Monday, August 31, 2009

Give us a King!

Israel desperately wanted a king so they could be like the nations around them. God consented and the kings both individually and collectively ranged from the righteous to the wicked, the wise to the foolish, ....

The U.S.A. rebelled against the monarchy and installed a republican form of government. Yet it is sometimes, pointed out that it is ironic that the US has a fascination with political families and dynasties: Bush, Clinton, and particularly the Kennedy's.

I am in the U.S.A. right now in the midst of many events and deliberations marking the death of Senator Edward Kennedy. Surely this is a story just like that of Israel and the Kennedy dynasty history contains the same elements of wickedness, tragedy, heroism, adversity....

There is only one King in history who had a record without blemish and whose public service was completely self sacrificial and was the most inspirational leader who ever lived. Let us praise Him!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The role of research in theological colleges

I believe that in any tertiary educational institution there are significant benefits to faculty being involved in publishing original research, even in institutions whose primary mission is the undergraduate education. I would have thought that many people would have thought and written about this with regard to seminaries and theological colleges. But I have not been able to find anything. I would greatly appreciate anyone posting or sending me any articles on this topic, since i am currently writing something. I believe that such research helps to:
  • to maintain the intellectual vitality of teaching staff,
  • to keep teaching and supervision of research postgraduate students up to date
  • to raise college profiles and increase the ability to recruit the highest quality students and staff
  • to contribute to the international community of scholars and theological educators
  • to reduce isolationism and force faculty to engage with thinkers beyond their own denomination

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The tension between free will and predestination

One endless theological conundrum is the relationship between free will and predestination. [Related issues actually occur in physics with respect to the compatibility of theories that are deterministic and those are not... but that is another matter.] I make no claim to understand this mystery and do not think I ever will, just like there are many things in physics I struggle to understand but do not necessarily expect to be able to understand..

An important passage is in Romans 9 where Paul discusses the issue in terms of God hardening pharaohs heart:
14What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." 16So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." 18So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
But did Pharaoh have any choice? Today (3 a.m, in Toronto!) I was reading Exodus 9 about the ten plagues that preceded the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. I noticed that for the first five plaques it says that
the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people go.
In contrast, for the remaining five it says:
the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh
Hence, it could be argued that what is going on is similar to in Romans 1 where Paul argues that
"since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to"their own sinful desires and the natural consequences of them.

This does not resolve the tension but amplifies it. We should live with it!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Slaves to debt

In a previous post I mention some intriguing and profound dialogue in the movie, The International that I saw on a flight to Hong Kong. Well guess what?
I just flew Brisbane-LA and so I watched the beginning of the movie again. It made a bit more sense second time around. I wrote down the dialogue I found so intriguing.

An Interpol investigator (Clive Owen) and a NY Assistant District Attorney (Naomi Watts) are trying to figure out what the IBBC bank is really up to. All they know is that the bank is suspected of money laundering and whoever starts to find out too much ends up dead. The investigators meet with an arms manufactor (Calvini) who explains what the bank is doing.
Investigator: Mr. Calvini, Why is the IBBC committing so much of its capital and resources to financing small arms deals?

Calvini: IBBC wants to be the exclusive broker of Chinese small arms to third world conflicts.

Investigator: But why would such a bank commit billions of dollars to simply control the third world arms trade?

Calvini: This is not about making profit. It is about control.

Investigator: So this is about controlling the flow of weapons. He who controls the weapons flow controls the conflict?

Calvini: No. No. IBBC is a bank. Their objective is not to control the conflict but to control the debt that the conflict produces. The true value of the conflict is the debt it creates. You control the debt, you control everything. You find this very upsetting. But this is the very essence of the banking industry. Its goal, whether we are nations or individuals is to make us all slaves to debt.
An hour later Calvini is assasinated.....

and just so you don't think IBBC is all Hollywood fantasy consider the story of the real BCCI
and controversial allegations made in the book, Confessions of an economic hitman.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The common literary genre of Dan Brown and Richard Dawkins?

Timothy Jenkins from Cambridge has a fascinating article entitled

Closer to Dan Brown than to Gregor Mendel: on Dawkins' The God Delusion

which just appear in the Scottish Journal of Theology.

The abstract reads:
The aim of this paper is to place Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion (2006) within a particular literary genre and, by so doing, to account for certain features of its written style, to identify its structuring claims and to offer an explanation for the popularity it has enjoyed with a broad readership. By offering a description of this kind, I hope to avoid engaging in the polemics which the book both offers and has elicited; the argument is situated at another level. My proposal may seem a surprising one: Dawkins' work comes within a spectrum that includes in its modern forms both science fiction and fantasy literature, a spectrum that uses the products of science to think with, in order to explore human dilemmas. In a word, this is a modern theodicy. I shall begin by sketching out the notion of thinking with science, before turning to characteristic stylistic features of Dawkins' work, and then examining the core claims of the book in the perspective outlined. I shall offer some concluding remarks, but there is little to be said about the author's argument with respect to religion or faith; his topic is a pretext for another kind of exercise.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Does the Bible read you?

I really like the introductory chapter of Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, and Advocacy by Walter Brueggemann.

Here is a sample:
The practical effect of the Reformation, as far as the Bible is concerned, is to let the Bible have its own voice, without regard for or indebtedness to any established category of church interpretation. In this sense, the Reformation was indeed an act of interpretive emancipation. Luther and those who came after him in the Reformation perforce established categories of and criteria for reading that are not negotiable. They insisted with great passion, however, that their evangelical modes of Bible reading were not imposed but in fact arose from the substance of the biblical text itself. As we shall see, this practice of devising categories of interpretation that appear to be given is an onogoing issue in Old Testament theology.
Do we interpret the text or does the text interpret us?
Does our theology determine our reading of the text or does the text determine our theology?

Monday, August 17, 2009

The shock value of Judges

My wife and I had a good discussion after church about the sermon on Jephthah, who was a Judge of Israel and made a foolish vow that led him to sacrifice his own daughter. This is truly shocking.

Our pastor pointed out that at the time that Israel and the surrounding nations was so immersed in worship of Baal et al. (which involved ritual prostitution, child sacrifice, manipulating the gods with sacrifices in order to get military victories....) that Jephthah may have actually thought that he was doing the right thing by YHWH. Furthermore, the only reason he did not break his foolish vow may have been mostly to do with saving face.

I cant find anywhere in the text where a prophet or angel of the LORD tells Jephthah to make or to keep this vow.

Judges describes some truly shocking characters and incidents. It should repel us and lead us to difficult questions. In an earlier post I wrote that a key passage to understanding the book is the last verse of the book (Judges 21:25):
In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
But, now I think a key is just appreciating the repeated cycle of the Israelites turning away from YHWH, who then turns them over to the consequences of their sin, usually subjugation by their enemies, and misery, they cry out to YHWH in desperation, He hears them and raises up a deliverer (Judge), they repent, within a generation or less, they turn away from YHWH, .... and on and on ... and on....
Chapter 2 highlights this:
1Now the angel of the LORD went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, "I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, 'I will never break my covenant with you, 2and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars.' But you have not obeyed my voice.

11And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals.

16Then the LORD raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them. 17Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they whored after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their fathers had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the LORD, and they did not do so. 18Whenever the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the LORD was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them.
The cast of characters and events in Judges is truly shocking. It shows us how truly evil and unfaithful we can be. But, what should be more shocking is that there is a merciful, compassionate, and faithful God who saves people (yes, very flawed people) who do not deserve to be saved. It is this same God who shocks us with the offer of the free gift of eternal life in Christ (Ephesians 2:8,9).

Sunday, August 16, 2009

It isn't really about military victories!

This mornings sermon at church will be on Judges 11-12, which is not the easiest passage to understand and apply since it concerns the foolish vow of Jepthah.
I have also been dipping into Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, and Advocacy by Walter Brueggemann. [I mentioned his Genesis commentary in an earlier post]. He discusses as part of Israel's core testimony is to The Righteousness of Yahweh (pp. 130 ff.) He considers three texts [Judges 5:10-11, 1 Samuel 12:7, and Micah 6:3-5] which use the plural "righteousnesses" [sdqoth in Hebrew].

The Song of Deborah [ESV translation] reads:
9My heart goes out to the commanders of Israel
who offered themselves willingly among the people.
Bless the LORD.

"Tell of it, you who ride on white donkeys,
you who sit on rich carpets and you who walk by the way.

11To the sound of musicians at the watering places,
there they repeat the righteous triumphs of the LORD,
the righteous triumphs of his villagers in Israel.

Brueggemann states:
These three references , in very different modes and contexts, provide evidence of a characteristic way in which Israel understood, construed, and spoke about the reality of Yahweh in its life. It is understood that the reference points of life with Yahweh have to do with interventions that made possible what was otherwise not possible.
To me this nicely connects to the Gospel (Romans 3:21-26):
21But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Why are you so upset that I did the wrong thing?

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis begins by arguing for the existence of The Law of Human Nature. This is that humans have a universal sense that they should behave in a certain way (i.e., a morally correct manner) and they do not behave in that way.

In the second chapter he answers some objections. It took we a while to get my brain around the objections and the counter-arguments and so I attempt to summarise them here.

Objection 1: This personal sense of morality is just a herd instinct.
a. But the "herd instinct" to act for the greater good is in conflict with the "instinct" to act in a selfish manner and for self-preservation. But the sense of morality is what tells us to prefer one instinct over the other.
b. If only the two conflicting instincts are in our mind the stronger one (usually the selfish one) will almost always win. But our sense of morality leads us often to follow the weaker instinct.
c. Instincts are usually morally neutral. For example, the "fighting" instinct can both be used to protect the innocent and to murder. Our sense of morality tells us when its use is right or wrong.

Objection 2: The Moral Law is just a social convention.
a. Although, morality is "learnt" in a social context that does not preclude it being truth. Mathematics is also learnt and taught.
b. Although, there are differences in social conventions between different countries the differences in morality are not as great as argued. Futhermore, the fact that evaluate the relative merit of these different "social conventions" shows that we have sense of some absolute standard to compare with. Even those who would claim that morality is a social convention are unlikely to argue that slavery was not morally wrong.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A peaceful death

Earlier I wrote how in Les Miserables, the self-righteous policeman Javert was so tormented by receiving mercy from Valjean that he took his own life.
It is interesting to contrast the death of Valjean, who dies with his adopted daughter, Fantine at his side. I just listened to this again. Something is lost without the music but here are the lyrics:

Come with me
Where chains will never bind you
All your grief
At last, at last behind you
Lord in Heaven
Look down on him in mercy.

forgive me all my trespasses
And take me to your glory.

Take my hand
And lead me to salvation
Take my love
For love is everlasting
And remember
The truth that once was spoken
To love another person
Is to see the face of God.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Christian perspective on technology, suffering, and justice

Each year Christians in Science hold a one day conference in London. This year it is on saturday October 31, with the theme, Applying Science in a Suffering World. They have the usual high-profile and able speakers.
I have been able to attend two of the previous conferences because I was in the U.K. at the time. They were excellent. Unfortunately, I won't be there this year. But, I mention it here since I have a reasonable number of U.K. readers and also "globe-trotting" readers.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Imprisoned by trusting in our own righteousness

The part of Les Miserables, the musical, that made the biggest impression on me is the interaction between the self-righteous policeman, Javert, and the merciful fugitive, Jean Valjean. Javert devotes his life to pursuing and capturing Valjean.

When Javert first captures Valjean after he ran from a courtroom to go to the bedside of his dying adopted daughter, Javert sings:
Men like you can never change
Men like you can never change
No, 24601
My duty's to the law - you have no Rights
Come with me 24601
Now the wheel has turned around
Jean Valjean is nothing now
Dare you talk to me of crime
And the price you had to pay
Every man is born in sin
Every man must choose his way
You know nothing of Javert
I was born inside a jail
I was born with scum like you
I am from the gutter too!
Years later Javert is still hunting for Valjean. He sings of this life-consuming passion:
There, out in the darkness
A fugitive running
Fallen from grace
Fallen from grace
God be my witness
I never shall yield
Till we come face to face
Till we come face to face

He knows his way in the dark
Mine is the way of the Lord
And those who follow the path of the righteous
Shall have their reward
And if they fall
As Lucifer fell
The flame
The sword!

In your multitudes
Scarce to be counted
Filling the darkness
With order and light
You are the sentinels
Silent and sure
Keeping watch in the night
Keeping watch in the night

You know your place in the sky
You hold your course and your aim
And each in your season
Returns and returns
And is always the same
And if you fall as Lucifer fell
You fall in flame!

And so it has been and so it is written
On the doorway to paradise
That those who falter and those who fall
Must pay the price!

Lord let me find him
That I may see him
Safe behind bars
I will never rest
Till then
This I swear
This I swear by the stars!
Later Javert becomes a spy against revolutionaries, but is exposed by Valjean, who lets him escape. This act of mercy is too much for Javert. He sings of his internal torment before he kills himself.
Who is this man?
What sort of devil is he
To have me caught in a trap
And choose to let me go free?
It was his hour at last
To put a seal on my fate
Wipe out the past
And wash me clean off the slate!
All it would take
Was a flick of his knife.
Vengeance was his
And he gave me back my life!

Damned if I'll live in the debt of a thief!
Damned if I'll yield at the end of the chase.
I am the Law and the Law is not mocked
I'll spit his pity right back in his face
There is nothing on earth that we share
It is either Valjean or Javert!

How can I now allow this man
To hold dominion over me?
This desperate man whom I have hunted
He gave me my life. He gave me freedom.
I should have perished by his hand
It was his right.
It was my right to die as well
Instead I live... but live in hell.

And my thoughts fly apart
Can this man be believed?
Shall his sins be forgiven?
Shall his crimes be reprieved?

And must I now begin to doubt,
Who never doubted all these years?
My heart is stone and still it trembles
The world I have known is lost in shadow.
Is he from heaven or from hell?
And does he know
That granting me my life today
This man has killed me even so?

I am reaching, but I fall
And the stars are black and cold
As I stare into the void
Of a world that cannot hold
I'll escape now from the world
From the world of Jean Valjean.
There is nowhere I can turn
There is no way to go on....

(He throws himself into the swollen river)

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Les Miserables

My wife, Robin and I are quite excited that the musical Les Miserables is going to be performed next month on the UQ campus in Brisbane. It will be performed by the Ignations Musical Society.
We first heard it (in English) a few years ago and then brought the CD and a DVD.
It is an amazing story of grace in action. I will write more later....

The idolatry of efficiency

Every few months my wife and I get together with several other couples for a discussion group where we discuss how Christianity relates to various issues. Topics we have covered include: caring for aging parents, money, parenting teenagers, private schools, politics, capitalism, ....
This week we will be looking at technology. In preparation, I recalled that Jacques Ellul had done significant work in this area. The Wikipedia entry on Ellul is fascinating (it is interesting that he was strongly influenced by Barth). There also a significant archive of his publications here. The one page piece on modern idolatry is particularly worth reading.

My understanding is that Ellul was a critic of not just technology but the de-humanizing effects of "la technique", a concern with maximising efficiency:
Modern technology has become a total phenomenon for civilization, the defining force of a new social order in which efficiency is no longer an option but a necessity imposed on all human activity.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

An article in the New York Times, Modern Love: Those aren't fighting words, dear
was one of the most popular yesterday.
On the one hand it is fascinating, insightful, and commendable to see how the author saved her marriage from unnecessary divorce.

But, I also found it interesting to see the emphasis on that U.S. constitutional right, "the pursuit of happiness". Here are a couple of quotes from the article:

You see, I’d recently committed to a non-negotiable understanding with myself. I’d committed to “The End of Suffering.” I’d finally managed to exile the voices in my head that told me my personal happiness was only as good as my outward success, rooted in things that were often outside my control. I’d seen the insanity of that equation and decided to take responsibility for my own happiness. And I mean all of it.

My husband hadn’t yet come to this understanding with himself...... ....

When life’s knocked us around. And our childhood myths reveal themselves to be just that. The truth feels like the biggest sucker-punch of them all: it’s not a spouse or land or a job or money that brings us happiness. Those achievements, those relationships, can enhance our happiness, yes, but happiness has to start from within. Relying on any other equation can be lethal.
I would go further. As long as our own personal happiness is our primary life goal, value, and motivation, our life may be fraught with strained relationships, disappointments, and frustration.
It is not all about me!
24Then Jesus told his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?
Matthew 16

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The wisdom of the world?

Each tuesday morning, before work I get together with a group of the other Christian men who also work at the University. We usually read a chapter of the Bible, talk about it, and then pray together. This morning we read the first chapter of the book of Proverbs.
A few things I got out of the discussion follow.

Proverbs was arguably written in the context of surrounding nations who had their own "wisdom" literature consisting of sayings based on "common sense". Proverbs is deliberately written in contrast to that, to show that YHWH is the centre of all of life, and particularly, wise living. "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom."

Much of Proverbs consists not of theology but sayings based on observations of everyday life. Much of this is "common sense" in the sense that a careful and objective and motivated observer can learn things such as:
laziness leads to poverty, adultery ends in disaster, children need discipline, saving money is good, arguing destroys relationships,...

Hence, these truths "shout out".

"Wisdom", 1560, by Vecellio Tiziano (Titian)

However, most of us don't learn these things because we don't want to. Our self interested wishful thinking is always hoping there will be a "free lunch" and that we can get away with doing the wrong thing, or that disobedience to God's laws won't have undesirable consequences.

On the other hand, we need to be wary of what is claimed to be "common sense", "conventional wisdom" and "bleedingly obvious". Jesus teaching clearly does not meet these criteria. "The first will be last and the last will be first." Science also teaches us that many counter-intuitive things (e.g., quantum physics) defy our notions of what is "common sense".

Sunday, August 2, 2009

A rich and fertile creation

This morning I read Karl Barth's exegesis of this passage from Genesis 1:
11And God said, "Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth." And it was so. 12The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 13And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

As always Barth puts this in the context of the history of God's covenant relationship with Israel.
while the classification is botanical in form, its true significance is typical, like everthing else in the account. .... there can be no doubt that the future history of Israel is distinctively prefigured in it. This is true irrespective of the classification. It must not be forgotten that the green earth as such is to Old Testament man as much an antithesis of the destroying sea as of the barren desert.
He then recounts the significance of desert and wandering in the wilderness in Israel's history.
And this is the historical view which as an antitype as in the creation account of Gen. 1:11-12 is its prototype. We have to realise this when the second half of the third day's work closes with the divine pronouncement that it was good. Good is the earthly life which has its beginning; good is the earth which is the scene of this life; good is the twofold form of life in which further living creatures are envisaged; good is God's presence in the wilderness , and His deliverance from the wilderness, and His transformations of the wilderness into a garden. It is all good because, with the separation of the land from water, it all prepares and prefigures the history which is to take place on earth, and because as this prepartion and prefiguration it corresponds to the will and Word of God.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.1: The Doctrine of Creation, pp. 154-156.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Video interview on emergence

The Centre for Public Christianity (CPX), founded by Greg Clarke and John Dickson, is putting together a video on science and Christianity. On friday they interviewed me about emergence: what is it? how does it effect the way science is done? what are the implications for belief in God?

I look forward to seeing the final product. You can see some of the other interviews CPX has done here.