Thursday, December 29, 2005

Theology For Community

Learning as a group enables us to leverage on each other's insights and perspectives. It is also more fun and allow us to bounce off ideas.

This is in keeping with one of Agora goals next year - "Learning as a Community" to equip ourselves with some basic, foundational lessons in theology. As a group, we found Wayne Grudem's accessible volume on Systematic Theology to be readable and it provides the emphasis on worship and Christian living that we look for.

We'd be starting our discussion on "What is systematic theology? Why study it? And how?" Normally a conducive study group should not be too large so we are limiting the number of participants. But dun worry, there's always the 2006 'workshops' starting in February...

Date: January 22, 2006 (Sunday)
Time: 1.40 pm

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Presenting Agora Singapore!

Agora getting contagious in Singapore

More pictures of Agora Singapore in action.

Visit www.theagorasg.blogspot.com for presentations and future discussions of the group.

Soli Deo Gloria!

How Do Free-Thinkers Think When They Think They are Thinking Freely?

We do not think in a vacuum.
Even free-thinkers are not as free as they think they are when they are thinking, or when they think they are thinking.
This is because thinking is an active exercise of the will. More importantly, all thinking begins with prior beliefs. We call these foundational assumptions control beliefs.

1 DATA, THEORY, AND CONVICTIONS

The quest for human knowledge is shaped by decisions about what is worth investigating and what presuppositions to hold in order to direct the available economic and intellectual resources for the maximum payoff. In the preface to his Reason Within the Bounds of Religion, Nicholas Wolterstorff identified two issues that all scholars face: (i) which matters to investigate and (ii) which views to hold. He develops a research program by which theory building is based on the three parameters of (i) data, (ii) theory and (iii) control beliefs.
Control beliefs (CB) may take the form of methodological, philosophical or ontological convictions. It is used to weigh theories and doctrines in science and theology. If a theory or doctrine does not fit the CB, it has to be either revised or discarded. The test is ultimately probabilistic, i.e., whatever seems to be more likely than not the case. Most of the conflicts between science and theology occur at the level of control beliefs.
Our structures of beliefs form the filter by which we determine what data can be trusted as knowledge. We all build up a set of control beliefs (CB) that anchor all other derivative beliefs (DB). In time, such beliefs become entrenched in our confessions, our public expression of our private beliefs. One may confess that God exists. Such a confession may arise from a conviction that this is so even if it cannot be proven. When challenged, we may make a commitment to buttress our convictions by making more public confessions.

2 CHRISTIAN BELIEF

Christian belief is no different from all other kinds of belief. It possesses control beliefs by which to evaluate other sources of data. Information that becomes adopted as authoritative acquires the status of knowledge. Although knowledge may be tested and challenged, sometimes even losing its status if contrary information undermines it, control beliefs are rarely toppled.
In Christian belief, the stakes are as high as they can possibly get. It extends beyond the most precious possession we all have, biological existence. For the Christian, belief in and about God concerns everlasting life. Such belief shapes our knowledge of reality and should be evident in our decisions and behavior. Unlike mere intellectual assent, the issues are live and the outcome must be consistent with the commitments.

3 FAITH AND BELIEF

3.1 Can people of faith change their beliefs?
What is fidelity to divine revelation? It is fashionable to believe that faithfulness, say; to the teachings of the Bible means our understanding of what it teaches does not change with time. If this was so, today's Christians would not need to buy new books offering fresh insights, scholars and researchers need not spend time clarifying difficult passages and preachers and missionaries need not work at studying the Bible. It would also mean that all the changes throughout church history are acts of infidelity. The Reformers would be accused of faithlessness.

Such a static view of human understanding also presumes that
(i) Knowledge of God through the Scriptures and the saints are perfect for all time
(ii) Our ancestors had intelligence that cannot or need not be surpassed
(iii) Their interpretations are perfect and need no correction, and
(iv) Correction of human interpretations of our knowledge of God is undesirable
In practice, the church does not act like this. We conduct all sorts of programs to better educate ourselves and increase our powers of understanding just as the Lord encouraged us to. Understanding is a progressive and cumulative act. God is not angry at imperfect understanding but for willful misunderstanding leading to disobedience. Our faith should be steadfast with regard to God, not to our understanding about God.
The most dangerous type of religious believers are those who stop thinking, or renewing their minds. Indeed, most heresies or wrong beliefs arise from a stubborn resistance to fresh understanding of the old data. Knowledge depends not only on data but also on the interpretation of it. Many biblical characters and leaders of the church change their understanding on learning curves. Prophets had to unlearn what they thought were correct views about God. Most regarded themselves as faithful to God when in fact they were faithful to their understanding of God. Thus Abram changed his view of God many times when he was corrected from his ways; David certainly had his share of missing God's point and Solomon continued in his father's missteps; Peter had to be stopped from undermining God's salvation plan; Paul thought he was doing God a favor by persecuting Christians; and the Corinthian church believed they were exercising freedom in Christ by endorsing 'free-love'.
It is the height of arrogance to suppose that we in this generation have no inherent mistakes regarding our understanding of God. The history intellectual progress is nothing more than discoveries of errors to be corrected until the correction itself becomes corrected. This does not mean that what we think we know about God is wrong. But it does mean that, like children, our powers of achieving understanding about God increases with learning and correction. Our approximations of knowledge get better with each passing generation, as it should. While we should not be unnecessarily ashamed of past errors, we should also not be arrogant about recent gains in understanding.

3.2. The role of extra-biblical knowledge
Christian belief and faith welcomes extra-biblical resources to complete our understanding of reality (e.g. The Pilot Syndrome: On a plane, even a priest prefers a qualified pilot to one who shares his theological views. We need more than knowledge from the Bible to survive.) The Bible is not a comprehensive guidebook for everything we need for living. It is a special message from God with frameworks by which to build a worldview to assess how we are doing. While the Bible is a special inheritance from believers who came before us, it is a relatively recent resource. Most of the people who worshipped God had no access to the Bible. Less than two thousand years ago, no one in the world had the New Testament. Before the public ministry of Jesus, no one had his teachings to go by. Before Moses was called into service, there would have been no mosaic teachings and laws from God. The faithful at the time of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob and Joseph, did not have the Old Testament. St. Augustine wrote De Doctrina Christiana that Christians ought to seek legitimate uses of extra-biblical sources because all knowledge ultimately comes from God. This is not to diminish the value of the Bible, but to draw attention to the fact that unlike the Muslims, we are not really “People of the Book”. We are “People of the God who gave us the Book”.

4 CONTROLLING CONTROL BELIEFS
(Renewing our minds)

Can control beliefs change? Yes. Romans 12: 1-2 speaks of the renewal of our minds. Paul refers to the shaping of our control beliefs so that it is subservient to God's will. In this passage, Paul does not say we are to conform to God's will because God is more powerful. Rather, when we reflect deeply and honestly by renewing our minds back to the state when we first gave our hearts (minds) to God, we can test and discern the perfect will of God.
Christians have the privilege of having the help of the Holy Spirit as our personal trainer. The Spirit's primary function with regard to Christians stated in John 16: 13, is to sustain the fidelity of our (control) beliefs by guiding us into all truth and declare to us “the things that are to come”. In John 16: 8, Jesus taught that the Helper (Advocate) will come to convict the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment. It is this convicting power of the Holy Spirit which will safeguard Christian control beliefs if we let it. It is with this divine promise that we dare to confront the excesses of postmodern uncertainty. Yet the paradox of free will given to us means we can undermine our own advantage by refusing to submit to the Spirit. It is only by voluntarily and intentionally permitting the Holy Spirit to control our control beliefs can we begin our quest for a Christian mind.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Symposium: The Truth About Torture?

Symposium: The Truth About Torture?

“Torture is not always impermissible,” argues Charles Krauthammer in “The Truth About Torture", his provocative essay in The Weekly Standard. “However rare the cases, there are circumstances in which, by any rational moral calculus, torture not only would be permissible but would be required (to acquire life-saving information). And once you've established the principle, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, all that's left to haggle about is the price. In the case of torture, that means that the argument is not whether torture is ever permissible, but when--i.e., under what obviously stringent circumstances: how big, how imminent, how preventable the ticking time bomb.”

American Christians discuss the Christian position and response to the hot issue of torture. Participating in the debate are Darrell Cole, John Jefferson Davis, Daniel Heimbach, Mark Liederbach, Kenneth Magnuson, Albert Mohler, Richard John Neuhaus & Robert Vischer.

Read the full article and their individual essays here

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Atheism

ATHEISM
(A) What is Atheism?

1) “Atheism” = Greek word derives from two words “A” and “theos”.
“A” means “No” and “theos” means “God”.
Atheism means “No-God-ism”

2) Not to be confused with
a) Agnostic – that will says “I don’t know whether God exists” or “I can’t know whether God
exists”.
b) Skeptic – will say “I doubt that God exists”.

3) Atheists say “I know / believe that God does not exist”.

4) Atheism is not only a negative anti-theistic philosophy but positively affirms that matter is
the ultimate reality.


(B) Varieties of Atheism

1) Traditional / Metaphysical Atheism
- holds that there never was, is or will be a God.

2) Mythological Atheism
- popularized by Friedrich Nietzsche
- “God is dead”
- believe the God-myth was never a Being but was once a live model by which people lived.
This myth has been killed by the advancement of man’s understanding and culture.

3) Philosophical Atheism
- professes no god and lives as if there is no god.

4) Practical / Pragmatic Atheism
- professes existence of God but lives as if God does not exist.


(C) Main Tenets of Atheism

1) Reality
- Matter was, matter is and matter will be.
- Matter is the only reality

2) God
- God is a superstition, a myth, a psychological projection of human.
- God did not create man, man created God.

3) Human Beings
- a human being is matter in motion with no immortal soul.
- the product of evolution, random shuffling of molecules.
- no immortal soul, no spirit, no eternal destiny, no ultimate meaning.
- everything in this universe is meaningless.

4) World
- essentially matter or energy.
- the universe is the product of evolution.
- the universe is eternal or if not, it came into existence “out of nothing and by nothing”.

5) Evil
- evil is real.
- origin of evil is in human ignorant.
- man can defeat evil and does not need God’s help.
- man is the boss.

6) Destiny
- depends on what human make it out to be.
- no God guiding the world.

7) Miracles
- impossible
- nothing beyond the nature, no supernatural events.
- Everything can be explained with reference to natural events only.


(D) Positive Critiques

1) Their professed commitment to reason and science is a good thing.

2) Their insistence on the principle of sufficient reason.

3) They recognize evil as real.
contrast: pantheism eg. Hinduism

4) Their concern on justice and human rights.

5) They are loyal opposition to theists.
- They serve as a corrective to invalid theistic reasoning.


(E) Negative Critiques

1) Atheists insist that reason came from non-reason through naturalistic means, this makes
atheism unreliable.
- how do atheists depend on their reason if everything happens because of random shuffling
of molecules.
c/f: Christian - God created me with reasoning capacity.
- In Old Testament, Isaiah 1:18 – invite his people to reason with Him.
“Come now, let us reason together,” says the LORD
- New Testament – he is commanding us to reason with non-believers. – 1 Peter 3:15
“…Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for
the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect”
- Our reason has basis.

“Reason might conceivably be found to depend on (another reason), and so on; it would not matter how far this process was carried, provided you found Reason coming from Reason at each stage. It is only when you are asked to believe that Reason comes from non-Reason that you must cry Halt! for if you don’t, all thought is discredited. It is, therefore, obvious that sooner or later you must admit a Reason which exists absolutely on its own.”
C. S. Lewis, Miracles

2) By claiming absolute knowledge of the non-existence of God, the absolute Being, it engages in
self-defeating statements.
- There is no God means there in no being who knows everything because God is omniscient.
- “I have infinite knowledge that there is no one has infinite knowledge.”

3) Atheism fails to measure up to an adequate standard of coherent and congruence with
respect to its explanation of the origin of universe.
Eg. The universe has its beginning in the big bang.
Q: Who caused the big bang?
- Law of causality requires me to ask the question.
Christian – cause of the cosmos is GOD.

4) Atheists can believe in morality, but they cannot justify this belief.
- It is one thing to say that hate, racism and rape are wrong. But if there is no ultimate
standard of morality (ie GOD), then how can these things be wrong?
- A moral law requires a moral law giver.

5) What is the basis for meaning?
- Most atheists believe life is meaningful and worth living. But how can it be if there is no
purpose for life or destiny after this life?



(F) Dialogue with Atheists.

1) Beginning with a positive note when dialoguing with atheists.
- Build bridges of understanding and communication with them.
- Indian proverb: Cutting a person’s nose off then offering a rose for him to smell
- Paul – surrounded by idolatry, he was completely shattered on the inside, but when he
stands up to speak to the Athenian … how did he start? Acts 17:16, 22-23
“Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.”

- Paul establishes the point of contact.
- arousing interest in them.

2) He who asserts must prove.
- If atheists make a positive claim, he has the burden of proof.

3) Ask a good question.

a. To gain information and stay out of the “hot seat”.
1) Ask clarification question to understand what he says and so that you do not
misunderstand / misrepresent him (beware of straw man fallacy).

2) Key Q: “What do you mean by that?” (“What he thinks?”)
eg. - There is no God
Q: “What do you mean by God?”
- “All religions are basically the same.”
Q: “In what way are religions all basically the same?”

3) It accomplishes few things.
i. it immediately engages the non-believer in an interactive way.
ii. it shows a genuine interest in the other’s view.
iii. it forces him to think more carefully about exactly what he does mean.


4) Staying out of the “hot seat”.
i. when you are not academically prepared or not quick enough on your feet to deal with
the challenge.
ii. shift from argument mode to fact finding mode.
eg. “Can you explain your view and your reasons for it so that I get it right, then let me
think about it.”
iii. the key is to stay out of the hot seat but stay engaged.



b. To reverse the burden of proof.

1) we should get out of the habit of trying to refute every story a non-believer can spin or
every story he can manufacture (no more free rides).
2) Place the burden of proof on them.
- they have got a lot of explaining to do themselves.
3) Key Q: “How did you come to that conclusion?” (How he thinks?)

c. To indirectly exploit a weakness or a flaw in someone’s views.
1) suggest an alternative

2) key Q: “Have you ever considered ….”
eg: “Have you ever considered … that the existence of evil is actually evidence for the
existence of God, not against it?”
“Have you ever considered … that if the Bible were “merely written by men” it would
be very hard to account for the fulfilled prophecies?”

4) The Suicide Tactic

i) Point out self-refuting arguments / statements

ii) Self-refuting statements, the minute you say then, they become false.
eg: “I cannot speak a word in English.”
“There is no truth.”
“You can’t know anything for sure.”
“I don’t believe anything unless it can be proven scientifically.”
“It’s wrong to try to change other people’s religions beliefs.”

5) The “Taking the Roof Off” Tactic

i) “Every man has built a roof over his head to shield himself at the point of tension …
The Christian, lovingly, must remove the shelter [the roof] and allow the truth of the
external world and of what man is, to beat upon him. When the roof is off, each man
must stand naked and wounded before the truth of what is.”

“He must come to know that his roof is a false protection from the storm of what is.”

“We confront men with reality; we remove their protection and their escapes; we allow
the avalanches to fall.”

Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There

ii) First you adopt the other person’s viewpoint for the sake of argument. Then you press him to
the logical conclusion of his view.

Matthew 12:24-26
“But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons” Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand?”

eg. : X: “I was born with a natural urge towards man”
Y: “I was born with a natural urge towards beautiful women. Do I take them and have
my own ways with them?”

X: “It’s okay as long as I’m not hurting anyone.”
Y: “Then you have no objections to peeping-Toms? They are not hurting anyone.”

Monday, December 12, 2005

The beautiful doctor and the foreign maid

The beautiful doctor and the foreign maid

I don’t have a foreign maid and am thinking of getting one in the future, but if I ever do, it will be with careful apprehension not to become like this slave driver or this inhumane maid abuser who victimized poor Nirmala Bonat till she looked like till she was battered and burned (follow the previous link for the disturbing details).

Now this case is very extreme, and the evil of it is obvious to me, but what about the normal questions, like will I treat her as a human with rights? Can I give her time out to rest, after all, humans need rest? Will I deny her friendship and contact with her people just because I run the risk of her running away and loosing my deposit and installments, not realizing that she has become more of an asset to me than a complex human being?

Do you see the complications? Can we balance our self interest and being Christian to a human being at the same time? I wish pastors and churches would preach sermons on how to be a Christian foreign maid employer, and the church would legislate in its laws, discipline for maid abusers. MCA attempts to answer these questions here, and they even ask the question that I think we modern city people don’t want to face, “is this a form of modern slavery?”, and they document one of the practices by these cruel maid agencies;

----------------------------------------------
“Modern day slavery?

It has become standard practice in most maid agencies that the salaries of foreign servants will not be paid for between 4 ~ 6 months as reimbursement for the latter’s advance airfares and medical reports initially borne by the agency.

While some sympathetic families may give a token sum to their maid at the end of the month, this act is discouraged by the agencies. The reason given is that it will “pamper” or “soften” the maid.

Newly arrived maids have also reported that before being employed in homes, they are given no rest in that, they are made to work continuously, cleaning away the agency’s premises or agent’s house.

Similarly, if the maid is sacked after the three or six month trial-and-replacement period, all her savings or monies earned since would be confiscated by the agents as compensation to the agency. She may even be sent back to her home country without a single sen at all. Returned maids are also allegedly beaten and/or slapped in the face for being given back to their agency.”
----------------------------------------------


Now amidst the darkness that looms over this issue, the light (of Christ in general or special grace I don’t know) of kindness and goodness shines – and this man, Dr. Raymond Yuen is worthy of our honor and highest esteem. The Star newspaper carried this beautiful story of his love and kindness to his Sri Lankan maid and her family, and he has display not just a basic kindness and respect for his maid as a human being, but an interest in her and her well being, in a Christ-like fashion. I cannot help but wonder if he is a Christian, though the article tells us that his maid is. So here is a tribute to the good doctor, who has set the standard for us all in being an employer.

And I know there will be even Christians who would read this story of this good doctor and scoff “but he is spoiling her, and she will repay his goodness with abuse” – take heed if you react this way, are you hiding self interest and defiance to Christ’s commandment to love your neighbour as yourself behind that excuse! Wouldn’t you want to have friends with your own people in a strange land, to have time out in a day, and on weekends, and to be able to be friendly with the people you have to live with everyday? Is that too much to ask? If it is, do the kingdom of God a favour and don’t get a maid, you aren’t mature enough to handle it.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Narnia: Non-Spoilers

C.S. Lewis demanded that a person should not believe in Christianity before being convinced of its truthfulness. He once described himself by saying “I am an empirical Christian, I came to Christ through induction.”

Appeal to Imagination

But Lewis was not all argument, logic, and evidences. Another side of Lewis the apologist exists – the imaginative Lewis – which sets him apart in the genre of apologetics. Lewis believed that while apologists might reach people through argument, Christianity can also be conveyed imaginatively. He contended that our great need is not “more little books on Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects – with their Christianity latent.” If the writer presents a story with Christianity providing its underlying meaning instead of relativism, hedonism, and materialism as its primary interpretive framework, the reader would be challenged to think of all things differently.


Here is a history of Narnia. Narnia story as evangelistic resource.

More on Narnia from David Tan, Justin, Colson, BK and Leon

Sexual health conference to be held in Malaysia

Pauline Puah
Aug 23, 05 5:25pm
Malaysiakini.com


An Asia Pacific-level conference on reproductive and sexual health will be held in Malaysia this year.

Among the issues to be discussed include sex education in schools, transexuality and homosexuality.

Local organising committee chairperson Dr Kamaruzaman Ali said society must be more compassionate in helping marginalised groups such as ethnic minorities, disabled people, migrant workers, refugees and sexual minorities.

“We always have negative perceptions about the transsexual gender who are working as prostitutes. But we must understand how this came about,” he told a press conference in Petaling Jaya today.

With the theme ‘Expanded and Comprehensive Response in Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights for all Communities”, the 3rd Asia Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health (APCRSH) will be held from Nov 17 to 21 in Petaling Jaya.

The event is organised by the Federation of Family Planning Associations of Malaysia (FFPAM), International Planned Parenthood Federation, East, South East Asia and Oceania Region (IPPF-ESEAOR).

It is also supported by the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development and Ministry of Health.

Review and re-strategise

Kamaruzaman said the conference will provide a platform for the region, in particular policy makers, donors, academicians, professionals, service providers, community workers and volunteers to review, re-strategise and reaffirm their commitment to reach out to all communities through an expanded and comprehensive response.

He also urged all parties to discuss issues on reproduction and sexual health objectively instead of emotionally.

“We need to think and address the issues globally as the global problems will reach our doorstep...This is the reality of life. We cannot sweep them under the carpet. We must be more open and address them,” he said.

He said the organiser will also compile proceedings of the conference and subsequently submit them to the ministry concerned.

Meanwhile, Dr Raj Karim, regional director of IPPF-ESEAOR said the conference is a framework for people to voice their opinions about sexual health which all this while has been kept under wraps.

It is better late than never. We can’t just talk and discuss about it but we need action. Issues are catching up with us.

“We allow participants from the civil society, non-governmental organisations, governments and international organisations to talk about these issues,” she added.

From Malaysia Kini

Monday, December 05, 2005

NECF Malaysia's Response to Transsexuality

NECF Research Commission

Title: Transsexuality-An Evangelical Christian Response
Author: Research Department

NECF Malaysia respects individual rights and diverse perspectives on transsexuality, but remains steadfast in Biblical principles. We affirm God's love and concern for all humanity, and believe that God creates human beings as either male or female. Authentic change from a person's birth sex is not possible and an ongoing transsexual lifestyle is incompatible with God's will as revealed in Scripture and in creation. After careful consideration, we affirm and recommend the following:

1. We recognise that all of us are sinners, and that the only real hope for sinful people, whether heterosexual, homosexual or transsexual, is for wholeness that is found only in Jesus Christ.

2. We deeply regret any hurt caused to transsexuals by any unwelcoming or rejecting attitudes on the part of the Church. We call upon evangelical congregations to genuinely welcome and accept transsexuals, while acknowledging the need for parallel teaching, wisdom and discernment.

3. We affirm that monogamous heterosexual marriage is the form of partnership uniquely intended by God for sexual relationship between men and women. We would resist church service for the marriage or blessing of transsexual partnerships on scriptural grounds.

4. We appeal to the medical and psychiatric professions to prioritize research into the root psychological, social, spiritual and physical causes of ‘transsexuality' for the purpose of holistic treatment

5. We commend and encourage transsexuals who have determined to restore their birth sex identity as a result of biblical conviction, and/or who have decided to resist gender reassignment surgery. We would seek prayerfully to support their reorientation through the grace of God.

6. We prayerfully affirm and encourage those family members who are subjected to the impact of transsexuality and would seek to support them pastorally.

7. We commend the work of those organisations, pastoral workers and churches that seek to help and support transsexuals.

8. We in principle are opposed to civil discrimination against transsexuals, for example in respect of human rights and employment.

Read the full article here

John Chung delivered a presentation on homosexuality, which was fruitful in getting the church to discussly openly an issue that has been 'hidden' for too long. Those who missed the forum may download some snippets here.