I Wonder

“I wonder…” Those words shared by Dr. Jason Clark was meant to convey a particular posture in how we study and learn. I forget exactly the context in which it was shared, but it was one of his talks meant to encourage our cohort to hold our ideas, thoughts and learnings loosely. The memory still holds me captivated to that moment when I heard it afresh in the context of higher learning. These words evoke a kind of child-like playfulness, a naiveté, an invitation to imagine something else. For me, it gently invites me to a space in my mind where I just slow down in my thinking; to pause and reflect on my thoughts. 

There was a time in my life when I tried to place ideas in sort of a binary form. Every idea in my mind went through a filter: either true or false; valid or invalid, warranted or unwarranted, etc.. My project was simply not to have gray areas in my thinking. There was simply no time and space for this. I had assumed that for anyone to be considered a good and clear thinker, he or she would have considered and settled the big ideas in philosophy and theology, i.e., nature of time, determinism vs. freewill, calvinism vs. arminianism, etc.. After all, theology was the “queen of the sciences” and once ruled the many domains of human knowledge. If there was anything important to be known, it was in these disciplines. My academic training, I’m afraid encouraged this attitude, but in the end served as a corrective.

Thank goodness I have sobered up. I no longer think this way. Besides, it was tiring and in the end intellectually dishonest. There were just too many occasions when I exclaimed “Wow! I once held this belief X so passionately and now know it to be false” that I had to stop and reevaluate how I had to come to know anything. My ego can only withstand enough of these before realizing I am in not omniscient. Pride has a way of hiding the obvious. I did not know it at the time, but I was getting introduced to intellectual humility, the virtue Richard Paul and Linda Elder write about in their chapter on Essential Intellectual Traits.1 It became clear. I realized that if I could be wrong on something I had previously not doubted, no beliefs of mine were impervious to further scrutiny. 

Did I succumb to wrong impressions about humility; the twisted notion that to be humble requires being a doormat? By God’s grace, no. Like I said earlier, I felt freer. Philip Dow in his book Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character Development writes “intellectually humble people value truth over their egos’ need to be right, they are freed up to admit the limits of their own knowledge.”2 As an amateur Christian apologist it is easy to feel inadequate when I cannot give adequate answers to seekers’ questions. While it is no excuse to neglect doing the hard work of study, it is liberating to admit I do not know certain things, but I can always find out. 

A prideful person does not listen to advice because of the predetermination that he or she is right. Scripture supports intellectual humility in ways we might have overlooked. Consider Proverbs 12:15 “The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice.” Abraham Lincoln is arguably one of the best presidents in American history; famous for saving the Union, but not many know about his humility. One historian tells of a story about an occasion when Lincoln gave a direct order to Edwin Stanton that was disobeyed. Despite their differences, which was not a secret, one would have expected some deference on Stanton’s part since this was after the Civil War. Lincoln could have easily dismissed him for insubordination but instead decided to meet with him to listen to what others in Lincoln’s cabinet considered an insult. He said, “that is no insult, it an expression of opinion; and what troubles me most about it is that Stanton said it and Stanton is usually right.”3

When I think about Lincoln’s example of humility I am brought to new heights because with the Holy Spirit’s help we can be like him. And yet at the same time I am brought to new lows  because there are not enough men and women today who come close to this. The reflective ministry practitioner in me asks the following: Do I exhibit the kind of intellectual humility in my research that I do not hesitate to ask for advice from my faculty advisor? Am I willing to go where truth leads and expose prejudices for what they are? Am I willing to listen to differing opinions with a predisposition to change my mind? I wonder.

Aha and Eureka Moments

For as long as I can remember, writing well has always been a roadblock to pursuing advanced degrees—at least the kind of writing required to pass courses. Secondary education and the years in college did not prepare me well for the task of writing. Sure, we had English, Literature, Grammar, but nothing on how to write. I do not remember spending class hours on the mechanics of writing nor any of my teachers spending time helping us write better. What I do remember are the red marks on the margins critiquing style, not adhering to rules, punctuation, etc. 

By the time I got to college, a particular kind of writing was assumed. Again, no instructor in any of my classes gave us any clue as to what goals or practical ends our writing ought to be. Our syllabi had writing assignments and the assumption of everyone was that by the due date we would turn in pages with writing in it. Then the red marks and grades came in. I never failed any writing assignments but I never knew in advance if my writing would ever get an “A.” If I ended up with high marks, it was accidental. It all seemed like a mystery to me what criteria was used to evaluate our papers. Especially when one puts in a lot of time and sincere effort into it.

The anxiety over whether or not I could succeed at writing at the doctoral level had for a long time ruled out the idea of pursuing another degree beyond an MA. It still paralyzes me to think that a much longer paper will be due by the end of the Spring (2019) and wondering if I will be up to the task. I know it sounds crazy that I even bring this up since we are not even close to being done this semester and I am already worried about the next one. 

I start with this to help me frame and contrast the new things I am learning in the art and science of writing. To say this book by Derek Rowntree Learn How to Study: A Realistic Approach is groundbreaking is an understatement for me. How so? Because it destroys all the rules of writing I grew up learning. This absolutely is for me an aha and a eureka moment. I kid you not, I literally jumped out of my seat when I read the following from Rowntree:

The best one-sentence guide to effective writing I’ve ever heard is: ‘Write like you talk.’ In my own writing (e.g. as in this book), I try to put down on paper what I would say to my reader if he or she were witting there in front of me. In other words, I aim for a style that is informal and fairly conversational — but without being matey or chatty. Whether such an approach would be acceptable to your tutors is something I leave you to decide.1

That was under the subheading “Writing simply and directly.” He continues with a list of tips that was, without exaggeration, the opposite of what I was taught in high school, i.e., it’s okay and even preferred for writers to use personal pronouns such as “I”, use everyday words, use short and simple sentences, etc. I do not know nor can explain why I was taught the complete opposite of what is taught in this book. It’s not like this resource was not available when I was going through high school. This was somewhat perplexing to me that I had to ask my son who is in the 10th grade and was sitting next to me when I had my writing epiphany. I asked him if any of these things in the book was news to him. He basically said that they learned all the rules just like I did but their teachers give them leeway in their writing assignments; more freedom to express themselves. 

Listening to my son I was reminded about the proper roles rules bear on writing, and for that matter much of life. Rules are very much like fences or railings. They serve the purpose of preventing things from falling off the edge or other dangers. It does not follow that just because they are there that we should stay close to them. The spaces in the center provide safety and freedom to explore. In this case more freedom to explore and express our ideas on paper. Indeed, this realization that there is far less restrictions in writing than I had been taught is liberating. I just hope and pray our tutors agree with Rowntree on this.

Obfuscation

How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Readwas tough reading for me. I held off writing this to the very end to avoid the real possibility that I may have misunderstood Bayard’s project. I did not want to fall into the same category of people who misjudge books simply by its cover. One only has to look no further than the one-star reviews of books found in popular online retailers such as Amazon to see that many readers are guilty of this. 

For example, there was a book titled The Benedict Optionby Rod Dreher that got published last year. The subtitle was “A Strategy For Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.” This book received rave reviews, some positive and some negative. It quickly got on the New York Times Bestseller list. David Brooks, a writer for New York Times applauded the book and said “Already the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.” That is high praise. However, most Christian leaders I talked to had a different and rather unfair critique of the book. One of them said the book espoused a radical retreat from society which impugned the Christian’s calling to being salt and light. This inaccurate assessment could not be further from the truth. If one had simply read the book, he or she would learn that a temporary retreat, a “going back to basics” sort of approach, which the author clearly advocated, that refreshes and empowers believers enough to be effective agents of change for the kingdom. It is disappointing that many of Bayard’s tips on how to talk about books one has never read might lead us down this same path. 

The title I chose for this post is the word Obfuscation. This is not a very endearing characterization of a person, especially for academics. The Merriam-Webster definition of this word is “to throw into shadow; to obscure; to be evasive, unclear, or confusing.” As bad as it is, in my opinion, the author is perfectly comfortable with this. He said so himself. In an NPR interview Bayard said he was comfortable “living in the gray.”1In many places in his book he writes about “inner books,” “inner libraries,” “secret texts” a mobility to meaning that one wonders if there is a point to reading anything at all. 

It is one thing to acknowledge that there are gray areas in ascertaining the truth of a matter, but it is quite different to be settled in it. The flaw in Bayard is that in describing the lack of apodictic certainty of truth he has prescribed the lack of any truth. In other words, just because a thing is difficult to grasp, now therefore there is nothing to grasp. That does not follow. A good example of the chaos and folly that attend this kind of thinking is illustrated by Bayard in the game of Humiliation. 

“The game thus consist in humiliating yourself as much as possible: the more you humiliate yourself, the more likely you are to win. But there is an additional twist, which is that victory also depends on sincerity. To win, you must not only give the name of a well-known book, but also convince the others that you have told the truth about not having read it. If you give the name of a book that is too well know, such that it is actually implausible for you not to have read it, the other players have the right to reject your statement. The chance of winning is thus proportional to the players’ trust in the person confessing his ignorance, and so also in proportion to the genuineness of the player’s humiliation”2

Notice that there really is no objective to this silly parlor game. It only ends in chaos since there is no grounding for truth. Lies don’t exist unless truth first exist. One must always assume the truth of a thing before it is shown to be false. That’s a logical order and cannot be breached. Otherwise we all start with skepticism and that’s an unlivable world. In this game no one wins and it only ends in futility and destruction. In fact we do find that one of the professors thinking he won the game actually lost the game, even more, his reputation and his job.

If there is another alternative to how we can talk about books we have not read, allow me to suggest one. This advice comes from my personal experience having managed a bookstore for over seventeen years. The first step is to contact publishers of books that fit your interests, and get on their mailing list. Indicate that you want to start receiving their catalogs which usually gets printed a few times a year. For example, if your interests lie in Christian academic titles, you’ll want to obtain catalogs from IVP Academic, Eerdman’s, Baker Academic, etc. Not only do you get to know about books that have yet to be printed, but the descriptions, table of contents and other promotional material contained in these catalogs will be surprisingly enough to engage in fruitful discussions about a myriad of topics. Collecting and perusing these catalogs actually do start to create the real inner library—similar to the one Bayard talks about. Except this one has its basis in reality. 

Own It

This blog post will be a little personal in a sense that it will reveal one of the reasons I decided to pursue this doctorate. I had looked at several DMin programs and each one of them had one thing in common: rigid, set coursework. I am confident this kind of learning is effective for some, but I felt this approach, as seems to be the case in the American system of doctorate-granting institutions, would not work for me. Reading anything by Mortimer Adler is super helpful. He was one of the most influential philosophers and educators of the 20th century, and so anything he writes is worth paying attention to and in this reading, turned out to be affirming. Affirming in the sense that it validated my expectations and recent experiences in researching a topic I have been passionate about for some time.

The section I spent most of my time understanding and rereading was the section on “Five Steps in Synoptical Reading”inHow to Read a Book.  I had to do this because the authors said something quite intriguing and subversive for reasons I still have yet to fully understand. He wrote “…it is you who must establish the terms, and bring your authors to them rather than the other way around.”1 I had a head-scratching moment, puzzled at what I had just read. Did the authors just tell me that I, the lowly learner, would tell the experts what I think they mean by using some of their own terms? I certainly did not expect this and Adler himself mention that this was one of the most difficult steps in synoptic reading.

Even though that point remains unclear, some of what seems wrong turned out to be a welcomed learning experience. I had been preparing for a talk that was scheduled to be delivered this past summer. The topic I studied was on culture based on an understanding of Jesus’ parable of the sower found in Matthew 13. There are many commentators, scholars and preachers who prepare sermons covering the meaning of the seed and the sower, but hardly any mention the significance of the soil. Long story short, I asserted the strong link between soil and culture. This set me off to explore the world of anthropology and sociology. I ended up reading dozens of experts on their definitions of culture. Before long I felt I had mastery over the subject matter and acquired a kind of authority about it, at least enough for a 40 minute presentation. So much so that I imagined myself tutoring these scholars of culture and helping fill in knowledge-gaps in their thinking. Now this may not be true, but it definitely felt like that. And of course, prior experience and familiarity helped but I believe this is as close as I will get in understanding Adler’s admonition to bring authors to our terms.

This new way of thinking taught me valuable lessons:

  1. One can be an expert of sorts on a particular subject if he or she has read and understood a good set of books on a particular subject.
  2. Reading between the lines, one can pick up implicit assertions that support and give credence to the topic being studied.
  3. Not one expert knows everything about one subject. This gives others an opportunity to offer other solutions to problems.

One might think that it would be beneath himself for a philosophical and theological luminary such as Adler to write a practical book on how to read one. But amidst the how-tos and hands-on of reading there is a strong ethical lesson for us to consider. One such lesson is his admonition to be polite when we disagree with an author. An oft-quoted line by Adler is “You must be able to say, with reasonable certainty, ‘I understand,’ before you can say any of the following things: ‘I agree,’ or ‘I disagree,’ or ‘I suspend judgement’”2This wisdom cannot be overstated. The cultural milieu of today is full of people who are argumentative because they lack the maturity and skills to put together good arguments. We simply do not take the time and effort, as Adler would say, to understand each other. It has come to a critical point that we are numbed by current events and trust in our leaders is at a low point.3This should not be the case, especially among Christians.

If we are to be good ambassadors for Christ, we must remember to be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”4For followers of Christ it is imperative to consider this as our calling. Our Lord speaks a blessing for peacemakers (Mt. 5:9). Proverbs encourages us to speak for those who have no voice (Prov. 31:8) and Peter exhorts us to engage in discourse with gentleness and respect (1 Pet. 3:15).5

As I have stated in the beginning, this DMin program has a personal quality to it. My hope and prayer is that as I go through the rigor of study that I “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever!”6

“The British Are Coming! The British Are Coming!”

View from Victoria Peak

The announcement came over Facebook, “Are you excited for the Hong Kong Advance? We are!” That declaration came from one our administrators at the seminary encouraging our cohort to get ready for our upcoming trip. Don’t get me wrong, of course I’m excited but right now I can’t get past the thought of having to write about Hong Kong using material from Steve Tsang’s prodigious work on the history of Hong Kong aptly called A Modern History of Hong Kong.

When I say “prodigious” I mean 300+ pages of dense material, covering detail upon detail of Hong Kong’s humble beginnings as a fishing village in the 19th century to the global economic powerhouse it became a century and a half later. The in-between years is fascinating, more like inexplicable1 how a true partnership between Great Britain, the super power at the time, and China the “sleeping giant” to achieve what no other nation has in the modern era. What could account for this? One of my deepest interests and a hopeful outcome in pursuing a DMin is giving myself space and time to figure out the factors that cause human beings to flourish. Could those be identified? And before we answer that, could we come to a common understanding of what human flourishing is about?

These are big questions indeed. However I am convinced the history of Hong Kong has some important human flourishing lessons to teach us. According to Tsang in A Modern History of Hong Kong, “The greatest contribution of British rule in this regard was to provide the political framework and social stability that enabled Hong Kong’s economy to flourish”2 Elsewhere he states that the reason the economy transformed in dramatic ways in the 1950s “lay in providing the conditions for industries to develop and grow. It maintained political and social stability at a time when neither could be taken for granted in East Asia.”3 What is even more amazing is that all of this was accomplished in Hong Kong without the British formally colonizing it unlike, for example, Africa and India.

What made Hong Kong work in the way that even impressed unconcerned Chinese leaders? After all, they didn’t really care at all for Hong Kong, until it became their “goose that kept laying golden eggs.” Even Mao, so disinterested that he relegated governance, albeit undefined, to the British, so long as the Chinese people were respected and treated fairly. In fact for a good period of time, Hong Kongers lived relatively stable and peaceful lives without any intervention of a formal government. For several decades leading up to the 1980s Hong Kong was self-governed, enjoying democracy with officially having it. Sure, the British governors presided over the court systems and established basic laws but that was only to maintain an order that already existed. Anyone interested in matters of nation building would be very curious to know the formula that made this British pseudo colony successful.

I’m sure there is no easy answer to this question. And the possible answers will vary wildly depending on who you ask. However if one were to ask Tsang he would say this:

The vitality and strength of the British economy, politics, armed forces, science, technology and, in their own eyes, their way of life governed by liberal democracy and the Christian faith gave the Victorians venturing to Asia or, for that matter, Africa a sense of superiority over the so-called natives.4

There is no perfect society. That is stating the obvious. Sure there were inequities and discrimination against the natives as part of the backstory of the Sino-British narrative. But even the natives did not think it was any worse than what they had experienced in the mainland. In fact, the situation was so much better in Hong Kong that many Chinese started immigrating en masse to seek better opportunities. By the 1980s, missiologists and anthropologists recognized the problems, shortcomings and challenges of colonization that came with the era of pax Britannica. The history lessons were not wasted on the Britons and when it was time to plan for the eventual return of Hong Kong to China, the British showed genuine concern for the future and welfare of the people of Hong Kong.

I am not sure if Tsang meant to include the Christian faith in a disparaging way. But how else does one explain the incredible progress realized in Hong Kong? Fascism had been defeated, communism that built the Berlin wall demonstrably failed, USSR declined, eventually collapsed and socialism has come to nothing. Confucianism, with its emphasis on moral values and correctness of social relationships could only take China so far.

What else is left then? Perhaps the answer is Christianity. Yes, even with all the flaws, imperfections and hypocrisy of believers, nations and culture can thrive, and we see it first hand in the case of Hong Kong. It was Christianity that undergirded the careful transition and a genuine care for the wellbeing of the citizens even when Deng, the supreme Chinese leader at the time, doubted and thought it “too alien to take seriously.” It’s in Christianity that we find any sort of cultural mandate (Gen. 1:22; 2:15) to have responsible dominion over all his creation. No other worldview has this view of reality. This point is often times overlooked and glossed over in political and social theory. However, the impetus behind colonization, the thing that drives it and its attachment to the West, namely Christianity, comes from the fact that we (disciples of Jesus) are called to take responsible dominion over creation and extend the Gospel to the farthest reaches of our planet. Of course this interpretation is fraught with controversy which this paper may address at a later time.

Nonetheless, we would be remiss in our day not to consider the lessons in Hong Kong. Naysayers can point to everything that went wrong but Britons got it right for the most part and deserve the credit. The question remains, as it has for the 7.3 million who live in Hong Kong, will the “one country, two systems” model continue to work long after SAR status of Hong Kong ends? Will China along with neighboring nations like Singapore figure out how to modernize without being Westernized? Will the strong presence of human rights and freedom of religion in Hong Kong remain a key central value in the new Hong Kong in 2047? God only knows but Christians must be guardians of everything that is good, true and beautiful. These are uncertain and yet exciting times when God’s people are called to disciple nations. Do we sit back and do nothing or do we answer the call?

I had fun coming up with the title for this blog post. It was sort of tongue in cheek. A century before Hong Kong was even on the map, Paul Revere rode to warn the settlers of the impending attack of the British forces. A century later, with no armada of warships, with little more than a desire to trade, the British landed bringing with them a new way of life, a culture that is embraced even to this day.

Am I excited to visit Hong Kong? Yes I am.

Simple to Understand, Mysterious to Comprehend and Difficult to Practice

I was listening to a sermon on the radio the other day and the pastor preached on a familiar passage. In his talk he mentioned that the verses were simple to understand, mysterious to comprehend and difficult to put into practice. These words resonated with me as it brought me back to the story of Jackie Pullinger and how she followed God’s calling to Hong Kong despite opposition from naysayers. Common sense tells us we have to dot the i’s and cross our t’s, fill out the proper forms, wait patiently and prayerfully before we can expect a response from the Lord. After all we’re taught that yes, God can do anything, but typically He accomplishes things through normal means, i.e., blessing of the church elders, etc. At least that’s how we’ve been acculturated in the church. I know I have been, and collectively we call this approach wise.

Discerning the Holy Spirit’s promptings is, for me at least, as the preacher said “simple to understand, mysterious to comprehend and difficult to practice.” Jackie knew she wanted to be a missionary growing up and was convinced of that early on—simple to understand. But she experienced roadblocks when the time came for her to go. So that must have seemed mysterious to her and her support group who was convinced she should go. And if that wasn’t enough, the more difficult thing to think about was actually to go. But go where? After all no missions organization she applied to would help her. Nor did she sense any specifics from the Lord.

This is where I’m reminded of Abraham’s story in Genesis 12 and how uncannily similar it is to Jackie’s. It was exhilarating to read the first few chapters of Jackie’s missionary journey and I was on the edge of my seat not knowing how things would turn out for her. There she was, ready, willing and able to do the Lord’s work. But was she going to wait for a green light as the missions agency advised? Was she going to push through on her own strength and make things happen? Was she going to pray more to ask for a definitive sign from God? 

The Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) says “…go and make disciplines of all nations…” I’m convinced the most important word there is “go.” Apparently this oft-quoted passage is similar in construction, tone and meaning in the original language as the ones we find in Genesis 1 in which God tells Adam and Eve to “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” There’s something about the “going” itself; going to different places God wants us to go in order to accomplish His will of restoring fallen creation for His glory.  It appears Jackie was simply desiring and fulfilling the original “cultural mandate” to be part of God’s redeeming work of salvation by going from where she was to a place God would eventually disclose. Not sooner or later, but at God’s perfect timing. 

When Dr. Jason Clark helped and encouraged his cohort of doctoral students the other day to begin writing, I asked a question: What should we write about and what tone, voice, style, etc. are we to use in our writing? He said we ought to focus on one thing that resonated with us in a profound way. Once we figured that out, that was what we ought to write about. That was super helpful because I couldn’t stop marveling at Jackie’s incredible faith, the same incredible faith demonstrated by Abraham, except his seems so distant, so removed from today’s hustle and bustle we call life. How can anyone relate to that today? How can I relate? Is this only for the special believers out there? Then we learn about people like Jackie Pullinger who essentially did the same thing as Abraham did thousands of years ago. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about Jackie. She’s like you and me except that she actually put her faith into action.

When I think about her story (Chasing the Dragon), I’m encouraged and challenged at the same time. Encouraged because I see in modern times that God is the same yesterday, today and forever; and is still committed to redeeming those he has called. Challenged because in many ways I have a long way to go to have the kind of faith. But with practice and discipline, my hope and prayer is that I take steps of obedience and simply go when God says go.