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."

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Learning from Historical Theology

A few years ago I took a short course on Early Church History.
I am now re-engaging with this topic because in the theology reading group we are reading through Historical Theology by Alister McGrath.

McGrath emphasises the distinction between church history and historical theology.
The latter is concerned solely with ideas and intellectual issues.
Theology is basically the study of God. How does one understand God and talk about
God?
In contrast, church history has a broader concern with events, personalities, and institutions. It considers how the ideas were influenced by these and visa versa.

Why do church history and historical theology matter?

Much of what Christians believe today has been shaped by this early period.
The canon of scripture was defined and the Apostle’s and Nicene creeds were formulated then. This shaped ideas about the divinity of Christ, sin, the Trinity, grace, methods of interpretation of scripture, church structure, sacraments …

McGrath quotes Karl Barth
"With regard to theology, we cannot be in the church without taking responsibility as much for the theology of the past as for the theology of the present day. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Schleiermacher and all the others are not dead but living. They still speak and demand a hearing as living voices, as surely as we know that they and we belong together in the church." 
We can learn much from the past. Some of the early theologians were brilliant minds and some lived exemplary lives. Augustine has had a significant influence on philosophy as well as theology.

Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.
This is a painful and tragic truth that happens in the church, politics, science, and personal life again and again.

Theology always occurs in a context: social, cultural, political, economic, intellectual, .. We cannot deny that the context has an influence on the issues discussed, controversies,
emphasis and neglect, language, method, …
However, that does not mean that the context is determinative or that the ideas or statements produced are or are not relevant in other contexts.
Somehow we have to discern what is and what is not relevant in our own contexts.
Christianity is global and historical. Consider these very different contexts:
1. the persecuted church in the third century of the Greco-Roman world
2. upper middle-class Australia today
3. slum dwellers in Latin America in the 1970s under military dictatorships
4. Dalit Christians in India today.

Finally, at least for some of us, the topic is fascinating and stimulating.

Last week we covered the Patristic period (approx. 100-451 AD). Here is the chapter and a short introduction to the corresponding chapter in another McGrath text.



Later I will review some of what struck me from the reading and from the Early Church history course.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Why societies need a free press

I really enjoyed the movie, The Post, which is based on the role that the Washington Post, and particularly the Publisher Katharine Graham, played in publishing the Pentagon Papers after the Nixon White House obtained a court order stopping the New York Times from doing so.

One intriguing aspect of the movie was it showed how much the world has changed since 1971, particularly with regard to technology and gender issues.

Newspapers and secret military documents were all hard copies. This made stealing, copying, and distributing the latter difficult. Articles were written on typewriters and newspapers were mechanically typeset. Photocopies were done page by page. The only phones were land lines and pay phones.
It is a long way from today's fast-paced and highly connected world of the internet, email, Wikileaks, and mobile phones.

The journalists and politicians were largely middle-aged white males. The movie shows what a pioneer Katharine Graham was and how hard it was for her to be taken seriously. She had the added obstacle that she had been belittled as a child and as a wife and so struggled to overcome her low self-confidence. Meryl Streep brilliantly shows this increasing confidence. The movie also shows how Graham became much admired by younger women.



The movie briefly mentions how Graham's husband died by suicide, leaving her to take over the newspaper. It does not discuss the associated mental health issues.

The main issue in the movie is resolved by a 6-3 ruling of the US Supreme Court, which allows further publication of the Pentagon papers. Justice Black wrote:
In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government's power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.
Some of this is quoted in the movie. I also recommend the earlier movie, The Pentagon Papers, which focuses on the role of Daniel Ellsberg who was the source of the leak to the New York Times and the Post.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Where did universities come from?

This video nicely answers the question, showing how many universities, even in the non-Western world, had origins that were rooted in the church, mission, theological education, and service.



Today many of these universities have quite different goals and values. Some seem to want to deny their origins or are embarrassed by them.
Important questions that this raises include:
Are these origins irrelevant today?
Has something been lost?
Are the many problems universities do have today, particularly those associated with the focus on money, metrics, management, and marketing, due to the loss of a theological basis for their mission?

Saturday, January 13, 2018

A classic movie confronts anti-intellectualism

During the holidays my family watched the classic 1960 movie, Inherit the Wind, loosely based on the infamous Scopes trial, held in 1925 in the USA.

Only after I watched the movie and read the associated Wikipedia page did I learn that the movie was not meant to be so much about the issue of Evolution vs. Fundamentalism. But rather was meant to cast a poor light on McCarthyism, which was happening around the time the movie was made.


There is much in the movie that one could be concerned about, particularly from a Christian point of view. First, it is not historically accurate. This problem and all the nuances of the trial were discussed in detail in the Pulitzer-Prize winning book, Summer for the Gods, by Edward J. Larson.
Second, the Christians in the movie are "red-necks" who come across as unthinking and unfeeling. On the other hand, unfortunately, there are Christians who do act like some of the characters in the movie.

The title of the movie is based on Proverbs 11:29

Whoever brings ruin on their family will inherit only wind, and the fool will be servant to the wise.

This is quoted during a powerful and tragic scene when a fundamentalist preacher verbally attacks his own daughter.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Why do university students go on strike?

Previously, I discussed the widespread phenomena in the Majority World of university students going on strike (boycotting classes). Here I address one question I raised there.
There is a range of contributing reasons why these strikes occur. I give the reasons in no particular order.

Frustrated aspirations.
Increased access to university education, means students may be the first in their family to attend university and they may have high hopes about what the experience will be and what it might lead to. However, in the Majority World, they usually encounter institutions which are extremely under-resourced. There are few books in the library, laboratory equipment does not work, lecturers do not show up for work, ....
And then government and university administrators want to increase tuition fees. These fees can be way beyond what students from poor families can afford.

How did it get this way?
Some African context is provided by Joel Carpenter and Nellie Kooistra in Engaging Africa, a report prepared for two philanthropic organisations.
By the mid-1970s and throughout the 1980s, ... African universities suffered deep financial cuts as many countries experienced a crash of commodity prices and the rapid increase of energy prices, resulting in crippling national debts and austerity budgets. World Bank and IMF restructuring programs advised debtor nations to reallocate education spending from higher education to primary and secondary education. Political instability added to the universities’ woes as African nations in the 1980s experienced twenty-one successful coups, and authoritarian regimes became the norm. Rulers suspected their flagship universities of being hotbeds of subversion and slashed their budgets further while building new regional universities to serve favored constituencies. At the same time, European and North American government aid for African universities, which had amounted to scores of millions of dollars over the years, was being sharply curtailed, and so were some major philanthropic efforts... 
These problems continued throughout the 1990s, and to compound them, the World Bank and IMF-predicated emphasis on supporting primary and secondary education was resulting in a surging demand for tertiary enrollments. Governments acceded to political pressure and crowded more students into the older universities....
... conditions proved to be intolerable for thousands of African academics and exacerbated the “brain drain” syndrome as the continent exported talent to wealthier nations. ... Faculty members frequently went on strike for higher wages, while students protested inadequate services. It was becoming clear that the old social contract in higher education—which African governments inherited from the European colonial nations—had broken down. No longer could governments afford to offer free tuitions and subsidies for room and board to all who qualified on their matriculation exams. And these problems were commonly aggravated by universities maintaining large and cumbersome non-academic staffs and infrastructure....
Post-colonialism.
Students and universities are struggling to find a unique identity. There is conflict about what should be done with the legacy (whether statues (Rhodes must fall) or curriculum) of the colonial era of Western dominance.

Corruption.
Sometimes students are protesting about government corruption, as in recent strikes in Papua New Guinea. Other times it is about the corruption that may occur at many different levels within the university. It can range from administrators diverting operating funds to nepotism in hiring to staff taking bribes for admissions or grades.

Inability to resolve conflict.
Some of my friends suggest that conflicts can quickly escalate into strikes due to the emotional immaturity of some students, particularly those from dysfunctional families or from communities in which there are high levels of conflict.

Political opportunism.
Although they may not want to publically admit it, there are outside power brokers who can actually gain from student strikes, and so they may want to prod them along, and even have them escalate to violence. On the left, student protests sometimes bring down governments. On the right, governments can crack down on protests and tap into voter resentment towards students and concerns about public "safety".
You can see this resentment by reading the comments on news stories about student strikes.

For example, Ronald Reagan successfully launched his political career using student protests at UC Berkeley campus as a target.
Smelser, assistant chancellor ... at the time Reagan ran for [Governor of California], recalled that "Reagan took aim at the university for being irresponsible for failing to punish these dissident students. He said, 'Get them out of there. Throw them out. They are spoiled and don't deserve the education they are getting. They don't have a right to take advantage of our system of education.'"
On the student side, many political careers (particularly on the left) have been launched by student activists gaining political experience and a national profile by leading demonstrations.


Saturday, December 9, 2017

Cooking up a good feeling

I enjoyed watching the movie, Chef, even if it is a bit corny with the happy ending.
It does highlight some basic things that are too often overlooked in modern life.
In jobs, freedom and creativity count for more than money, status, and security.
What really matters is relationships, particularly with family.