Friday, September 29, 2006

It is nearly the weekend! It has been a busy week here in Hong Kong. Thank you to all who have emailed me about the blog. I appreciate your comments and encouragement. Please feel free to leave comments here as well! As some of you will know, October 1 is National Day in China, and because it falls on a Sunday this year, we have October 2 as a holiday instead. This is quite nice as it also happens to be my birthday! I will aim to celebrate it by posting the next blog in my series on God. In the meantime, here are some thoughts on a BBC report. Have a nice weekend wherever you are in the world!

The Return of Original Sin

On Tuesday this week, Archbishop Tutu delivered the Steve Biko Memorial Lecture at the University of Cape Town. Archbishop Tutu, as most will know, is now retired, but was in the past a leading campaigner against apartheid in South Africa. Indeed, he was awarded a Nobel prize for his work. In his lecture, he questioned why a respect for the law, the environment, and even life were missing in South Africa. I was particularly interested to read the following in a BBC report:

‘Referring to the accusations of corruption that have been made about a number of South Africa's political leaders, Archbishop Tutu said: "They have shown that they are human. We all have been afflicted by original sin."’

I have to admit to some surprise as, perhaps wrongly, I have not seen Archbishop Tutu as someone who would normally use this sort of theological language. I well remember as a young theological student being told by the now Principal of a well-known theological college that it was basically na├»ve to attribute political problems to ‘original sin’.

In recent years, original sin has fallen from favour in theological circles, and you will find many Christian leaders who dismiss it as the novel creation of Saint Augustine in the fifth century. I heard a sermon not so long ago here in Hong Kong saying just that.

Essentially, Saint Augustine believed that human beings were sinners not just because they committed acts, which could be regarded as sinful, but because they were inherently sinful with a built-in tendency to sin. This belief - crudely stated here - was at the heart of the theology of the reformers in the 16th century.

Having been in danger of being consigned to theological history, maybe the comments of Archbishop Tutu coming as the do from someone who has been truly confronted with evil, may encourage people to see that the teaching of another Bishop long ago is nearer the truth than the idealistic ramblings of those who find any talk of sin embarrassing.

Saint Augustine, like Archbishop Tutu, was much involved in the politics of his day. The truth is that when we look at human life honestly, as it really is, the problems of human society can be seen to be not simply political, but fundamentally spiritual. No matter how offensive it may be to us, the truth is not only that we are sinners because we sin, but also that we sin because we are sinners. Once we accept this truth, the way we look at everything else has to change, whether in theology or politics.

We may like to think that we are born good into a good world, the fact is we are born bad into a bad world. Original sin, far from being the neurotic invention of a fifth century saint, is the both consistent teaching of the Bible and the constant experience of those involved, like Archbishop Tutu, in the struggle against evil wherever they may live.

Monday, September 25, 2006

God: A Series

Today I am going to publish the first in a series of five blogs on God. These are reacting to the findings of Baylor Institute through their Baylor Religion Survey. The researchers argue that there are four different views of God amongst Americans. It is interesting to ask what our own view of God is and where we fit into the scheme. I am increasingly of the opinion that I need to modify the way I personally present God in my ministry and preaching. But more about that next week. This week I want to introduce the series and examine the first of the categories the researchers use.

1. God: An Authoritarian God

The first findings were recently released of a major, new investigation into the nature of religious belief in America. The Baylor Religion Survey is a new project focused upon improving our understanding of American religion. Those behind the project claim it is the most extensive and sensitive study of religion ever conducted. With the Baylor Religion Survey, they believe, we can dig deeper into American religious attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs than previously possible. Like many in the world today, while I have never been to the US, I am, nevertheless, aware that my life is affected by developments and decisions there more than anywhere else. Consequently, I was particularly interested in these first findings, and I will eagerly follow the findings that are promised for the future.

Of the first published findings, one of the most interesting is that America is not, in fact, ‘one nation under God’ as in the Pledge of the Union. Now you may think that the problem with this phrase lies with the ‘one nation’ part and that in the US many minorities are disenfranchised and excluded. But that wasn’t the main point emerging from these first findings, it was rather that there was in the US ‘one nation under four Gods.’

For it is the argument of the researchers that Americans can be analysed based on what their view of God is and that Americans have four different views of God. These they describe using four categories:

• an authoritarian God who metes out punishment

• a benevolent God who is less willing to condemn people

• a critical God who does not interact with the world, but deals out punishment in the after-life

• a distant God who set the laws of nature in motion but is no longer involved in events of the world

What is more, the researchers argue that our moral decisions and choices are affected by the sort of God we believe in. So, for example, those who believe in an authoritarian God are much more likely to condemn abortion.

Interestingly, the study found that most Americans, some 31%, believed in an authoritarian God. 'Individuals who believe in the Authoritarian God tend to think that God is highly involved in their daily lives and world affairs. They tend to believe that God helps them in their decision-making and is also responsible for global events such as economic upturns or tsunamis. They also tend to feel that God is quite angry and is capable of meting out punishment to those who are unfaithful or ungodly.'

For Christians, this view of God must surely be part of what they believe about God. In the Bible, God does give commands and expects people to keep them, and he often warns of the consequences if they do not. Jesus himself, who is often portrayed in popular culture, as a prophet of love, tells his disciples that if they love him they will keep his commandments.

But if this is the only way we see God, then it won’t be long before our view of God will be that of a Tyrant in the sky issuing demands and meting out punishment on those who fail. Such a God can quickly lose all compassion and so can his followers. For while our view of God affects how we approach our own moral decisions and choices, it can also affect how we view other people’s. Believers in the authoritarian God be very judgemental, condemning those who fail to live what they believe to be the right way of life. This judgemental Christianity has been very prevalent in the past. The survey suggests that it is still prevalent today.

While it is surely right that we humans need guidelines to live our lives, and equally right that our moral decisions have consequences, nevertheless, we do fall and fail, and we do make mistakes. In the Bible, God is an authoritarian God, but he is also a God of forgiveness who asks us to forgive others as we ourselves have been forgiven.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Another take on the Pope's Speech

Ben Witherington has posted the following passage in his excellent blog. It is a very interetsing point of view. I would like to believe it is true.

Faith, Reason and Politics: Parsing the Pope's Remarks
By George Friedman

On Sept. 12, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a lecture on "Faith, Reason and the University" at the University of Regensburg. In his discussion (full text available on the:

documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20060912_university-regensburg_en.html ]Vatican Web site)

the pope appeared to be trying to define a course between dogmatic faith and cultural relativism -- making his personal contribution to the old debate about faith and reason. In the course of the lecture, he made reference to a "part of the dialogue carried on -- perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara -- by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both."

Benedict went on to say -- and it is important to read a long passage to understand his point -- that:

"In the seventh conversation edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that Sura 2,256 reads: 'There is no compulsion in religion.' According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Quran, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the 'Book' and the 'infidels,' he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness which leaves us astounded, on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: 'Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.' The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. 'God,' he says, 'is not pleased by blood -- and not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats ... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death ...'

"The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: Not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: 'For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent.'"

The reaction of the Muslim world -- outrage -- came swift and sharp over the passage citing Manuel II: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." Obviously, this passage is a quote from a previous text -- but equally obviously, the pope was making a critical point that has little to do with this passage.

The essence of this passage is about forced conversion. It begins by pointing out that Mohammed spoke of faith without compulsion when he lacked political power, but that when he became strong, his perspective changed. Benedict goes on to make the argument that violent conversion -- from the standpoint of a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, and therefore shaped by the priority of reason -- is unacceptable. For someone who believes that God is absolutely transcendent and beyond reason, the argument goes, it is acceptable.

Clearly, Benedict knows that Christians also practiced forced conversion in their history. He also knows that the Aristotelian tendency is not unique to Christianity. In fact, that same tendency exists in the Muslim tradition, through thinkers such as al-Farabi or Avicenna. These stand in relation to Islam as Thomas Aquinas does to Christianity or Maimonides to Judaism. And all three religions struggle not only with the problem of God versus science, but with the more complex and interesting tripolar relationship of religion as revelation, reason and dogmatism. There is always that scriptural scholar, the philosopher troubled by faith and the local clergyman who claims to speak for God personally.

Benedict's thoughtful discussion of this problem needs to be considered. Also to be considered is why the pope chose to throw a hand grenade into a powder keg, and why he chose to do it at this moment in history. The other discussion might well be more worthy of the ages, but this question -- what did Benedict do, and why did he do it -- is of more immediate concern, for he could have no doubt what the response, in today's politically charged environment, was going to be.

A Deliberate Move

Let's begin with the obvious: Benedict's words were purposely chosen. The quotation of Manuel II was not a one-liner, accidentally blurted out. The pope was giving a prepared lecture that he may have written himself -- and if it was written for him, it was one that he carefully read. Moreover, each of the pope's public utterances are thoughtfully reviewed by his staff, and there is no question that anyone who read this speech before it was delivered would recognize the explosive nature of discussing anything about Islam in the current climate. There is not one war going on in the world today, but a series of wars, some of them placing Catholics at risk.

It is true that Benedict was making reference to an obscure text, but that makes the remark all the more striking; even the pope had to work hard to come up with this dialogue. There are many other fine examples of the problem of reason and faith that he could have drawn from that did not involve Muslims, let alone one involving such an incendiary quote. But he chose this citation and, contrary to some media reports, it was not a short passage in the speech. It was about 15 percent of the full text and was the entry point to the rest of the lecture. Thus, this was a deliberate choice, not a slip of the tongue.

As a deliberate choice, the effect of these remarks could be anticipated. Even apart from the particular phrase, the text of the speech is a criticism of the practice of conversion by violence, with a particular emphasis on Islam. Clearly, the pope intended to make the point that Islam is currently engaged in violence on behalf of religion, and that it is driven by a view of God that engenders such belief. Given Muslims' protests (including some violent reactions) over [ ]cartoons that were printed in a Danish newspaper, the pope and his advisers certainly must have been aware that the Muslim world would go ballistic over this. Benedict said what he said intentionally, and he was aware of the consequences. Subsequently, he has not apologized for what he said -- only for any offense he might have caused. He has not retracted his statement.

So, why this, and why now?

Political Readings

Consider the fact that the pope is not only a scholar but a politician -- and a good one, or he wouldn't have become the pope. He is not only a head of state, but the head of a global church with a billion members. The church is no stranger to geopolitics. Muslims claim that they brought down communism in Afghanistan. That may be true, but there certainly is something to be said also for the efforts of the Catholic Church, which helped to undermine the communism in Poland and to break the Soviet grip on Eastern Europe. Popes know how to play power politics.

Thus, there are at least two ways to view Benedict's speech politically.

One view derives from the fact that the pope is watching the U.S.-jihadist war. He can see it is going badly for the United States in both Afghanistan and Iraq. He witnessed the recent success of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas' political victory among the Palestinians. Islamists may not have the fundamental strength to threaten the West at this point, but they are certainly on a roll. Also, it should be remembered that Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, was clearly not happy about the U.S. decision to invade Iraq, but it does not follow that his successor is eager to see a U.S. defeat there.

The statement that Benedict made certainly did not hurt U.S. President George W. Bush in American politics. Bush has been trying to portray the war against Islamist militants as a clash of civilizations, one that will last for generations and will determine the future of mankind. Benedict, whether he accepts Bush's view or not, offered an intellectual foundation for Bush's position. He drew a sharp distinction between Islam and Christianity and then tied Christianity to rationality -- a move to overcome the tension between religion and science in the West. But he did not include Islam in that matrix. Given that there is a war on and that the pope recognizes Bush is on the defensive, not only in the war but also in domestic American politics, Benedict very likely weighed the impact of his words on the scale of war and U.S. politics. What he said certainly could be read as words of comfort for Bush. We cannot read Benedict's mind on this, of course, but he seemed to provide some backing for Bush's position.

It is not entirely clear that Pope Benedict intended an intellectual intervention in the war. The church obviously did not support the invasion of Iraq, having criticized it at the time. On the other hand, it would not be in the church's interests to see the United States simply routed. The Catholic Church has substantial membership throughout the region, and a wave of Islamist self-confidence could put those members and the church at risk. From the Vatican's perspective, the ideal outcome of the war would be for the United States to succeed -- or at least not fail -- but for the church to remain free to criticize Washington's policies and to serve as conciliator and peacemaker. Given the events of the past months, Benedict may have felt the need for a relatively gentle intervention -- in a way that warned the Muslim world that the church's willingness to endure vilification as a Crusader has its limits, and that he is prepared, at least rhetorically, to strike back. Again, we cannot read his mind, but neither can we believe that he was oblivious to events in the region and that, in making his remarks, he was simply engaged in an academic exercise.

This perspective would explain the timing of the pope's statement, but the general thrust of his remarks has more to do with Europe.

There is an intensifying [ ]tension in Europe over the powerful wave of Muslim immigration. Frictions are high on both sides. Europeans fear that the Muslim immigrants will overwhelm their native culture or form an unassimilated and destabilizing mass. Muslims feel unwelcome, and some extreme groups have threatened to work for the conversion of Europe. In general, the Vatican's position has ranged from quiet to calls for tolerance. As a result, the Vatican was becoming increasingly estranged from the church body -- particularly working and middle-class Catholics -- and its fears.

As has been established, the pope knew that his remarks at Regensburg would come under heavy criticism from Muslims. He also knew that this criticism would continue despite any gestures of contrition. Thus, with his remarks, he moved toward closer alignment with those who are uneasy about Europe's Muslim community -- without adopting their own, more extreme, sentiments. That move increases his political strength among these groups and could cause them to rally around the church. At the same time, the pope has not locked himself into any particular position. And he has delivered his own warning to Europe's Muslims about the limits of tolerance.

It is obvious that Benedict delivered a well-thought-out statement. It is also obvious that the Vatican had no illusions as to how the Muslim world would respond. The statement contained a verbal blast, crafted in a way that allowed Benedict to maintain plausible deniability. Indeed, the pope already has taken the exit, noting that these were not his thoughts but those of another scholar. The pope and his staff were certainly aware that this would make no difference in the grand scheme of things, save for giving Benedict the means for distancing himself from the statement when the inevitable backlash occurred. Indeed, the anger in the Muslim world remained intense, and there also have been emerging pockets of anger among Catholics over the Muslim world's reaction to the pope, considering the history of Islamic attacks against Christianity. Because he reads the newspapers -- not to mention the fact that the Vatican maintains a highly capable intelligence service of its own -- Benedict also had to have known how the war was going, and that his statement likely would aid Bush politically, at least indirectly. Finally, he would be aware of the political dynamics in Europe and that the statement would strengthen his position with the church's base there.

The question is how far Benedict is going to go with this. His predecessor took on the Soviet Union and then, after the collapse of communism, started sniping at the United States over its materialism and foreign policy. Benedict may have decided that the time has come to throw the weight of the church against radical Islamists. In fact, there is a logic here: If the Muslims reject Benedict's statement, they have to acknowledge the rationalist aspects of Islam. The burden is on the Ummah to lift the religion out of the hands of radicals and extremist scholars by demonstrating that Muslims can adhere to reason.

From an intellectual and political standpoint, therefore, Benedict's statement was an elegant move. He has strengthened his political base and perhaps legitimized a stronger response to anti-Catholic rhetoric in the Muslim world. And he has done it with superb misdirection. His options are open: He now can move away from the statement and let nature take its course, repudiate it and challenge Muslim leaders to do the same with regard to anti-Catholic statements or extend and expand the criticism of Islam that was implicit in the dialogue.

The pope has thrown a hand grenade and is now observing the response. We are assuming that he knew what he was doing; in fact, we find it impossible to imagine that he did not. He is too careful not to have known. Therefore, he must have anticipated the response and planned his partial retreat.

It will be interesting to see if he has a next move. The answer to that may be something he doesn't know himself yet.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Pope Regrets - Personally

It seems a simple statement of regret was not enough. The Pope had to make it personally for all to see and hear. And even now some are saying it did not go far enough. One thing is certain: the Pope must really regret having said what he did, irrespective of whether what he said is true and irrespective of whether he believes it or not. He says he doesn't.

The incredible thing is that Islam did spread by the sword, in part at least, so not only free speech, but also historical truth are being suppressed. We even have the spectacle of people protesting against a suggestion that Islam used violence to further its aims by burning Christian churches in the West Bank.

Have Christians also been guilty of violence in the past? Yes! The difference is we admit it. And, hopefully, are ashamed of it. We certainly are constantly reminded of it!

It was unnecessary for the Pope to say what he did at the University of Regensburg. But statements of regret should not suggest that it is wrong to tell the truth or to express an opinion. That really would be a cause of regret.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Pope Regrets

The Pope gave a lecture this week past at his old university, the University of Regensburg, on faith, reason, and the University. He refers to and quotes from a 'dialogue between the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.' The actual part he quotes is far from flatering of Islam. Having read the lecture, my immediate reaction is that the reference does not really contribute anything to the substance and thrust of the lecture.

From this point of view, it may have been wise not to have made the reference. But that is not what is being argued by his critics this week. They are arguing that it was wrong in principle to make the reference. He must not only regret his comment, he must apologize for it.

Amazing! One of the biggest criticisms of Roman Catholicism, historically, is that it has suppressed free speech through such things as the inquisition. It seems now that we have a new inquisition so that it is always wrong to say anything negative about Islam, whether true or not.

It surely should always be wrong to be gratuitously offensive. As a Christian, I am thoroughly fed up of the stuff we have to put up with in the mass media. It seems that you can say anything about Christianity in the interest of free speech, but nothing about Islam in the interest of not being offensive. You can't have it both ways.

There does need to be sensitivity to people of all religions. There also needs to be responsible criticism and analysis. Christians and Moslems should be prepared to deal with both.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Back to Basics

In the 1980s companies that had been successful in one area of economic activity frequently sought to grow by taking over other companies. The companies that they took over often worked in very different areas. So, for example, you had mining companies buying hotels and restaurants. This did not always work, and it was not long before these big conglomerates found themselves having to sell, what were for them, the fringe businesses to concentrate on their core activities.

I have been thinking recently about what the core activity of the church is, or should be. I do not know what it is like at your church, but I find it hard to persuade people to attend church meetings. I do understand some of the reasons why they don’t. If you have a family, with both parents working, after time spent travelling and time spent with the children, there is very little time left for anything else. This is especially true in Hong Kong where people are expected to work late and often also at weekends.

It may be that we are expecting too much of people and need to rethink our priorities. Instead of inviting people to meeting after meeting maybe we need to identify our core activity and concentrate on inviting them to that.

But, more specifically, what about us as priests? I have always felt that my own personal call is to teach and preach. I was fortunate in that I was given opportunity to do so while still a young teenager. I loved sermons and listening to established Christian teachers. I would happily travel a long way to hear a good preacher. As I grew up, I could not understand why people did not share my enthusiasm.

Congregations often complain that sermons are boring, and want more than anything else for them to be short. I recently told my congregation that my sermons were going to be longer in future and they just thought I was joking. Why would anyone want long sermons? This has led priests to feel spending time on sermons is a waste of time. We do not feel they are as important as other things we are called upon to do. And there are many other things!

I remember when I was training for the ministry. Each week organisations would be invited in to tell us about their work and about how, when we were ordained, we could be involved in their work. There were missionary organisations and organisations working in every area of human need: with the disabled, youth, the elderly, the bereaved, schools, the homeless, alcoholics, the depressed, etc, etc. I could go on. All these organisations sought to persuade us of the importance of their work and of how it should be important to us, too, as priests, in our future ministry.

It has not changed now that I am a priest. Human need is overwhelming, and we in the church are expected, rightly, to respond to it. But given the huge demands made upon us in every area of our lives and ministry, it is no wonder that we spend so little time on a sermon.

One preacher I used to like to listen to when I was young once spoke of how he went about preparing a sermon. He reckoned that you needed to spend at least one hour in preparation for every minute spent in the pulpit. Given that he often preached for nearly an hour, this was a massive amount of preparation. I don’t do that much preparation or anything like it. I wonder when the last time was that, as a priest, we cancelled a meeting because we had to prepare a sermon. Sermon preparation time is often what is left over after we have done everything else. It is almost as if we think: ‘Well the congregation don’t take the sermon seriously, why should I? I have enough to do!’

So instead of well prepared sermons, and in response to consumer demand, we are trying to be more entertaining (so that we can’t be accused of being boring) and are resorting to storytelling (because stories are easy to come up with). Now I realize that Jesus told stories, but he also preached the Sermon on the Mount! He spent a large amount of his ministry teaching people. I am convinced that if we preachers want congregations to take sermons more seriously, we need to take them more seriously ourselves and stop simply telling anecdotes. This may mean that we, as priests, have to make decisions about what are our personal core activities.

Do you remember the words of St Peter in Acts 6:2? He said it was not right for him and the other apostles to neglect the word of God to wait on tables. Now there is nothing wrong with waiting on tables, and Peter took steps to see that the work of waiting was done and done well. It just wasn’t his job to do it. He said, ‘We for our part will devote ourselves to prayer and serving the word.’ (Acts 6:4) God needs people who will serve on committees and who will work in organisations to bring the love of God to those in need, but he also needs those who, like Peter and the apostles, devote themselves to the word of God and prayer. And if this isn’t the job of a priest what is?

When someone comes to me to talk about the possibility of being ordained, I always ask them what difference it will make to them. What they think they will be able to do when they are ordained that they can’t do as a lay person. What is ordination all about? The answer, of course, is that there is very little that an ordained person does that a lay person can’t also do. If I look at my diary, much that I spend my time on could equally well be done by a lay person and probably very often done much better. But there remain some things that the church has determined are particularly the work of a priest.

I became a priest so that I would have the opportunity to preach. Now I am ordained, I don’t have the time to preach. Then I had the time and not the authority, now I have the authority and not the time! I am trying in my ministry at the moment to make more time for preaching. What I mean by time is time in preparation as well as in delivery. It can be discouraging. It is, for example, very disheartening when you spend hours preparing for a talk or sermon and only a handful of people make the effort to turn up to listen to it.

I have, however, been given heart by the late Pope John Paul. At a time of secularisation and mounting opposition to the church, he stuck to the fundamentals: to the church’s core activities. While people did not always agree with him, they respected him. The reaction of even hardened non-churchgoers to his death shows the respect with which he was held.

People still need to hear the word of God. St Paul asked how they can hear unless someone preaches to them (Romans 10:14). The responsibility belongs to all of us who have been set apart for this ministry. Like Pope John Paul, we need to stick to the fundamentals and concentrate on what should be our core activity. Perhaps then people will come to want to hear the word of God again.