Thursday, April 5, 2018

The inevitable entanglement of sport and politics

I enjoyed watching the movie Race, which recounts the story of Jesse Owens and his presence at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The movie does a nice job of recounting significant historical events while exploring issues of racism, anti-Semitism, hypocrisy, propaganda, and the tortured relationship between politics and sport.

Like good historical movies it had the desired effect of causing my family to race to Wikipedia to see how much of the movie was historically accurate. It seems almost all of it is. Perhaps the main debatable point was it gave a sympathetic portrayal of the film-maker Leni Riefenstahl, who was a propagandist and apologist for Hitler. But, the most disturbing fact I learnt was that although Hitler did not congratulate Owens, President Roosevelt did not invite him to the White House.

[Aside. It took me a while to get the double meaning of the title].

Saturday, March 24, 2018

COSAC talk: science in ancient religious texts

Today I am giving a talk, ``Do Ancient Religious Texts Contain Modern Scientific Knowledge?" at COSAC. Here are the slides.

The video clip in the talk is from here.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Developing a real Christian mind

This is a draft of my third devotional talk for the forthcoming conference on Science and Christianity.
It is based on Philippians 2:1-11.

In discussions about Christianity and Academia it is common to talk about “the Christian mind” and the “Christian world view” and “loving God with all your mind”. The titles of some influential books are The Christian Mind by Harry Blamires, and The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark Noll,
All first-year students at Calvin College in the USA a required to take a course entitled “Developing a Christian Mind”. At Oxford, there is also an excellent initiative called "Developing a Christian Mind."

What does the Bible say about what it means to have “the mind of Christ”?
I find this passage from Paul's letter to the Philippians rather challenging.
Having the mind of Christ does not seem to be concerned with intellectual issues or a particular world-view but rather a personal attitude, particularly one of humility.
The passage begins.
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Here are some specific applications.

A commitment to unity.
It meets being “like-minded” with others who follow Jesus.
If my ideas and views are creating division in the church do I have the mind of Christ?

Put aside my selfish ambition.
It is not all about me: my views, my organisation, my career, my ministry, my achievements, my influence, my status,..

Why does division occur within churches and between churches?
Sometimes it appears to be about differences of belief, about doctrine, or practice.
Contentious issues include church government, baptism, the role of the Holy Spirit, gender roles, Biblical interpretation, support of political parties, music, liturgy, budgets, fund raising, …
The list is almost endless. On the one hand, these are important issues. On the other hand, we should humbly and critically ask how much does “selfish ambition and vain conceit” play a role when a new denomination or a new congregation or a new organisation starts?

Sometimes, the role of ambition can be explicit and blatant. Other times it is more subtle or sub-conscious. We should ask this of ourselves and of our leaders. Am I looking to my own interests or to the interests of others?
Am I primarily concerned with showing I am right?
Where does my identity come from? From my views or from Jesus?
Where does my community identity come from?
Do I value others (including their views) above myself?

What drives academic life? What drives science?
Is it a passion for truth? Unfortunately, too many scientists have big egos. The history of science is littered with brilliant people who were not willing to give up on their own ideas and theories, even when there was overwhelming evidence against them.

Max Planck was the founder of quantum theory. He is sometimes credited with saying “Science advances one funeral at a time”. He actually said
A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
Academic theologians and pastors are not immune from self-promotion and a reluctance to respect those with different views.

I should clarify and qualify what I am saying.
Being humble and having the mind of Christ does not mean discarding strong convictions. It does not mean unity at any cost.  It does not mean not being critical of other views. It does not mean not taking a stand for truth.
It does not mean that all views are equally valid.
What it does mean is being more humble about what I believe and how
I relate to others with different views. How open am I to changing my
views? It means abandoning self-promotion. It means trying to understand what is best for others and serving them.
It means following Jesus example of humility and service.

The best scientists are humble.
They are humble before nature. They are eager to learn, both from nature and from others.
They are willing to change their pre-conceptions and give up cherished ideas when confronted with convincing evidence or persuasive arguments.

What does this have to do with Science and Christianity?
This is an issue that divides churches.
There are a diverse range of perspectives. Some of them I strongly disagree with
them. However, that does not give me the right to ridicule those with different views.
We need to be humble. Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.

We like to exalt ourselves, our views, our organisations, our achievements, ...
But in the end, we will not be exalted.
Jesus will be. Our views and agendas will fall away.
Jesus is the name above every name.
Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

It is all about our downward mobility!

Monday, March 19, 2018

The first will be last; the last will be first

Next weekend I am looking forward to attending a Conference on Science and Christianity.
I have been asked to give three short talks/reflections during some worship times. For balance I have picked from the Bible three passages: a Psalm, a parable of Jesus, and a New Testament Epistle:
Psalm 19, Matthew 20:1-16, and Philippians 2:1-11.
Humility is a common theme.

The first talk will be similar to this one.
Below is a draft outline of a draft for the second talk.
I will post the third talk later.

What is the Kingdom of God like?
The first will be last and the last will be first.

The parable of the workers in the vineyard
Matthew 20:1-16

We all come to any subject in life with pre-conceptions about what is true, what is just, what is important, and what is the  actual nature of things.
We can come to science with such preconceptions.
We can come to theology (talk about God) with such preconceptions.
We all have preconceptions about how science and theology are related or not related.
But are my pre-conceptions justified? Are your pre-conceptions justified?
What will it take for you to change your views?

Jesus challenged the pre-conceptions of everyone, especially the religious people of his time. He challenged preconceptions about a wide range of topics: the character of God, how people should live, the role of the law, how people could be saved, who were God’s people,…
Today Jesus continues to challenge people’s preconceptions.

This parable is just one example of Jesus profoundly challenging peoples preconceptions. It should also challenge us.

It is useful to look at any Bible passage in the context of what comes before and what comes after.

In Matthew 19 the disciples try to stop children coming to Jesus. Jesus responds, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

Then Jesus encounters a rich young man. He wants to get eternal life. He claims he has kept all of God’s commands. Jesus tells the young man to sell all of his possessions and give to the poor. He won’t do that. Jesus warns that it is hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.
He says to the disciples that “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”

Jesus, then tells the parable to show what the kingdom of heaven is like.
Again, he concludes with “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

After telling the parable Jesus predicts his death and resurrection.
Then a mother requests that her two sons sit in power with Jesus in his kingdom.
Jesus then contrasts kingdom leadership to the that of worldly leaders who lord it over their subjects. Whoever wants to be great must be a servant, even a slave.
Jesus came to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Jesus is promoting an upside down kingdom. The least will be greatest. The greatest will be humbled. The first will be last and the last will be first.

This 17th century depiction of the parable is by Jacob Willemszoon de Wet.

What is the content of the parable?
The owner of a vineyard hires some workers. They all get paid the same amount. Yet, some of them worked fewer hours than others. This is not modern day economics or labour practice!
It isn’t fair! The hard workers complain, just like we would.
The landowner responds that he is not unfair. He has kept his promise. He challenges the grumblers, “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

What is the meaning of the parable?
God is like the landowner. We are the workers.
God is generous. He is full of grace, i.e. he treats people better than they deserve. Some of us may live more virtuous lives than others. But this is irrelevant in God’s economy.
God offers us a free gift of forgiveness and eternal life, through Jesus death and resurrection. We don’t earn this gift.
God has the right to be generous as he pleases. It is not for us to question God. God is God. We don't have the right to tell God what is right and fair.

We may bridle at God’s generosity. We can be self-righteous like the rich young man and think we keep God’s commands and so deserve salvation.
But the last will be first. The first will be last. The tax collectors and prostitutes who repent will enter Jesus' kingdom before the rich and powerful, particularly the self-righteous religious leaders.
The kingdom belongs to those with the humility of little children.

This parable should rattle our pre-conceptions of how God operates, of what is fair, and what is true.
It should lead to humility and repentance and gratefulness for the mercy of God.
The kingdom of God is an upside down kingdom.
Paradox and dialectic are integral to theology.

How is this related to science?
Christians believe that God made the universe. He wrote the laws of nature.
What are some of the most striking things we have learnt in science in the past hundred years?

Sir Arthur Eddington was the most influential astronomer in the early twentieth century. J.B.S.Haldane was an influential geneticist and evolutionary biologist. Both are credited with saying that,
“the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose”.
Yet it is striking to me that this statement was made so long ago. The universe is indeed even stranger than what Haldane and Eddington knew 60 years ago. This was before we had to grapple with the most bizarre properties of quantum physics or the finding that 96% of the universe may be composed of dark matter and dark energy, completely unlike the matter and energy of which we are made and encounter in our daily lives.

Bill Bryson says the four most remarkable things he knows are
1. You exist.
2. Life does not happen anywhere else in the universe.
3. We live in a planet that we don't really know.
4. All life comes from a single moment of creation.

Science challenges our pre-conceptions of what is true, what makes sense, and how the world should be. Given the universe is made by the God of the upside-down kingdom, perhaps we
should not be surprised it goes against some of our prejudices and intuitions.

How does this apply to our discussions of the relationship between science and theology?
Perhaps we may need to be humbler and be open to new ways of thinking.
Do my pre-conceptions need to be challenged?

Friday, March 16, 2018

Latest talk on Science and the Bible

Tonight I am giving a talk on "Science and the Bible" to FOCUS, a Christian group for international students at UQ. I look forward to a lively Q&A session.

The slides for the talk are here.

Monday, March 5, 2018

What I learnt from early church history

Here I want to go back and review some of what struck me from the Early Church history course.

The early church lived and grew in a context of a violent society.
The Romans maintained their power and the stability of their empire violently. Christians were persecuted as a threat to the empire and an object of ridicule for their weakness.
This video graphically illustrates this.  (Warning: it is violent!)

This violent environment was true until 313 AD when the Edict of  Milan by the two Emperors [Constantine (West) and Licinius (East)] freedom of conscience in worship. In 380 AD, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire.

How did Christianity spread so widely and effectively throughout the Graeco-Roman world?

In 1917 T. R. Glover, a Cambridge University lecturer, published The Jesus of History, which examined this question and included the following much-quoted sentences on page 71:
Here we touch what I think one of the greatest wonders that history has to show. How did the Church do it? If I may invent or adapt three words, the Christian "out-lived" the pagan, "out-died" him, and "out-thought" him. He came into the world and lived a great deal better than the pagan; he beat him hollow in living....
Appreciating the violent context of the early church one can also better appreciate the context of the Book of Revelation. It is not some secretly coded prediction about the course of world history. Rather, it is a call for Christians to persevere faithfully in the face of suffering and persecution. Justice will be done. The humble and faithful will be vindicated. The rich, powerful, arrogant, and violent will be judged.

The limitations of language.
Concepts such as the Trinity and the co-existing divine and human natures of Jesus are so profound, complex, and subtle that any short statement is going to be somewhat inadequate, lacking some completeness and precision. That does not mean that we should not try. But, we should be humble and be mindful of the limitations.

Doctrine does matter.
Ideas and beliefs have consequences.
For example, the Donatist controversy, became entangled with differing
ideas about the nature of salvation and qualifications for church leadership.
This affected very practical and personal matters such as
who was allowed to remain in leadership and whether Christians who had
failed in the face of persecution were allowed back into fellowship.

Doctrines can divide.
Furthermore, personalities and power struggles an become entangled with disagreements about beliefs. People become so enraged at their opponents that they will resort to violence.

Hairsplitting about words?
The Arian controversy came to a head in the Council of Nicea in 325 and concerned the true nature of the relationship between the Father and the Son. In was encapsulated in a preference for
homoiouios [similar substance/essence]
homoouios [same substance].
The only difference between the two words is the letter i [iota] in the middle.
This is arguably the origin of the common phrase used today “it does not make one iota of a difference.”
The Arians [anti-Arians] claimed the Son was of “similar” [same] substance as the Father.

The disjuncture between belief and practice, i.e. hypocrisy.
Divisions about doctrine, sometimes about subtle wordings, even led to violence. For me the most striking and disturbing was the case of a bishop who was murdered at the altar following a council debate.

The mixed legacy of Constantine.
Following his conversion in AD 312 the emperor changed his attitude to the church. He eventually made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire. This totally changed the nature and role of the church. Constantine changed the status of the church from a poor marginalised and persecuted community to a well resourced and respectable institution with strong links to government. Prior to Constantine, becoming a Christian or a church leader could lead to suffering and an early death. The church had no money or buildings. After Constantine, becoming a Christian or a church leader could lead to prosperity and social status. The church eventually had significant buildings and wealth.
On the one hand, the stability and resources provided by Constantine, helped the church consolidate, spread, develop institutions, and facilitate theological debate, writing, and publishing.
On the other hand, the church lost its identification with the marginalised, had to struggle with the corrupting forces of wealth and power, and was no longer purified by persecution. (Note, these were things that were all central to the life and teaching of Jesus).
This era does provide insights into the complexities of the appropriate relationship between the church and governments. Christians should be wary of what they might aspire to.

There is nothing new under the sun.
On the one hand, ancient controversies associated with Gnosticism, Docetism, Marcionism, Donatism, … may seem a long way from today’s issues. On the other hand, the core issues of some of these controversies are not so far away. Given our common humanity and frailty, we do keep repeating mistakes. On the positive side, we can also learn from the wisdom and "best practise" of the past.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

God's global mission

I liked this talk by the late Paul Joshua, an Indian theologian.
One great line is "Today the average global Christian is not a white male in the West, but a woman in the slums of the East."