Saturday, December 26, 2015

Grace, mercy, revolution, romance, ....

Thanks to a generous Christmas gift from my mother-in-law I went with my wife and daughter to a splendid live production of the musical Les Miserables.

The sets for this production were absolutely stunning.
Previously, I have written about some of the reasons why I like the musical so much.
 It manages to consider a compelling and coherent story while engaging with a smorgasbord of themes: law versus grace, personal identity, poverty, humour, prostitution, exploitation, justice, romance, youthful idealism and naivety, sacrificial service, power, heavenly hope, the promise of political revolution, violence,  ....

The overall theme is that of Valjean's redemption, following the mercy he receives at the beginning from a priest who he stole from. The priest who says (sings)
May God's blessing go with you.  
And remember this, my brother See in this some higher plan 
You must use this precious silver To become an honest man 
By the witness of the martyrs 
By the Passion and the Blood God has raised you out of darkness 
I have bought your soul for God! 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Some implications of Emmanuel

One puzzling and stunning concept that is central to Christmas is that of the incarnation (God becoming human). Emmanuel is "God is with us". In Jesus God identifies with our humanity, our hopes and joys, our struggles and suffering, our sin and brokenness, our frailty, ...

What does this mean for living as a follower of Jesus? It means we must identify with others in all their complexity, diversity, brokenness, and need.

I find particularly challenging the example of Servants to Asia's Urban Poor. The first of their 5 ministry principles is Incarnation.
We intentionally live with the urban poor, learning from them, building genuine relationships, participating in their lives and struggles, learning their language and their culture, and working out how Jesus’ love can best be shown in their context.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Whole confusion about cosmic evolution

Recently I was asked to comment on the book, “The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution, and the Power of Love” by Ilia Delio. Here are my thoughts.

I am in sympathy with some of the values and aspirations of the book. I certainly think theology cannot be completely divorced from science, grand narratives are important and inspiring, holistic [rather than reductionist] perspectives can be valuable, community rather than individualism, love trumps all, … However, I have severe reservations on how Ilia Delio tries to justify these perspectives.

Science has such a powerful influence and credibility in our culture that there is pressure for people to claim that their theological and/or political views have a scientific basis. Marx claimed evolution supported communism. Andrew Carnegie claimed evolution supported capitalism. Richard Dawkins claims evolution supports atheism. Some theologians claim evolution supports theism. They can’t all be correct. This problem arises because the philosophical interpretation of any scientific knowledge is debatable. Science is science and philosophy is philosophy.

Most of Ilia Delio’s discussion of science seems to be based on popular books. Unfortunately, most such books oversimplify the actual science and present it with a philosophical baggage and breath-taking implications that many actual scientific practitioners would balk at. For example, Fritjof Capra stopped doing physics more than 30 years ago. He wrote a best seller the “Tao of Physics” that claimed quantum theory supported Eastern religions. A critique is hereDavid Bohm was a very distinguished theoretical physicist, but from the 1960s he pursued speculative ideas such as “implicate order” that are not really taken seriously in academic physics.

Much is made in the book of “quantum entanglement” to justify that we are all interconnected. In the lab one can now create a unique situation where the quantum state of a few atoms are entangled. However, in normal and natural systems atoms are not entangled. The individual atoms and molecules in the cells in your body are not entangled. Furthermore, my wife and I are not entangled! Thus, I find the discussion on pages 24-29 debatable and problematic.

It should be stressed that the term “evolution” used here is not the well-established scientific theory that describes and explains biological change and diversity. This is made clear on the top of page 19. Rather “evolution” is some universal principle that applies to everything! This is just a philosophical claim that has no more scientific basis than my claim that the Biblical narrative provides the grand narrative which makes sense of everything [without scientific details].  Similarly, the Omega point, advocated by Teilhard de Chardin, and described on page 20, is just a philosophical speculation for which there is no scientific evidence.

Overall, though what is most disappointing to me is the lack of confidence in the Biblical narrative to provide the grand story. The standard view of liberal theology is that science has undermined the authority and reliability of the Bible and so we have to look elsewhere and particularly to science for inspiration and guidance. I know there are many subtle issues and people certainly need to give up on simplistic readings of the text; e.g, that Genesis 1-3 is historical/scientific record. However, once you read it theologically, paying due attention to literary genre and historical context, I think the main “conflict” issues are taken care of.

I don’t think we need “evolution” to make sense of the Christian life. Orthodox theology [whether Augustine, Calvin, Barth, St. Francis, ….] does for me. Importing “scientific” categories and concepts may just confuse the issues.

Again I stress I think we do need a more holistic perspective on everything, whether church, politics, the environment, and society. We are all inter-connected. But, I think Scripture has that message too, once we stop reading it through individualistic Western glasses. In case you are interested in my own modest efforts to engage “emergence” with orthodox theology I refer to a paper I wrote on the subject. It may also help see why I think that individual disciplines are actually more or less autonomous. Specifically, quantum physics is not particularly relevant to biology which is not particularly relevant to sociology.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A monument to the brutality and arrogance of colonialism

On a recent visit to Kolkata an Indian friend took my wife and I to the Victoria Memorial Hall.
The architecture and the historical displays are impressive.
But I found the whole experience very disturbing. The opulent grandeur of a memorial to a British monarch [the Empress of India] who represented the ruthless colonial rule and exploitation of a very poor nation was disturbing.

The central hall contains copies of the Queen's 1858 decree that took over the rule of India from the British East India company. It included the following text:
We shall respect the rights, dignity, and honor of Native Princes as Our own ; and we desire that they—as well as our own subjects—should enjoy prosperity, and that social advancement, which can only be secured by internal peace and good government. We hold ourselves bound to the Natives of Our Indian territories by the same obligations of duty, which bind us to all Our other subjects, and those obligations by the Blessing of God, we shall faithfully and conscientiously fulfill….. ……And it is our further will that, so far as may be, our subjects, of whatever race or creed, be freely and impartially admitted to offices in our service, the duties of which they may be qualified, by their education, ability, and integrity, duly to discharge….
This apparent concern for the well being of the "natives" is a far cry from what unfolded over the next 90 years.

Monday, December 21, 2015

A book that has had a big influence on me

A few years ago I bought a copy of the daily devotional book Resist the Powers with Jacques Ellul by Charles Ringma. For each day there is a short Bible passage and a reflection containing a quote from Jacques Ellul.

Every few days I read a page. Of anything I have read over the past few years I think this book has had the biggest influence. It really does present a radical view of what it means to follow Jesus and what the nature of the Kingdom of God is. Ellul was certainly a creative and radical thinker.

The book was my first introduction to Charles Ringma and I was delighted when a few years ago I got to meet him in person and be part of a theology book reading group that he leads.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Research metrics, university rankings, and the demise of scholarly virtues

In the past two decades universities have been swept off their feet by global rankings and metrics for measuring the performance of individual staff and of departments. Commonly used metrics include the h-index to measure an individuals academic impact based on citations to journal articles and total research income. Journal impact factors are used to rank not just journals but also the value of individual academic papers. One Australian university has an “index”, a single number, which is meant to measure of the performance and contributions of an individual faculty member.

The widespread use of these metrics has been criticised because of the flawed methodology involved, the negative impact they have on staff morale, and the diminished quality of research as people “game the system” to boost their metrics. Yet, there are broader and more profound issues at stake. Single numbers cannot capture qualitative features and human virtues such as curiosity, creativity, integrity, perseverance, awe, humility, and wonder. Yet it is such virtues, and their deep theological roots, that drove not just the beginning of science and of universities but has also sustained and motivated many researchers even up until today.

On my science blog I have described the transition in university values from scholarship to money to status. On this blog I wrote about how my Christian values shape my view of the university.

There is a need for discussions about a grander vision of the purpose of education and research, the role of virtues in scholarship, and the meaning of personhood and community. Christian theology provides a distinct perspective on these issues. I am looking forward to reading work by Mike Higton on this issue, including an article Wisdom and Delight in the University, and a book, A Theology of Higher Education.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

In what countries do most deaths by terrorism occur?

Since 9/11 in New York, 99 out of 100 deaths by terrorism occurred in the Majority World.
Less than 1 in 100 occur in the Western world.
More than 150,000 people have died.