Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Essay 1 in Alan Race & Paul M. Hedges, Christian Approaches to Other Faiths (London, UK: SCM, 2008)

Christianity is one religion among many in the world. Within Christianity itself, there are many different schools, under the main three groups: Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and Eastern Orthodoxy. Inter-religious and intra-religious diversity are given. Nonetheless, despite the intra-diversity, what is the most appropriate theological account Christianity should have on other religions?

Christian Approaches to Other Faiths (London, UK: SCM, 2008), edited by Alan Race and Paul Hedges, is a good place to start exploring for answer. The book is divided into two parts. First part is on theoretical and methodological issues while the second part on Christian responses to various religions.

Alan Race, Dean of Postgraduate Studies at St. Philip's Centre, begins the book with his essay 'Theology of Religions in Change: Factors in the Shape of a Debate.' One factor is Christians' interest in other religions. Race lists three reasons for such interest.

First, Christians have a mission to reach out to everyone. Hence it is important for Christians to learn how to relate to other religions, whether is there a need to evangelize; if yes why so, if not why not? Second, religious extremism in our time poses a serious threat to everyone. Christians need to discern how should religion, theirs and others', be expressed not as threat but for human flourishing. Third, for the sake of theological truth. If there are other religions around, then how can Christians give an account for them? (pp.5-6)

Then Race moves on to the next factor, which is on the sources for our reflection on other religions. He cautions the use of scriptures and tradition when we theologize about the religious other. Our interpretation and application of the scripture and tradition cannot be the "sole determiner" or "final arbiters" for our theology of religions. (pp.7-8) Race's suggestion here is helpful but left us hanging. If scripture and traditions are not the only determiners of theological judgements on other religions, then what other sources can we draw from to produce a view that is distinctively Christian?

In the next section, Race provides three areas of interest for us to explore in relation to religious plurality. The first area is on how religious plurality shapes the meaning of our understanding of Christian belief. For example, our knowledge of Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour needs to be understood vis-a-vis other religions. The second area of interest is in the development of Christianity itself, how can theology be enhanced, without being relativistic, through its interaction with other religions? The third area is in inter-religious dialogue, particularly in the converge or similar ideas found in different religions. (pp.9-11)

Race ends with a call to negotiate between "all the same" and "all different" as a way forward to find a middle path to construct a Christian theology of religions. He points out that this tension is reflected in the New Testament, such as: "Whoever is not against us is for us," (Mark 9:40) and, "Whoever is not with me is against me." (Matt. 12:30)

What I found most provocative in this chapter is the probing question that Race asks: "If Christian theology is a process of reflection on experience---as in the famous Anselmian definition of theology as 'faith seeking understanding'---then we might ask about what constitutes the data of experience.... What level of impact might the data of other religious experiences and convictions have?" (p. 9)

The answer to this question is, I think, the key to an appropriate theological account of every other religion and the reality of religious plurality.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Book Review: 'The Plate Spinner: A Little Book for Busy Young Adults' by Dev Menon

A friend in cell group started his new job recently. He started doing over-time work on the third day onwards. This characterizes much of adult working life nowadays. Work changes us more than we realize. And more importantly, how we engage our work changes who we are.

This is a theme explored in Dev Menon's new book The Plate Spinner: A Little Book for Busy Young Adults (Singapore: Graceworks, 2014). The book serves as a guide for many of us who are swamped not only by our work but also other commitments such as friends, church, and family. We are frantically keeping many plates spinning at the same time---not a healthy way to live.

Dev reminds us that many plate spinners like to believe they are handling all the plates well, that they are keeping all of them spinning fine. Yet, the fact is that when we are so stretched, few if not all of the plates are about to fall and break. 

We can be physically present a church service or family gathering but we are mentally still working in our office. We may be sitting in a meeting with our clients, yet our mind is going through Bible Study questions for tonight's fellowship in church. He calls this 'Frenetic Plate spinner Syndrome' (p.20). 

As Dev points out, our attempt to live a balanced life is impossible:
The whole concept of simply portioning out time and energy to the various segments of life and trying to do all of them well is completely ridiculous. It almost always leads to stress, pain and unrealistic expectations which are never met, causing a deep sense of inadequacy and guilt for those who try to follow, eventually leading to frustration and anger. (pp.31-32.)
Instead of trying to balance our various commitments, Dev recommends centering. We have to make Jesus Christ the center of our life. "Balance is rubbish. Balance will kill you. What we need to do is to centre our lives on... Jesus." (p.57)

When we make Jesus our center, we will learn the re-look at our priorities. We will learn to focus on what is most important at given juncture in our life. And so we also learn when and what to say 'No' to. 

However, Dev reminds us that centering our lives around Jesus is itself no easy feat. It takes a lot of time, space, and money. And if we are not careful, centering becomes another plate that we spin. Dev's point is that when Jesus becomes the center of which our lives revolves around, then we don't need to spin any plate. We become the plate that Jesus spins---he is the source of our discernment and motivation in all that we do at any given point in life.

This is a helpful advice for young adults, especially those who just started work. For those who are already spinning plates, Dev has included a checklist as epilogue to help us move forward. Plate spinner might want to consider spinning this book. It might be the only plate you need at this moment.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Galileo Affair: Faith versus Reason/Science?

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/galileo6.jpg
In the past, I liked to play a Role-Playing-Game (RPG) called Diablo. Like other RPG games, player needs to overcome many opponents. So I had to fight with many characters in the game in order to win.

However, a strange thing about the game is that the characters that I have defeated can never die. They kept coming out again and again. And I had to fight them over many times.

Interestingly, such strange phenomenon also happens in real life. The past week, Vincent Wijeysingha, a local social activist and politician, wrote a Facebook note that criticised the Christian community to the effect that our faith is unreasonable. He pitted our faith against reason or science. And the example he gave was the “Galileo Affair”.

The “Galileo Affair” is the name given to a series of events surrounding the issue between the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) and Galileo Galilei in the 17th century. What happened was that Galileo’s famous book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, published in 1632, challenged geocentricism (the earth is the centre of the universe), which was the accepted understanding in the academia at that time and of which the RCC followed.

Galileo, in following the work of Nicolaus Copernicus, argued for heliocentrism, that the sun is the centre of the universe. As a result, the RCC took upon itself to interrogate Galileo and had him recant of heliocentrism. As we now know, based on current astronomy, indeed heliocentrism is true. Galileo was right. 

Since then, this affair has been used by many people to criticize not only the RCC but the whole Christian community in general as against reason or science. The latest came from Wijeysingha,
 “…throughout history where science has conflicted with church teachings, the church has strived to stamp out the new knowledge made available by science even to the extent of torturing their discovers. Recall the papacy’s treatment of Galileo who showed that Earth was not the centre of the universe: he was forced under torture to recant and the papacy apologised only 300 years later. […] the evidence of church history is that faith does not transcend reason, it constrains it.”[1]
There is much historical inaccuracy in the statement. First, Galileo was not tortured at all. Richard Blackwell, professor emeritus of philosophy at Saint Louis University, who has published a few academic books on the “Galileo Affair” wrote:
“Galileo scholars now agree that no torture occurred, nor could it have occurred, given his age and poor health, according to the rules of the Holy Office itself, and Galileo would have known this.”[2]
Likewise, Maurice A. Finocchiaro, an authority on the “Galileo Affair” wrote:
“In view of the available evidence, the most tenable position is that Galileo underwent an interrogation with the threat of torture but did not undergo actual torture.”[3] 
Second, the “Galileo Affair” is not a case of conflict between faith and reason or science. Geocentrism was not only accepted by the Christian community but by most people in the academia of the 17th century. Although there were theologians who pointed out some Bible verses to support the idea that the earth is the centre of the universe, yet it was not the case that their appeal was to Scripture alone.

Geocentrism was mentioned by Aristotle in the 3rd century B.C. This notion was developed further by Ptolemy four hundreds years later. Hence, geocentrism is better known as ‘Ptolemaic system’. The academia and churches in the 17th century simply inherited geocentrism as accepted science of the universe.

On the other hand, neither Copernicus nor Galileo were the first to talk about heliocentrism. Aristarchus of Samos has proposed the heliocentric model in 250 A.D., more than 1,200 years before Copernicus and Galileo were born. Heliocentrism was a theory much less accepted than geocentrism back then. Therefore the “Galileo Affair” was not faith against reason or science, but a less-accepted science against a much-accepted science.[4] And the RCC has betted on the wrong side. As how Peter Harrison, the Director of the Centre for the History of European Discourses, sees it:
“In the case of Galileo, the Catholic Church was not opposing science per se. On the contrary, it was using its considerable authority to endorse what was then the consensus of the scientific community.”[5]
Third, RCC's respond to Galileo's book is not simply a matter of the church hierarchy suppressing individual's scientific inquiry. The internal tension between the Dominicans and the Jesuits over the application of the decrees of the Council of Trent, education philosophy and curriculum, and scientific discourse played a huge part that led to the “Galileo Affair”. 

The two Orders were in tense engagement to establish their school of thoughts as the intellectual milieu in RCC. Galileo's proposal heightened the tension and hence was being deemed critically. As Rivka Feldhay, the Professor of History of Science and Ideas at Tel-Aviv University, wrote:
“…the possible limits of Galileo's campaign expressed two cultural orientations of two rival intellectual elites within the church--the Dominicans and the Jesuits--who attempted to implement the decrees of the Council of Trent and were engaged in a struggle over cultural hegemony.”[6]
Despite historical works show the contrary, the “Galileo Affair” keeps coming up as the epitome case that Christians are against reason or science. This falsehood is so entrenched among people for whatever reason that it is irresistible to historical reality. Pretty much like the characters in RPG games that keep coming back despite being defeated many times.


End notes
[1] Vincent Wijeysingha,‘My Reply To Archbishop William Goh,’ Facebook Note, dated 4 July 2014. Emphasis added.

[2] Richard J. Blackwell, Behind The Scenes At Galileo’s Trial: Including the First Translation of Melchior Inchofer’s Tractatuc syllepticus (USA: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), 23.

[3] Maurice A. Finocchiaro, ‘That Galileo Was Imprisoned And Tortured For Advocating Copernicanism,’ in Galileo Goes To Jail: And Other Myths About Science And Religion, ed., Ronald L. Numbers (USA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 78.

[4] See the discussion in chapter 1 of John C. Lennox, Seven Days That Divide The World: The Beginning According to Genesis and Science (USA: Zondervan, 2011).

[5] Peter Harrison, ‘Introduction’ in The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion, ed. Peter Harrison (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 5.

[6] Rivka Feldhay, Galileo and the Church: Political Inquisition or Critical Dialogue? (UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 293.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Why did I sign 'A Call For Compassion, Dialogue And Mutual Understanding On LGBTQ Issues'?

Two reasons. First, there has been very public, aggressive and confrontational approach launched by concerned Christians who hold on to the church traditional teaching on sexuality. I share their affirmation on the teaching on sexuality, but I think that orthodox Christians can approach the issue in a more inviting manner, which is my preference.

Second, there are Christians who embrace and celebrate LGBTQ sexuality and wanting churches to move beyond the church's established teaching on sex. This camp likes to portray Christians who differ from them as hopelessly outdated, bigoted and discriminatory. I share their willingness to raise questions and re-examine church's teaching on the issue. I also sympathize with their outreach to the LGBTQ community. Yet, I would like to believe that I am applying the same keenness in raising questions and re-examine position not only on the traditional church's teaching but also extend the same inquiry to the LGBTQ position.

When a friend informed me of the petition 'A Call For Compassion, Dialogue And Mutual Understanding On LGBTQ Issues', and after I read it, I thought that this is exactly what our society needs at this moment: A compassion dialogue for mutual understanding. As taught by David Ford, Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University, when dealing with religious or cultural disagreement, we need to deepen the quality of disagreement that goes beyond mere disagreement; we ought to be able to appreciate and comprehend the differences from other's point of view.

So even though I don't share Free Community Church's view on Christian faith and sexuality, I stand side-by-side with them in urging all sides to have a compassionate dialogue for mutual understanding.

The report by Trinity Chua in The Independent summarizes my position well.

Here is the petition:

*This statement was backed by 217 individual signatories & 9 organisations at time of press release (22nd June, 2pm)

1. We refer to the Straits Times report on “Religious teacher launches ‘wear white’ online campaign” (20 June 2014). We note with regret that this recent controversy is a sign of a “culture war” that has taken root in Singapore. This will pose a significant challenge in building a harmonious society that thrives on diversity.

2. We, the undersigned, affirm the principles which Singapore rests upon. These principles are found in the Singapore pledge: to build a democratic society, based on justice and equality.

3. No individual or group in a democracy should impinge on others in an unjust manner. Our freedom to fully express ourselves according to our conscience must come with the reciprocal responsibility to accord the same freedom to other people. This holds true even if these others hold beliefs that deeply contradict our own. No individual or group should therefore be vilified, condemned, or subjected to harassment or abuse – physical or otherwise – or suffer any other form of reprisal simply for taking a position, taking part or identifying with a range of LGBTQ issues.

4. We strongly call for the idea of equality as citizens before the law to be upheld. This means that all forms of discrimination on the basis of one’s sexual orientation are incompatible with the progressive value of equality that this nation rests upon. Equal citizenship also entails that majoritarianism (the idea that the majority has a right to impose its views and values on the minority) must be kept in check. A just and harmonious society can only be achieved when the majority does not infringe upon and discriminate against any minority, including sexual minorities.

5. The LGBTQ issue has often been portrayed as a conflict between “religious” versus “secular” values. We are troubled by this false dichotomy. We note that numerous religious leaders and organisations, in Singapore and around the world, have expressed support for LGBTQ equality. Religion is equally capable of upholding and supporting universal values such as democracy, justice and equality. In fact, these values form the ethical structure of many religions, including that of the major religions in Singapore. We urge that these values serve as a bridge when discussing issues on LGBTQ across the religious and non-religious spectrum. We call for enlightened religious leaders to make a stand in upholding these values in public discourse.

6. We are concerned about the continuous dehumanizing portrayals of members of the LGBTQ community. They have been subjected to a range of abuses, from discrimination and ostracisation, to verbal and physical attacks. Lately, a worrying trend has emerged on social media with voices calling for gays and lesbians to be targeted for public shaming and harassment. Such extreme views can only emerge from a deeply homophobic atmosphere where homosexuality is pathologised as a “disease” to be cured or exterminated. There is a need, therefore, to increase public awareness on the plight of the LGBTQ community and their lived realities, as well as greater public education on issues pertaining to homosexuality.

7. With these considerations in mind, we call for greater dialogues across all spectrums of views, with the common goal of achieving greater understanding and tolerance. The basis for such dialogues should lie in compassion and knowledge, rather than ignorance, hatred and prejudice. We believe that only through such dialogues can we overcome bigotry and ignorance, and forge a harmonious society that respects and upholds the dignity of every human being. For religionists, we call for these values to be manifested when responding to LGBTQ issues. Religion, after all, is a wellspring for compassion, justice and wisdom for all humankind, and we would do well to strive for such aspirations.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Trinity Theological College 64th Graduation

This photo of John Stott's 1978 visit to Trinity Theological College (TTC) is taken from the college's fiftieth anniversary book Lux Mundi: Our Heritage, Our Future (Singapore: Armour Publishing, 1999), 52. Since then, Stott had been visiting the college and developed high regard for its ministry. Here's what he wrote 21 years later, after the first visit:
"I have greatly enjoyed my visits to Trinity Theological College over the years, and have appreciated the warm welcome I have invariably received. I have watched with great thankfulness the college's gifted faculty's growing influence throughout Southeast Asia, and its developing links with the churches of mainland China. I specially admire Trinity's vision to develop a theology which is at one and the same time biblical (rooted in Christ and in Scripture), historical (respectful of tradition and of the development of doctrine), contextual (incarnated in Asian cultures), spiritual (producing godly alumni), practical (training pastors in expositor preaching), missiological (promoting the integrated witness of the church) and doxological (concerned above all else for the greater glory of God)." (Ibid, 134.)
I didn't know that the "pope" of the evangelicals had such a close relationship with the college. This is in stark contrast with some complaints from certain quarter that TTC is a theologically risky place. Well, that's probably because thinking and talking about God are themselves risky. To do theology is to risk because theologizing is to love God. And the thing about love is that it makes us vulnerable. As C. S. Lewis writes, 
"To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even 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 to 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." (The Four Loves [USA, New York: Harcourt, 1960], 169.)
Next Saturday will be TTC's 64th Graduation Service, where students will be conferred their well-deserved diploma. May the new phase of their life and ministry bring them into a deeper loving communion with God. If God so will, let there be among them "John Stott" who will lead our churches to brace the future.

As for the college, I pray that it will continue to grow in its depth in theological research and width in missiological endeavor. Lux Mundi.

Friday, May 09, 2014

A Response to UiTM’s Seminar Presenters

We rarely see the word ‘Christology’ on news portal. It’s an academic term referring to the scholarly study of Jesus. This word is most often found in seminary libraries. It is also not a word that the Christian clergy often uses in preaching. Yet, ‘Christology’ was in the limelight of several news websites this week—thanks to a Christianity-bashing seminar held at Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM).

Besides warning the audience of the threat of “Christianisation”, as if it was some kind of social disease, the speakers at the seminar alleged that Christians have understood Jesus wrongly. Contrary to churches’ teaching, “Jesus is only a human slave to Allah,” and “The Christian gospel is a fake gospel.” One speaker then concluded, “Every Jesus follower should enter Islam, if not it would be a betrayal to Jesus” (Melissa Chi, ‘Gospels are ‘fake’ as Jesus was ‘human slave to Allah’, don claims,’ and ‘In UiTM, lecturer gives 10 reasons why Christians should be Muslim,’ MalayMailOnline, May 6, 2014).

No doubt, the main difference between Islam and Christianity lie in their respective understanding of Jesus. As the speakers have noted, the two religions disagree over ‘Christology’. And since this word has made its public appearance in a university and local news portals, presented only from Muslim understanding, a perspective from a Christian is necessary.

For two millennium, churches have been teaching that Jesus is God-Man—which means he is 100% God, 100% man (somewhat like one of Malaysians’ favourite drinks, kopi cham— 100% coffee, 100% tea.). So Christians fully agree with Muslims that Jesus is a human. Yet Christians also affirm that He is God. It was this teaching that Jesus is God-Man which gave rise to the idea of ‘Trinity’.
Christians believe that Jesus is God-Man because this is how the four testimonies (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) in the Bible describe him. These testimonies have been in existence for more than 500 years before the emergence of Islam.

The earliest surviving evidence of these testimonies are the papyrus fragments known as P52, P90 and P104, which are currently being kept in England’s John Rylands University Library and Sackler Library respectively. All three are dated to the first half of the second century; that is around 100 to 150 A.D., which is about 400 years before Prophet Muhammad was born.

Although the four testimonies describe Jesus as God-Man in their own unique way, there are several themes that overlap. I’ll highlight just 3. They are the (1) things that Jesus says, (2) things that Jesus does, and (3) self-identity that Jesus has.

Things Jesus say
When Jesus says that he forgives sins, the people who hear him find it offensive. The reason for the offence is because there is a general understanding that only God can forgive sins, it’s the exclusive power of God. No mere human can do that, it’s a prerogative belonging to no one else except God. Therefore, when Jesus’ contemporaries hear him forgiving sins, they burst out, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7, Luke 5:21)
 
As Michael Bird, an Australian theologian writes, “The offense that Jesus’ words provoke is by his presumption to speak with a divine prerogative. Clearly Jesus’ declaration of forgiveness in such a context was tantamount to assuming the authority to forgive on God’s behalf.” (How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature, Zondervan 2014, 58.)

I understand that most Muslims also affirm that no one can forgive sins except Allah. Hence it may be difficult for them to accept that these early testimonies narrate about Jesus forgiving sins. This must be blasphemous to them as much as it was to the people around Jesus. And precisely because it was blasphemous it showed that Jesus, though a human, did actually claim to be God. If he did not, there would be nothing blasphemous.

Things Jesus do
One of the most astounding things that Jesus did was his choosing of the twelve disciples (Mark 3:14). It was a significant symbolic act to re-constitute God’s people, represented by the twelve tribes of Israel. The Jews in Jesus’ time were expecting God to come and regroup them in that way. Yet, Jesus did it.

What does this tell us? That Jesus was delusional, thinking that he was God? That’s exactly what Jesus’ own family thought. When they saw Jesus re-constituting God’s people, they thought he was “out of his mind” (Mark 3:21). This goes on to show that Jesus’ own family recognises that he acts as if he is God.

As Tan Kim Huat, a New Testament scholar comments, “Jesus’ action in calling the Twelve is then seen as significant in that a new creative act [...] is being performed. Moreover, the number Twelve recalls the concept of the formation of the nation and also its reconstitution [...]. Israel’s prophets proclaimed that in the last days God would act powerfully to save and reconstitute the nation (Isaiah 49:6; Ezekiel 45:8; cf. Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:30).” (Tan Kim Huat, The Gospel according to Mark, Asia Theological Association 2011, 80-81.) And Jesus came and did what only God would do.
 
Self-identity Jesus has
Besides saying and doing things only God could say and do, Jesus goes so far as to accept the one thing only God can accept: worship. The early testimonies about Jesus tell us that he accepted homage which were reserved only for God.

Jesus teaches, “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only” (Luke 4:8). Jesus is not nonchalant with regards to worship. He knows that his fellow human beings should only worship God. Yet he allows his disciples to worship him (Luke 24:52). This is a strong evidence that Jesus thinks that he is God.

Conclusion
What I have written above is an extract from a more detailed treatment of this subject (you can read it here if interested). Nevertheless, I hope I have been able to demonstrate that Christians’ understanding of Jesus is not without basis. It’s rooted in these early testimonies. And according to them, Jesus speaks as if he is God, acts as if he is God, and perceives himself as God. Therefore, Christians came to think that Jesus is God-Man.

As one testimony records, “In the beginning was the one who is called the Word. The Word was with God and was truly God. […] The Word became a human being and lived here with us. We saw his true glory, the glory of the only Son of the Father. From him all the kindness and all the truth of God have come down to us. […] The Law was given by Moses, but Jesus Christ brought us undeserved kindness and truth. No one has ever seen God. The only Son, who is truly God and is closest to the Father, has shown us what God is like. (John 1:1, 14, 17-18, Contemporary English Version). This is Christianity’s Christology.

My Muslim friends would question the historicity of these early testimonies in preference for their own sources. These testimonies predate Islam by 500 years. So in terms of historical reliability, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are much closer to the time of Jesus than of other sources.
 
A side note: If Christianity’s understanding of the Trinity as “one God in three persons” is true, then Jesus as God the Son being sent by God the Father does not deny the fact that Jesus is God-Man nor contradicts the belief in one God. It’s only problematic to those who are unable to comprehend what the Trinity means.

This article was originally published on New Mandala website, 9 May 2014.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Was Jesus God? - What do Matthew, Mark, and Luke say?

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It's reported recently that a speaker by the name of Insan L. S. Mokoginta, a former Catholic priest, delivered a lecture at Malaysia's Universiti Teknologi Mara with 10 reasons why Christians should be Muslims.

I don't have access to the full lecture so I don't know what are the exact 10 reasons. Only two extracts were reported. Insan said, "He (Jesus) even admitted to being sent by God. In other words, Jesus is not God but is a prophet," and, "But if Jesus was God, why did he call out 'Eloi Eloi ‎Lama Sabachthani'? He was calling for God so how can he himself be God?"

Islam and Christianity part way when it comes to Jesus. Islam teaches that he, though a great prophet, is nothing more than a human being. Christianity on the other hand claims that Jesus is a human being yet in some sense also God incarnate.

During my theological study, I took a module called 'New Testament Theology' under Tan Kim Huat, the Chen Su Lan Professor of New Testament at Trinity Theological College. One of the assignments was to write an essay to answer the question: Does the Synoptic Tradition (i.e. Matthew, Mark and Luke) support the notion that Jesus put himself on par with God?

It's common knowledge in New Testament study that the Gospel of John contains the least ambiguous reference that Jesus was God.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
When it comes to the Synoptic Tradition (Matthew, Mark and Luke also called 'synoptic gospels'), such reference are not immediately noticeable. Besides, it's widely affirmed that the synoptic gospels were written earlier than John, and so the former three are considered more historically reliable in their description of Jesus. If so, then the idea that Jesus is God doesn't seem to be in the earlier data (the Synoptic Tradition). Instead, it's a product of later development (as what we have in John).

But that's not what I discovered after writing the essay. Here are my findings, with some updated references since the time I wrote it.

However, before that, let me first disclaim that I'll not deal with the historicity of the gospels here. That'll be for another post in the future. Thus, I'll take for granted the historicity of the ancient sources. Even if you disagree with the historicity of these sources, I hope that you would grant it for argument's sake. If need be, we'll engage on the historicity question in another post.

My findings on whether the Synoptic Tradition support the notion that Jesus put himself on par with God are confined to three themes: (1) Jesus' speech, (2) Jesus' deeds, and (3) earliest perceptions of Jesus.

Jesus' Speech: Amen
Christians today have the habit of saying "amen" at the end of prayer or in a manner of agreeing with what they hear. So when a churchmate said, "The Lord is sovereign!" very likely fellow churchmates who heard that will respond with "amen" as a way of affirming the statement. However, when Jesus said "amen", it was for a different purpose.

What Christians commonly practice today is called "affirmatory amen". It's a way to responsively affirm a religious statement. Used in this way, the word simply means "I agree" or "true". So at the end of a prayer, we utter "amen" to mean "so be it". Muslims have similar practice with a variant form of "amin".

Jesus used "amen" in a different way. Instead of using it as affirmative response, he used it as preface. For instance, in Matthew 5:18, Jesus says, "Amen I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." When used as preface to an assertion, it means "truly"; thus the New International Version has it as "For truly I tell you..." 

As far as we know, no one else before and during Jesus' time used "amen" as preface. Wherever this word appears, it's in the affirmatory form, as a response; not as a preface to an assertive statement. Here are some examples:
Old Testament:
Numbers 5:22, Deuteronomy 27:15-26, 1 Kings 1:36, 1 Chronicles 16:36, Psalm 41:13, 72:19, 89:52, 106:48, Jeremiah 11:5, 28:6, Isaiah 65:16, Nehemiah 5:13 and 8:6.

New Testament:
Romans 1:25, 9:5, 11:36, 15:33, 16:27, 1 Corinthians 14:16, 2 Corinthians 1:20, Galatians 1:5, 6:18, Ephesians 3:21, Philippians 4:20, 23, 1 Timothy 1:17, 6:16, 2 Timothy 4:18, Hebrews 13:21, 1 Peter 4:11, 5:11, 2 Peter 3:18, Jude 1:25, Revelation 1:6-7, 3:14. 5:14, 7:12, 19:4, 22:20, and 22:21.

Dead Sea Scrolls:
1QS1:20, 2:10, 18, 4Q286 fragment 5 line 8, fragment 7 4:1, 5, 10, 4Q287 fragment 1 line 4, fragment 4 line 3, fragment 5 line 11, 4Q289 fragment 2 line 4, 4Q504 fragment 4 line 15, fragment 17 2:5, fragment 3 2:3, fragments 1-2 1:7, 7:2. 9, 4Q507 fragment 3 line 2, and 4Q511 fragments 63-64 4:3.
The only place where non-responsive "amen" is used is in Testament of Abraham 20:2, a revised document dated more than 1,200 years after Jesus. Hence, it's unreliable to give us any information about the usage of "amen" during Jesus' time.

While the prefatory "amen" is not found anywhere, it appears about 51 times in the Synoptic Tradition (31 in Matthew, 14 in Mark, and 6 in Luke). This is unique to Jesus. It's as if Jesus is invoking his own authority to prophesy:
"Amen I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." (Matthew 5:18)
 
"Amen I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power." (Mark 9:1)
To assert theological truth:
"Amen I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin." (Mark 3:28-29)
To declare punishment and its conditional exemption:
"Amen I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny." (Matthew 5:26)
This is not the conventional practice of prophets or messengers of God. The common practice is to use the preface "Thus says the Lord", or something like it. Such preface qualifies their statement as something they received from God. Unlike Jesus, they don't make theological claim on their own authority. On top of that, there is a strong Jewish tradition in Jesus' time that cautions against such theological liberty:
"If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed." (Deuteronomy 18:22)

"The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law." (Deuteronomy 29:29)

"What is too sublime for you, do not seek; do not reach into things that are hidden from you. What is committed to you, pay heed to; what is hidden is not your concern. In matters that are beyond you do not meddle, when you have been shown more than you can understand. Indeed, many are the conceits of human beings; evil imaginations lead them astray." (Sirach 3:21-24)
The passage from Sirach is affirmed and quoted by Jewish religious authority around 3rd-5th century A.D (Babylonian Talmud Hagigah 13a). Such is the hesitation among Jesus’ contemporaries to deliberate over unrevealed knowledge, not least to assert them.

Therefore it's very peculiar for a religious Jew like Jesus to make theological claim in the way he does. It's as if there is no need for him to appeal to anyone, including God, to validate his theological statement. He simply does it on the basis of his own authority. As Durham University's Emeritus Lightfoot Professor of Divinity James Dunn wrote,
"For whereas in regular usage 'Amen' affirmed or endorsed the words of someone else, in the Jesus tradition the term is used without exception to introduce and endorse Jesus' own words. [...] And an obvious corollary lies close to hand: Jesus used this formula to call attention to what he was about to say and to give it added weight."
(James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered [USA, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003], 700-701. Emphasis original.)
Whenever Jews, Christians and Muslims make theological statement, they appeal to the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Bible and Qur'an respectively. It's just unthinkable for a religious monotheist in the Abrahamic tradition to do what Jesus did. Although Jesus is a religious Jew of the Abrahamic tradition, yet he speaks as if he is the sole basis for theology. He makes theological claims about God and the world based solely on his own words. Either he is God or a man who mistakenly thinks he is. Nevertheless, both leads to the same conclusion: Matthew, Mark and Luke attest to Jesus putting himself on the same level as God. Whether is he mistaken or not is another question. What is clear is that in term of Jesus prefacing his theological assertion, the Synoptic Tradition do support the idea that Jesus places himself on par with God.

Jesus' Speech: Forgiveness of Sins
Matthew 9:2-3, Mark 2:5-8 and Luke 5:20-21 report occasions when Jesus pronounces the forgiveness of sin. This is not a simple "I forgive you", like how we say to people who hurt us. Instead, Jesus says, "Your sins are forgiven." And in Jewish understanding, only God can forgive sins.

Take prophet Nathan as example. In 2 Samuel 12:13, he says to King David, "The Lord has taken away your sin." Nathan qualifies his declaration of pardon by explicitly invoking the God as the one who forgives. But Jesus doesn't make such qualification.

John the Baptist preaches about baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3). To him, the pardon of sins is attached to baptism ritual. But Jesus' pronouncement of forgiveness of sin is not attached to any ritual. He made the pardon based solely on his own words (which coheres with his unprecedented use of "amen" as preface in making theological claim). No one in the 1st century Jewish world would have anticipated a human being to make such declaration (with the only exception of a Jewish exorcist in 4Q242 of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which we cannot conclude much due to the fragmentary quality).

Therefore when the Jewish religious leaders hear Jesus declaring the forgiveness of sins, they are outraged, "Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (Mark 2:7, Luke 5:21) In his commentary, Tan wrote,
"From the way the Markan narrative is set up, Jesus' claim is interpreted by the scribes---the learned religious teachers and authorities---to have transgressed the sacred boundaries of their confession of one God. This means he has put himself in an equal position with that one God. [...] Jesus is regarded as having usurped the prerogative not of the priests but of the one God. [...] As Mark shows, this blasphemy is not so much speaking against God, as claiming to possess some of his special prerogatives."
(Tan Kim Huat, The Gospel according to Mark [Philippines: Asia Theological Association, 2011], 54, 397.)
Similarly noted by Michael Bird, Lecturer in Theology at Ridley College, Melbourne:
The offense that Jesus' words provoke is by his presumption to speak with a divine prerogative. Clearly Jesus' declaration of forgiveness in such a context was tantamount to assuming the authority to forgive on God's behalf. [...] The scribes do not complain, "Who can forgive sins but a priest alone?" Nor does Jesus explain his action by saying, "I want you to know that I've recently purchased a Galilean franchise on the priesthood licensing me to forgive sins..." No, instead he says, "But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins," which turns out to be a divine authority."
(Michael F. Bird, 'Did Jesus Think He Was God?' in How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus' Divine Nature---A Response to Bart D. Ehrman, ed., Michael F. Bird [USA, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014], 58.)
The late E. Earle Ellis, Emeritus Research Professor of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, likewise remarked:
"[T]here is apparently no Jewish tradition that the Messiah or any other creaturely being has the right to forgive sins on his own authority. Furthermore, Jesus does not speak as an agent, priestly or prophetic or angelic, assuring the man of God’s forgiveness, nor does he offer the provisional pardon of a human court to be later ratified by God. He makes a flat affirmation of what he and the theologians know to be a prerogative of God."
(E. Earle Ellis, ‘Deity-Christology in Mark  14:58,’ in Jesus of Nazareth: Lord and Christ: Essays on the Historical Jesus and New Testament Christology, eds. Joel B. Green and Max Turner [USA, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994], 194. Emphasis added.)
I understand that most Muslims also affirm that no one can forgive sins except Allah. Hence, if they grant that the gospels are historically reliable for argument's sake, then they would find it difficult to accept that early data such as those found in Matthew, Mark and Luke testify to Jesus' claim to forgive sins, something which only Allah can do. This is blasphemous to them too.

Again, whether is Jesus mistaken or not is another question. What is clear in Jesus' claim to forgive sins is that he makes statement only God can make. This at least shows that Jesus does perceive himself as on par with God.

Jesus' Deed: Re-constituting Israel
One of Jesus’ most astounding deeds is his dealing with his twelve disciples. Jesus’ forming of the twelve in Mark 3:14 carries the immediate symbolism of Israel national identity---the twelve tribes of Israel. It was God who constituted Israel in the first place, and so there was the prophetic anticipation that God will re-constitute the nation again. Beside the Old Testament, this anticipation is also evident in Sirach 36:11, 2 Maccabees 1:24-29, Psalms of Solomon 17:26, and Testament of Moses 3:3-4, 4:8-9. Commenting on Mark 3:14, Tan points out that,
"The Greek verb used is epoiesen, and it is best translated as "made," with a possible allusion to the story of creation. Jesus' action in calling the Twelve is then seen as significant in that a new creative act, somewhat in the order of the Genesis account, is being performed. Moreover, the number Twelve recalls the concept of the formation of the nation and also its reconstitution, made urgent by the two deportations from the land: the ten tribes in 721 BC and the exile of Judah in 586 BC. Israel's prophets proclaimed that in the last days God would act powerfully to save and reconstitute the nation (Isa 49:6; Ezek 45:8; cf. Matt 19:28; Luke 22:30)."
(Tan Kim Huat, The Gospel according to Mark, 80-81.)
Besides choosing the twelve, Jesus also assigns authority to each of them to judge the twelve tribes: "Amen I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Matthew 19:28, see also Luke 22:30). As Richard Bauckham, Senior Scholar at Cambridge's Ridley Hall wrote,
The significance of the group is undoubtedly related to the ideal constitution of Israel as comprising twelve tribes and the Jewish hopes for the restoration of all twelve tribes in the messianic age.
(Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses [USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006], 95.)
Jesus does what only God can do. This is mind-blowing to many today as it was in his time. Right after he symbolically acted as God in reconstituting Israel, his own family concluded that he was "out of his mind" (Mark 3:21). If your own sibling going around town claiming to be God, you would probably think he is crazy too. Yet, whether or not Jesus is out of his mind is another matter. What the Synoptic Tradition shows us is that he acts as if he is God. 

Jesus' Deed: Divine Appearance or Epiphany
The event where Jesus walks on water in Mark 6 is not so obvious that he is acting like God:
Seeing them straining at the oars, for the wind was against them, at about the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea; and He intended to pass by them. But when they saw Him walking on the sea, they supposed that it was a ghost, and cried out; for they all saw Him and were terrified. But immediately He spoke with them and said to them, "Take courage; it is I, do not be afraid." (Mark 6:48-50, NASB)
We usually read this story as nothing more than a miracle performed by Jesus. But as known to biblical scholars, Mark describes Jesus with the word parerchomai (to pass by) which is a technical reference to divine appearance in the Septuagint, 3rd-1st century B.C. Greek translation of the Old Testament. Tan has written succinctly on this:
"The seabed for such a usage [of the technical verb parerchomai in the Septuagint] is Exodus 33:17-34:8. In this account, the verb in question is used thrice---33:22 (twice) and 34:6---to depict God's passing by Moses, i.e. revealing his glory in a manner Moses has not seen before. Such a description of a divine epiphany is later utilized in the account of Elijah's coming before god at Mt Horeb (1 Kings 19:11-13). When this background is invoked---and the description of Jesus' walking on water encourages this---it becomes clear why Jesus intended to pass his disciples by when he wanted to help them. In short, "to intend to pass them by" means "to intend to provide a divine epiphany." This is done to assure the disciples that he who comes to them is like God who comes to reveal his glory to his people and to help them."
(Tan Kim Huat, The Gospel according to Mark, 150. Emphasis added.)
Besides, the phrase "walking on the sea" corresponds to the Septuagint's translation of Job 9:8, which reads, "God who alone stretched out the heavens, walking on the sea as if on dry land..." In the observation of Cambridge University's New Testament scholar Simon Gathercole, this parallel shows that,
"Jesus is clearly being identified here in a way that is reminiscent of God in Job. Moreover, one of the most striking points about the Job passage is that it is probably discussing how God alone stretches out the heavens and walks on the sea. [...] The reference to walking on the sea is a "theophany motif which is taken over from Yahweh to Jesus.""
(Simon J. Gathercole, The Pre-existent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke [USA, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006], 64. Emphasis original.)
Perception on Jesus: Messiah/Anointed One, Son of God and Son of Man
In the synoptic gospels, Jesus refers to himself with three titles: Son of God, Son of Man and Messiah/The Anointed One. Each title is entrenched within the Jewish religious world of Jesus, steeped within the Old Testament tradition.

There are similarities and differences between 1st century Jewish idea of the Messiah and Jesus' self-reference as the Messiah. Jesus seldom explicitly referred to himself in this title. Yet the few instances when he applies the title on himself makes clear that he does see himself as the Messiah (Mark 8:29-30/Matthew 16:17, Mark 9.41/Matthew 16.20/Luke 4.41, Matthew 23.10/Luke 24.26, and Luke 4:16-21).

There are two things about the messianic expectation during Jesus' time. First, there were different messianic expectations. Second, the anticipation of the Messiah during was widespread. Hence, we have the Qumran community that read Isaiah 61:1-2 as a reference to the coming Messiah in a Melchizedek figure (11QMelchizedek). We see similar messianic expectation in Psalms of Solomon 17:21-32:
See, Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David, to rule over your servant Israel in the time known to you, O God. […] There will be no unrighteousness among them in his days, for all shall be holy, and their king shall be the Lord Messiah.
Another evidence of messianic expectation is Septuagint's translation of Amos 4:13. In the original language, there is no mention of Messiah:
"He who forms the mountains, who creates the wind, and who reveals his thoughts to mankind, who turns dawn to darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth—the Lord God Almighty is his name." 
In Septuagint, this verse reads:
"For, behold, I am he that strengthens the thunder, and creates the wind, and proclaims to men his Messiah, forming the morning and the darkness, and mounting on the high places of the earth, The Lord God Almighty is his name."
It's clear that the anticipation of the messiah is widely, if not universally, shared among Jesus' contemporaries. So, what does Jesus being the Messiah mean in relation to God? When asked by the high priest, "Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?" Jesus admitted that he was (Mark 14:61-62).

The high priest's question assumes that the Messiah is also the Son of God. These two titles representing one office is found in 2 Samuel 7.12, 14, Psalm 2.2, 7 and the three "Son of God" text among the Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q246, 4Q521 and 4Q541 correspond to Luke 1:32-35).  Jesus does not only admit that he is the Messiah-Son-of-God, he goes further to qualify his office as the "Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven" (Mark 14:62).

Jesus' self-reference as "Son of Man" is significance. He uses it throughout Mark's gospel. Jesus refers to this title when he announces his authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:10-11), in his prediction of his suffering (Mark 8:31), and in his reply to the high priest (Mark 14:62).

It's well recognized among biblical scholars that Jesus derives the title "Son of Man" from the prophecy in Daniel 7:13:
"In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.
As seen in Mark 14:61-62, Jesus uses "Son of Man" to describe his identify as the Messiah. We see similar appropriation of Daniel 7's "Son of Man" title in 1 Enoch 37-71 and 4 Ezra 13. Jesus' own usage of the title goes along this messianic tradition. And by declaring that he will sit at the right hand of the Mighty One and come on the clouds of heaven, Jesus reveals his share sovereignty with God. In the words of Tan,
Jesus states in no uncertain terms that he is the Messiah but with a difference: as Son of Man he also shares God’s sovereignty. […] Combining two OT passages (Ps 110 and Dan 7), Jesus speaks of his vindication and his sharing sovereign authority with the Almighty. (Tan Kim Huat, The Gospel according to Mark, 347, 352.)
The high priest angrily tears his clothes when he hears Jesus refers to himself as the Messiah-Son-of-God-Son-of-Man who shares God's sovereignty.  The Sanhedrin condemns Jesus for blaspheming and demands his execution (Mark 14:63-65). Their reaction makes perfect sense within the backdrop of the Jewish understanding of God's sovereignty. To the religious Jews, no one shares God's sovereignty. All creatures, be it humans or celestial beings, are subordinate to God. Divine sovereignty is uniquely God's. As Bauckham wrote,
"The participation of other beings in God's unique supremacy over all things is ruled out, […] excluding any possibility of interpreting their role as that of co-rulers."
(Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament [UK: Paternoster, 1998], 13.)
That's why the high priest and the Sanhedrin are so offended; Jesus claimed for himself God's uniqueness! Their reaction confirms Jesus’ reply to mean none other than the fact that he perceives  himself to be on par with God. Once again, whether is Jesus deluded is another question altogether. What I've presented so far is that the Synoptic Tradition does support the idea that Jesus does claim to be the same as God.

Perception on Jesus: Recipient of Worship 
As if making theological assertion solely based on his own words and claiming to have the uniqueness of God are not outrageous enough, Jesus goes so far as to accept the one thing only God can accept: worship.

Jews can worship no one else except God. This is rooted in the Shema passage (Deuteronomy 6:4-6) and the commandments (Exodus 20:2-6, Deuteronomy 5:6-10) which affirm monotheism and require total devotion to the one true God. This monotheistic consciousness is so important that the Jews recite the Shema twice daily.

Therefore the form of Jewish monotheism during Jesus' time (as much as ours) was exclusive in the sense that "the binary distinction between God and all other reality was observed and inculcated—in daily religious observance---by monolatry." (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity [USA, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008], 109.)  However, this is not to deny that there are supernatural beings in Jewish cosmology, but this by itself does not make Jewish theology henotheistic.

So, does the Synoptic Tradition show that Jesus actually receive worship?

Yes, the synoptic gospels consistently use the word proskunein ("worship") to describe the homage paid to Jesus as though he is God. In Luke 24:52, proskunein is used to refer to the disciples' reverence for Jesus. This same word is used in Luke 4:8 to describe reverence to God. Other forms of supplication or gratefulness in Luke’s gospel are not described by this word (5:12, 8:41, 17:16, 8:28, 5:8). Proskunein is specifically reserved in Luke's gospel to describe the reverence to God and to Jesus. 

The word proskunein appears twice in Mark’s gospel. In Mark 5:6, the demon-possessed man "worshiped" Jesus as "Son of the Most High God". The other place this word occurs is in the ironic scene where the soldiers mock Jesus by "worshiping" him (Mark 15:19). In his comment on the latter passage, Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology at the University of Edinburgh, Larry Hurtado wrote,
"Though intended by the soldiers as cruel taunting, their gesture of worship in fact correctly accords with what the readers know to be the right response to Jesus’ true significance."
(Larry W. Hurtado, How on Earth did Jesus become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus (USA, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005), 145.)
Proskunein is used as reverence to God in Matthew’s gospel. Similar with Luke 4:8, Matthew 4:10 uses this word as 'worship' to God. And throughout Matthew’s gospel, Jesus does not only received worship after he was resurrected (28:9, 17-18) but also prior to his death (2:2, 8, 11, 8:2, 9:18, 14:33, 15:25, 20:20).

To be sure, proskunein shares the similar physical gestures of falling on one's knees or prostrating oneself on the ground with other words like pipto, prospipto, gonupeteu, and prospipto tais gonasin. All these words can be used to describe one kneeling before God and human. What makes proskunein distinctive is the Synoptic Tradition's usage of it in relation to the strict monotheistic theology of Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4). In both Matthew 4 and Luke 4, when Jesus was being tempted to worship ('proskunein') the devil, he rebuked Satan with the Shema theology. Jesus recognizes that the devil is demanding proskunesis ('worship') from him, a reverence that is reserved only for God. Thus, he rejects the devil.

So Jesus is not nonchalant with regards to worship. He knows that worship is only for God. And here's the catch: Although to Jesus, worship is only reserved for God, he doesn't see it inappropriate when his contemporaries worship him! This is a strong indication that Jesus does put himself on par with God.

Conclusion
We have seen that Jesus speaks as if he is God, making theological assertion and the forgiving sins on his own authority. We have also seen that Jesus thinks it's right for him to carry out activities such as re-constituting Israel symbolically through the choosing of the twelve, which only God can do. What's more is that Jesus does not only claim to share God’s uniqueness, but also doesn't see it inappropriate for his contemporaries to worship him in the way they worship God. With these, we can therefore conclude that Matthew, Mark and Luke do support the notion that Jesus put himself on par with God.

If Christianity's understanding of the Trinity as "one God in three persons" is true, then Jesus as God the Son being sent by God the Father doesn't deny the former's divinity nor contradicts monotheism. Likewise, under the Trinitarian framework, there is no issue with Jesus as God the Son cried out from the cross to God the Father. These two claims are only problematic to those who don't understand Trinitarian theology. It's a theological approach that tries to make sense of strict monotheism in relation to the Synoptic Tradition's idea that Jesus did put himself on the same level as God. So the only way to go around this is to reject the historicity of the canonical gospels. And that is another topic for another post.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

What's wrong with John Piper's God?

John Piper's idea of 'Christian Hedonism' is influential. The book Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (USA, Colorado: Multnomah, Revised Edition, 2011) from which the idea is found is a favourite read among many friends. According to Piper,
Christian Hedonism is a philosophy of life built on the following five convictions:
1. The longing to be happy is a universal human experience, and it is good, not sinful.

2. We should never try to deny or resist our longing to be happy, as though it were a bad impulse. Instead, we should seek to intensify this longing and nourish it with whatever will provide the deepest and most enduring satisfaction.

3. The deepest and most enduring happiness is found only in God. Not from God, but in God.

4. The happiness we find in God reaches its consummation when it is shared with others in the manifold ways of love.

5.To the extent that we try to abandon the pursuit of our own pleasure, we fail to honor God and love people. Or, to put it positively: The pursuit of pleasure is a necessary part of all worship and virtue. That is: The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever. (p.28)
What is "perplexing", as Piper himself recognizes, is not these five points but the foundation he gave to them (p.32). To him, the whole vision of Christian Hedonism is found on God's own hedonism for Himself. As he wrote:
The chief end of God is to glorify God and enjoy Himself forever. [...]

Redemption, salvation, and restoration are not God’s ultimate goal. These He performs for the sake of something greater: namely, the enjoyment He has in glorifying Himself. The bedrock foundation of Christian Hedonism is not God’s allegiance to us, but to Himself.

If God were not infinitely devoted to the preservation, display, and enjoyment of His own glory, we could have no hope of finding happiness in Him. But if He does in fact employ all His sovereign power and infinite wisdom to maximize the enjoyment of His own glory, then we have a foundation on which to stand and rejoice. (Emphasis added, p.31-32.)

God has many other goals in what He does. But none of them is more ultimate than this. They are all subordinate. God’s overwhelming passion is to exalt the value of His glory. To that end, He seeks to display it, to oppose those who belittle it, and to vindicate it from all contempt. It is clearly the uppermost reality in His affections. He loves His glory infinitely. This is the same as saying: He loves himself infinitely. (p.41-42)
Piper went on to say that if God is not hedonistic for His own sake, then there is no foundation for Christians to have godly hedonism:
For the aim of the Christian Hedonist is to be happy in God, to delight in God, to cherish and enjoy His fellowship and favor. But children cannot enjoy the fellowship of their Father if He is unhappy. Therefore the foundation of Christian Hedonism is the happiness of God. (p.33)
While the foundation of Christian Hedonism is God's own hedonism for Himself, the foundation for the latter is God's sovereignty:
But the foundation of the happiness of God is the sovereignty of God: “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). If God were not sovereign, if the world He made were out of control, frustrating His design again and again, God would not be happy.

Just as our joy is based on the promise that God is strong enough and wise enough to make all things work together for our good, so God’s joy is based on that same sovereign control: He makes all things work together for His glory. (p.33)
In summary, God's sovereignty makes Him happy, and only when God is happy, Christians can have joy in God.

I'm in agreement with Piper's exposition of God's sovereignty on pages 33-37: God's purposes cannot be thwarted (Isaiah 46:9-10, Daniel 4:34-35), God's sovereignty covers calamities (Job 42:2, Lamentations 2:11, 3:37-38, Amos 3:6, Job 2:10), God foreordained the crucifixion of Jesus (Acts 2:23, 4:27-28), God in complete control of all evil agents (Revelations 17:13-14, 17, Proverbs 21:1, Ezra 6:22, Genesis 50:20), God hardens human hearts (Romans 11:25-26, 31), God's sovereignty is not compromised by reality of sin and evil in the world (Psalm 135:5-7, Proverbs 16:33, Matthew 10:29).  So, there is no problem with Piper's exposition of God's sovereignty.

My hesitation with Piper's idea is the inference he made from God's sovereignty. Does being sovereign necessarily mean that, (1) God is happy, and (2) God's ultimate aim is to maximize His own enjoyment of Himself, not to mention (3) God loves His own glory and Himself infinitely?

To Piper, Christian Hedonism/happiness/joy is only possible if God is happy. He wrote:
“Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). The implication of this text is that God has the right and power to do whatever makes Him happy. That is what it means to say that God is sovereign.

Think about it for a moment: If God is sovereign and can do anything He pleases, then none of His purposes can be frustrated....

Can you imagine what it would be like if the God who ruled the world were not happy? What if God were given to grumbling and pouting and depression, like some Jack-and-the-beanstalk giant in the sky? What if God were frustrated and despondent and gloomy and dismal and discontented and dejected? Could we join David and say , “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1)?

I don’t think so. We would all relate to God like little children who have a frustrated, gloomy, dismal, discontented father. They can’t enjoy him....

Therefore if God is not a happy God, Christian Hedonism has no foundation. For the aim of the Christian Hedonist is to be happy in God, to delight in God, to cherish and enjoy His fellowship and favor. But children cannot enjoy the fellowship of their Father if He is unhappy. Therefore the foundation of Christian Hedonism is the happiness of God. (p.32-33.)
Piper infers from Psalm 115:3 ("Our God is in the heavens; He does all that He pleases") that God is a hedonistic/happy God. Basically, this psalm and Psalm 104:31 (cited on p.41) are the only verses Piper has to support his inference. But the Bible is ambiguous on this. 

We have passages that say God is angry (Deuteronomy 1:34, 37, 4:21, 22, Numbers 22:22, 32:13-14, 1 Kings 8:46, 11:9, Judges 2:20, 2 Chronicles 6:36, 28:9, Psalm 60:1, 76:7, 89:38, 95:10, 106:40, Isaiah 47:6, 64:9, Zechariah 1:2, 7:2, Luke 14:21). 

Some passages say that God's anger led Him to destroy those who frustrated Him (Deuteronomy 9:7-8, 20, 31:17, Isaiah 34:2). Other passages say that God regretted/repented (Genesis 6:6 and 1 Samuel 15:11). And others say that God punishes the condemned for eternity (Isaiah 66:24, Daniel 12:2, Matthew 18:8, 25:41, 46, Mark 9:47-48, 2 Thessalonians 1:9, Jude 7, 13, Revelations 14:10-11, 20:10).

While there are only two verses that say God is happy, there are so many that say God is angry and frustrated. If Piper can infer from two verses that God is happy and build his entire Christian Hedonism on it, then how much more should he infer from the many verses that God is angry and frustrated and build a philosophy of Christian Rage? Given that there are many more passages on God's anger, shouldn't Christian Rage be a more defining philosophy of life than Christian Hedonism?

Of course, Piper knows that God is able to experience complex emotions that humans can't. As he explained the verses on God's regret/repentance:
God's heart is capable of complex combinations of emotions infinitely more remarkable that ours. He may well be capable of lamenting over something he chose to bring about.
Yet when it comes to his argument for a hedonistic God, Piper disregards God's complex experience of emotions that includes anger and frustration. To Piper, God is not only happy but aims to maximize His own enjoyment of Himself. Unless God is so, Christians cannot enjoy Him. As quoted from Piper above, 
What if God were frustrated and despondent and gloomy and dismal and discontented and dejected?.... I don’t think so. We would all relate to God like little children who have a frustrated, gloomy, dismal, discontented father. They can’t enjoy him. (p.32)
If Piper can recognize that God has the capability for complex combinations of emotions that is "infinitely more remarkable than ours", then he should think of God as not merely happy but, as attested by many scriptural verses, frustrated, gloomy, dismal, discontented, vengeful and destructive as well. 

Besides, if eternal condemnation is true, then God's anger and wrath is also eternally effective. As Piper himself acknowledges,
Whoever does not obey the Son, the wrath of God abides on them. And I presume that means forever. So God is infinitely angry at people in hell forever.... I don't believe in annihilationism. And I don't believe that it will be some pocket within the new heavens and the new earth. It will be outside.

But the main thing to say about the relationship is that it is one in which they hate him and he is infinitely wrathful towards them forever.  (Emphasis added.)
However, when it comes to the foundation for a philosophy of life, Piper ignores this other characteristic of God that he is aware of. His denial of the other aspect of God reduces God to just a happy hedonistic divinity (so that he can make this a foundation for Christian Hedonism). To Piper, God can only foreordained everything for His own happiness. 

I have asked above, does being sovereign necessarily mean that, (1) God is happy, and (2) God's ultimate aim is to maximize His own enjoyment of Himself, not to mention (3) God loves His own glory and Himself infinitely? 

As far as the inference from the Bible is concerned, the sovereignty of God is ambivalent. If Piper is to be fair to those other scriptural verses and his own acknowledgement of God's infinite and eternal wrath and anger, he should also conclude by the same inference that God is a sadist-masochist. That God in His sovereignty has foreordained the eternal infliction of wrath, anger and frustration on Himself by unleashing His infinite contempt and punishment on the unrepentant forever; The chief end of God is to hurt God and grieve Himself forever as well.
 
But Piper didn't do that. He only infers to the conclusion that God is hedonistic. Piper doesn't use the same inference for God's anger and wrath even though he acknowledges this aspect of God too. He denies the scripture's testimony on the ambivalence of God's sovereignty. Thus, it seems that Piper's theology of God's hedonism is grounded on his philosophy of life, Christian Hedonism. Not the other way around as he claims.

This is not to say that therefore Christian has no foundation to enjoy God. Christians through the centuries have been joyous in God before Piper wrote about the foundation of Christian Hedonism. We don't have to assume that unless God is happy and hedonistic (for God cannot be so reduced), we have no foundation for our joy in Him. In fact, we can be happy in God's sovereignty without His alleged hedonism. Or, why can't we be joyous in the sacrificial love that God demonstrated through Jesus Christ? Why must there be a deeper foundation than this? May be there is, but it is not what Piper has discovered.

On page 28 of Desiring God, Piper wrote,
This book will be predominantly a meditation on Scripture. It will be expository rather than speculative. If I cannot show that Christian Hedonism comes from the Bible, I do not expect anyone to be interested, let alone persuaded. There are a thousand man-made philosophies of life. If this is another, let it pass.
As demonstrated above, I don't think Piper's Christian Hedonism (with its alleged foundation) comes from the Bible. I will still look up to Piper's other works and ministry. I still share his understanding of divine sovereignty. But with regards to Christian Hedonism (and divine hedonism), I will have to let it pass.

Friday, April 18, 2014

"Director of Operations" a.k.a. mom/dad's salary and vocation

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A greeting card company made a fascinating video consists of interviews with several candidates applying for the position 'Director of Operations'. As reported by Straits Times, the 'Job Description' of the position includes:
"...the worker must stand up almost all the time; work from 135 hours to an unlimited number of hours per week; and have no time to sleep. There would also be no vacations. He or she must also expect his or her workload to increase on occasions like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Oh, and there would be no pay as well."
As each of the candidates find the job's expectation ridiculous, it was revealed to them that the other title of the position is 'mom'. The interviews are actually staged to show how demanding it is to be a mother.

This interview shows us that a mother's "job" is highly demanding. Let's not forget there are also full-time fathers who similarly have taken up such role. I know some of them.

Regardless whether it's mother or father, home-making is definitely no less demanding, if not more, than regular paid job. It is one of the most underpaid vocations. If they are paid at all, the amount that many homemakers get is lesser than full-time missionaries.

Two years ago a journalist, Porsche Moran calculated how much a homemaker should make in a year. As her calculation is based on American society, I thought I can re-work her model for local Singapore context. So I looked up the range of salary in industries related to homemaking, and I picked the lower estimation. This is what I found.

A kitchen chef in Singapore who makes sure your food is healthily prepared earns about $24,000 per year. This has not include grocery shopping and delivery cost.

Domestic cleaning of 4 hours, twice a week, is about $6,200 a year. This has not include annual spring cleaning for festive season. 

Child care cost is about $8,200 per year. And this quotation is only for day time caring. A homemaker often needs to care for the children even in the evening, and sometimes through the whole night.

If we just take these three basic services (cooking, domestic cleaning, and child care), a homemaker should be paid about $38,400 a year, which is $3,200 a month. This is a minimal estimation. Without CPF, annual leave, insurance coverage and medical benefit.  

I haven't take into account that some homemakers are also tutor to their children for school work. Some even play the role of a chauffeur. Sometimes homemakers are also the holiday planner, wealth consultant, career adviser, and counselor for the family. If yours is a Christian home, then you are also the spiritual director to your child. So, a fairer wage should be more than $3,200 per month. 

I think many housewives and house-husbands among us do not receive that much allowance. So, I wonder what can the government and society do to compensate our 'Director of Operations' fairly?

On the part of the church, what can we do to affirm and celebrate their role, place, and gifting in the community?

I think one way is to learn to see homemakers as called to serve in this capacity as their vocation. It is their calling; honourable and no less God-given. As the great reformer Martin Luther wrote,
"The idea that the service to God should have only to do with a church altar, singing, reading, sacrifice, and the like is without doubt but the worst trick of the devil. How could the devil have led us more effectively astray than by the narrow conception that service to God takes place only in church and by works done therein… The whole world could abound with services to the Lord---not only in churches but also in the home, kitchen, workshop, field."
(Quoted in R. Paul Stevens, The Other Six Days: Vocation, Work, and Ministry in Biblical Perspective [USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999], 77.
Like all legitimate vocations, homemaking is not merely taking care of the house and children. Theologically, homemaking provides the possibilities for God's spirit to recreate the world, to install glimpses of the new creation in the present time. In the words of Miroslav Volf,
"The point is not simply to interpret work religiously as cooperation with God and thereby glorify it ideologically, but to transform work into a charismatic cooperation with God on the "project" of the new creation."
(Quoted in Jeffrey Scholes, Vocation and the Politics of Word: Popular Theology in a Consumer Culture [UK: Lexington Books, 2013], 44.)
Family, spirituality, new creation, and God converge in the role of homemaking. It is a high-calling to be a stay-at-home mom or dad.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Two most common questions on Darren Aronofsky's Noah

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They are, "Is it biblical (i.e. faithful to the text)?" and, "Should we watch it?"

Here's my take.

Is Noah faithful to the Genesis story?
There are so many things in the movie which are faithful to the biblical text. Noah, his father (Lamech), his grandfather (Methuselah), his wife, his three sons (Shem, Ham, and Japheth), a world filled with corrupt and violent people, a flood, an ark filled with pairs from each animal, a post-flood drunkard Noah, and his naked episode. And there is "the Creator" who brought the whole cosmos into existence. All these are found in Genesis 6-9.

So what are the additions in the movie which are not found in the Bible?

Creation
There is allusion to macroevolution in the depiction of the creation of the animals in the world. Some Christians are troubled by this. But if you hold to the view that God works through the process of macroevolution, then you would be delighted to see how the time-lapse process is juxtaposed with the reading of Genesis 1.

Nonetheless, Adam and Eve are not shown as the result of evolution. They had unrecognisable glorious body (which is another reason why Christian viewer may cringe). Only after the fall, they became like us. This part may lead us to rethink about Moses' radiant face (Exo. 34:29), Jesus' transfiguration (Matt. 17:2), and how our own body will be transformed with Christ's glory (Phil. 3:21). If we get a peep into our own future glorious body, we might not recognise ourselves too.

Serpent and Its Skin
The serpent in the film shed its glorious skin and turned evil. Christians who assume that the serpent in Eden was a physical manifestation of the devil would be puzzled by this. I think the film-makers are affirming that everything in the created world was good, and the serpent's turn to evil is a corruption of the original good creation. Nothing controversial here. What is troubling is the serpent's glorious skin was portrayed as a sacred relic that transmits inter-generational blessing. This is awkward.

Methuselah
Noah's grandfather was like a Gandalf-figure, but much more powerful. He can eliminate thousands of raging warriors with just one blow from his sword. He can heal barrenness by just a touch. And he has a magic seed taken from Eden which grew into a forest.

Watchers
They were originally angels. After humans were expelled from Eden to live on cursed ground, these angels had compassion on them and descended to help them. For that, they were punished and subsequently being hunted down by the very humans they desired to help. So they were despair and hated humans, until they met Noah the only righteous person around. After Noah told them about his vision, the Watchers helped him to build the ark.

Noah's Confusion and Domestic Affair
Genesis 6-9 tells us nothing much about Noah's family. In the movie, there are tensions in the family which resulted in Noah's confused state of mind to want to kill all of them and commit suicide. Besides this, the Bible records there are 8 people in Noah's family. The movie shows only 5 (Noah, his wife and three sons) with an adopted girl who later became his daughter-in-law. On this, I think the film-makers can be more creative. They should build the domestic tension with the daughters-in-law included.

Tubal-Cain
This character is from Genesis 4:22. He was a great metalsmith and the leader of the corrupted human race. This addition highlights the sociological possibility of having a righteous man, Noah living among wicked and corrupt people.

Silent God
God is portrayed as silent throughout the film. This is very different from Genesis 6-9, where it is understood that God verbally communicated with Noah. Some Christians are offended by this. But I think this is not really a foreign idea.

The movie is clear that Noah received his vision from the Creator, and he had to learn what he needed to do over time. Most of the time, if not always, we don't hear God audibly speaks to us. We spend our entire life learning how God deals with us. Step by step, we articulate what's God like and how to live as a follower. The movie shows us that Noah, like everyone else, is not spared from this. This is a Noah I can relate to. It is very good depiction of Christian's discipleship in the movie; a lifelong discovery filled with mistake and confusion, yet also divine guidance.

Environmentalism
There are Christians who complain about the emphasis on environmentalism, but I think it's time for them to start reading the Bible with wider and greener eyes.

Should we watch it?
You have to ask yourself what do you plan to get out from the movie? If all you want is to learn about the story of Noah, you don't have to spend 2 hours 30 minutes in the cinema. All you need to do is to flip open your Bible and read Genesis 6-9, Matthew 24:38-39, and Hebrews 11:7. Movies in general are for entertainment.

Theologically, movies are modern parables that help us to learn about life. When we watch movie, we don't simply absorb or passively being entertained, but we are actively engaging the show. That's why we laugh, feel disappointed, cry, inspired, and get excited from watching movies. If so, how then can we build on this already active engagement with movie to serve our discipleship?

I think the first step is to discover the theological aspect of movie-watching as a cultural activity. Robert K. Johnston helpfully listed 6:
(1) God's grace is continually present throughout human culture; (2) theology should be concerned with the Spirit's presence and work in the world; (3) God speaks to us through all of life; (4) image as well as word can help us to encounter God; (5) theology's narrative shape makes it particularly open to interaction with other stories; and (6) the nature of constructive theology is a dialogue between God's story (as presented through the Bible, Christian tradition, and a particular worshipping community) and our stories (from the surrounding culture and our life experiences).
(Robert K. Johnston, Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue [USA: Baker Academic, 2nd edition, 2006], 91.)
There is much we can learn by understanding how God interacts with us through cultural artifacts such as movies. So, what did I learn from Noah? Two things. 

First, it is what I've alluded earlier: The movie contains a very good depiction that discipleship is a lifelong process filled with mistake and confusion, yet not without divine guidance.

Nothing can be more theologically dangerous than to assume we have gotten everything about God right right now. Such assumption says, there is nothing more to learn about God; all conceivable theological questions have already been asked, and we have got the answer to those that are answerable. 

If so, faith becomes merely "question and answer"; it is deprived of life. For e.g., to the Calvinists, God is X, and any conception of God other than X is sub-biblical. To the Arminians, God is Y, and any conception of God other than Y is sub-biblical. And so on to other -ists and -ians.

However, faith is not a lifeless catechism. God is the God of the living (Lk. 20:38). He encounters us through our life, revealing little by little of divinity to us. At certain time in life, God is silent. At other times, God speaks. At certain time and on certain issue, God is coherent. At other times and on other matters, God seems paradoxical. We know God through a lifetime (of which studying the scripture is but one part). And so such knowing defines our life.
"A violinist translate notes into music, a physician uses test results to guard and restore health, and a financial advisor read financial reports and follows the market in order to secure a comfortable retirement for her clients. All these require long-studied skills, until we finally say that so-and-so is a violinist, a physician, or a financial advisor. These skills are a central part of their identities. It is similar when they define us as being knowers of God: the experience of knowing God makes us who we are."
(Ellen T. Charry, 'Walking in the Truth: On Knowing God,' in But Is It True? The Bible and the Question of Truth, eds., Alan G. Padgett and Patrick R. Keifert [USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006], 169.)  
The movie reminds us that the great Noah is not spared from the lifelong journey to know God. If so, how much more should mere mortals like us be attentive in our own journey of knowing God?

Second, I really like how the story led to Noah getting drunk after the flood (Gen. 9:21). The whole episode has left Noah with a major trauma. He saw not only the death of all inhabitants on earth, humans and animals, but also the destruction of the world he grew up in. There is a scene in the movie where Noah seated silently in the dim centre of the ark while helplessly hearing the desperate cry and groan of those drowning in the flood. Noah was surrounded by death. The outpouring of divine wrath took place before his eyes.

Noah may have even wondered, if such is God's judgement, what's in store for sinners like me and my family?

He was terrified. And as a result, after the water has subsided, he binge drink to cope with the trauma. Genesis 9:20-21 makes sense. Before I watched Noah, I didn't realize how terrifying that catastrophe was. I didn't intuitively see that global destruction is the result of our sin. And I also didn't see what did it do to those who survived the flood. It destroyed them. Noah, the only righteouss man around, was turned drunkard because of others' sin.

How many people are affected because of our sin?
 
Prior to watching the movie, I read Genesis 6-9 in the manner of "matter-of-fact". There are many things we don't intuitively see. Boredom towards scripture could be a symptom that the scripture is disconnected from my own life. And this in turn could be a symptom that the scripture is disconnected from the contemporary world. The movie helps to reconnect scripture to our life. As Johnston wrote:  
"If theology is boring to many..., if one of the church's primary tasks is to somehow reconnect the church and contemporary life..., if theology is wrongly absent from too much of public discourse---then movies might provide a means of reconnection."
(Reel Spirituality, 134.)
So, should you watch Noah? What do you plan to get out from the movie?