Sunday, March 31, 2013

Barth on the Resurrection of Jesus

The knowledge which the Apostles acquired on the basis of Christ's Resurrection, the conclusion of which is the Ascension of Christ, is essentially this basic knowledge that the reconciliation which took place in Jesus Christ is not some casual story, but that in this work of God's grace we have to do with the word of God's omnipotence, that here an ultimate and supreme thing comes into action, behind which there is no other reality.
Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, page 117.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Augustine on creation, angels, and numerology

At today's Volfians discussion group we will look at Book XI of Augustine's City of God. I was keen to do this because he discusses Genesis 1, creation, and time.
The broad trajectory is to develop the idea of the two-fold division, the City of men and the City of God, of evil and good.

Parts of this Book impressed me. Others did not.

I was impressed by the Section headings:
5. We are not to think about infinite time before the world, any more than about infinite space outside it. As there was no time before it, so there is no space outside it. 
6. The beginning of the world and the beginning of time are the same.
Over history many philosophers and scientists have had a different view. However, Augustine's view, inspired by Genesis, is actually consistent with a modern scientific view: both time and space began at the "big bang". Scientists only came to this consensus after a long struggle and finding the observational data was only consistent with one of many possible theories [Einstein's theory of general relativity with a "singularity" in the past].

Augustine considers the following puzzling issue raised by Genesis 1.
7. On the nature of the days where there was "morning and evening" before the creation of the sun. 
... these are questions beyond the scope of our sensible experience. We cannot understand what happened as it is presented to us; and yet we must believe it without hesitation...
Here he begins a debatable identification of "light and darkness" in Genesis with good and bad angels, respectively. He is often concerned with angels. It is interesting that issues about them are not at the forefront of discussions about Genesis and creation today.

God's rest on the seventh day of creation "means the rest of those who find their rest in him, just as "the joy of a house" means the joy of those who rejoice in that house."

Augustine rebuts ideas of Origen that the purpose of creation was to put souls into bodies. Rather, "there is only one cause for the creation of the world - the purpose of God's goodness in the creation of good."
....there are three questions to be asked in respect of any created being: ‘Who made it’, ‘How?’ and ‘Why?’. I put forward the answers: ‘God’, ‘Through his word’, ‘Because it is good’.
It is sometimes said, "Genesis tells us the the "who" and the "why", science tells us the "how" and the "when"". I don't think Augustine's view necessarily conflicts with this. Rather he might be answering "how does the scientific description and natural mechanism work?"

But, after this nice quote he begins an apparent tendency to want to invoke numerology and the Trinity, seeing a three-fold division of much of reality and philosophy. He wonders about whether the THREE questions above are related to the Trinity. Philosophy is divided into three parts: physics, logic, and ethics. "There are also three things that are looked for in any artist: natural ability, training, and the use to which he puts them." He moves on to the "perfection of the number six" and seven, too!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Scientist becomes insane following Christ?

The Economist has an interesting review of the new Oxford University Press book Nature's Oracle: The Life and Work of W.D. Hamilton by Ullica Segerstrale.
Hamilton is well known for his contributions to evolutionary theory, particularly its mathematical formulation. Some of his ideas were popularised by Richard Dawkins in his book, The Selfish Gene.

The review says the book recounts
... the suicide of [Hamilton's] early collaborator, George Price (a mentally unstable individual, who was driven mad by his conversion from atheism to Christianity)
It is interesting to compare this claim to the account of Price's life on Wikipedia which is quite different. It suggests Price's depression and resulting suicide was due to discouragement about the failure of his efforts to help the homeless.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Can helping someone hurt them?

Earlier I posted about the problem of Lending a helping hand. Some of these issues are discussed in much greater depth in the book, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself, by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett.
I hope to read it soon.

There is a helpful summary in a review by Tim Challies. It includes the following chilling statement from the book:
one of the biggest problems in many poverty-alleviation efforts is that their design and implementation exacerbates the poverty of being of the economically rich—their god-complexes—and the poverty of being of the economically poor—their feelings of inferiority and shame.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Workshop for postgraduate students

Today I am speaking at a workshop, "Surviving or thriving as a postgraduate student", organised by my church. The workshop was particularly oriented at international students who face the additional challenges of living, studying, and working in a different culture.

Here are the slides from my presentation which was interspersed with participants completing and discussing a worksheet.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

False predictions of science killing God

Almost fifty years ago the anthropologist Anthony Wallace pronounced in an undergraduate textbook:
the evolutionary future of religion is extinction. Belief in supernatural beings and in supernatural forces that affect nature without obeying nature’s laws will erode and become only an interesting historical memory ... [As] a cultural trait, belief in supernatural powers is doomed to die out, all over the world, as a result of the increasing adequacy and diffusion of scientific knowledge ... the process is inevitable.
Wallace, F.C., Religion: An Anthropological View, Random House, New York (1966) pages 264-265.

Yet this has not been fulfilled. It did not deter the atheist and philosopher Daniel Dennett stating in 2007:
I’m so optimistic that I expect to live to see the evaporation of the powerful mystique of religion. I think that in about twenty-five years almost all religions will have evolved into very different phenomena, so much so that in most quarters religion will no longer command the awe it does today.
I first heard these quotations in the introduction that Peter Harrison gave to his excellent seminar last week on "Science and Secularization."

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Refusing to hear the Word of the LORD

And the word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, 10 do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” 11 But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear. 12 They made their hearts diamond-hard lest they should hear the law and the words that the Lord of hosts had sent by his Spirit through the former prophets.

Zechariah 7:8-12

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A limited role for Westerners in the global church

Last night my wife and I attended the annual supporters dinner for TEAR in Queensland. CB Samuel, an Indian church leader, spoke about the role of Westerners in the global church. A few things he emphasized are below

Referring to the work of Philip Jenkins, the composition of the global church is dramatically different from one hundred years ago, when it was Western, white, and wealthy. Now it is predominantly, non-white and poor. These people read the Bible differently from Westerners. Samuel only elaborated briefly on this when asked. He said Westerner's tend not to believe it, particularly with regards to promises about prayer and miraculous healing. I would also be interested to know if he thinks Westerners largely filter out the texts about social justice, poverty, and the idolatry of wealth.
Australians seem quite comfortable accepting Biblical interpretations coming from the USA and Europe, but not from Asia, Africa, or Latin America. People will say to CB Samuel, "You have an interesting Indian perspective." But he doubts anyone said to John Stott, "Well that is an interesting English perspective."

India is rapidly changing. There is little reverence for the state. People has a sense that they have rights that they are demanding they be met. Many young people are becoming followers of Christ through informal networks and interactions in secular urban workplaces. The established church is playing a minor role.

There is a limited role for Westerners to play. They are more willing to take risks than others and to play a pioneering role. But they need to be quicker to hand over leadership and control to the indigenous leadership. There are certain areas where Westerners have competence they can contribute. These areas were not specified, except for documentation. [My guess would be higher education and medicine would be two others.] But they need to come with a servant attitude, come along side local workers, listen, learn, and equip. Competence does not give the right to control.

Short term missions are not effective and sometimes laughed at by locals. Direct church to church partnerships which ignore the expertise of established organisations are of limited effectiveness. [This same point was made by Ralph Winter in a paper discussed in an earlier post].

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Who invented the secular?

Was it modern atheists?

Well where did the concept of sacred and secular come from?
Perhaps from Jesus who said

“So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

The idea of the secular was arguably also developed and promoted by more by Luther with his notion of "two kingdoms" and by Augustine in The City of God.

These thoughts and observations were prompted by attending some of a seminar series last year at the Centre for History of European Discourses at UQ. I wished I had got around to blogging about those I attended.

I am looking forward to the next series, Narratives of Secularisation which begins tomorrow with Peter Harrison speaking on "Science and Secularisation."

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The bitterness of injustice

I have been reading through the Old Testament Book of Amos. The main theme is God's judgement (both present and forthcoming) on Israel for the injustice endemic to the society. This is very challenging today.

As an aside (which is hopefully not just an intellectual distraction) two particular verses got my attention (Amos 5:7 and 6:12):

you who turn justice to wormwood
    and cast down righteousness to the earth!

But you have turned justice into poison
    and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood

I found these verses interesting because of the issues raised in an old post about "wormwood" in the Book of Revelation. The wormwood [just like locusts, fire, a plumbline, ...] may be an allusion to Amos.

This supports the view that Revelation is not about predicting specific events in a chronological sequence leading to the return of Jesus. Rather, it a call to Christians to perserve in living out their faith in a world full of injustice and suffering.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

How can we help the poor?

Why do the poor remain poor? Are they trapped?
What is the most effective way to help them?
Why do many well-intentioned aid programs fail?

My son and I have started reading Poor Economics: a radical rethinking of the way to fight global poverty by two MIT economists.

It is very helpful and challenging. The emphasis is on finding strategies that have actually been proven to work, rather than programs Westerners think should work. The authors are also very compassionate pointing out how many of the mistakes and bad choices that the poor make are not that different to those of us in the affluent West make. For example, we often make choices (e.g. lack of exercise and poor diet) that are not in our best long term interests, even though we know what is the best thing to do.

The book emphasizes the complexity of the problem. Even simple ideas, such as getting families to use bed nets to reduce the chance of getting malaria from mosquitoes, can face significant cultural, psychological, and economic obstacles. To me, this underscores the effectiveness of holistic, indigenous led, and community based programs such as run by Compassion.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The inseparability of God's Works and Words

The divine revelation that the Old Testament records was conveyed in two principal ways—by mighty works and prophetic words. These two modes of revelation are bound up indissolubly together. The acts of mercy and judgment by which the God of Israel made himself known to his covenant people would not have carried their proper message had they not been interpreted to them by the prophets—the “spokesmen” of God who received and communicated his word. For example, the events of the Exodus would not have acquired their abiding significance for the Israelites if Moses had not told them that in these events the God of their fathers was acting for their deliverance, in accordance with his ancient promises, so that they might be his people and he their God. On the other hand, Moses’ words would have been fruitless apart from their vindication in the events of the Exodus.
F.F. Bruce, New Bible Dictionary, page 138

Three strands to the central message of the Bible

The Bible's central message is the story of salvation, and throughout both testaments three strands in this unfolding story can be distinguished: the bringer of salvation, the way of salvation and the heirs of salvation. This could be reworded in terms of the covenant idea by saying the central message of the Bible is God's covenant with men, and that the strands are the mediator of the covenant, the basis of the covenant, and the covenant people. God himself is the Saviour of His people; it is He who confirms His covenant mercy with them. The bringer of Salvation, the mediator of the covenant is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The way of salvation, the basis of the covenant, is God's grace, calling forth from his people a response of faith and obedience. The heirs of salvation, the covenant people are the Israel of God, the Church of God.  
F.F. Bruce, New Bible Dictionary, Second edition, p. 139. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The truth about men

Several months ago my son and I watched A Few Good Men, a fictional courtroom drama centred on a case of physical abuse [an illegal code red] within the US military.

To me it highlights the irony that violence and injustice can become endemic to a military which is meant to be protecting its citizens from injustice and violence. Why is that?

Two years ago I asked Who is protecting who? because of revelations of a long history of abuse of cadets within the Australian military.

Here is the climactic scene from the movie. You can't handle the truth. The end justifies the means...


Sunday, March 3, 2013

Does no one preach on this passage?

Some of the teachings of Jesus are hard to understand. Some are just too hard to hear....

It is interesting that in forty years of attending a range of churches I don't every recall hearing a sermon on the passage below from the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 25) . But, perhaps the passage was preached on and I deliberately forgot... This is no obscure passage. In Mattew's Gospel it is the last, and perhaps culmination, of Jesus teaching.

  31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left....

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Blame the Christians!

The "Volfian" reading group is re-convening today to discuss more of Augustine's City of God. We just read Book III. Augustine provides a model and robust critique of the surrounding culture and of his contemporaries' criticism of Christianity. They were blaming Christianity for the fall of Rome and its current suffering. If only the Romans had kept worshipping their own gods. They would have protected them.

Augustine cleverly uses secular authors to show the flaws in these arguments. Rome "suffered" much before Christ. Furthermore, Roman gods were diligently worshipped then and yet Roman citizens experienced considerable natural disasters and atrocities in war. Much of this suffering arose from civil wars and from man's own lust for power and violence. In Augustine's words:

How can our opponents have the effrontery, the audacity, the impudence, the imbecility (or rather the insanity) to refuse to blame their gods for those catastrophes, while they hold Christ responsible for the disasters of modern times?
The brutal civil wars, more bitter, in the admission of their own authors, than any wars against foreign enemies - those civil wars which, in the general judgement, brought on the the republic not merely calamity but utter destruction - broke out long before the coming of Christ.
Book III, Chapter 30,  pages 131 (Penguin edition)