• Restorative Readings: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Human Dignity
    Restorative Readings: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Human Dignity
    Pickwick Publications

    Foreword by Walter Brueggemann, my chapter is entitled 'In conversation: The Old Testament, Ethics and Human Dignity'. A superb resource edited by Julie Claassens and Bruce Birch

  • What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists.
    What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists.
    by Dion A Forster, Wessel Bentley
  • Methodism in Southern Africa: A celebration of Wesleyan Mission
    Methodism in Southern Africa: A celebration of Wesleyan Mission
    by Dion A Forster, Wessel Bentley
  • Christ at the centre - Discovering the Cosmic Christ in the spirituality of Bede Griffiths
    Christ at the centre - Discovering the Cosmic Christ in the spirituality of Bede Griffiths
    by Dion A Forster
  • An uncommon spiritual path - the quest to find Jesus beyond conventional Christianity
    An uncommon spiritual path - the quest to find Jesus beyond conventional Christianity
    by Dion A Forster
Transform your work life: Turn your ordinary day into an extraordinary calling. by Dion Forster and Graham Power.
Download a few chapters of the book here.
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Entries in identity (6)


Pyrotheology - searching for certainty, and embracing our doubts

The Irish theologian, Peter Rollins, was part of a unique Church community in New York City called 'IconNYC'. If I understand it correctly, it was a year long experiment in Christian community that sought to consider the Christian journey, indeed the Christian community, in ways that held the tensions of doubts, uncertainties, and the realities of our struggles with belief.

Having some understanding of how the brain works, I realise how difficult it is for us, as human beings, to live with uncertainty. Our neuro-evolution has formed us to want patterns, to create certainty and predictability, for the sake of our survival. This can be seen in how we seek out communities of belonging that we understand (what in inter-group contact theory is called 'in-group' identity). We can understand how persons of a certain race, culture, economic class, religion, think and behave. So we seek sameness, and become afraid of difference. This leads to inter-group contact anxiety between the self and the other. It is not surprising to me that Americans want to build a wall, that European countries are trying to keep migrants out, and that racism and identity politics continue to thrive in South Africa. None of these things is just, right, or even desirable. Yet, we fall into the traps of self interest, and self protection. We are wired for it to a certain extent.

However, we soon find that even in the in-group there are differences. White protestant women in Chicago, IL see the world differently from white protestant men in Birmingham, AL. Not all South Africans see the world in the same way... You get the idea.

In my experience, the pursuit of certainty is painful, it is limiting, it binds us to our fears, instead of releasing us for freedom.

The 'IconNYC' community, and Peter Rollins' 'Pyrotheology' speak to me as I contemplate these issues. I am currently in Gothenburg in Sweden. Here I am the cultural, linguistic and geographical stranger (not to mention a stranger to the climate! I realised yesterday as it snowed, that my body was formed from the African soil, and baked in the African sun!) Yet, the difference, the strangeness, the doubts, can be OK. I can learn about others, and about myself. I can slow down and listen - paying a little more attention to unfamiliar people, places and experiences. And the difference becomes a gift. I don't have to collapse it into my world-view, or contain it in my understanding or experience. I can just participate, observe, experience, and know what I can.

It is a sacred experience. It reminds me that God is Swedish... And also African... And Asian... You get the idea? We are because of who God is. Our diversity is an expression of God's creativity.

Here is what Rollins had to say about uncertainties, doubts and pyrotheology:


The good news nestled in the heart of Christianity is not that which gives us certainty and satisfaction, but rather is that which helps us embrace our un-knowing, our doubts, and our dissatisfaction… Instead of seeking a burning bush, a place where God is, we will discover that every bush is burning, that everything is sacred and full of depth, if we only have eyes to see.
- Peter Rollins, Pyrotheology

If you have 3 minutes more, you may want to listen to him speaking about this in his wonderful Irish accent! See the video below, or at this link:



African relational ontology, individual identity, and Christian theology

Yup, the title of this post is a mouthful... It happens to be the title of an academic article that I wrote some time ago that is being published.  

The article will be published in the July / August edition of the SPCK Journal 'Theology'.  This is by far the most prestigious journal in which I have had the privilege to publish an article.  I am truly amazed that it was accepted, and humbled to have it there.

Perhaps the title was so obscure that they thought it was worth a chance!?  The full title of the article is

African relational ontology, individual identity, and Christian theology: An African theological contribution towards an integrated relational ontological identity (Theology, July/August 2010 Vol CXIII No 874 ISSN 0040-571 X).
The article comes from a body of research that I conducted over a period of some years in which I investigated the problem of individual identity (what does it mean to be 'me').  How is my identity formed in relation to other persons and my context?  And what aspects of the Kosmos can be relied upon to validate who I truly am?  Do I rely on my appearance, or my experiences, or is there something more concrete and substantial to 'true identity'?
This article focusses on the importance of relationships and intersubjective identity as the locus of understanding who we are as human persons. It relates these important social aspects of our identity to three prominent Christian doctrines (the doctrine of God, the doctrine of Christian anthropology and the doctrine of soteriology (salvation) - it is something of a systematic approach).  
I have another article from this same body of research that contains more of the neuroscience and psychology of identity that will be published in the South African Journal HTS later this year.  And then I am still working on the book 'Why you may not be who you think you are.  Adventures in neuroscience, artificial intelligence and philosophy' (I am under contract to Cambridge Scholars Press for this book).
Here's the abstract for this article in 'Theology'.
African theology has a great deal to contribute to the theological discourse on human identity. Relationships are central to the formation, expression and understanding of who an individual person is. The African philosophy of ubuntu, more accurately expressed as umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu (a person is a person through other persons), affirms the critical under- standing that identity arises out of intersubjective interactions between persons. This paper discusses how concepts of identity in African philosophy and religion can enhance our theological understanding of individual identity. Hence this research presents an African theological approach to identity that is systematized in relation to the doctrine of God, the doctrine of Christian anthropology and the doctrine of salvation.
If you're interested in reading more about my research in this area, and various other thoughts on neuroscience, identity and Christian theology please follow this link.



Vocatus Atque Non Vocatus Deus Aderit

This little Latin saying has been living within me for the last while:  "Vocatus Atque Non Vocatus Deus Aderit" [bidden or not bidden, God is present / invoked or not invoked, God is present].

It is variously attributed to Erasmus (a Enlightenment scholar and humanist) and Carl Jung (the Swiss psychiatrist).

There is a great truth contained within these simple words.  Indeed, God pre-exists our thoughts, our actions, our intentions, and even our will.

This is not only a theological statement (the Bible is filled with reminders that before we are, God is!)  God is the source from which all life comes.  God is creator (and so we are creation).  However, it is also a neuro-scientific reality.

If you ever have the inclination to understand the neurobiology of belief there is a wonderful book, written by Andrew Newberg and Eugene d'Aquili entitled "Why God won't go away: Brain science and the biology of belief"

Here is an endorsement for the book:


"Why God Won’t Go Away is a thrilling exploration of the intersection of modern brain science and religious experience by one of the leading researchers in this field. Theologians and religionists, don’t worry; this is no exercise in God bashing. For, unlike most books exploring the connection between science and religion, Dr. Andrew Newberg is exceedingly mindful of the limits of science- what it can and cannot say, where it can and cannot go. He realizes that for every question science answers about religious experience, a dozen more arise to take its place. The respect this book displays toward the great mysteries, such as the nature of God and the origin and destiny of consciousness, is one of its most appealing qualities. Newberg’s reverential attitude toward the great unknowns is reminiscent of Einstein." Larry Dossey, MD Author: Reinventing Medicine, Healing Words

I have, however, progressed beyond the dualism that separates belief into physical and spiritual categories.  For me the dividing wall between spirit and mind, between my body and my faith, has been broken down.  In Christ the Spirit of God is present fully in a human person.  And, through His saving grace my life is being transformed into that state of 'being present' to God.

So, no matter what you face today I would like to encourage you with the knowledge that whether God is invited, or not invited, God is always lovingly present.  Amazingly God has even given us the biological capacity for this truth to be discovered within the depths and complexity of the brain!


More than just a bag of neurons, or, are we more than our brains?


My friend Phil Collier is posting some wonderful content on his Brain Science blog brain sparks

He posted an interesting question about whether we are merely the 'stuff of our brains' (i.e., if our neurons determine who we are, or if our identity and consciousness is more complex than that). 

Here's my response to Phil (please see his post here): 

Hi Phil, 

As I mentioned in our conversation this morning, I tend towards an inclusive approach that suggests that we are the stuff of our minds (of course 'the brain' extends into the body through the nervous system, and regulates and is informed through the endocrinatic system). As such we would have to say that in part we are our bodies (not just the cells of our brains, although those are important!) 

However, I have found Ken Wilber's all quadrant, all level (AQAL) approach to consciousness quite helpful in breaking down the false dualism between consciousness and matter. 

Thus, on an individual exterior level (my biology) the individual's brain has a great deal to do with their identity and consciousness. However on a collective exterior level (the human or mammalian brain) there is also an element of additional identity forming activity going on. Then of course you have the individual interior (what I think and believe about myself that forms me) and the collective interior (what 'our' culture, religion, socialization, has contributed towards my understand of myself in relation to others). 

You can read more about my understanding of Wilber here, and a few other Wilber posts here

Then, with regards to the idea of an objective mapping of the functions of the brain (i.e., how the electrical and chemical components function to create outputs of action or thought), you may be interested to read some of Ray Kurzweil's thoughts. 

He has done a great deal in trying to map and emulate brain function (his speciality has been speech synthesis and speech recognition), but more recently he has become knowing for his mathematical predictions of the exponential increase in computational capacity in machines. 

I discussed this at length (and also discussed Wilber and consciousness at length) in my doctoral thesis. See the following post for links and information about Kurzweil (discussed in chapter 2) and you can read about Wilber in chapter 4. 

I am currently under contract with Cambridge scholars press who will be publishing my Ph.D in a more 'popular' form as book in 2010 (the working title is 'Why you may not be who you think you are - adventures in neuroscience, strong artificial intelligence and philosophy'). So keep an eye on this space! I'll post updates on the progress as they come.

The original interview with Ray Kurzweil in h+ can be found here.





Peace and belonging...


If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other. - Mother Teresa

Please see this link for more on 'identity', belonging, community and identity (ubuntu).  

Please aslso see this article, entitled, 'Do South Africans exist?'.  It is an academic article on identity, relationship and the African philosophy of ubuntu that I prepared for the Theological Society of Southern Africa.  It gives a fairly good introduction to the African philisophical and theological perspective on identity. 

I would love to hear what your perspective is on the notion of belonging and peace!


[You may have arrived here from a link on Ron Martoia's VelocityCulture site - if not, then please visit Ron's site for the context to my comment written below on 2 March 2010]

Hi Ron,

This is a challenging question indeed!

I think that part of what has made the Church such a significant place of community is the reality of life’s diversity. Joy, sorrow, life and death. When I was still a pastor of a local church I often used to stand in front of the communion table in the sacramental area and marvel at all of the stages of life that are marked in that space.

I would celebrate life and baptise the children of my members there, I would confirm the faith of young people who had discovered Christ since their baptism, I married many of those young people in that same space, and I even had occasion to bury one or two who had passed away at far too young an age.

However, the gravity of that sacred space was seldom recognised. I certainly overlooked it frequently, and I think the members of our congregation (much less the members of our city) hardly ever saw its significance!

In Africa there is a wonderful saying ‘umuntu ngumuntu ngamantu’ [roughly translated it says 'a person becomes more fully human through other people', or 'I am who I am because of who you are']. I have written about the African philosophy of ubuntu extensively (see this link for an introductory article ). I think there is a critical link between relationships and true identity. We can only become more fully human when we live our lives with others.

In this light I have found the following quotes encouraging and challenging:

- ‘My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.’ – Desmond Tutu
- ‘The holy task is not about becoming “spiritual” nearly as much as becoming human.’ – Richard Rohr

I agree that congregations are often bad at creating community – a lot of contemporary Christianity tends to present Jesus as a combination of my personal therapist and a stock broker… This is a common thread in just about every country I have visited in the world! Christians tend to seek entertainment rather than truth, we want comfort rather than companionship.

However, what is certain is that we need some form of community to tie our lives to the lives of others. Such ‘intersubjective’ interactions make us more fully human, and in so doing help us to become more like the archetypical person, Jesus.

I suppose that like you I am more committed to helping people connect meaningfully than I am about getting people to join churches. But, I am still committed to a local church.

Your insights are challenging as always!





When I am not.... Who am I?

This morning my friend Alan Storey and I drove to the Ordination service in Stellenbosch. As we drove we did what friends do, we talked. Alan challenged me with something he said about himself...

Alan will be leaving the Church he planted and built in Midrand at the end of next year. He is so passionate about his ministry and the people there. So I asked him how he felt about placing those people, that ministry, and that place, into the hands of another person. He responded by saying that he has been on a journey to find who 'Alan' truly is, particularly who he is when he is not a minister of the MCSA, when he is not the pastor at Calvary Methodist Church, when he is not a Storey.

He challenged me to ask "Who am I, when I am not..." Who am I when I am not the Dean, when I am not a Doctor? Who am I when no one knows what I do, what my name, or nationality are? Who am I when I am just a face in the crowd? Who am I then?

I would hope that when no one but God knows me, I am only what God wants me to be!

I need to work harder on that... Blessings to all my colleagues who were affirmed in their Ordination today. Blessings particularly to Juan and Dorah!