Calvin, Barth, St. Francis, ….] does for me. Importing “scientific” categories and concepts may just confuse the issues.

Again I stress I think we do need a more holistic perspective on everything, whether church, politics, the environment, and society. We are all inter-connected. But, I think Scripture has that message too, once we stop reading it through individualistic Western glasses. In case you are interested in my own modest efforts to engage “emergence” with orthodox theology I refer to a paper I wrote on the subject. It may also help see why I think that individual disciplines are actually more or less autonomous. Specifically, quantum physics is not particularly relevant to biology which is not particularly relevant to sociology.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A monument to the brutality and arrogance of colonialism


On a recent visit to Kolkata an Indian friend took my wife and I to the Victoria Memorial Hall.
The architecture and the historical displays are impressive.
But I found the whole experience very disturbing. The opulent grandeur of a memorial to a British monarch [the Empress of India] who represented the ruthless colonial rule and exploitation of a very poor nation was disturbing.

The central hall contains copies of the Queen's 1858 decree that took over the rule of India from the British East India company. It included the following text:
We shall respect the rights, dignity, and honor of Native Princes as Our own ; and we desire that they—as well as our own subjects—should enjoy prosperity, and that social advancement, which can only be secured by internal peace and good government. We hold ourselves bound to the Natives of Our Indian territories by the same obligations of duty, which bind us to all Our other subjects, and those obligations by the Blessing of God, we shall faithfully and conscientiously fulfill….. ……And it is our further will that, so far as may be, our subjects, of whatever race or creed, be freely and impartially admitted to offices in our service, the duties of which they may be qualified, by their education, ability, and integrity, duly to discharge….
This apparent concern for the well being of the "natives" is a far cry from what unfolded over the next 90 years.

Monday, December 21, 2015

A book that has had a big influence on me

A few years ago I bought a copy of the daily devotional book Resist the Powers with Jacques Ellul by Charles Ringma. For each day there is a short Bible passage and a reflection containing a quote from Jacques Ellul.

Every few days I read a page. Of anything I have read over the past few years I think this book has had the biggest influence. It really does present a radical view of what it means to follow Jesus and what the nature of the Kingdom of God is. Ellul was certainly a creative and radical thinker.

The book was my first introduction to Charles Ringma and I was delighted when a few years ago I got to meet him in person and be part of a theology book reading group that he leads.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Research metrics, university rankings, and the demise of scholarly virtues

In the past two decades universities have been swept off their feet by global rankings and metrics for measuring the performance of individual staff and of departments. Commonly used metrics include the h-index to measure an individuals academic impact based on citations to journal articles and total research income. Journal impact factors are used to rank not just journals but also the value of individual academic papers. One Australian university has an “index”, a single number, which is meant to measure of the performance and contributions of an individual faculty member.

The widespread use of these metrics has been criticised because of the flawed methodology involved, the negative impact they have on staff morale, and the diminished quality of research as people “game the system” to boost their metrics. Yet, there are broader and more profound issues at stake. Single numbers cannot capture qualitative features and human virtues such as curiosity, creativity, integrity, perseverance, awe, humility, and wonder. Yet it is such virtues, and their deep theological roots, that drove not just the beginning of science and of universities but has also sustained and motivated many researchers even up until today.

On my science blog I have described the transition in university values from scholarship to money to status. On this blog I wrote about how my Christian values shape my view of the university.

There is a need for discussions about a grander vision of the purpose of education and research, the role of virtues in scholarship, and the meaning of personhood and community. Christian theology provides a distinct perspective on these issues. I am looking forward to reading work by Mike Higton on this issue, including an article Wisdom and Delight in the University, and a book, A Theology of Higher Education.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

In what countries do most deaths by terrorism occur?

Since 9/11 in New York, 99 out of 100 deaths by terrorism occurred in the Majority World.
Less than 1 in 100 occur in the Western world.
More than 150,000 people have died.


Monday, November 23, 2015

Religion is confusing

My wife and I enjoyed watching the movie PK. It highlights the complexity of religion, particularly in India. It illustrates how religion can be hypocritical and divisive, particularly when mixed with money and power. I particularly liked this scene in a church.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Social and economic inequality undermines democracy

B.R. Ambedkar was largely responsible for writing the Constitution of India. He gave the following sober warning which seems even more relevant today, particularly in Western democracies.
“On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value.  
How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up.” 
I first encountered this quotation on a large poster placed on a building wall at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Science and the Bible talks

I recently gave two introductory talks.
Science and the Bible
The Bible and the origins of modern science

I thank the friends who suggested I should simplify these talks and make them more accessible to people without science backgrounds.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Christians should be downwardly mobile

"The compassionate life is the life of downward mobility! In a society in which upward mobility is the norm, downward mobility is not only discouraged but even considered unwise, unhealthy, or downright stupid. Who will freely choose a low-paying job when a high-paying job is being offered? Who will choose poverty when wealth is within reach? Who will choose the hidden place when there is a place in the limelight? Who will choose to be with one person in great need when many people could be helped during the same time? Who will choose to withdraw to a place of solitude and prayer when there are so many urgent demands from all sides? 
My whole life I have been surrounded by well-meaning encouragement to go 'higher up,' and the most-used argument was : 'You can do so much good there, for so many people.' But these voices calling me to upward mobility are completely absent from the Gospel. Jesus says: 'Anyone who loves his life loses it; anyone who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life (John 12:25). He also says: 'Unless you become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3). Finally he says: "You know that among the gentiles the rulers lord it over them, and great men make their authority felt; among you this is not to happen. No; anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be your slave, just as the Son of Man came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28). 
This is the way of downward mobility, the descending way of Jesus. It is the way toward the poor, the suffering, the marginal, the prisoners, the refugees, the lonely, the hungry, the dying, the tortured, the homeless--toward all who ask for compassion. What do they have to offer? Not success, popularity, or power, but the joy and peace of the children of God."
Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, pp. 138-139

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Mental health issues in India

Tomorrow morning I am speaking at the SAIACS chapel service for faculty and students. The text is Psalm 40. I will then tell my own story of struggling with mental health issues. The slides for the rest of the talk are here.

Since arriving here I have come across the following recent articles about mental health in India.

A World Health Organization article states there are just 3 psychiatrists per one million people and 43 government funded mental health hospitals in the whole country.

In Karnataka state, which includes Bangalore, the government's mental health program is not receiving promised funds and suffers from a severe lack of doctors.

Famous Bollywood actress Deepika has founded an NGO Live Laugh Love Foundation to highlight issues of depression.

Update (September, 2016):
Plight Of India’s Mental Health: Nearly 60 Million Indians Suffer From Mental Disorders

The funniest thing I have read this year

I am currently in Bangalore and the city is well known for over-crowded roads full of potholes. I thought this article, 29,210 reasons to sympathise with the minister was very creative and humorous. It appeared in The Hindu newspaper.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Excellent lecture on the Christian origins of modern science

This lecture by my UQ colleague, historian Professor Peter Harrison, makes compelling arguments concerning how Protestant theology played a key role in the development of science in the 17th century. I borrowed extensively from this lecture in my own lecture on the subject last week at SAIACS.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Talks in Bangalore

Last tuesday night I spoke at the Bible Study Fellowship, a group of mostly graduate students, at the Indian Institute of Science. The interactive talk, The Mystery of the Providence of God, was based on Job 38, and similar to this one.

Tomorrow I am giving a sermon on Psalm 19, at Radiant Life Church. The slides are here.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Apologetics lectures at SAIACS

I am giving a series of lectures on Christian apologetics at SAIACS in Bangalore.
My co-lecturer is Varughese John.

Here are the slides for my first few lectures.

1. Introduction and overview of the 4 dominant forms of Western apologetics.

2. Classical apologetics (Arguments for the existence of God)

3. Reformed Epistemology (Plantinga)

4. Presuppositional apologetics (Cornelius van Til, Francis Schaefer)

5. Experientialism (Kierkegaard)

6. Dialogical apologetics (Clark, McGrath)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Joy of Science

Tonight I am giving a short talk "The Joy of Science: How it leads me to worship God" at a worship service at Emmanuel College organised by Christian students from residential colleges at the University of Queensland. Here are the slides.


Monday, August 31, 2015

Empathy for the voiceless

Not being able to communicate with others can be a frustrating and humiliating experience. This is particularly so if you are a "successful" individual who is normally "in control" of your circumstances.

I recommend the movie English Vinglish. It nicely captures the practical and emotional struggle of an  Indian mother and house wife from an upper middle class family who does not know English. When she travels to the USA for the wedding of her niece she has several humiliating experiences. These were so realistic and moving that I found watching that part of the movie painful. But it does create empathy.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

You cannot love God and money

At the theology reading group on monday we will discuss The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World by Daniel Bell.

Paul Tyson [who is in the group] has a brief and helpful summary of the book here. Another summary is here.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it. Bell begins by discussing how capitalism is not just an economic system but has come to be totalising force controlling all of life and society. Furthermore, he draws on the highly influential French postmodern [also Marxist and atheist] philosophers Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze to develop the idea that the real defining feature of capitalism is desire: creating it, developing it, marketing it, ...
Although I thought these chapters were original and stimulating I thought they were too long and drawn out and I am not convinced that one really need to go to high-profile French postmodern philosophers to get this insight.

There is a detailed critique of positive theology of capitalism promoted by Michael Novak and others: they have the strange idea that somehow the Kingdom of God is to equated with doing business and making money. The hermeneutical gymnastics and distorted theology are a bit like that associated with American exceptionalism. I felt this was a bit of a "straw man" to knock down.

Possibly the best part of the book is the exposition of Kingdom values that go against the grain of a culture saturated by capitalism: generosity, service, mercy, community over individualism, ...
The church is to be “an economy of desire—an ensemble of disciplines and practices that (re)shapes desire to flow in particular ways.” The church is to embody  “the divine gift economy,” flowing from  “God’s ceaseless generosity, of God’s graceful prodigality.”

The conclusion is particularly strong and challenging engaging with the parable of the dishonest manager in Luke 16. The punchline is "you cannot serve God and money."

Thursday, August 20, 2015

What is so amazing about science? What is so amazing about Jesus?

Here are the slides for the talk I am giving tomorrow at Jesus Week, organised by a student Christian group.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

I will not apologise!

"I was wrong. I am sorry."
These are six words that are very hard to say.
I struggle to say them. Individuals struggle to say them. Institutions struggle to say them. Countries struggle to say them.
Yet newspapers are full of articles about people asking for apologies and others refusing to give them.

Recently at the Oxford Union there was a debate about whether Britain does owe reparations for colonial rule.
The video below is a powerful speech by Shashi Tharoor in support of an apology.



It is interesting to contrast this reluctance to apologise to the amazing actions of Zacchaeus, inspired by Jesus, who offered four-fold reparations.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The disappointments of post-colonialism

My wife and I enjoyed watching the movie Midnight's Children, which is an adaptation of the novel of the same name written by Salman Rushdie. The story centres around two boys, both born at midnight, exactly when India obtains its independence from British colonial rule. One is rich and one poor and they are swapped at birth in the hospital, leading to very different lives. They grow to adulthood against the backdrop of major historical events: partition of India and Pakistan, military rule in Pakistan, the Pakistani civil war leading to formation of Bangladesh, the "emergency" of Indira Gandhi, and the clearing of a slum.

I think the movie is difficult to follow, particularly if you don't know much Indian history or you don't see the deep parallels being alluded to between the individual lives and the post-colonial political history. Both show lost potential, confused identities, conflicts, and geographic movements.

Seeing the movie does motivate me to read the book.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

An amazing story about Jesus

Next week I am giving a talk, "What is so amazing about science? What is so amazing about Jesus?", as part of Jesus Week organised by a student Christian group at the University of Queensland.
In the first half of the talk I will cover some of the material in a talk, "Why is science so awesome?" that I gave earlier this year at Theology on Tap. It highlights how the success of science raises questions that science cannot answer. We have to look elsewhere for answers for questions about meaning and purpose. I find that Jesus answers those questions.

I will then look at just one story about Jesus that I think is amazing: his encounter with a rich man, recounted in Luke 19.

[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner. And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

What is so amazing?

Jesus seeks everyone and can save anyone. It does not matter what your background and personal history. race, gender, wealth, education, social status, .....
Zacchaeus would have been despised as a collaborator of the Roman rulers and an exploiter of people, extracting as much money as he could. The crowd was right. He was a sinner. Yet that did not matter to Jesus.
On the other hand, Zacchaeus humbled himself in order to seek out Jesus. Today you rarely see rich and powerful people running through the streets, climbing trees, making public apologies seeking restitution, and giving away half their money. This reflects Jesus charisma. He inspires people to totally change and do radical things. Jesus still does that today.

The story can be contrasted to that in Luke 18:18-30 concerning the rich young ruler who would not give up his wealth to follow Jesus. Jesus said,
“How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 

Here we see it can happen.

Who am I in the story? Zacchaeus or a member of the crowd? or both?

Jesus seeks, saves, and sanctifies (transforms).

Friday, July 24, 2015

Environmental conservation and poverty alleviation are intertwined

 I found this video quite inspiring. I thank Ross van Vuuren for bringing it to my attention.



Wildlife conservation benefiting Kenya’s coastal poor from A Rocha International on Vimeo.
Low-income communities are dependent on a healthy environment for their most basic needs such as clean water, food, fuel and medicine. This video shows how families in one of the poorest communities in Kenya, who were over-exploiting their natural resources, are changing their practices and caring for their forests. Why? Because of ASSETS, an eco-bursary scheme which has enabled over 500 students to attend secondary school and involves them and their parents in environmental education. Colin Jackson, Conservation and Science Director of A Rocha Kenya, explains the origins and aims of ASSETS and its significance for some of the most wildlife-rich sites in all Africa.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

War, computers, history and hollywood

It is pretty rare that you have a Hollywood movie with a mathematician as the central character!
My son and I watched The Imitation Game. It is loosely based on the life of the mathematician Alan Turing and his involvement with cracking the German Enigma code in World War II. It is entertaining and engaging and highlights how poorly Turing was treated by the government.

Like most Hollywood movies "based on a true story" it is not historically accurate. Peter Woit is particularly critical because it has a simplistic representation of how the code was cracked. He suggests if you really want to know about Turing you should read the biography that inspired the movie. Previously, I posted about  Elizabeth: the Golden Age and its historical inaccuracies. The perspective of Cate Blanchett was:
"It's terrifying that we are growing up with this very illiterate bunch of children, who are somehow being taught that film is fact, when in fact it's invention. Hopefully though an historical film will inspire people to go and read about the history. But in the end it is a work of history and selection."

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Can one separate the sacred and the secular?

Or how does one distinguish the sacred and the secular?
How does one redeem society? Should Christians even bother?
Should Christians even make a distinction?

In the book, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview by Albert Wolters
there are two helpful contrasting diagrams that illuminate these issues.
The versions below are taken from here.



The point here is that one should not make a sacred/secular distinction. Rather, a more helpful and appropriate category is whether things are done in harmony or conflict with good God's design, expressed in unfallen creation. The key question is then whether in a particular time, place, and context a specific thing [whether the church or sport] is being done in accord with God's good design.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Answering questions about Science and Christianity

Today I gave an informal talk about Science and Christianity with an extended question and answer session for the Stanford InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship group. Here are the slides, including many "backup" slides I did not use, but thought might be helpful for questions.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

What you say and what people hear may not be the same thing

One needs to be careful when speaking about controversial and sensitive issues, particularly in public.
Don’t assume that the hearers will receive your intended message.

Why?
Sometimes we are lazy listeners. We hear and interpret the message with respect to our own background, prejudices, and experience.
Sometimes we struggle to separate the message from the messenger.

Choose your words carefully. They sometimes mean different things to different people.
Creation, multiculturalism, evolution, liberal, fundamentalist, submission, modernism, literal, dogma…
Furthermore, I am not just talking about some narrow technical meaning, but rather positive or negative associations, depending on the audience.

Consider your social identity. It may colour whether your message can be received or considered credible.
For example, a university president has a salary of $1 million, yet tells students that due to financial pressures the university will no longer open the library on saturdays.
A white American pastor of an upper middle class congregration argues that Christians should not be concerned with poverty alleviation.

Whites making pronouncements about racism.
Men making pronouncements about sexual discrimination and harassment.
I am not saying it should not be done.
Just considerable caution, sensitivity, and realistic expectations are necessary.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

How might I move towards a Christian perspective on my academic discipline?

I am giving at talk/workshop with this title on saturday as part of the Write workshop for Christian academics, sponsored by the Centre for the Study of Science, Religion, and Society at Emmanuel College and the Simeon Network.

This will be a workshop in which participants will be encouraged to complete a questionaire to help them think about how they might work towards a Christian perspective on their own academic discipline. First, the assumptions, key concepts, dreams, successes, and failures of the discipline will be considered. Then, the issue of historical, sociological, and economic perspectives will be raised. A theological perspective might be developed using the key concepts of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation. Finally, a key question is, "How as a Christian should I practise the discipline?"

Here is the current version of the slides.

I welcome comments and suggestions.

Next week I will be giving a similar talk/workshop for the InterVarsity Graduate Christian group at Stanford.

Monday, July 6, 2015

A radical orthodox perspective on the life sciences

There is a challenging essay.
Love Your Enemies: Life Sciences in the Ecclesial-Based University by M. Therese Lysaught
Here are few extracts.
Genetics [and] .... the life sciences, ... are embedded within a context of violence. Political and military metaphors shape contemporary discourse about biomedicine and biotechnology. For many, and certainly for the media, clinical medicine through the auspices of biotechnology is engaged in a war against disease, disability, suffering, and death? Drawing on the history of the field of genetics and the Human Genome Project, as well as on the rhetoric surrounding medicine and biotechnology more generally, I will first seek to show how the current practice of the life sciences cannot help but to entangle us with war and the violence of the liberal democratic state. 
Moreover, the violence allied with science signals its underlying cause: a religious commitment to science as salvific: For Christians and institutions who are committed to nonviolence as a central component of discipleship and who locate salvation not in the hands of the scientific community but in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, these twin facets of contemporary science cannot but give pause. How then do we situate the life sciences in the ecclesially based university such that the disciplining that is part of their practice is consistent with our call to witness the Good News through lives of peaceableness? The beginning of the answer to this question lies, I will argue, in Christian attitudes toward death,...
The cartoon above is discussed at the beginning of the article. It was from a news article in Nature in 1989, featuring James Watson, then director of the Human Genome Project, wrapping himself in the American flag [where the stripes are now genetic strips], in order to persuade the US government it was in their national interest to fund the project.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Cricket, colonialism, and tax relief

My family enjoyed watching the movie Laagan; it is a feel good somewhat humorous Bollywood sports epic. It tells a fictional story of how in the late 1890s a group of Indian villagers are challenged by the local British colonialists to a game of cricket in order to decide whether they will have to pay triple or no land tax. It highlights the brutality, injustice, and greed of British colonial rule. There are also positive messages about community, caste, disability, and anger management.

 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

No academic discipline is free of contexts, values, and faith

In 10 days I am giving a talk/workshop to a group of Christian academics on "How might I move towards a Christian perspective on my academic discipline?"

Some might consider this a non-starter to begin with. Shouldn't academic disciplines, whether physics or economics or literature, be "objective", "rational", "neutral", "secular", "value free", and not involve "faith"?
Isn't E=mc^2 an absolute truth?
Yes. But, there is a lot more to physics; particularly, when you look at current research.
Furthermore, what is the manner in which the discipline is conducted?

Claims of complete neutrality and objectivity in any human endeavour, whether journalism or science, are naive.
All research is done by humans; fallible people who are prone to biases and mishaps.

Every discipline has a context: historical, social, political, economic, and religious. This context does shape assumptions, motivations, questions asked, funding, practises, ....

In Whose Justice? Whose Rationality?, the distinguished philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre [according to Wikipedia]
``defends three ... theses: first, that all rational human inquiry is conducted whether knowingly or not from within a tradition; second, that the incommensurable conceptual schemes of rival traditions do not entail either relativism or perspectivism; third, that although the arguments of the book are themselves attempts at universally valid insights they are nevertheless given from within a particular tradition (that of Thomist Aristotelianism) and that this need not imply any philosophical inconsistency.''
Previously I posted how science involves faith and so the notion of "science versus faith" is a false dichotomy.

So, an important question is, "What are the presuppositions of a specific academic discipline?"

Monday, June 22, 2015

Are you in the top 1 per cent?

The Occupy Wall Street movement promoted the slogan "We are the 99%" to highlight economic, political, and social inequality in the USA.

It is interesting to consider what it takes to be in the top 1% or 10% globally.

According to The Economist 
Wealth is so unevenly distributed, that you need just $3,650 (less debts) to count yourself among the richest half of the world’s population. A mere $77,000 brings you among the wealthiest 10%. And just $798,000 puts you into the ranks of the 1%—within the reach of many white-collar urban professionals in the West. Hence, more than 35m people carry such a plump purse. Among the three billion adults at the bottom with less than $10,000 in wealth, 90% reside in developing countries. Yet 15% of millionaires live in developing countries too.
Note that this wealth is not necessarily cash in a bank account but includes home equity and investments in superannuation (retirement) funds.



I recently encountered this video when it was shown by Cathy Delaney during a talk she gave at Theology on Tap.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Publishers love The not A

In 1954 Bernard Ramm published "The Christian View of Science and Scripture". This became a highly influential book, both for good and ill. It liberated a generation of evangelicals who liked science. It also stimulated a significant pushback from ultra-conservative Americans, ultimately bolstering the growth of Young Earth Creationism. 

What about the title? It is interesting to hear what Ramm said in an interview in 1979:
The original [title] was 'The Evangelical Faith and Modern Science' but the publishers wanted a title similar to Professor Orr's book of a previous generation, The Christian View of God and the World. One day I walked through library stacks looking at titles and it's embarrassing how many books start out with the word The. Eventually I found out that many titles of books are determined by the publicity or sales department of a publishing house.
What is my point?
I think on many complex issues such as science, politics, and economics, it is hard to come up with a definitive and singular Christian view.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Conflating science, atheism, and political liberalism

There is an excellent long article in The Guardian, What scares the new atheists, by the atheist philosopher, John Gray. The main point of the article is the following.
"For 21st century atheist missionaries, being liberal and scientific in outlook are one and the same.It’s a reassuringly simple equation. In fact there are no reliable connections – whether in logic or history – between atheism, science and liberal values."
Science produces reliable knowledge. It brings credibility. We would all like our religious (or non-religious) views and political views to be "scientific". This has been the claim and dream of many since the beginnings of science. However, as Gray nicely argues using significant historical examples, science can't be used to justify atheism or any particular political system.

Monday, June 1, 2015

By their fruits you shall know them

What is the distinct about the graduates of Christian colleges and universities in the USA?
Here is the assessment of a Professor at one such institution.
"In too many cases, a Christian perspective doesn't seem to challenge the very configuration of these careers and vocations. To be blunt, our Christian colleges and universities generate an army of alumni who look pretty much like all the rest of their suburban neighbors, except that our graduates drive SUVs, inhabit their executive homes, and pursue the frenetic life of the middle class and the corporate ladder 'from a Christian perspective'…Such an approach reduces Christianity to a denuded intellectual framework that has diminished bite because such an intellectualized rendition of the faith doesn't touch our core passions." (p. 219)
James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom 

Sunday, May 31, 2015

I did not find this movie funny

Normally I only blog about movies I like and would recommend. Most of the movies I watch I do like because they have been well researched beforehand, usually by my son. Occasionally, I pick a dud. A few years ago I went through a bad patch and my family used to tease me about my poor selections.

Last night we watched In The Loop and I was quite disappointed. I thought a political satire could be insightful, if not slightly depressing. I was hoping for something like "Yes Minister". However, this just seemed a bit inane. I did not find the black humour very funny. Although, elements of it are believable, some of it is a stretch. Some of the swearing and workplace verbal abuse was tiresome. It is worrying that there may be people like this "running" countries and starting wars.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Who are we? Thinkers or lovers?

This month the theology reading group is discussing Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Culture Formation by James K.A. Smith. The last chapter has a helpful summary of the main claims of the book. (p. 215-216)
First, we humans are liturgical animals, whose fundamental orientation to the world is governed not primarily by what we think but by what we love, what we desire… 
Second, some practices are 'thicker' than others – rituals of ultimate concern that are bent on shaping our most fundamental wants and desires, trying to make us the kind of people who desire a vision of the kingdom that is antithetical to the kingdom of God… 
Third, Christianity is not only (or even primarily) a set of cognitive, heady beliefs; Christianity not fundamentally a worldview; rather, Christian practices, and particularly the practices of Christian worship, are the matrix for what can be articulated as a 'Christian world.'" 
I think the book offers a valuable corrective to any overly intellectual approach to the Christian life. However, in doing this I feel Smith overstates his case (and keeps making the same point again and again...).  He seems to claim a universal anthropology with little room for a diversity of human personalities. To illustrate this let me consider two characteristic (somewhat extreme) personalities that one may encounter among the Christian university students Smith is concerned with.

John is a literature major. He chose his current church because of the lively worship service. He has never read the church doctrinal statement. He does not understand why some people get in arguments about doctrine. As long as we love one another and worship the Lord from our heart that is what matters. John often tunes out during the sermon. He does not find it engaging. His favourite books in the Bible are the Psalms and Revelation. He mostly reads Christian devotional books. He really enjoys the music and the social time after church. But he has had personal conflict with people on the music team at church.

Joan is a mathematics major. She chose her current church because the teaching was "biblical" and aligned with her personal beliefs. She does not particularly enjoy the music and finds some of the social time after church awkward. Her favourite book of the Bible is Romans. The Christian books she mostly reads are systematic theology or Bible commentaries. She has had personal conflict with her Bible study leader about some of his interpretations of specific passages.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Is the Multiverse scientific?

Here is an interview about the multiverse with my physics colleague Robert Mann. He is currently on sabbatical at UQ.
The interview is a prelude to a seminar, Puzzled by Particularity in 2 weeks at the Centre for the Study of Science, Religion, and Society at Emmanuel College, UQ.
Robert has a chapter on the subject in a new book on God and the Multiverse.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Christianity for bobble heads

This month the theology reading group is discussing Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Culture Formation by  James K.A. Smith.

Hopefully I will write more later when I have finished it.
In the meantime, I thought the following was appropriate and amusing!
"this rationalist picture was absorbed particularly by Protestant Christianity (whether liberal or conservative), which tends to operate with an overly cognitivist picture of the human person and thus tends to foster an overly intellectualist account of what it means to be or become a Christian.
It is just this adoption of a rationalist, congnitivist anthropology that accounts for the shape of so much Protestant worship as a heady affair fixated on "messages" that disseminate Christian ideas and abstract values (easily summarised on PowerPoint slides). The result is a talking head version of Christianity that is fixated on doctrines and ideas, even if it is also paradoxically allied with a certain kind of anti-intellectualism. 
We could describe this as 'bobble head' Christianity, so fixated on the cognitive that it assumes a picture of human beings that look like bobble heads: mammoth heads that dwarf an almost nonexistent body." (pgs. 41-42)

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Troubled by inequality

My wife and I finally watched the documentary Inequality for all, featuring Berkeley economist Robert Reich. I highly recommend it. It is a bit depressing but the issue is not one that can be ignored.  The movie does a nice job presenting the issue in an engaging and at times humorous manner. Although it focuses solely on the case of the USA, the issues are increasingly relevant in the rest of the world.

Why does economic inequality matter? After all don't those CEOs deserve their high salaries and tax breaks because they do such a good job creating wealth and jobs for others? Isn't inequality a necessary and even good consequence of capitalism?
Well no, it is all a matter of degree.
Furthermore, CEOs pay themselves more and more regardless of their companies performance. Jobs are not created by billionaires but rather by middle class consumers.
During the Eisenhower (Republican and former WWII general) Presidency the top marginal tax rate was 91% !! Now it is like 35%.

But, the biggest problem with extreme inequality is the negative implications for democracy and for political and social instability (Remember the French revolution).
The top 1% increasingly use their wealth to influence the political process to preserve their vested interests and undermine democracy.

The movie focusses solely on the stagnating middle class. They increasingly struggle to just make ends meet: two incomes, longer hours, second jobs, and increasing debt...
Yet, my biggest concern is actually the bottom 25%.
They are voiceless and their prospects for the future are even bleaker.
Someone needs to make an engaging documentary highlighting their plight.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

How do my Christian values shape my view of the university?

Recently I gave a short talk to a group of academics, many of whom were senior professors, about this issue in the context of how univerisities are changing rapidly.

Universities have distinctly Christian origins, going back 500 years.
Not only was the study and teaching of theology at the centre of the first universities, whether Oxford or Princeton, it underpinned the whole philosophy of institution. The idea of a secular university is an innovation of the last century.
The idea of the university as largely a commercial entity is a product of just the last 40 years.

As a Christian I think there are three core values (scholarship, people, and transformation) that shape my view of what a university should be. It is not necessary to be Christian to have these values. Some humanists would share them. A nice example is the eminent literary critic Terry Eagleton, who is a Marxist and atheist. He recently wrote a nice piece The Slow Death of the University, reflecting similar values.
However, for me personally, these values are deeply rooted in Christian theology.

Scholarship.
All truth is Gods truth and has intrinsic value, regardless of any potential commercial benefit. Yet in a world marred by sin, real authentic scholarship is difficult and plain hard work. It requires sustained effort and support in the long term. It is hard to measure quality.

People.
People are made in the image of God. They have intrinsic value and are to respected, regardless of their gifting, performance, or achievements. People are complex social and psychological beings. They cannot be reduced to numbers, metrics, or commodities. Staff are not “human resources” to be mined, exploited, and discarded. Students are not “customers” who are “always right” and to be pandered to. Nor should they just be seen as a source of revenue.
Universities are communities. This means that democracy, transparency, and collegiality are important.

Transformation.
Education should transform students. The values, goals, convictions, knowledge, and skills of graduates should not be the same as when they first enrolled. Furthermore, education should equip them to serve others, not just advance themselves professionally and financially, or increase their egos and social status. Education is not just about getting a piece of paper that will enable them to get a high paying job. Graduates should serve the common good and transform society.
Research should also transform society, not just in economic terms.
It can increase appreciation of beauty, wonder at the physical universe, heal diseases, create models for conflict resolution, lead to technologies that reduce pollution, …

It should be clear that these values are in complete conflict with the neoliberalism that now rules most universities, and nicely critiqued as a religion by Paul Tyson.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Talk at Theology on Tap

Tomorrow afternoon I am giving a talk, “Why is Science so Awesome? at Theology on Tap in Brisbane.

The current version of the slides for the talk is here.


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Can mental illness be funny?

My family enjoyed watching the movie, It's kind of a funny story.
A teenager in New York is having suicidal thoughts and checks himself into a hospital psychiatric ward. Once in there he realises that he is much more “normal” than the other patients and
wants to get out, but is not allowed to.
The movie is somewhat humorous and entertaining. But, at times it is depressing, being confronted with mentally ill patients with little hope of healing.

On the positive side the movie does well raising the issue of mental health and the extreme pressures teenagers can be under, particularly those from families with upper middle class aspirations.
On the other hand, the movie is somewhat superficial and simplistic because the central character is “healed” by just learning to enjoy life, take up a hobby (drawing), appreciate his family more, and (of course since this is Hollywood) having a gorgeous girl friend.

An unrealistic aspect of the movie is that the star is able to check himself into the fancy private hospital without his parents permission and with no concern about payment for services.
Somehow I am skeptical this would happen in the USA.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Why is science so Awesome?

This coming sunday afternoon I am giving a talk, “Why is Science so Awesome? at Theology on Tap in Brisbane.

There are many things I find amazing about science, leading to me to awe, wonder, and questions. The immense size of the universe, the complexity of life, successful scientific predictions, and the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics. Why is the universe like this? Why can humans understand it so well? What does theology say about all this? The talk is intended for a general non-expert audience. 

 An earlier version of the slides for the talk is here.

This image of a pinwheel galaxy was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and is from here.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Don't give your life to your employer

I think the movie The Company Men is worth watching. It is a moving portrayal of how several men respond to getting retrenched from a company they have given their lives to. One struggles with his self image and must deal with being massively in debt, because of an extravagant lifestyle. Another is betrayed by the CEO, who used to be his best friend. It also highlights corporate greed, which is driven by short term financial considerations and considers people as just "resources" to be exploited.

Overall it is depressing and there is little redemption and hope. Yet, this is realistic. Give your life to your employer and you will probably get hurt.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Three amazing and unbelievable things about Easter

Today I am giving a talk at our churches' Easter Eggstravaganza, an event for children and families. Here is the talk.

Just because something is hard to believe does not mean that it is not true. My experience as a scientist tells me that. Many scientific discoveries have been unexpected, surprising, and go against what people thought was common sense.
[Aside: for adults interested in science: examples include Schrodinger's cat (quantum entanglement), the Big Bang, Dark matter,...]
I still find some of these things hard to believe.

I will now do a simple science experiment to show this. Putting a skewer through a balloon and putting a flame on a balloon containing a small amount of water.

At Easter Christians celebrate the death and the resurrection of Jesus.
Here are three things that many people rightly find hard to believe about Easter.

Could an all powerful God die on a cross?
Can God really forgive sins?
Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Is that possible?

I find these three things amazing.

1. Could an all powerful God die on a cross?

The Bible tells us that Jesus was God's Son. God the Father and Jesus together made the whole universe. They both rule over it. Jesus was powerful. He could heal sick people, know what people were thinking, and walk on water. He taught about what God was really like, because He really knew God as His Father.
Yet if Jesus was so strong and powerful how could he be so weak and powerless that he allowed his enemies to falsely accuse him of wrongdoing and to kill him on a cross, a terribly painful and embarrassing death? Couldn't he stop them? He could not save himself. How could he claim to save others?

2.  Can God really forgive any and every wrong that someone has done?

Jesus told an interesting story about this. In the Bible you can find it in Matthew 19. There was a rich young man who really wanted to go to heaven. He told Jesus all the good things he had done in his life. But, Jesus asked him to do something that was very difficult for him: give away all his money. This was too hard for him. He loved his money more than he loved God. Indeed Jesus has very high standards. He wants us to be perfect. Jesus disciples, his 12 closest friends, wondered if anyone could be saved. It seemed no one could be good enough for Jesus or for God. In response, Jesus said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." (Matthew 19:26)
Jesus death on the cross makes this possible. His suffering covers all of our failings and wrong doings.
This is fantastic news for us. It does not matter what we have done, God can forgive us, if we want to be forgiven.

3. Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Is that possible?
That is a miracle. Can a scientist like me believe in miracles?

After all, history and experience tell us once people are dead they are dead forever. But just because we have not seen something happen does not mean that it can never happen. Again, God can make the impossible happen.

I then do the following simple science demonstration.
Consider an egg and a small bottle. Who thinks that this egg can fit in this bottle? Before I saw this happen I never thought it was possible.

Just because we think dead people stay dead forever, does not mean that Jesus did not rise from the dead. If God, the ruler of the universe, what it to happen it could. It did.

On Easter Sunday Christians celebrate Jesus' resurrection. Jesus conquered death, came to life and appeared to many eyewitnesses, and now lives forever.

So, tomorrow on Easter Sunday when you are eating all your yummy chocolate eggs think about this egg in the bottle. It doesn’t look too yummy. But it does illustrate that something can be true even if we don’t expect it to be. God is not constrained by the laws of nature us scientists know all about. Jesus really did rise from the dead. He has power over death and sin. What is impossible for man is possible for God. God raised Jesus from death to life. We can be forgiven and we can have the gift of eternal life.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The idolatry of the nation state

In the theology reading group on monday we will be discussing Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church by William Cavanaugh.

I found it refreshing, stimulating and provocative.

Christendom and Constantinianism [the close identification of church and state] has declined in the Western world. Overall this is a good thing as the church should be on the margins and stand again power, coercion, and violence. On the other hand, the hope and worship of many has shifted from God and the church to the nation state. It is their hoped source of security, identity, protection, and prosperity. This is idolatry.
Some Christians "tend to assume that the only solution to any given cultural problem is state enforcement".

The first chapter relates to the classic quote of Alisdair MacIntyre
The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf . . . [I]t is like being asked to die for the telephone company.
One chapter makes a highly creative analogy between the Richard Strauss' opera, Ariadne auf Naxos,
which combines tragedy and comedy simultaneously, with Augustine's City of God. (p.63, 64)
"The earthly city and the city of God are two intermingled performances, one a tragedy, the other a comedy. Thee are not two sets of props, no division of goods between spriticual and temper oral, infinite and finite. Both cities are concerned with the same questions..."

Some essays/chapters focus on the case of the USA. One "Messianic Nation" is a trenchant criticism of American exceptionalism, particularly the views of Stephen Webb, who attempts to justify this on (shaky) theological grounds. I found Webb's arguments pompous, bizarre, and scary.

The chapter "Migrant, Tourist, Pilgrim, Monk: Identity and Mobility in a Global Age" provides some nice contrasts between the past (Pilgrims and Monks) and the present (Tourists) which is concerned with the exotic, escape, restlessness, pleasure for the wealthy, and lacks hospitality for the needy (Migrant). Monks have a vow of stability.

The best line in the book is in the following (p. 135)
Metz is concerned that the legitimate separation of the church from the political sphere not result in the mere privatisation of the church, the handing over of the gospel to the anemic embrace of bourgeois sentimentality. Metz's solution is that the church take its place in civil society as an "institution of social criticism"..
Overall, I found the book a bit depressing because I agree with it, and yet I feel the views therein, are so outside the "mainstream".  I think the book would have been more hopeful if some concrete examples were given of churches and Christian organisations who are living in the "intermediate" political spaces he advocates: combining local social action, community development, and political advocacy.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Facing evil and moving on

There is a fascinating op-ed piece in the New York Times
Can an Evil Man Change?The Repentance of Eugene de Kock by Antjie Krog

If more than 30 years ago you had told this story many would say it was a fiction or a movie script: that apartheid would end peacefully in South Africa,
that rather than violence and retribution, there would be a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where perpetrators of human rights violation could confess and receive amnesty,
that one of most evil perpetrators, Eugene de Kock, would co-operate with the families on his victims, ...

Yet it is true.

The following is particularly disturbing.
After the famous black-consciousness leader, Steve Biko, died in jail in 1977, opposition to apartheid grew. The National Party government realized it could no longer afford the political and economic consequences of activists dying in police custody. So, to continue its dirty work invisibly, a secret counterinsurgency unit was established on a farm called Vlakplaas. In 1983 Mr. de Kock became its commander, and it was from here that he and his men planned the deaths, kidnappings and torture of many anti-apartheid activists. 
When former President F.W. de Klerk released Nelson Mandela and lifted the ban on the black opposition parties in 1990, Mr. de Kock was secretly ordered to increase the appearance of black-on-black violence in order to discredit the liberation movements. His squad killed black activists with Russian weapons to implicate the military wing of Mr. Mandela’s party, the African National Congress. They captured black liberation movement soldiers, torturing them until they “turned” and could be used as hit men. This led to a sudden escalation of deaths of black people.
It worth reading the rest of the article to see what then unfolds.

Can such a person be forgiven? Should they ever be released from prison?

There are many complex issues here.

But, it brings to mind the most shocking "injustice" ever, something some can never accept, that God will forgive any sin or anyone.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Think before you move

My family enjoyed watching the movie Life of a King. It is based on a the true story of an ex-convict who starts a chess club in the inner city for disaffected youth in Washington D.C.
It is quite moving, inspiring, while highlighting the considerable challenge and lack of hope when growing up in an inner city neighbourhood. Under-resourced schools, violence, drugs, lack of community, few employment opportunities (outside crime!), broken homes, ....
Confronting this and contributing to positive change seems almost impossible. Yet the hero does.

Chess provides a focus for community, for change, and a metaphor for life in the hood. Think before you move. Protect yourself. Think of the long term consequences of your actions....

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Fighting for equal opportunity

My family watched The Butler. It is a moving portrayal of an African-American who serves as a butler in the White House, from Presidents Eisenhower to Reagan. This is set in the context of great social changes and the struggle against racism, discrimination, and injustice. The complex issue of finding the best political and social strategy to achieve equality is explored through the tense relation between the butler, and his son. The latter embarks on a more radical strategy, moving between non-violent resistance, the violent Black Panther movement, running for congress, and campaigning for sanctions against South Africa.

One sad thing was to see how long it took the actual White House to provide equal pay and equal opportunity for their own staff. This was still an issue as late as the 1980s.


Saturday, February 28, 2015

The end does not justify the means

My family is watching the final season of Foyle's War as it is currently available on ABC iview.
Foyle was a police detective in WWII, but after the war he works for the security agency, MI5. The cold war has begun and the UK government is trying to position itself in the Middle East. Besides the entertainment I like the show for several reasons.
It usually teaches some history and highlights diverse issues one may not hear much about: housing shortages after WWII, the difficulty of the Labour party of delivering on its promises of post-war construction, retrenchment of women who worked during the war, UK businessmen who supplied the Nazis, Nuremberg trial for German industrialists, anti-Semitism in the UK, ...
The show raises moral conundrums and ethical dilemmas.
It shows how Western governments get involved in or overlook dubious activities in order to promote their national interests, where business, oil,  or "security", ...

But, in the end, in the midst of all the complexities, I think Foyle does have a valuable and important message: "the end does not justify the means".


Saturday, February 21, 2015

Deconstructing the Trinity

I have found reading Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Toward a Fully Trinitarian Theology by Colin Gunton rather challenging. On Monday we will discuss it at the theology reading group.
It is not easy reading, but at times I struggle to see why it all matters.
Here are a few rambling reflections.

Gunton mentions that the struggle to put something as profound at the Trinity into words can be constructive. It stretches and clarifies our thinking. But it pushes the words and concepts to their limits.

Yet, it can also be dangerous. First, we can delude ourselves that we actually fully understand something. Second, it can become unnecessarily divisive. History has certainly shown this to be the case. The words can mean different things to different people. Different emphases and balances take different priorities to others. Pride and misunderstanding can lead to confusion, conflict, and hostility.

After struggling through the opening chapters of the book I found it helpful to re-read the chapter on the Trinity in Alister McGrath's textbook Christian Theology: An Introduction.
Here are a few details I found helpful, particularly in understanding some of the key terminology.

homoousios vs. homoiosious
same substance vs. similar substance
The Father and the Son are of the same [similar] substance.
The former was adopted in the Nicene Creed [325 A.D.] after much debate.

Aside: The two terms only differ by an "i" or "iota", the smallest object in the Greek alphabet. Amusingly, this may be the origin of the phrase, "it makes not one iota of difference."

Filioque [and from the Son]. There was controversy about whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father or from the Father and the Son.
This is one of the main differences between the Eastern vs. Western conceptions of the Trinity.

perichoresis. This describes the relation between each person of the Trinity.

The Economic Trinity. I tend to think "economic" means frugal or minimalist, but here it means "how the different parts relate to and interact with one another", just like economic/business relations between individuals, societies, and companies. It relates to the acts of the different persons of God in creation, redemption, salvation, and the personal experiences of believers.
It is the manner "in which we experience the diversity and unity of God's self disclosure in history".

The immanent trinity reflects the unity and diversity of God as it is in God.

The Cappodocians played a key role in the acceptance of the full divinity of the Holy Spirit, which was formally endorsed in AD 381 by the Council of Constantinople.

Karl Barth was influential in stimulating renewed interest in the twentieth century in the Doctrine of the Trinity. He placed it at the beginning of his Magnus Opus, Church Dogmatics. He argued that it "undergirds and guarantees the actuality of divine revelation to sinful humanity."

Karl Rahner also played a key role, with the axiom, "The economic trinity is the immanent trinity, and the immanent trinity is the economic trinity.
I still don't really understand this.

It is all about balance. [page 79].
As in all theology, we are on a knife edge, or, we might say, a narrow path with precipices on each side. On one side, we deny the unity of God, and make it appear that there are three gods; on the other, we cause the distinctions of the three to disappear into some underlying undifferentiated deity.
What is the relation between God and the world? On the one hand God is sovereign and ruler of everything. All creation is completely sustained by God and completely dependent. Yet, on the other hand, human agents seem to be autonomous and can act independently. And the material world [ostensibly the creation] can be described and understood scientifically without reference to God. Is there a tension and/or contradiction? Gunton responds to the interaction of Robert Jenson [his Ph.D supervisor] with Jonathan Edwards. [page 95]
in connection with Jenson's query to Edwards' theology of Creation. `T[o] say that "God himself, in the immediate exercise of his power" is the creature' sole support and coherence, were we to take the proposition without trinitarian differentiation would cursedly threaten the distinct reality of creation' [Systematic Theology 2, page 41] The reason is that an authentically Christian theology must make two affirmations which so easily slip into contradiction of one another: that, First, God is the sole creator, and indeed, sole lord of what happens within that creations' history subsequent to its creation; and that, second, as creator and redeemer he is at the same time the one who gives to that creation its ... relative independence, ....
It is one reason of the modern world's rejection of the gospel that it has come to the conclusion that this is indeed the case. To affirm the world, and especially to establish the freedom of the human agent with in that world, it is has been thought necessary to deny God. That is almost an axiom of modern atheism, and indeed of much that affects to be a Chrsitain response to it.
Thus, a Trinitarian theology allows one to at the same time affirm the complete sovereignty of God the Creator and the independence of the creation.

Why does it matter? Should we care? Is it just word games?

Gunton has helped me see there are practical implications that do matter.

First, who are we? What is the meaning of a human person?
"God is one who has his being in communion" [page 15], following John Zizioulas. Similarly, with many careful qualifications, we only have our true being as persons in relation to others, in community. We do have a distinct individual identity but that cannot be defined or meaningful out of the context of relationships.

Second, the Trinity is all about balance. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are of equal importance. Yet in the church today things tend to bifurcate to extremes. [page 79]
Conservative Reformed types barely mention the Holy Spirit, and focus solely on the Son, particularly on his redemptive death.
At the other extreme are Pentecostals, who are preoccupied with the Holy Spirit, often with little reference to the Son.