Monday 26 October 2009

Having the 'right' heart for the Internet

The Internet and new communication technology have had a huge impact on our world. Just like any new technology it is easy to see advantages and problems. Any criticism of the Internet will evoke strong defence because of the many wonderful things that it offers; it is easy to love the Internet. But there will be just as many people who will point to the obvious problems we can identify with its use - misuse of social networks to bully and deceive, online gambling addictions, crime and abuse to name just a few. But it also brings many blessings and opportunities: improved communication between isolated loved ones; a means to bring political accountability and action as occurred with the use of Twitter to monitor the 2009 elections in Zimbabwe; use of mobile phones to enable rescues and prevent crimes; access to information and knowledge at the 'click' of a key; new ways to share biblical truth in varied languages and so on.

In recent weeks in Australia we saw a dramatic rescue of two girls in Adelaide aged 10 and 12. While trapped in a stormwater drain they were able to update their Facebook pages using mobile phones, leading to their rescue (here). Once again, this demonstrates that new technology isn't necessarily the problem it's what we do with it that matters and the hearts and minds that drive our use of technology.

Case magazine focussed on technology in 2008 with an issue that had the theme 'Communication, Cyberspace and Community'. In my contribution to the issue, 'Truth and the Internet', I made the comment:

"The Internet like other tools is simply a means to understand the world. Like other tools it is used as an extension of, and as part of, cultural groups (e.g. the family, school, church etc). It is in such groups that we learn how to use psychological and material tools. Much of this occurs with no formal instruction as children from birth learn through interaction with others. The tools we use reflect the culture in which we live and are applied as we interact with and the cultural groups within which we live mediate our thoughts and actions."

But while the work of great psychologists like Vygotsky remind us that the Internet is just a tool, any tool can be misused. I'd be less than honest if I didn't say that I have serious worries about the way we use the Internet - and I include myself in the 'we'! I love the Internet but I recognise that I need to use it responsibly. John Smuts from Petersham Baptist Church made this point well in a helpful sermon on Sunday on the Christian and culture and motivated this post. The Bible offers knowledge and wisdom that takes us to the next step, providing us with the guidance that we need to use tools like the Internet wisely. Day by day I need to be thinking about the way I use the Internet and the motives that drive my use:
I need to be careful that I don't use email instead of face-to-face communication.
I need to guard my words and my motives online.
I need to avoid presenting a different and false persona to my virtual world than to the one where people observe me face-to-face (Roberta Kwan's article in Case #18 - 'Name Unknown: Anonymity in the City' is relevant here).
I need to make sure that I don't rob my God, my family or even my employer (see previous post on this here) of the time that I owe to them.
I need to ensure that I observe ethical principles in how I use Internet resources, not stealing that which I should purchase.
I need to avoid becoming addicted to social network sites, online shopping, twitter or blogging.
I need to be an example to others of how best to use the Internet.
Paul's letter to the Philippian church are helpful in offering us a starting point for handling the Internet well. He stresses the importance of our minds as drivers of our actions. At a general level he commends the Philippians to be conscious that their relationships in life are driven by their minds: "Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ" (Phil 1:27). Be "of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind" (Phil 2:2). "Have this mind among yourself, which is yours in Christ Jesus" - a mind centred on Christ that leads to humility, servanthood and sacrifice (Phil 2:5-8). God is concerned about our minds and what we do with them.

Tools like the Internet can be used for good and evil; for their use reflects the state of human minds. Paul underscores this for his readers later in the letter when he commends them to be concerned about their minds, for he knew that it is the focus of one's mind that dictates what Christ's followers do with their lives. Our minds shape our actions, our priorities and our passions.
"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you." (Philippians 4:8-9)
Jesus also taught that it was from within us that our actions are shaped. He spoke of the 'heart' as the shaper of actions.
And he said, "What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person." (Mark 7:21-23)
The lesson is simple. The Internet isn't the problem; it's sin that can drive us to use it in ways that are not for our good. Furthermore, our use of it is shaped by our minds (or 'hearts'). Of course, this doesn't mean that we should be blind to the potential challenges of using the Internet. Like anything that can cause harm, not simply be used for the good, we need to be cautious and make wise decisions about how we use it. It may well be that if we cannot use the Internet wisely that we need to build greater accountability into our own lives and also for our children.

Related Posts & Links

'The Soul in Cyberspace: Wisdom from Groothius' (here)
'Is the Internet Dumbing us Down? 2 Rite' (here)
'Truth and the Internet 2' (here)
'Communication, Cyberspace & Community' (here)
'Writing, Communication Technology & Relationships' (here)

Monday 19 October 2009

To Give a Reason

CASE has just released its latest issue of its quarterly magazine Case that focuses on approaches to apologetics. Some Christians see apologetics as an interesting, but non-essential tool. And yet all are exhorted in Scripture to always be ‘prepared to make a defence [apologia] to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you’ (1 Peter 3:15). Peter’s exhortation to be prepared to ‘to give a reason’ — an apologia — forms the theme and the title for our 20th issue.

Apologetics has commonly been defined as ‘the defence of the Christian faith against charges of falsehood, inconsistency or credulity’ (Cowan, Steven, ‘Five Views on Apologetics’, 2000). Such a definition pushes us towards methods based on reason and argument. Paul’s defence before Roman officials (Acts 24-25) is one example of how this is done. Yet is there more to apologetics than rational discourse? Taken together, the writers in this issue of Case show how relational and rational apologetics ought to co-exist in the commending of the Christian gospel. While not denying the importance of knowledge it is important to underline that apologetics takes place between people sharing relationships—not least in the relationship we call church.

The essays in Case #20 offer a number of foundational principles that help us to rethink and clarify attitudes and approaches to apologetics. As I've edited the magazine with Mike Thompson my Associate Editor I have been challenged in many ways. Here are a few of the key ideas that have struck me as significant.

Apologetics is more than winning arguments

In offering a defence or reason for the hope that we have in Christ, we must do more than simply seek to win arguments; our lives must also commend Christ (see my previous post on this topic here). David Hohne frames his essay with Peter’s challenge (1 Peter 2:12) to live an honorable or good life. As David puts it, to have ‘a beautiful way of life’ that commends God to others. Our defence should not be just rational argument; we must use our ‘head, heart and hands’ and live as apologetic people in apologetic communities—with ‘our whole lives as both a defence and commendation of the grace of God in Christ’. The church is not separate from culture, and yet it should stand out against it.

Michael Jensen makes the point in his contribution to this issue that the church needs to build ‘communities of grace’ in which are demonstrated authentic Christian lives. Christ-centred communities draw attention to the one in whom members place their hope.

We must look for new ways to engage in apologetics

A common error with apologetics is to see it as just skills and tasks to be learned. Andrew Bain suggests that we must become better at connecting core elements of the Christian faith with related themes in the cultural world in which we dwell. We need to articulate, for the benefit of others, those points of ‘conflict and connection’ between Christian doctrines (e.g. the Trinity, revelation, Scripture, and Christology) and their apparent counterparts in our cultural and intellectual surroundings.

William Lane Craig points out that apologetics is not just for evangelising unbelievers and strengthening Christians. Apologetics also has a broader value in helping to create receptiveness towards Christianity in society more generally. As he argues, ‘It is the broader task of Christian apologetics to help create and sustain a cultural milieu in which the Gospel can be heard as an intellectually viable option for thinking men and women.

Beware of apologetic transposition

Richard Gibson and Mike Thompson suggest that when we translate the Christian faith into the language of our surrounding culture we must beware of reconstituting the message itself—in particular the Biblical portrayal of God’s character. Drawing on the example of the second century apologists they show how apologetic translation can become apologetic ‘transposition’—a problem not only for apologetics but for the long-term integrity of Christian theology as a whole.

Exercise humility as we present Christ

All writers in this issue either address or allude to the need for a more ‘humble apologetic’. Michael Jensen reminds us that we must prayerfully approach our task with the knowledge that God is sovereign in our apologetics. As well, he commends the apologist to listen attentively and intelligently, and be prepared to say ‘I don’t know’. Similarly, William Lane Craig commends us to be ‘relational, humble and invitational’. We must present the reasons for our hope ‘with gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3:15).

Seminar on Apologetics for readers based in Sydney

CASE holds a quarterly discussion group based on the previous issue. Our discussion group for October will be held at Moore Theological College on Thursday 29th October 2009 at 4.00pm in the Lower Lecture Room. Dr David Höhne, lecturer in Philosophy and Theology at Moore, will speak briefly about his article on ‘becoming apologetic persons’, in which he critiques the lingering influence of Kant and Schleiermacher, and challenges readers to re-conceive of apologetics not as a matter of rational discourse alone but instead as a matter of ‘head, heart and hands’.

Discussion will then be open on any of the contents of Case # 20. The related contents include:

Andrew Bain, ‘Theological Apologetics: a Program for Action
Richard Gibson and Mike Thompson, ‘What Happened to God’s Emotions?: A Warning to the Apologist from History’
William Lane Craig, ‘Who Needs Apologetics?
Michael Jensen, ‘16 Verbs for a 21st Century Apologetics
David Hohne, ‘Becoming an Apologetic Person

Registration is open to all and a copy of the latest magazine will be provided as part of the seminar.

Phone: Sydney 02 9381 1999
More information: CASE website (here)

Monday 12 October 2009

Faith & Politics: Our rights and responsibilities

In an article titled 'The voluble and the Word: amen to that' (Sydney Morning Herald, 10-11 October, 2009) Damien Murphy wrings his hands at the increasing influence of Christians in politics. He frames his article with the question "Is politics becoming more entwined with Christianity while Australian society becomes more and more secular?" He points to the Prime Minister's public professions of faith (and that of others) as if this may be a troubling development:

"No politician has ever spoken so frankly or linked his [i.e. the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd] beliefs to political policy. His open and sincere religiosity even provided an ethical public persona that enabled him to battle John Howard for the hearts and minds of Christians and eventually lead the ALP out of the political wilderness. Rudd is now joined by political contemporaries like Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott in overtly embracing religiosity as a shorthand way of proving credentials and displaying the sort of principles to which they aspire."

What place does faith have in politics?

At various points in the article Murphy makes it clear that he is of the view that Rudd, Abbot and Hockey have made use of their faith for reasons of political popularity. I've heard comments of this type before about politicians who dare to mention their faith. I have no idea whether any of them (including the Prime Minister) have been open about their faith simply for political gain, but surely what is at issue here is whether one's faith is relevant to one's politics, which Murphy appears to question. Indeed, he questions whether faith, as a basis for one's values and as a shaper of actions and concerns, is as relevant as it once was. He continues to imply in his article that this rush of 'religiosity' (as he describes it) is somehow disconnected to the needs of our secular society:
...Australia is an increasingly secular society. Although 64 per cent say they are Christian, fewer than one in 10 attends weekly church. Compared with many countries, Australia has invested little energy in public debate about the place of religion in a secular society. In some, such as the US and France, protecting religious freedom means rigorously policing the boundary between church and state.
He continues with his thesis that religion is somehow less relevant than it once was for public debates about Australia's political policies.

Curiously perhaps, Australian politicians have 'got religion' while more and more people around the country are letting go......In the 1996 census, 71 per cent of Australians said they were Christians. By 2006 Christians were down to 64 per cent. The number of Australians who professed no religion soared to almost 19 per cent.

Interestingly, a recent piece of research by McCrindle research for the 'Jesus All About life' campaign (here) shows that a majority of Sydney people (51%) believe Jesus was a real figure, that he had miraculous powers, and that he was the son of God.

The views of Kevin Rudd

It might also surprise Damien Murphy to find that Prime Minister Rudd would agree with him that religiosity and moral arguments have little place in politics. In a lecture given at New College (the home of CASE) on the 26th October 2005, 'A consideration of the relationship between Church and State' the then member of the Opposition offered 5 models that can be used to link faith and politics. He rejected (almost disdainfully) the first three that encourage voters to offer support to the Christian politician simply because the politician has a faith position, supports a narrow set of values, or stands for the family. He rejected a fourth that he saw as deficient because this model had a limited application of faith on values and stops short of making stands on what he sees as critical policy areas like foreign affairs, Indigenous issues, industrial relations etc. Instead he argues that:

"....the Gospel is both a spiritual Gospel and a social Gospel. And if it is a social Gospel then it is in part a political Gospel because politics is a means by which society chooses to exercise its collective power. In other words the Gospel is as much about decisions I make about my life as it is about how I act in society and how in turn I should act, and react, in relation to the exercise of the coordinated power of society through the State. This view derives from the simple principle that the Gospel which tells human kind that they must be born-again, is the same Gospel that says that at the time of the Great Judgement that Christians will be asked not how pious they have been but instead if they helped feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the lonely. In this respect, the Gospel is an exhortation for social action."

Prime Minister Rudd concluded by making the point that Damien Murphy seems to miss, Christians have a right and in fact a social obligation as citizens to engage in political thought and action. He comments in the same address that while the number of Christians has declined in Australia that they nonetheless have an obligation to be politically involved:

"Whereas a Christian perspective on contemporary policy debates may not, therefore, prevail, it must nonetheless be argued. And if argued it must therefore be heard by those in authority. It should not be rejected contemptuously by secular politicians as if these views are an unwelcome intrusion into the political sphere."
The challenge to Christians to be better citizens

Just as it is relevant for Christians to enter politics, all citizens who call themselves Christians have a responsibility to contribute to better government and justice for all people.

In his book 'The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology' Oliver O'Donovan reminds us that two New Testament phrases sum up the role of government. It is a “minister of God” and it is a “human institution”. That is, it exists to serve the will of God that there should be government and it exists to give order and shape to human society and its affairs.

As Andrew Errington also reminds us in an article in issue #13 of Magazine devoted to the 'Christian and Politics' (Case here) as citizens the right approach to political action is for us to help our representatives of government do their job well and ensure that we have a good government.

The Christian has a responsibility to challenge politicians to ensure they seek justice. This will mean reminding them of God's truth taught in his Word, that ultimately God governs this nation and indeed the entire universe. God's word gives us clear guidance about what is right and wrong, just and unjust, good or evil.

So the right approach for Christian political action is to seek to help our representatives govern well and to help our governments be good governments. This means setting before them the priorities of justice; it means calling them to the truth about the universe revealed in the word of God. We must also remind them that Jesus Christ is the only true King. It is before him that every voter, every citizen and indeed every politician and ruler will one day bow down. There will be a day of judgement, and on that day every one of us will be called "to give an account of every careless word" (Matthew 12:36). Rather than standing in judgement on our politicians' words, motives and actions, we must challenge them and remind them that they have a great responsibility to do good and that one day, like us, they will bow before God (Rom 14:12) and he will judge "the living and the dead" (1 Peter 4:5). We are all known to God who can judge words, motives and hearts. As the book of Hebrews reminds us we are all "naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account".

This responsibility is challenging for the person of any faith. Damien Murphy has it badly wrong when he questions the right of politicians to have faith and apply it to their politics. Every politician who has a faith has a right and responsibility to apply this to their actions, and hopefully this shapes their values. This does not mean that they can hope to enforce their faith on the people, nor to narrowly apply their faith to a limited range of social and moral agendas. If they do this then God himself will judge their actions.

Monday 5 October 2009

'Exclusion & Embrace' - Identity, otherness and reconciliation

In our next issue of Case magazine (#21) we will examine 'Otherness'. The issue will offer a theological exploration of a topic that has long interested philosophers, sociologists and psychologists. Being able to define the 'other' (someone not like myself) is part of how we define the self. It is also the basis on which individuals, groups, communities and societies in general reject or distance themselves from other people; we use perceptions of difference to exclude rather than to 'embrace' (to use Volf's term). Miroslav Volf's work is central to much recent discussion of the topic and hence is important to the theme that we address. In his book 'Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation', Volf suggests that understanding the problem of identity and otherness and the conflict that results, can be approached from multiple perspectives including that of the 'universalist' who seeks to control difference and instead promote common values, the 'communitarian' who seeks to celebrate all difference and promote heterogeneity, and the 'postmodernist' who wants to flee both of the above and seek instead the radical autonomy of the individual. But Volf (1996, pp 20-21) suggests that a Christian examination of otherness should take us in a different direction:
These proposals [i.e. the above arguments] do entail important perspectives about persons who live in societies, but their main interest is not social agents, but social arrangements. In contrast, I want to concentrate on social agents. Instead of reflecting on the kind of society we ought to create in order to accommodate individual or communal heterogeneity, I will explore what kind of selves we need to be in order to live in harmony with others. My assumption is that selves are situated; they are female or male, Jew or Greek, rich or poor - as a rule, more than one of these things at the same time...often having hybrid identities...and sometimes migrating from one identity to another. The questions I will be pursuing about such situated selves are: How should they think of their identity? How should they relate to the other? How should they go about making peace with the other?
Volf suggests that our starting point in this journey of discovery should be the cross of Christ, for it is the starting point to understanding the character of the Christian self in relation to the other. He suggests that Moltman's work (e.g. 'The Spirit of Life' 1991) offers insight into our need for solidarity with those who suffer and are excluded - "the sufferings of Christ are not just his sufferings but are those of the poor weak, which Jesus shares in his own body and in his own soul, in solidarity with them". As well, Moltman points to the need for atonement for the perpetrators of injustice - "just as the oppressed must be liberated from the suffering caused by oppression, so the oppressors must be liberated from the suffering caused through oppression". But Volf suggests we need to go further, we need to consider "divine self-donation for the enemies and their reception into the eternal communion of God" (Wolf, 1996, p. 23). In doing this, Volf seeks to consider the social significance of the theme of divine self-giving. God does not abandon the godless to their evil. Instead, he gives the divine self for them in order to receive them into divine communion through Christ's atoning sacrifice. As a result, he argues, we too should embrace our enemies. The metaphor of embrace he suggests is helpful in moving us in this direction. He describes it this way:
'The will to give ourselves to others and 'welcome' them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgement about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity. The will to embrace precedes any 'truth' about others and any construction of their 'justice'. This will is absolutely indiscriminate and strictly immutable; it transcends the moral mapping of the social world into 'good' and 'evil'." (Volf, 1996, p. 29).
Volf's ideas are personally challenging for me, living in the relative comfort of a western nation with stable government and in a pluralistic society that at least claims to embrace the isolated, the weak, the disabled, the alien, the oppressed. While I see myself as a person with a sense of justice and a heart for the oppressed, I'm repulsed at times by the inner attitudes of my heart to the 'other' that may manifest themselves in politely ignoring needs, avoiding those who I see as different, condemning those who do evil and so on. I find it easy to embrace those who share much in common with me, but in my community how would I deal with the paedophile, the alien of radically different faith, the severely disabled, the homeless, the drug addict and so on. What does my understanding of the divine self-donation of the Cross mean for the construction of my identity and my relationship with the 'other' under the varied conditions of life?

If you are interested in these issues then check out Case. Case magazine is published quarterly. Issue 21 is due out in December. For more information consult the CASE website (here).