Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Reductionism and Redemption

All newbies in our division have to fill in this "get to know you" questionnaire. Among other things, we were asked to "list the physical and non-physical traits that you want your ideal mate to have."

At first I didn't know what to do with this question because I didn't even agree with its very premise. Granted, the whole questionnaire was deliberately provocative (I think they were also aiming for humorous, but much of that was lost on me) and was not meant to be taken seriously, but I still could not help feeling somewhat saddened by the question itself.

Since when did we start reducing people to commodities?

I found myself very encouraged by some of the answers that my colleagues gave. One chap wrote, "I don't believe in such reductionism. I feel that it diminishes the worth of each individual." This made me want to cheer. Another opted for a more tongue-in-cheek approach. "One head, one body, two arms and two legs. Female." This made me chuckle.

In the end, I settled for "I don't really believe in shopping lists for people. The only "requirement" is that he's Christian." I don't even know if "being Christian" can be considered a trait. I don't really think so, but if deep friendship is the essence of marriage then I think it's crucial that you see reality the same way.

The consumerism that pervades all of society has also coloured the way in which we view our relationships. We are, first and foremost, consumers. How much am I getting in return for what I put in? Am I getting a bad deal? How well does this arrangement meet my needs? If we could, I suspect we would customise relationships the way we customise playlists on our iPods to suit our individual preferences.

Tim Keller draws a distinction between consumer-vendor relationships, in which you relate to the vendor only as long as your needs are being met at an acceptable cost, and covenantal relationships, in which you commit to the good of the other whether your individual needs are being met or not. He notes that in modern culture the marketplace has become so dominant that even personal relationships are now based on the consumer model, but Proverbs tells us that “A friend loves at all times” (17:17). Not just when it suits my needs, not just when I am receiving as much as I put in, not just when I feel deep affection for the other, but all the time.

I used to hold to this warped theory of “reciprocity in friendship.” When I felt that my friend was not being the friend to me that I was to her, I got angry and upset. This is not fair! I deserve better than this! This relationship is not a one-way street! I had absolutely no idea what love is, and what true friendship really means. There was a complete failure on my part to see just how true a friend Jesus was, and is, to us; how unconditionally, and how sacrificially he loved us, and loves us still. We gave him nothing, yet he gave us everything, giving up his rightful riches in heaven to descend into the depths of hell. We turned our backs on him and spurned his love, yet he never gave up on us even though it cost him his life.

Most people think of love and relationships in terms of what they want, but that is just emotional hunger, that’s not love. The real way to know how much you love somebody is how much you’re willing to give, not how much you’re willing to get.

The Bible always speaks of love in strictly covenantal terms: How much you love a person is always defined in terms of what you are willing to give, how much you’re willing to curb your choices to meet the needs of someone else. But the modern world tells you: Don’t you dare ever limit your choices. Keep your options open! Never ever bind yourself and make yourself vulnerable to anybody that way. Never!

There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket - safe, dark, motionless, airless - it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

C.S. Lewis, in The Four Loves

If you think, that if you would commit yourself to somebody else like that, that that would really be scary, that that would really be frightening, that you might get hurt – you will be more hurt in the long run if you refuse to submit yourself to anybody that way; if you rule it out, if you take your heart so it will never be broken, if you never commit yourself and never allow yourself to be vulnerable (which is what the definition of marriage is), your heart will become impenetrable, irredeemable. You will experience the alienation and dislocation of the modern society that you are listening to in the news, as it sings to you, and you march to its beat. Society is full of alienated and dislocated people because they are looking out for number one, because they refuse to find love in terms of commitment – in terms of what you will give, and how vulnerable you will be.

Love is not primarily a feeling (feelings go up and down), but an action first. The feelings follow after. The most supremely loving act there ever was, and ever will be, was when the Lord of all creation laid down his life for us, becoming the servant of all, making himself completely vulnerable, not thinking of himself in the least, loving us when we were utterly unlovable.

Now that’s love.

Do we know what love is?

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Driving in Taiwan

Last week we went on a field trip to Taiwan as part of our foundation course, and one of the Singaporeans we met there told us that many Singaporeans find Taiwan messy and disorderly. He said that you can tell the difference between Singaporean and Taiwanese culture just by looking at the way people drive. In Taiwan, cars swerve in and out of lanes and traffic lights are more like suggestions rather than legal requirements. The Taiwanese have this proverb that means "order in disorder", and they are very tolerant of inconsiderate driving. If you pull up alongside the road to let people off, causing a backlog of cars behind you, people will just wait because everyone recognises that they would have done exactly the same had they been in your position. But if you did that in Singapore, the drivers stuck behind you would be pounding on their horns.

We Singaporeans are a very law abiding lot, but we are extremely intolerant of people who do not obey what we perceive to be the rules. At the same time however, the Taiwanese are also extremely intolerant of intolerant people. Quite of few of them see Singapore as inflexible and authoritarian, and China is regarded as the antithesis of democracy and a system that just cannot be accepted.

I was keenly reminded of how Tim Keller once pointed out that all cultures are oppressive - they set up an ideal (say, of law-abidingness or liberal tolerance) and everyone who does not conform is "condemned". The Bible tells us that all cultures are fallen (because all people are fallen), and that all cultures oppress, because every single culture puts in front of people certain objects and says “If you don’t have them, you’re nothing.”

Ancient cultures, and traditional cultures today, tend to have collectivistic idols: Follow the rules! Obey the law! Toe the line! But modern Western cultures tend more to have individualistic idols: Break free! Define yourself! It’s your choice, so choose! Every culture that ever existed and that exists today, is telling you to build your identity on something.

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?"

"The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."
Mark 12:28-31

It is no accident that Jesus tells us to love our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength first, before telling us to love our neighbours, because the latter would be completely impossible without the former.

It is impossible to love your illiberal neighbour just as much as your avowedly liberal self, if you do not love God more than your liberal credentials.

If you build your identity on being liberal, you will despise illiberal people. If you build your identity on being law-abiding, you will despise "law-breakers". Only if you build your identity on God, a God who loves you with an everlasting love despite your weaknesses and flaws, a God who will tear himself apart to make you whole, will you be completely incapable of despising anyone.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Oscar Wilde: Come down, O Christ, and help me!

I have nothing to declare except my genius.
Remark at the New York Customs, Jan. 3, 1882.

E Tenebris

COME down, O Christ, and help me! reach thy hand,
For I am drowning in a stormier sea
Than Simon on thy lake of Galilee:
The wine of life is spilt upon the sand,
My heart is as some famine-murdered land
Whence all good things have perished utterly,
And well I know my soul in Hell must lie
If I this night before God’s throne should stand.
‘He sleeps perchance, or rideth to the chase,
Like Baal, when his prophets howled that name
From morn to noon on Carmel’s smitten height.’
Nay, peace, I shall behold, before the night,
The feet of brass, the robe more white than flame,
The wounded hands, the weary human face.

It is hard to believe that these are all words uttered by the same man.

I have been a big fan of Oscar Wilde ever since we did The Importance of Being Earnest back in secondary school. His effortless wit and his literary genius captured my imagination. I read all of his plays and as much as I could about his life. A few years later when I found myself at Oxford I got to see Wilde's old rooms at Magdalen College (they are still being used as student accomodation and a friend of a friend had the good fortune of having been given those very rooms). I also managed to catch a wonderful production of A Woman of No Importance in London.

Wilde's own words in De Profundis (his last work of prose, written while he was still in prison) would sound horribly pompous if not for the fact that they are largely true and that he has indeed persisted as one of the literary giants of his time.

I was a man who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age. I had realised this for myself at the very dawn of my manhood, and had forced my age to realise it afterwards...

The gods had given me almost everything. I had genius, a distinguished name, high social position, brilliancy, intellectual daring: I made art a philosophy, and philosophy an art: I altered the minds of men and the colours of things: there was nothing I said or did that did not make people wonder: ... drama, novel, poem in rhyme, poem in prose, subtle or fantastic dialogue, whatever I touched I made beautiful in a new mode of beauty: to truth itself I gave what is false no less than what is true as its rightful province, and showed that the false and the true are merely forms of intellectual existence. I treated Art as the supreme reality, and life as a mere mode of fiction: I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me: I summed up all systems in a phrase, and all existence in an epigram.

For all the celebrity and acclaim that he enjoyed (and still enjoys), he died penniless and alone, exiled in Paris. Though married with two young sons, he had intimate relations with one Lord Alfred Douglas which led to his being charged with the crime of homosexuality (then illegal in Britain). His triumphant public career ended in utter disgrace - he was sentenced to two years hard labour. He died shortly after he was released.

On his death-bed, Wilde was received into the Catholic Church. In An Oxford Reminiscence, his friend and contemporary W. W. Ward, commenting upon a bundle of old letters written to him by Wilde, recalls that '[t]hey show, too, that his final decision to find refuge in the Roman Church was not the sudden clutch of the drowning man at the plank in the shipwreck, but a return to a first love, a love rejected, it is true, or at least rejected in the tragic progress of his self-realization, yet one that had haunted him from early days with a persistent spell.' (Son of Oscar Wilde. Vyvyan Holland. Appendix B. Pp. 251-2.) See also The Long Conversion of Oscar Wilde.

I must say to myself that I ruined myself, and that nobody great or small can be ruined except by his own hand ...This pitiless indictment I bring without pity against myself. Terrible as was what the world did to me, what I did to myself was far more terrible still ...I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a flaneur, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds. I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy. Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensation. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both. I grew careless of the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetop. I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace.

There is only one thing for me now, absolute humility.

from De Profundis

"Humility is not another word for hypocrisy; it is another word for honesty. It is not pretending to be other than we are, but acknowledging the truth about what we are."
John Stott

It took complete financial and social ruin for Wilde to come to a place of "absolute humility", where he cried out in desperation "Come down, O Christ, and help me!"

When an English teacher assigned the Sermon on the Mount to her composition class at Texas A&M University, she was surprised at the responses that she got.

The stuff the churches preach is extremely strict and allows for almost no fun without thinking it is a sin or not.

I did not like the essay "Sermon on the Mount." It was hard to read and made me feel like I had to be perfect and no one is.

The things asked in this sermon are absurd. To look at a woman is adultery. That is the most extreme, stupid, unhuman statement that I have ever heard.
cited in Philip Yancey's The Jesus I Never Knew

Lest we are inclined to think of Jesus as some cuddly religious teacher who waxes lyrical about love, much of what he says is extremely challenging if not downright offensive. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

Leo Tolstoy recognised the impossibility of Christ's standards. "The test of observance of Christ's teachings is our consciousness of our failure to attain an ideal perfection. The degree to which we draw near this perfection cannot be seen; all we can see is the extent of our deviation."
from The Kingdom of God is Within You

In a way, we are all desperate.

Fortunately for us, the Sermon on the Mount is not just an impossible set of standards to make everyone feel completely rotten about themselves (apparently Tolstoy felt this way a lot of the time), but a picture of what God is like. When Jesus was nailed to the cross, among the very last words he spoke were "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing". He loved his enemies and prayed for those who persecuted, and crucified, him.

We cannot live up to God's perfect standards. But seeing more clearly the vast chasm between the perfection of God and the wretchedness of man, we see the infinite distance that Jesus traversed on our behalves. We see just how much He loves us.

Thunderously, inarguably, the Sermon on the Mount proves that before God we all stand on level ground: murderers and temper-throwers, adulterers and lusters, thieves and coveters. We are all desperate, and that is in fact the only state appropriate to a human being who wants to know God. Having fallen from the absolute Ideal, we have nowhere to land but in the safety net of absolute grace.
Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew

Just as I am, without one plea
But that thy blood was shed for me,
And that thou bid me come to thee,
O Lamb of God, I come to thee.

Just as I am, and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot
To thee, whose blood
can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come to thee.

Just as I am, though tossed about
With many conflicts many doubts,
Fightings and fears within, without
O Lamb of God, I come to thee.

Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
Sight, riches, healing of the mind,
Yea, all I need, in thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come to thee.

Just as I am, thy love unknown
Has broken every barrier down;
Now, to be thine, yea, thine alone,
O Lamb of God, I come to thee.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Everything sad is going to come untrue

Somewhat belatedly, I came across this short sermon that Tim Keller gave at the 9-11 Service of Peace and Rememberance for Victims' Families this year in New York. Slightly more than a year ago, on the 11th of September, I went on a sunset cruise around Manhattan (one in a series of activities organised by Columbia for incoming international grad students). The cruise had been specifically arranged for this date because every year they commerate the day with the Tribute in Light. From where the twin towers used to stand, two towering beams of light shine, in turns a piercing blue and a ghostly white, illuminating the velvety night sky.

I guess that nothing makes us doubt God as much as suffering, in our own lives and in the world around us, and so this is a rather apt follow-up to the previous post.

This transcript is provided by Michael Keller at kellered.blogspot.com


Ground Zero/St Paul’s Chapel
Tim Keller
Sep 10, 2006

As a minister, of course, I’ve spent countless hours with people who are struggling and wrestling with the biggest question - the WHY question in the face of relentless tragedies and injustices. And like all ministers or any spiritual guides of any sort, I scramble to try to say something to respond and I always come away feeling inadequate and that’s not going to be any different today. But we can’t shrink from the task of responding to that question. Because the very best way to honor the memories of the ones we’ve lost and love is to live confident, productive lives. And the only way to do that is to actually be able to face that question. We have to have the strength to face a world filled with constant devastation and loss. So where do we get that strength? How do we deal with that question? I would like to propose that, though we won’t get all of what we need, we may get some of what we need 3 ways: by recognizing the problem for what it is, and then by grasping both an empowering hint from the past and an empowering hope from the future.

First, we have to recognize that the problem of tragedy, injustice and suffering is a problem for everyone no matter what their beliefs are. Now, if you believe in God and for the first time experience or see horrendous evil, you rightly believe that that is a problem for your belief in God, and you’re right – and you say, “How could a good and powerful God allow something like this to happen?”

But it’s a mistake (though a very understandable mistake) to think that if you abandon your belief in God it somehow is going to make the problem easier to handle. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Letter from Birmingham Jail says that if there was no higher divine Law, there would be no way to tell if a particular human law was unjust or not. So think. If there is no God or higher divine Law and the material universe is all there is, then violence is perfectly natural—the strong eating the weak! And yet somehow, we still feel this isn’t the way things ought to be. Why not? Now I’m not going to get philosophical at a time like this. I’m just trying to make the point that the problem of injustice and suffering is a problem for belief in God but it is also a problem for disbelief in God---for any set of beliefs. So abandoning belief in God does not really help in the face of it. OK, then what will?

Second, I believe we need to grasp an empowering hint from the past. Now at this point, I’d like to freely acknowledge that every faith - and we are an interfaith gathering today – every faith has great resources for dealing with suffering and injustice in the world. But as a Christian minister I know my own faith’s resources the best, so let me simply share with you what I’ve got. When people ask the big question, “Why would God allow this or that to happen?” There are almost always two answers. The one answer is: Don’t question God! He has reasons beyond your finite little mind. And therefore, just accept everything. Don’t question. The other answer is: I don’t know what God’s up to – I have no idea at all about why these things are happening. There’s no way to make any sense of it at all. Now I’d like to respectfully suggest the first of these answers is too hard and the second is too weak. The second is too weak because, though of course we don’t have the full answer, we do have an idea, an incredibly powerful idea.

One of the great themes of the Hebrew Scriptures is that God identifies with the suffering. There are all these great texts that say things like this: If you oppress the poor, you oppress to me. I am a husband to the widow. I am father to the fatherless. I think the texts are saying God binds up his heart so closely with suffering people that he interprets any move against them as a move against him. This is powerful stuff! But Christianity says he goes even beyond that. Christians believe that in Jesus, God’s son, divinity became vulnerable to and involved in - suffering and death! He didn’t come as a general or emperor. He came as a carpenter. He was born in a manger, no room in the inn.

But it is on the Cross that we see the ultimate wonder. On the cross we sufferers finally see, to our shock that God now knows too what it is to lose a loved one in an unjust attack. And so you see what this means? John Stott puts it this way. John Stott wrote: “I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the Cross. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?” Do you see what this means? Yes, we don’t know the reason God allows evil and suffering to continue, but we know what the reason isn’t, what it can’t be. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us! It can’t be that he doesn’t care. God so loved us and hates suffering that he was willing to come down and get involved in it. And therefore the Cross is an incredibly empowering hint. Ok, it’s only a hint, but if you grasp it, it can transform you. It can give you strength.

And lastly, we have to grasp an empowering hope for the future. In both the Hebrew Scriptures and even more explicitly in the Christian Scriptures we have the promise of resurrection. In Daniel 12:2-3 we read: Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake….[They]… will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and…like the stars for ever and ever. And in John 11 we hear Jesus say: I am the resurrection and the life! Now this is what the claim is: That God is not preparing for us merely some ethereal, abstract spiritual existence that is just a kind of compensation for the life we lost. Resurrection means the restoration to us of the life we lost. New heavens and new earth means this body, this world! Our bodies, our homes, our loved ones—restored, returned, perfected and beautified! Given back to us!

In the year after 9-11 I was diagnosed with cancer, and I was treated successfully. But during that whole time I read about the future resurrection and that was my real medicine. In the last book of The Lord of the Rings, Sam Gamgee wakes up, thinking everything is lost and discovering instead that all his friends were around him, he cries out: "Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead! Is everything sad going to come untrue?"

The answer is YES. And the answer of the Bible is YES. If the resurrection is true, then the answer is yes. Everything sad is going TO COME UNTRUE.

Oh, I know many of you are saying, “I wish I could believe that.” And guess what? This idea is so potent that you can go forward with that. To even want the resurrection, to love the idea of the resurrection, long for the promise of the resurrection even though you are unsure of it, is strengthening. I John 3:2-3. Beloved, now we are children of God and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope purify themselves as he is pure.” Even to have a hope in this is purifying.

Listen to how Dostoevsky puts it in Brothers Karamazov: “I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, of the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they’ve shed; and it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify what has happened.”

That is strong and that last sentence is particularly strong…but if the resurrection is true, it’s absolutely right. Amen.