Monday, July 21, 2014

Concrete interactions of theology with academic disciplines

I went to a very nice conference this past weekend, at Emmanuel College at the University of Queensland. It was jointly sponsored by the Centre for Science, Religion, and Society at Emmanuel and the Simeon Network, affiliated with the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students. Here are the titles of some of the presentations:
  • Religious freedom as an associational legal right
  • Is all truth God’s truth? Common grace, general revelation and the academic disciplines
  • Lord keep my memory green: Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol
  • The kingdom of God to the kingdom of nothingness: Manning Clark and the course of Australian history
  • Lord Shaftesbury and evangelical social engagement
  • Tertiary chemical education: an ideal platform for connecting resources with students and teachers in or from developing countries
The attendees and speakers were academics from Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne. They ranged from Ph.D students to Professors. Fields represented included law, chemistry, anthropology, literature, history, physics, molecular biology,....
I was impressed by the quality of the presentations, both in content and clarity. Speakers did well addressing a multi-disciplinary audience. Plenty of time was allowed for discussion after each talk which was often quite lively.

Here are a some things I found particularly interesting in two of the talks.

Nick Aroney, a Professor of Law at University of Queensland, began his talk about the legal basis of religious freedom in Australia by sketching out a diagram that showed the multi-disciplinarity of law as an academic discipline. He showed its connections with history, ethics, logic, hermeneutics, politics, theology... He then reviewed the preamble to the Australian constitution and Section 116 which discusses religious freedom. Most people think it in terms of individual religious freedoms but actually it is relevant to "associations" and "corporations". This is relevant to cases involving anti-discrimination, particularly as it pertains to the freedom for churches and religious organisations to use religious criteria for membership and staffing.

Natalie Swann is a Ph.D student in anthropology at University of Melbourne. She asked, "What would a  Christian ethnography look like?"
This was motivated by the fact that in the past decade significant interest has grown in academic anthropology about the interaction of anthropology with theology.
In 2006, Joel Robbins, [recently appointed to a chair a Cambridge] wrote a paper in the Anthropological Quarterly, Anthropology and Theology: An Awkward Relationship? that highlights some of the issues.
Earlier this year the journal Current Anthropology included an article

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

A sober warning from 50 years ago

Dwight Eisenhower was a WWII general who became President of the USA from 1952-1960. It is interesting to hear what his farewell words were to the nation.

The speech ends:
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Christians should question war and violence

This month my theology book group is discussing The Truce of God by Rowan Williams.
I found it quite refreshing and challenging because it questions some positions that often seem to be taken for granted in modern Western society.

Movie portrayals of uncontrollable violence seem to imply "violence is never something that ordinary human beings decide to do". It is just done by monsters and robots. No, we do it.

We do have a choice. We have to take responsibility. Supporters of war may claim "we have no choice" and so try to evade responsibility. "Peace" activists may wish to disengage from society and so evade responsibility. Christian freedom is the freedom to engage, just like the Creator God, not the freedom to disengage.

"war and peace are 'spiritual' as well as tactical and political issues" (p. 20)

Peace is not just absence of conflict. The peace of God is not really serenity. It is quite different to modern political notions of peace.
"Hence my reasons for some scepticism about the peaceful effects of the Cold war era. Honesty requires that we look rather hard at the present realities of Africa and Asia and ask how much responsibility of their condition lies with a mindset in which military and strategic decisions distorted the great powers from coherent development policies and pressed many nations into an artificial mould with in the international drama. ... a history of displaced conflict, aggravated by debt, is ... the responsibilities of wealthier nations... peace in Europe and North America has been purchased at the cost of systematic destabilisation elsewhere."   (p.37-8). 
Western governments seem to strive to create an environment where their war and "national security" policies are necessary and beyond debate. Questioning (and particularly opposing) these policies is unpatriotic and threatens national security and the lives of soldiers on the ground. Yet, surely the last fifty years, from Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan has shown the folly and tragedy of these wars. Those who opposed them were marginalised [for example, the Dixie Chicks] yet in hindsight many of their concerns seem to have been well placed.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Engaging with life through engaging with illegal immigrants

My wife and I enjoyed watching the movie, The Visitor. A widowed economics professor is disengaged with life but becomes involved with several illegal immigrants in New York city. The movie nicely intertwines several themes: living with passion particularly through music, the anxious and precarious life of illegal immigrants, the humanity of the immigrants, and the heartless and harsh treatment of the immigrants by the USA government. Unfortunately, the Australian government has similar policies and attitudes.

Monday, July 7, 2014

What makes a great nation?

My daughter just introduced me to the TV series The Newsroom. Besides the same creator, it has similarities to The West Wing: social and political commentary are mixed with drama and (of course) personal relationships.

In the opening scene a college student asks a panel, "What makes America the greatest country on earth?" and gets an answer she did not anticipate.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Growing old with an attitude

I enjoyed watching the movie Still Mine. A stubborn elderly couple struggle and face declining health, concerns of adult children, dementia, death, and government bureaucracy together.

Monday, June 23, 2014

What is a religion?

Traditionally, religions are defined as major historical "institutions" such as Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, ... that have a common concern with the transcendent [spirituality and God], ritual, revelation, prayer, holy books, morality, worship, ....

Secularists will then claim that "religion" has no role in politics and the "public square" since the religion is not a common value and excludes rationality, tolerance, inclusivity, evidence...

However, an alternative definition of "religion" is a sociological one that highlights communities with shared uncontested assumptions and values [doctrine], revered leaders and books, marginalisation of alternative views [heresy],  defined morality [righteousness], a vision for the future [eschatology], ....

With the latter definition movements and "world views" such as the New Atheism, secularism, Marxism, neoliberalism,  fanatical sports team loyality, Big History [a "secular creation myth"],... are actually religions. Then the "public square" becomes a plethora of competing voices, all of which might be heard and respected.

In this light, there is a fascinating essay, Australian Universities in Transition:Moral, Pragmatic or Religious Drivers? by Paul Tyson. He makes a compelling case that the "neoliberalism" beloved/assumed by many university "managers" is actually a "religion" that defines what is rational, just, and moral.