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.

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 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.

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.