Is local theological discourse anaemic?

In the past few days, I been revisiting Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History” where I was struck by his imagery of theology. In the first thesis, Benjamin stated:

The story is told of an automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove. A puppet in Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth sat before a chessboard placed on a large table. A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table was transparent from all sides. Actually, a little hunchback who was an expert chess player sat inside and guided the puppet’s hand by means of strings. One can imagine a philosophical counterpart to this device. The puppet called ‘historical materialism’ is to win all the time. It can easily be a match for anyone if it enlists the services of theology, which today, as we know, is wizened and has to keep out of sight. 

Here, theology is described as “wizened and has to keep out of sight”. This imagery struck a chord with me because despite the political and social changes that is taking place in society, local theological discourse is very anaemic with regards to such changes.

It seems that the focus is on the personal and the spiritual without much work being done to engage with the wider society. With the exception of one or two local theologians, I find myself wishing more will come forward to take the challenge of making local theological discourse more vibrant and contemporary by reflecting on public issues that affect the faith community as citizens of a nation.

This, as I see it, is the challenge for our theologians.  

 

Healing a Divided Nation

This piece was written for Berita NECF (July – Sept. 2013) where I gave some thoughts on post-GE 13 and the Church.

EARLY this year, Malaysians were outraged by a video which showed a speaker shouting down a university student at a forum with the now infamous phrase “Listen, listen, listen”.

This video demonstrated an ugly truth about ourselves: We are indeed a nation divided. We are divided along racial and religious lines which have led us, particularly in the past few years, to start shouting “listen, listen” without attempting to truly listen to those who are different from us.

Listen, if I may be permitted to use the word, we are divided because we have built walls that insulate us from those who are different from us. We built those walls so that we can remain comfortable as to who we are. Those walls insulate us from listening to what others have to say about us and also about themselves. To listen to others is an uncomfortable exercise. It’s uncomfortable because it forces us to re-examine the picture we have of ourselves. It forces us to face the fact that we are part of the problem as to why the nation is divided.

Let me now shift the “we” as a nation to “we” as a community of faith, i.e. Christians.

In this time when walls are being built, we are called to the ministry of reconciliation. Although the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM) and NECF have been involved in this ministry at the national level, more can be done particularly at the community level. The local church needs to be involved in this ministry in their communities.

It could be argued that the local churches are involved in this ministry through outreach which focuses not only on meeting spiritual needs but also physical needs. And through its outreach ministry, the church becomes an agent of reconciliation between God and man. For most Christians, the practice of reconciliation is often limited to salvation.

However, there is another dimension to reconciliation. Reconciliation is also about engaging with people of other faiths. We live in a country that is multi-religious, and are familiar with the challenges that this poses. Yet, somehow we don’t engage fellow citizens enough on a religious and cultural level to seek common ground. Is it because we build walls around ourselves due to our fears and ignorance of those who are different from us? Perhaps we need to rethink our theology with regards to reconciliation as not just being merely about salvation but also one that seeks to advance thecommon good.

Indeed, seeking the common good is biblical. For example, in Genesis, we observe that all people, made in the image of God, are endowed with dignity. Preserving this dignity entails a pursuit of the common good. This includes things like the freedom of worship, the right to life, to be treated equally under the law, to justice and other democratic values which enable all persons to live with dignity and flourish to their full potential.

Do we care enough about the common good or are we at risk of insulating ourselves behind our walls? Now, more than ever, we need to create spaces for people from different faiths to come together to share a conversation on common challenges. We each, whatever our religion, struggle with being faithful to one’s faith and with being a citizen of Malaysia. Through such conversations, we can learn much from one another and start the process of tearing down the walls that separate us.

Such conversations are crucial as they lead not only to mutual understanding but also to finding the common good which binds us together as a nation. No doubt such conversations are difficult to begin because it requires an openness and humility to learn from those who are so different from us. It also requires willingness to take the first step to initiate such conversations at a time when walls surround us.

And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Matthew 22:39)

As Christians, the task of listening is made more challenging because it forces us to examine ourselves in the light of Christ’s commandment to “love our neighbour” (Matthew 22:39). For how can we love our neighbour if we are ignorant as to how they define themselves in terms of their religious and/or racial identity? How is love possible if we do not understand their fears and hopes?

Yet, we are called to this ministry of reconciliation because we are reconciled with God and with each other (2 Corinthians 5: 17-19). And as Malaysians, we live at a juncture of our nation’s history where reconciliation is urgently needed. This then is the challenge which confronts us today.

What have Rome to do with Jerusalem?

12159738287xIB51Tertullian, the second century Church Father, famously asked “What have Athens to do with Jerusalem?” where he famously decried the influence of pagan philosophy into faith. Rephrasing this quote, I wish to ask what have “Rome to do with Jerusalem?” In short, I want to ask should faith be separated from politics?

In the past few months, we have witnessed this question emerging in the public sphere with some coming out against the faithful involving their faith into the political sphere while others argued that such a divorce is not an option … if one wants to be a faithful disciple. Continue reading “What have Rome to do with Jerusalem?”

Between the demands of Christ and Caesar: A review of God is Red

Unlike its Abrahamic cousins, Christianity have an ambiguous relationship with the state. Indeed its founding was precipitated by the Roman Empire crucifying its founder while the early Christians faced persecution by the Empire. Even after becoming the official religion of the Empire, the altar remained separated from the throne although both worked closely together. And there have been times when some within the Church who voiced unease about this close relationship.Indeed throughout the history of Christianity, this pattern have always been repeated. Continue reading “Between the demands of Christ and Caesar: A review of God is Red”

Jesus is the answer!: But what is the question?

By now the catchphrase “Jesus is the answer!” has become a standard trope among Christians and churches. Looking back now (after being a Christian for slightly more than two decades), I notice that as a young Christian, I accepted this phrase so wholeheartedly that there has been occasion where I bandied to people around me as if it is an article of faith. Nonetheless, as I grow older, I began to have doubt about such a slogan. If Jesus is the answer then what is the question? Continue reading “Jesus is the answer!: But what is the question?”

Notes on doing political theology in Malaysia

politics-religionModernity, it was once argued, will drive religion out of the public sphere. Modern political discourse focused on the immanent ground of the sovereign will of the people. The discourse on God , on the other hand, was relegated to the private sphere of conscience and faith. To talk about God in the public sphere is presume to be an act of bad faith.

Continue reading “Notes on doing political theology in Malaysia”

Contra Brother Z: Graham Ward and the politics of discipleship

In my previous posting, I talked about Zizek’s challenge to Christians by offering an alternative reading of what the faith is all about. Perhaps, those from the orthodox persuasion will ask whether there any theologians who dabbles in the same area except that they seek to serve the community of faith. Continue reading “Contra Brother Z: Graham Ward and the politics of discipleship”