Everyman

•November 19, 2012 • Leave a Comment
He is proud and loud
He craves and lusts
Exerting his pitiable clout
“I can,” he boasts aloud 

He is an insecure man
He is Everyman.

Rejected by society
He is hungry and lonely
Tired of the poverty and pain
“Help me,” he cries in vain

He is a helpless man
He is Everyman.  

Abandoned by a love he cared
His heart he is now afraid to share
His life he lives in isolation
As he detaches himself from his emotions

He is a hurting man
He is Everyman

He surely must comprehend
As He was Everyman
When He died as the flawless Lamb
To reconcile to Himself all hopeless men.

Culture according to a loan shark

•June 20, 2012 • Leave a Comment

The lunch outing started off rather typical – my colleague, D, and I were getting our favorite piping hot beef noodles at one of Singapore’s ubiquitous food centers. As she got hers first, she set off looking for the elusive vacant table. She ended up sharing a table with a man (in his fifties) who was drinking the last sips off his coffee cup. So she sat down and started eating – not bothering to move her bowl from the tray but instead ate with the bowl on the tray. As soon as I joined her at the table, our stranger lunch company suggested that we remove the tray from underneath our bowls before we eat. Well, at least it started off sounding like a suggestion. When we decided to not heed his advice, he began to order us to do so – saying that only the dead eat from a tray (alluding to the manner that food is offered on the ancestral altars).

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I politely informed him that it’s fine for us as we’re not superstitious. My reply apparently prompted an emotional response as he started to chastise us (in Mandarin) for our cultural faux pas: “This has nothing to do with superstition, it’s our tradition! When we offer food to our ancestors, we are showing them our respect/filial piety. And only they are worthy of being served with a tray. When you eat from a tray like that, you’re being disrespectful of the elders and being ignorant of our Chinese culture. This has nothing to do with superstition. This tradition of venerating our ancestors has been handed down to us from our forefathers and were commanded by our cultural elders (referring to Confucius, Lao Tzu and the likes)….

Despite the fact that he’s rude (who asked for his opinion?!) and wrong – about ancestral veneration being taught by the Chinese cultural elders (coincidentally I’m currently researching the philosophies of Confucianism and Taoism and know that worship of the dead is an adulteration of the charge to respect and honor the elders); we didn’t respond to his berating but kept our heads down as we ate. As he looked suspiciously like a loan shark by way of his choice of accessories/jewelry, we didn’t want our lunch to end up on the evening’s headline news: “Two ladies hacked to death in public by enraged gang leader.”  

(Pixs courtesy of Chowtimes and Phnomblog)

The Hand

•June 15, 2012 • 2 Comments

Guest post by Brian Thomas:

Robert Leckie wrote of his experiences as a US Marine who fought in the Pacific campaign in World War II in his memoir, Helmet for My Pillow (adapted in part by the HBO miniseries, The Pacific). Leckie witnessed the horrors of combat, but over time became hardened to them—in part. After a particularly intense battle on the little island of Peleliu, Leckie stood trying to collect himself, coolly surveying the typical aftermath of combat—the burning tanks and bomb craters, the corpses of the enemy and his own fellows, and the gathering of the living and wounded as the smoke cleared. It was at this point that he had an experience that affected him deeply. As he wrote about it in his memoir:

I got up and made for the airfield. About twenty yards away was a burning tank. Some of the enemy dead were inside. The snipers hung in their nets like dolls stuffed in a Christmas stocking. I turned to go, and as I did, nearly stepped on someone’s hand. “Excuse me,” I began to say, but then I saw that it was an unattached hand, or rather a detached one. It lay there alone—open, palm upwards, clean, capable, solitary. I could not tear my eyes from it. The hand is the artisan of the soul. It is the second member of the human trinity of head and hand and heart. A man has no faculty more human than his hand, none more beautiful nor expressive nor productive. To see this hand lying alone, as though contemptuously cast aside, no longer a part of a man, no longer his help, was to see war in all its wantonness; it was to see the especially brutal savagery of our own technique of rending, and it was to see men at their eternal worst, turning upon one another, tearing one another, clawing at their own innards with the maniacal fury of the pride-possessed.

The hand saddened me and I offered it a respectful inclination of the head while recovering my balance and making a careful circle around it.

Reading Leckie’s tragic account, I was reminded of two other writers, Aristotle and the Apostle Paul. Aristotle pondered whether a human hand that has been severed from the rest of the body is still a human hand. He reasoned that it was not, because the parts of an organism have their identity, and their principle of integration and unity from the functional part they play in the organism as a whole. And when the part is severed from the organism, the part loses its identity and its principle of integration and unity. Strictly speaking, what was a human hand is no longer. It may look like a human hand, but give it a few weeks and it will become apparent that it is no longer as it decomposes. The human hand is gone, and in its place is a collection of parts (flesh, sinews, nerves, bones, etc.) that are connected to each other in a certain spatial arrangement, and which still have the potential of becoming a human hand again—say, if they are put on ice and quickly reattached by surgical means. But the “human hand” is already in the process of disintegrating into a mere heap of meat, bones, and other parts, and the relationship between those parts is disintegrating as well. Eventually it will not have even the potential for being reattached and becoming a human hand again.

Perhaps Aristotle’s discussion was in the back of Paul’s mind when he wrote the Greek Christians at Corinth on the importance of being connected to one another and living together in loving community in the body of Christ. In addition to the use of the body metaphor in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, Paul comments on how to live in love and unity throughout this letter: in dealing with divisions or factions, in dealing with different convictions about nonessential matters, on how to partake of the Lord’s supper, on the use of spiritual gifts for the good of the church, on the necessity of love, and other matters. But the metaphor of the body of whose parts need each other is a powerful reminder that we need Christ and we need each other. We really cannot live (in the fullest sense of that word) any other way.

It is true for all of us that necessity frequently prevents us from attending church and joining together in community as often as we ought. Nonetheless, we need to be aware that there is a spiritual cost to be paid for this. When another commitment pulls us away from our community, we need to ask ourselves if that commitment is truly a necessity, and to be aware that even if it is, it can be damaging to our spiritual health.

According to the metaphor of the body, Christians do not just have their identity and principle of life and purpose in themselves as individuals, but in connection to Christ and his people as a community. And if a Christian loses those things, it’s far more tragic than the severed hand at Peleliu.

Is Political Correctness Really Correct?

•May 16, 2012 • 2 Comments

It was a typical fall afternoon on November 5, 2009 at Fort Hood in Texas – the most heavily populated United States military post in the world. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan entered the Soldier Readiness Center where he worked. It was business as usual at this medical centre as military personnel obtained their medical treatment. Hasan quietly took a seat and bowed his head. A mere ten minutes later, the Army Major turned the office from a curative hub to the bloody epicentre of a senseless mass shooting that left 14 people dead and 30 others wounded, including Hasan him-self who was eventually subdued by a civilian police officer.

According to eyewitnesses, Hasan shouted, “Allahu Akbar” just before firing more than 100 rounds at soldiers in the centre and on a crowd gathered for a college graduation ceremony scheduled at a nearby theatre. Investigations following the tragic incident revealed some troubling facts about Hasan. Apparently his superiors in the military had, or should have had, reason to be suspicious of Hasan — including his contact with a radical cleric, visits to web-sites espousing radical Islamist ideas and a strange presentation he once gave to Army psychiatrists that focused on Islam and justified suicide bombings. However, none of the many individuals who were troubled by the red flags thrown up by Hasan did anything concrete that could have possibly saved the lives of the 14 who died. It was subsequently reported that Army professionals taken aback by Hasan’s bizarre behaviour explained that, in reporting him to superiors, they were “worried that they might be discriminating against Hasan because of his seemingly extremist Islamic beliefs.” It appears that there was a fear among would-be accusers of being charged with politically incorrect bias and hence they kept silent against their intuition.

American Columnist David Ruthenberg may be right in concluding that, “The cold, hard truth is political correctness has not only run amok, it is now clearly responsible for a murder rampage on our turf at one of our top military bases. That is terrorism, and PC thinking made it possible.” While what happened at Fort Hood may be a rare case of the extreme conse-quence of political correctness, this social phenomenon is ubiquitous.

Similarly here in Asia, we now have to be careful and fearful of what we say, write or think – not just in the public square but also in private in some instances. A few years ago an acquaintance of ours in the United States was “punished” for holding on to views that differed from the majority – he was refused tenure at the university where he taught as he wrote a book which suggested that the universe was designed. Though he fully deserved to be tenured, his application was rejected on account of his belief in intelligent design (though he was never accused of teaching it in his classes). Never mind if you are speaking the honest truth, but if you use the wrong word or expression (i.e., what is deemed politically incorrect), you will be denounced as offensive, insensitive, racist, sexist, homophobic and a Christian fundamentalist who is rocking the racial and social diversity boat.

“Truth hurts” used to be a popular saying; but today, that adage seems to have been replaced by “Truth offends.” This is interesting; if truth is the accurate depiction of reality, why should it offend? It is hard to imagine why anyone is not interested in the truth – about any-thing. The sad thing is that we currently live in times where many people do not seem to care about the importance of truth. The present attitude towards truth does not just have eternal consequences, for if truth is truth, then differences make a difference – not just between truth and lies, but between intimacy and separation in relationships, between harmony and conflict in communities, between efficiency and incompetence in business, between reliability and deceit in science and journalism, between trust and suspicion in leadership, be-tween freedom and oppression in government, and most seriously, between life and death.

Fundamentally, much of the advocacy for political correctness has been influenced by a form of relativism, vis-à-vis epistemological relativism. Basically, this form of relativism views knowledge as relative and objective truth (that is, affirming that some claims about reality are true or false regardless of what others perceive to be true) as nonexistent. Two assumptions are made:

1. No single culture, community or group has discovered the ‘objective’ truth about anything because universal truth does not exist – hence those who claim to know the truth are either ignorant or proud.

2. As there is no such thing as objective truth, all knowledge and moral standards are merely cul-tural perspectives. As there is no such thing as objective truth, it follows that no one group of people should talk like they have access to objective truth.

All alleged truths – religious convictions, morality, etc, – are merely ‘true’ only to the particular communities that affirm them, and they should not impose their truth on others. Hence, in order for us to live with one another peacefully in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society, we must tolerate each other. We must be careful not to use certain terms which would offend or contradict others’ beliefs.

Proponents of political correctness claim that we ought to be tolerant as every kind of authority has the predisposition to become abusive. However, it is becoming apparent that this aggrandized and selective compulsion to be tolerant or ‘sensitive’ has quickly evolved into a pretext for new forms of oppression. But the view that the greatest evil is intolerance and insensitivity has now assumed an oppressive role. Surely tolerance is not simply acceptance of anything and everything, for real life informs us that some things are to be tolerated and some not. We need to distin-guish between tolerating the person, his behaviour and his views.

Living in a civic society requires that we tolerate other people who have convictions that are different from ours. In a religiously pluralistic society, social tolerance has to do with how we treat others regardless of their ideology or religious views, that is, with dignity and respect. To discriminate on the basis of religious difference is not only unacceptable it is immoral. However, this form of civic tolerance does not mean that the differing ideas we all hold are of equal worth, merit or truth. It only means that all views should get a fair hearing. Therefore, to comment that some views are false or immoral does not contradict the ideal of tolerance for others. But this is not the form of tolerance political correctness calls for. Political correctness calls for not merely tolerance of the person but also the acceptance of someone’s view or behaviour – regardless of how false or immoral it is.

Under this kind of tolerance, no idea or behaviour can be opposed or judged. For example, if one is truly tolerant of others, then he will not judge or critically evaluate other religions. Of course, on this understanding (or misunderstanding!) of tolerance, all religious ad-herents – whether Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, etc. – who affirm the truthfulness of their beliefs and the falsity of contradictory beliefs are by definition grossly intolerant. But this is a confused form of tolerance, for to never disagree with anyone, even when statements of others are known to be false is not a mark of tolerance but an indication of intellectual suicide. And to never reject any behaviour to be wrong or immoral is not a liveable idea. This distinction between tolerance of the person and tolerance of the person’s views and behaviour is critical.

In the current political correctness rhetoric, tolerance is most frequently called for behaviour and views: homosexuality, same-sex marriage, abortion, etc. However, the true meaning of tolerance is “putting up with something one disapproves of” or “putting up with error.” Tolerance in a pluralistic society then involves the acceptance of the person who holds beliefs one disapproves of. We can consider the convictions of another to be false and yet treat him with respect and dignity. Being tolerant of others who hold on to different ideologies or religions there-fore does not involve accepting their beliefs to be true or refusing to critically judge the content of those beliefs. However, just like the various forms of relativism, political correctness’s call for tolerance assumes for itself a position that it rejects. In saying, “There is no such thing as universal truth and hence we have to be tolerant. Those who make claims to universal truth are intolerant”, it is already assuming that tolerance is true for all and that all of us should be tolerant. Does this not make tolerance into a ‘universal truth,’ which in turn makes it intolerant? Are not the advocates of political correctness then imposing their truth on those who disagree with them? That is not being very tolerant, is it?

Political correctness is therefore intolerance masked as sensitive tolerance of all viewpoints. However, when Christians are accused of being intolerant and politi-cally incorrect, it probably never occurs to these name-callers that they are doing ex-actly the same thing by being intolerant towards the Christians.

In countries like Singapore where the reigning ideology is multicultural diversity, it would be offensive and intolerant to assume that only the Christian faith is true. Sure, Christians can go to their church and practice their religion in private but their religion should not find its way in the public square. The late Richard John Neuhaus was right to comment that at the heart of that order is the axiom of “faith in private and toleration in public” i.e., the naked public square. He adds that promoters of this form of tolerance just do not get it: their notion of tolerance is, “We’ll tolerate you so long as you don’t trouble us with your different ideas.”

The simplistic worldview espoused by many today is apparently ignorant of the fact that such tolerance cannot stand on its own feet. Calls for democratic “process” and “procedure” as though this form of public discourse is self-evidently right and therefore requires no justification, bear marks of an ideological totalitarianism. No argument is offered, a prejudice is simply stated and the prejudice is most specifi-cally against religion in public. It is no wonder that many observers have drawn parallels between political correctness and Marxism and referred to it as cultural Marxism – that is, Marxism translated from economic into cultural terms. The basic premise of political correctness is that society is divided into two categories of persons, victims – who are a priori good; and oppressors who are evil. The oppressors are always wrong and the victims are always right. Those who claim to have access to absolute truth – like the Christians – are the oppressors who impose their morality and religion on the rest of the population as a way to exert their power over the victims. In the worldview of cultural Marxism, the Bible, for example, is really about gender and race. Groups that are victims are the feminists, homosexuals and other minority groups. In fact, religion, especially Christianity, is a negative term which often connotes fantasy and wishful thinking, and is usually inclined toward intolerance and fanaticism: Christians are intolerant bigots who preach that those who do not believe in Jesus will wind up in hell. And it is against such a mood and backdrop of political correctness that we as followers of Jesus are called to bear witness to the exclusive truth of Christ. May the Lord help us!

*This is part of my article that was published in a 2010 issue of Church and Society In Asia Today (A publication of the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia, Trinity Theological College, Singapore).

Saving face versus saving grace

•April 6, 2012 • 1 Comment

A little over a year ago, I found out through a good friend that an acquaintance’s (let’s call him A) application to a school for a doctorate program had been turned down – twice, as he failed the admission test again when given a second chance at it. Prior to the great blow to his plans, A had been informing many he knew that he would be furthering his studies. And being the sharp guy that he is, many expected that he would do well. So, when I found out that he had failed to get into the program, I was as shocked as he probably was.

Due to the nature of the situation, I never broached the matter with him (so as not to “shame” him). But once I asked a good friend of his how A’s plan for his doctorate was coming along. This mutual friend informed me that A told him the school he applied to rejected him as they would not accept his pre-qualification degrees (from a competing school). Upon hearing this I was taken aback and not a little troubled by the misleading reason A gave for his failure to be admitted into a doctoral program. I subsequently discovered that that is what he had been telling everyone for his so-called rejection by the school.

Recently while talking to another mutual friend (let’s call him B), B said that it is totally understandable and not at all unacceptable even for Christians that A did not tell the truth about his situation. As far as I was concerned, A lied about his situation. But B believed that it is alright if someone distorts the truth (in other words, lie) in order to save face. (B is Chinese but A is not)

As I consider B’s stance on truth-telling (or the lack of it), a few questions come to mind: 1) the importance of truth-telling as a follower of The Truth, and 2) the difference between cultural idolatry (judging what is true and right by our cultural norms rather than judging our cultural norms by what’s true and right) and cultural redemption.

I am firmly of the opinion that as followers of The Truth, we are called to redeem all that is good and right. For example, the importance of community and filial piety within our Asian worldview should be rightly valued. But saving face via half-truths or straight-up deception? What do you think?

Unexpected guests

•December 20, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Over time I have made many “friends” virtually i.e. over social networks like Facebook and by leaving a comment or two after reading an interesting blog. In most instances, it is likely the case that these “friends” will always remain virtual where we will probably not meet in this lifetime.

This, however, was not the case with a certain “friend.” This friend is an author and professor in philosophy and world religion. His books are some that I’d use as reference in preparation for my talks in Eastern religion. (To me, he’s a greater authority in Chinese religions and Buddhism than many Asian scholars – he knows more about Chinese mythologies than most of us Chinese!) After reading the essay he contributed to a book on movie and philosophy (his was on Hong Kong kung fu movies) I decided to send him an email to thank him for the insight. To my surprise he replied my email and before we knew it, we were friends on Facebook and the rest, as they say, is history.

Then one day I received a message that he and his wife would be visiting Singapore. Naturally I offered our humble home if they needed a place to stay. My offer was quickly accepted – much to my husband and my delight. After months of anticipation, the day finally came when we greeted Win and June Corduan into our abode. What was unfortunate was that their week-long visit coincided with the start of our home travel to the USA. But we did get to spend a few days with them before we left our apartment in their hands.

The have been instances in the past when I would love a person’s work in writing but when I finally meet him/her in person, it’s a disappointment (pride is always a turn-off for me!). Win Corduan definitely DOES NOT belong to that list. He and his wife were godly, warm, funny, down-to-earth and such great friends to little people, too (my 2.75 year old son loved them!). For such an accomplished scholar, he’s so unassuming and amiable.

We consider it such great joy and a special blessing to be friends with this amazing couple and to have hosted them in our home. When the years have past, and my son is an adult, he will have a story to tell – that he knew Win Corduan and his wife when they visited his home when he was two.

An Apologetic for Apologetics

•November 24, 2011 • Leave a Comment

As I post this I’m nestled comfortably in the warmth of my MIL’s home in Maryland while my little man is pretending he’s a construction crane and his dad a site worker. The scene was not this cozy last week when I had to be up at 3am to catch my flight to San Francisco to attend the Evangelical Theological Society’s Annual Meeting. Though this was not my first attendance at this annual meeting, this time was different as I was also to speak at the Evangelical Philosophical Society’s Apologetics Conference (http://www.epsapologetics.com/) was held in conjunction with the meeting.

It was truly an honor and a humbling experience to have been asked to speak alongside theologians and philosophers like Dallas Willard, Paul Copan, Craig Hazen, William Lane Craig, JP Moreland and the likes. My session was scheduled for the first evening after Willard’s plenary. It’s hard to estimate how many participants there were but I’m guesstimating  500…

As my session was held in parallel to Craig’s, I was not expecting too many people at mine but to my surprise, the room was packed – with some having to sit on the floor. Needless to say this only added to my nervousness! The title of my talk was Apologetics in a Cross-Cultural Setting and I had less than 45 minutes to deliver it (of course I ran out of time!). We managed to squeeze in some Q&A time before we called it a night. I was extremely heartened by the enthusiasm of all who were there – many were young, vibrant and eager to share their faith with their friends. Their questions reflected their passion for God and truth.

I was also greatly encouraged by what Willard shared in his plenary session on Knowledge in the Context of Spiritual Formation: “Apologetics is a helping ministry, pastoral, not just for the unbeliever.” This truly affirms and underlines what we are about as often we get the comment that they’re not “interested” in Apologetics as they’re not about debating/arguing with non-Christians. And my personal experience in Apologetics has never been about arguing with my non-Christian friends but about understanding what I claim to believe.

Willard says this perfectly in his reflection of 1 Peter 3:14-15:

“On the basis of your knowledge of Christ and your life with him, you bring knowledge to others about how the spiritual life works and what that knowledge could mean for them. You explain the interior or spiritual factors of your hope.”

Preach it, brother!