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  • 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 Theology (63)

Saturday
Dec202014

Are 'whites' South Africa's problem?

 

A good friend of mine, Sanda Fata, posted a quote on his timeline last week that caused me to reflect and think very deeply. I respect Sanda and so trust his perspective. Here is the status that Sanda posted:

 


Most white South Africans don't want to be part of South Africa, but all they want is huge stake of South Africa (Nkosivumile Gola) uvuthiwe mntanam.

 

The statement above touches on two very sensitive issues, namely the massive issue of inequality between South Africa's citizens, and of course the painful and ongoing issue of race politics.

 

I am convinced that the issue at stake in South Africa is not a race issue (race classification and the empowerment of one race and denigration of another is the cause of our problems, and so it cannot be our solution). As I prayed, and thought about this issue I wrote the following response to Sanda.

 


Comrade Sanda Fata - thanks for sharing this. It caused me to think deeply. I agree with part of the statement of Comrade Nkosivumile Gola. Indeed there are certain South Africans who want a larger stake of the nation at the expense of others, and I am afraid that in large measure they are white South Africans. However, I think that it is a mistake to tie the struggle for emancipation and transformation to race. It is a mistake because it is wrong and so in the long run it will be futile. We cannot base our struggle on something that people cannot choose or change. The core of the issue here is not whiteness, it is something more powerful, something about which people can make choices and can actually choose to change. Apartheid ideology did its best to problematise blackness. We can see how wrong that was. I contend that it is a mistake to judge persons based on something they did not choose and cannot change. So, what should we do? In my view our struggle should be a class struggle. There are South Africans of a certain class that subjugate others through their choices, their consumption of resources, their desire for power and wealth at all costs, their denial of human dignity (and so also human rights). These South Africans are white, but they are also brown and black. It is their choices around class that are problematic (hence I contend that a class struggle is necessary, and not a race struggle). A class struggle emerges when there are competing social and economic interests between people in society (such as access to health care, education, dignified work, a living wage, the right to flourish). These choices can be changed by the classes who hold wealth and power, and so I feel we need to spend our energy, time, and creativity addressing the class issue rather than the race issue. History has shown that race struggles are based on prejudice (about something that people cannot choose or change) and so they never succeed. Persons who appeal only to race do so because it is very easy to blame the 'other' who is different from ourselves, but it is a mistake since there are poor whites, poor brown people, as well as wealthy black people, powerful black people etc., I would encourage you to look at this great book by my friend Joerg Rieger We hope to have him visit South Africa again soon: Rieger, Joerg ed. 2013 Religion, Theology, and Class: Fresh Engagements after Long Silence New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan http://www.amazon.com/Religion-Theology-Class-Engagements-Approaches/dp/113735142X

 

At the core of my argument is that South Africans need one another. Our diversity is a gift. I am convinced that we need each other in order to forge a better future for all, we cannot attempt to make things better by once again polarising persons along the lines of race. Moreover, I am convinced that social and economic issues are central to the struggle that we face in South Africa today - indeed, suffering is still almost entirely a reality among our black sisters and brothers. However, it is not their race which causes this suffering, it is our economic and political choices. Inequality is a class issue, not a race issue.

 

 

I would love to hear your perspective.

 

 

Thursday
Nov272014

San Diego - American Academy of Religion (AAR)

As I write this I am sitting in a rather comfy seat in the JetBlue terminal at JKF airport in New York - it is thanksgiving, the busiest travel day of the year! In hindsight it might not have been all that wise to travel home today! Still, as I told a friend, I have flown through Lagos airport in Nigeria, which on a normal day makes JFK on Thanksgiving look like a quiet country airport! It is 5am here and the airport is bustling with people heading all over the USA to be with family and friends.

I arrived on an overnight cross-country flight from San Diego (we left there at 9pm last night). My next flight leaves JFK at 11am for Dakar, then from Dakar I go to Johannesburg and then from Johannesburg to Cape Town and home with my darlings!

The reason for this trip was to participate in the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) which took place in beautiful San Diego this year. I participated in three 'streams' of the AAR/SBL. Primarily I was in the Wesley Studies stream - on my first day I sat next to Douglas Meeks (who I have known for some years since first meeting him at Christ Church College, Oxford University in 2007), behind Randy Maddox (from Duke Divinity School, who I have also known for some years - probably as long as Douglas Meeks), and in front of Ted Campbell who I met while he was President of Garrett Evangelical Seminary in Chicago in 2005. The Wesley Studies sessions were great and it was wonderful to be a part of them and share a bit of a perspective from South Africa. I told the group about my research on Nelson Mandela and the Methodist Church of Southern Africa and it looks like this group may consider focussing on Wesleyan Public and Political Theology around the world as a result of that. I hope to be able to participate in that group in 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. The point of interest is how John Wesley's theology in its various forms has made an impact on Public Theological discourse in different places in the world. Just this year I have seen how it has been received in Malaysia, in Brazil and of course in South Africa. I'm sure that it will make for some fascinating papers and discussion!

The other group that I participated in was Joerg Rieger's discussions on religion, economics and class (as part of the Theological Ethics stream). Joerg and I had dinner together on the 24th of November, it was great to catch up and hear of his work in Dallas and he new projects. His book 'Occupy Religion' was a point of discussion, and of course the reception of Liberation Theologies in his context and in ours.

One of the issues that I want to reflect on a lot more is the notion of class as a social differentiation. In one of the sessions there was a discussion on class, religion and economics and the point was made that in the United States (and so I guess in South Africa as well), we often collapse race and economics into one another. For example, if one were to do a demographic study of South African society it would be true to say that black South Africans are generally poorer than white South Africans because of the legacy of apartheid. Moreover, the wealthiest members of South African society are almost all white (of course that is changing rapidly with Black Economic Empowerment, but by and large it is still the case that white South Africans are among the wealthiest persons in the country, what the 'Occupy movement' have called the 1%). However, because we tend to associate and differentiate by race the middle class, or those with limited privilege tend to associate with their counterparts in the 1%. However, if we consider class, rather than race, as an economic differentiator we would very quickly see that the average white South African has more in common with his or her black South African counterparts than with the 1% (whether they be white or black). The illustration used in the sessions was that an American who earns $200 thousand per year has more in common with a poor person than with Bill Gates - simply stated they are in closer solidarity with the poor than with the 1%. This 'deep solidarity' as Joerg puts it requires a certain kind of response from the faithful Christian. When we are in solidarity with persons of our class it allows us to use our limited privilege to support people in our class and engage oppressive social and economic systems from a point of relative power (or at least more power than those who are less powerful than we are). This was an important thought for me.

I find it particularly poignant since we are launching a new movement in South African on the 2nd of December called the AHA movement (a movement of hopeful action that will facilitate creative and engaged conversation and thought around issues of poverty in South Africa).

Lastly, I participated in the Matthew studies group. It was wonderful to catch up on the most recent developments in Matthew Scholarship - even though there were no papers touching on the topic of my second PhD (Matthew 18 and forgiveness, intergroup contact theory). I had a chance to meet with my Doctoral Supervisor / Promotor, Prof Jan van der Watt from Radboud University. Ben Whiterington was also at that meeting.

Among the other persons that I met at this AAR/SBL meeting were Miroslaf Volf (I had a chat with him about the most recent research that I had been doing on faith and work. He was very kind to listen, comment and offer encouragement. Like many others who I met, however, he was most excited to know that I am from Stellenbosch University - people sure to love that beautiful place and are always keen to find an excuse to spend more time in beautiful Stellenbosch). I also met Prof Darrell Guder from Princeton who is visiting Stellenbosch in February 2015 for a missional theology conference we are hosting. It was also wonderful to spend some time with my friends Prof Wentzel van Huyssteen (also from Princeton) and Elizabeth Gerle (from Upsala, who is also a STIAS fellow and is keen to be back in Stellenbosch).

Then, it was so awesome to be in San Diego with my long time friend and colleague, Dr Wessel Bentley (and his son Matthew - such an amazing young man!) It was wonderful to have breakfast and catch up on the days events with Wes and Matt. They also seemed to have a blast. I am so encouraged by Wessel - not only is he a brilliant theologian and scholar, he has maintained great balance as a dad, bringing his son along to experience America and the AAR.

Then I attended papers by my good friends Dr Charlene van der Walt (in the feminist Biblical interpretation group - she is doing incredible work that is going to be a huge help to me in finishing this second PhD I am busy with), and Dr Retief Muller (in the African studies group). They were both fantastic. Profs Julie Claassens, Jeremy Punt, Lious Jonker and Elna Mouton were also there from Stellenbosch, as were Prof Ernst Conradie and Christo Lombaard from UWC, Jonathan Draper, Smanga Kumalo and Gerald West from UWC. It was also great to get to know Dr Jacob Meiring (from Pretoria) better. I also got to meet, for the first time, two friends that I have only known via social media - Dr Curtis Holtzen and Lisa Beth White. Curtis did his PhD at UNISA many years ago and we connected online around the institution. Lisa Beth is a United Methodist minister who has been very kind and encouraging over the years! She is completing a PhD in Mission at Boston - it was wonderful to finally meet her in person.

Another highlight was hearing former US President Jimmy Carter talking about religion, women and issues related to the environment. His basic message is that religion has an important role to play in shaping society for the better, and that two critical issues in our time that require our positive action are environmental stewardship and engaging gender inequality around the world.

So, all in all it was a wonderful opportunity to connect with old friends, make new friends, and think deeply and learn a lot!

One less good memory of the trip will be the darn cold I contracted on the flight over! My goodness, I felt poorly for most of the week and still don't feel great. However, that didn't stop me from grabbing a bicycle from the Kimpton Hotel Solamar where I was staying (a beautiful hotel!) and going for two rides around San Diego. On Sunday morning I did just over 30km's along the San Diego Harbour front from the Island to the mainland. The second ride was around 20km (on that day I was really not feeling well), where I rode up to Balboa park, it was so beautiful up there. I am impressed with the city of San Diego - beautiful people and a beautiful place.

All that being said, I cannot wait to be home with Megie, Courtney and Liam. I find that it becomes more and more difficult to travel without them! So, enough typing, time to find where my next flight boards and get home!

I have uploaded a few photographs from the trip with this post. I'm afraid they are not formatted since I am typing this post on my iPhone.

Wednesday
Nov192014

Evangelism and Public Theology

Last week I was asked to write an article for the Lausanne Global Pulse on Evangelism and the Christian response to Global (and local) Corruption and its relationship to poverty. I shall add a link to it here when it is published.

In my reading I came across this wonderful quote by the eccumenical theologian Lesslie Newbigin. It was quite challenging and profound:


It is not so often acknowledged that evangelism means calling people to believe something which is radically different from what is normally accepted as public truth, and that calls for a conversion not only of the heart and will but of the mind. A serious commitment to evangelism, to the telling of the story which the Church is sent to tell, means a radical questioning of the reigning assumptions of public life. It is to affirm the gospel not only as an invitation to a private and personal decision but as public truth which ought to be acknowledged as true for the whole of the life of society.

Lesslie Newbigin Truth to Tell (p.2).

I was left with the question, can the Christian's response to issues of justice be considered as the work of evangelism?

I think it can, particularly if one understands 'evangelism' as facilitating the reality of God's good news (and 'goodness') for the world (rather than just preaching the content of the good news, or Gospel). I am convinced that our proposition of what the Gospel is, finds fullness of meaning when persons (and creation) begin to experience something of what God's goodness is.

Some years ago I wrote an academic article entitled "Prophetic witness and social action as holiness in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa's mission" which locates this argument within a historical and missional context. You can download the article here and follow my line of reasoning. I also attempt to argue for the location of mission and evangelism as activities of Christians and the Church within the public sphere (to use Martin Marty's terminology). In this sense evangelism as social action (or even social action as evangelism) is a form of Public Theology.

Wednesday
Sep102014

South South partnership - Brazil and South Africa / Public Theology

This week I have been in Sao Leopoldo in Brazil at Faculdades EST for the bi-annual conference (this year focussing on religion and the media).  It forms part of the South South partnership that exists between Faculdades EST and some Universities in South Africa (these include the University where I teach, Stellenbosch University, as well as UNISA, UKZN and even a colleauge from the University of Cape Town).

South Africa and Brazil share a number of similar aspects in our social, political and economic history and current reality.  Both have suffered under oppressive regimes.  In both instances the Church and religious organisations played a significant role in helping to end the oppression.  Liberation theologies, public theologies and post colonial theologies are common discourses in both settings.  Of course they are not the same - there are many obvious, and some less obvious, differences in the two contexts.  However, there are great opportunities for mutual enrichment and support.

Thus far the partnership has involved the exchange of academic staff, exchange of Masters and PhD students, and projects which have resulted in publications (such as the book that will be launched tomorrow evening, and the set of publications in English that will go into the Journal of Theology for South Africa JTSA).  Language is something of a barrier, since we only have one colleague from South Africa who speaks Portuguese, and only a few colleagues from Brazil that speak English.  I have committed to try and learn Portuguese in the years ahead so that we can serve the partnership better from our side.

It has been wonderful to hear the debates and inputs on public theology, liberation theologies, and a variety of contextual and post-collonial theologies.

On Thursday evening for fly back to Sao Paulo to have a meeting with the Vice Rector of International Affairs at USP.  USP and Stellenbosch have an institutional agreement that is now being developed into a South South partnership between the two Universities.  USP is one of the largest, and most prestigious, Universities in South America.

This post contains a few photographs taken on the trip.  One is of me and one of my former students, Ndikho Mtshiselwa.  It was great to see him here.  Among the other colleauges were Prof Nico Koopman, Prof Rothney Tshaka, Prof Rudolf von Sinner, Prof Reggie Nel, Dr Pieter Grove, and Dr Elaine Nogueira-Godsey.

Tuesday
Sep022014

Launch of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Unit, John de Gruchy conference

This evening we launched the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Unit in the Beyers Naudé centre for Public Theology at Stellenbosch University.

In the front row of this picture are some of the most famous Bonhoeffer scholars (from left to right), John de Gruchy, Clifford Green, Wolfgang Huber, Dirkie Smit, Frits de Lange, and Wentzel Van Huyssteen next to Robert Vosloo.

I recorded John de Gruchy, Dirkie Smit, Nico Koopman and Robert Vosloo's short presentations at the launch. They were fascinating. I will upload that audio as soon as I have had a chance to edit it. So do look back - I found de Gruchy's section on Bonhoeffer reception in South Africa and Beyers Naudé fascinating. As was Dirkie Smit's talk on Russel Botman and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Tomorrow we will host a three day conference in honour of John de Gruchy. Many of these visitors are speakers at the conference. Others include Prof Graham Ward Regis Professor of Divinity at Oxford University and Prof a Serene Jones (President of Union Theological seminary - where Dietrich Bonhoeffer studied before his return to Germany). The prominent ethicist Larry Rasmussen will also be a speaker, as will Prof Iain McGillchrist from Oxford.

I will be chairing the panel on science and theology.

Here's a peek at the program.

Wednesday 3 September 2014

9h00: Opening

Session 1: Engaging Dietrich Bonhoeffer [Chair: Robert Vosloo]
9h20-10h00: Wolfgang Huber: Dietrich Bonhoeffer's question: How a coming generation
is to go on living?
10h00 -10h40: Nico Koopman: Bonhoeffer and the Future of Public Theology in South
Africa
10h40-11h10: Tea:
11h10-12h40: Panel Discussion: Clifford Green, Michael Phiri, Karola Radler, Frits de
Lange
12h40-14h00: Lunch
Book launch: A Theological Odyssey: My Life in Writing (John de Gruchy) (Sun Media);
Chair: Len Hansen; Speakers: Keith Clements, Roderick Hewitt, Cas Wepener
Session 2: Theological Aesthetics [Chair: Lyn Holness]

14h00-14h40: Graham Ward: Sanctification: Towards a Pedagogy of Affect
14h40-15h20: Frank Burch Brown: The Aesthetics of Forgiveness: Representing
Forgiveness Artistically.

15h20-15h50: Tea
15h50-17h20: Panel Discussion: Janet Trisk, Marnus Havenga, Awet Andemicael, Johan
Cilliers
18h15-19h15: Welcoming function
19h15: Concert: Libertas Choir

Thursday 4 September 2014
9h00: Opening: Robert Steiner
Session 3: Christian Humanism [Chair: Elna Mouton]

9h10-9h50: Denise Ackermann: The Mystery of Hope
9h50-10h30: Jim Cochrane: The Spirit of Humanity: Contra Theologies of Death

10h30-11h00: Tea
11h00-12h30: Panel Discussion: Karin Sporre, Martin Prozesky, Nadia Marais

12h30-14h00: Lunch
Book Launch: Denise Ackermann, Surprised by the Man on the Borrowed Donkey:
Ordinary Blessings (Lux Verbi)
Speaker: Dirkie Smit
Session 4: Theology and Science [Chair: Dion Forster]
14h00-14h40: Iain McGilchrist
14h40-15h20: J. Wentzel van Huyssteen: The Emergence of Personhood: Why the
Evolution of the Moral Sense and Symbolic Behavior defines the Human Self
15h20-15h50: Tea
15h50-17h20: Panel Discussion: Ernst Conradie, Gys Loubser, Larry Rasmussen, Rika
Preiser

18h15: Evening reception: Clos Malverne wine estate

Friday 5 September

9h00: Opening: Bruce Theron
Session 5: The Struggle Continues [Chair: Edwin Arrison]
9h10-9h50: Serene Jones: Economic Freedom
9h50-10h30: Allan Boesak: 'A Hope Unprepared to Accept Things as They Are':
Reflections on John De Gruchy's Challenges for a Theology at the Edge

10h30-11h00: Tea
11h00-12h30: Panel Discussion: Rothney Tshaka, Christo Lombard, Helené van Tonder,
Deon Snyman
12h30-13h00: Conclusion: John de Gruchy

Sunday
Jul132014

Today's sermon - Bishop Will Willimon from Duke Chapel on God and patience

It is Sunday! In a little while I will be in worship with sisters and brothers, who I don't yet know, in a beautiful Catholic Church near where I am staying here in Holland.

When you are a theologian who spends all your time in the Text, in the confessions and beliefs of the Christian faith, every day can be filled with learning and deepening of the knowledge of your faith. However, that could never compensate for the kind of growth that comes from simply being with others in community - the mystery of the Trinity is that we are made for one another. Our truest identity, our deepest meaning, is not something that comes only from our heads, it is ignited in our hearts and finds full expression through the work of our hands. We are people, and God's work with us, and in us, is with us as whole people, connected to other whole people.

This kind of work is slow. It is slow and messy because people are not all the same. That is the gift of course. We are not robots that get taken in for a firmware update. No, we are people whose lives are shaped through joy, pain, and even 'ordinary-ness'. The longest season in the Christian liturgical calendar is called 'ordinary time'. It stretches from Ascension Sunday to the start of Advent (about 22 weeks if I remember well). That is where most of the Christian life is lived, in ordinary time, among ordinary people, with ordinary experiences. I don't think many of us like living there, it is just too ordinary. We want drama, excitement, pleasure, novelty. I think that is one of the reasons why churches with great worship and drama teams, and entertaining preachers, draw such crowds. But sadly we cannot live there.

Tomorrow we return to our work, to our waiting, to our 'dailyness'. Amazingly the sermon I listened to early this morning by Bishop Will Willimon that was preached at a Duke Chapel reminds us that God is active in ordinary time. He remarks that God is patient. That is where and how God works, in time. Often God's work is slower than we expect, out of step with our expectation for the instant miracle, the sudden flash of brilliance, the unexpected solution.

I think this is true, it is true because God is working with people, ordinary people in ordinary time. The miracles of whole bodied people, free from suffering and pain, takes care and commitment. In ordinary time it takes commitment to a better diet and some exercise, to limiting our intake of alcohol and sugars and all the other bad things we consume. In our relationships it takes commitment to service of those who we love and live amongst. It takes a willingness to compromise, to see the side of the other, to look at things from their perspective and give a little, perhaps even take on a little. God is busy working with people, and that is a slow and deliberate task that takes time.

So today I have been encouraged to grow in patience and to be thankful for the work of God in ordinary time. May God bless you in every part of your life.

Here is Bishop Willimon's sermon (from about minute 40 to more or less 1h05). He is a remarkable man. I had the joy of meeting him at Duke a decade or so ago, and also at a World Methodist gathering some time later.

Sunday Service - 4/6/14 - William Willimon - YouTube

Tuesday
Jun032014

Zotero or Mendeley? Which academic citation manager is better?

There is a well known saying among academics the world over, Publish or Perish.

It is true! In the academic world the publication of research is critical to one's career - I like to see it in a less 'survival' directed framework.  Namely, that I want to publish my research because I believe it serves the world and helps the Church and Christians in their task of making the world more just, beautiful and blessed.  Perhaps I am being a little idealistic?

Regardless, I try to publish a book over other year or so, and I also try to get about three scholarly articles in peer reviewed journals each year.  When you consider the work that it takes to do that while still teaching undergraduate and postgraduate classes, as well as supervising multiple Masters and PhD students, you can imagine that I need a pretty efficient system to keep a record of what I am reading, and easily get that information into my books and academic articles.

For some years I have been using Zotero as a citation manager.  It is a great tool since it is open source, it works really well on the Mac and PC, and it stores your reference database (books, articles, documents, web pages, videos, interviews etc.) in the 'cloud'.  It also has plug ins for Microsoft Word (on the PC and the Mac), and also for open source word processing software.  It is really easy to use!

However, I have been frustrated by two things.  First, it does not have an iOS client for use on my iPhone and iPad.  I often only travel with my iPad and when I have a few spare moments it would be great to be able to catch up on the latest journal articles and books and add them to my citation index for later use.  Alas, that cannot be done.  I have to wait until I am back at my Mac, fire up my web browser, either find the article or book on Google Scholar, Amazon, or Google books, and then add the source automatically.  Or worse still, if it is an older or lesser known source I have to add it manually.

My second frustration is that Zotero is not supported by the University of Stellenbosch Library system (I am a faculty member at Stellenbosch University).  This means I often search for titles in the library, and once I have found them there I have to search for them a second time (on Amazon, Google Books, Google Scholar, Gale etc.) to be add the reference to my library.

One of our library staff suggested I try Mendeley.  It is also a free piece of citation management software.  It also works on the Mac and PC (and Linux), and as a bonus it also has an iOS client! So that is great.  However, it is not opensource - that always worries me a little.  Often it means that if there is a problem, or the owners no longer make money from the software or loose interest in it your data could get 'stuck' in an outdated piece of software.  Opensource solutions tend to updated more quickly and over a longer period of time since it is the users who drive that process.

Still, it is worth checking out since it is tied into our University library system (a huge bonus that will cut at least one significant step out of my Zotero workflow).  Moreover, the University has some sort of agreement with Mendeley that allows faculty to have more space for storing references on online copies of PDF's and articles (Zotero charges for extra space).  It also works well with the Mac and has a lovely interface, and as I mentioned above it also has an iOS client.

Here is a little video from Portland State University that does a good job of comparing Zotero and Mendeley

Do you use citation management software?  I know many folks find the learning curve too steep and have stuck to manually entering every citation! My goodness, I simply don't have time or patience (or enough of an eye for detail) to do that well.

If you do use citation software what do you use and why?  If you use either Zotero or Mendeley I would love to hear your reasons for choosing one over the other, and any tips you may have to help me maximise my use of the software.

Wednesday
May282014

Why Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng is wrong - law infused by religion is a bad idea

 

 

The lead story in the news this morning (28 May 2014) is a report that South Africa's Chief Justice, Hon Mogoeng Mogoeng, wants to "infuse laws with religion" to raise the moral fibre of the nation. He was speaking at the Religion and Law Conference at the University where I teach (Stellenbosch University).

 

While most faiths do develop the moral fibre of their adherents, this is not something that should be put into law! Yes, faith has a public role, and should have positive effects on public life, but religion should not get preference from the legal system of a nation. The law is intended to protect the rights of all citizens, regardless of their religious perspective. Laws should be based on the principles of justice and our shared human dignity - whether a person has a religious belief system or not, or differs with the religious beliefs of a minority, or majority, of the population, their rights should be protected in law. Religion on the other hand is based on beliefs that are not commonly shared, in fact some beliefs may run contrary to our common human rights (like the treatment of women and girls in some faiths, or the disregard of the rights of persons with a same sex orientation). Most people who want religion to be enfranchised in law want their religion, or religious convictions, to occupy that privileged place. I am guessing that Judge Mogoeng inadvertently expressed such a view. Indeed, nations like South Africa are deeply religious, and so we must take note of religious convictions and religious groupings. But such individuals or groupings should not be accorded special place before the law. Civic organization should enjoy the same access to the law and the same rights and privileges as a religious organization.

This does not mean that religious persons and organizations have no role to play in society, or in serving the nation. Quite to the contrary, campaigns such as Unashamedly Ethical and EXPOSED - Shining a light on corruption are wonderful examples of how people of faith are engaging social issues. The law protects their right to express their views and gather others to encourage them to change their values and behaviour. It was not always so in South Africa, a government that called itself 'Christian' oppressed its citizens, robbing them of their rights and dignity. No, we need a just, ethical, secular state that protects the rights of all citizens, including those who are religious, to be able to express their views in society.
By a secular state I do not mean a state that relegates faith from the public sphere and confines it only to the private realm.  Rather, I think of a secular state as one similar to that espoused in the constitution of South Africa - that is a state that is not partisan to any one religious group, or to persons with no faith perspective. Such a state recognises the importance of faith in shaping people's lives, their values, choices and actions, and so protects that right. Yet it does not accord higher value to any one group than another.

 

A religious state is a bad idea! I developed this idea in my recent book 'Between Capital and Cathedral: Essays on Church and State Relationships' (co authored with my friend from UNISA, Dr Wessel Bentley).

 

On the issue of a Christian government in any nation - I personally believe it is naive of believers of any faith to think that having persons of their faith persuasion in power will make things better for all. What Christians should pray for, and work for, is a just, ethical and unbiased government that looks out for the interests of all of the citizens of their nation. It is the role of the Church and believers to bring people to faith, that is not the role of the government. We should not long for a modern form of Constantinianism. Faith driven political agendas are destructive to faith and society.

 

Here's my view.


  • You don't want an anti-religious government (like that in the former USSR or China, where people of faith are persecuted). Faith is an important part of life. People should have the freedom to practise their faith as long as it does not destroy the rights of others.

  • You certainly also don't want a religious government (we have simply seen too many of these kinds of governments abusing people! Governments like those in Iran, and even the calls for 'religiously sanctioned wars and killings' in America which have confused religion with foreign and public policy) are harmful to faith and society! The problem with a religious government is that politicians are seldom 'religious persons' first and politicians second. Most politicians are politicians first, and they hold some religious conviction when it suits them. Also, if the religion in power is not your religion, or they belong to a different expression of your faith (e.g., Catholic instead of Protestant, or Suni Muslim instead of Sufi...) it can become extremely abusive. I certainly believe that we should have Christians in government, they should be salt and light! But, I don't believe that the Church should abdicate its role and function to the state.

  • No, I believe that one should work for an honest, impartial, just, servant minded secular state. A state that will protect and uphold the rights of all of its citizens, giving equal space for all to exercise their positive beliefs. Such a state serves the nation well and protects the freedom and rights of its citizens to live out their faith convictions within society. We have just such a system in South Africa. It can be uncomfortable for extremists and fundamentalists. But, I believe, as a Christian, it is the way of Jesus to make space for others. Let our love, not our laws, win the hearts and minds of those who hold different convictions from our own. I will write some more about this in the weeks to come.

Some years ago I was privileged to hear a lecture by Professor Martin Prozesky at the Joint Conferences on Religion and Theology at Stellenbosch University. The title of his lecture was the following: 'Is the secular state to blame for the decline in moral values in Southern African society'.

I recorded the lecture using my Macbook - so the sound quality is not all that great. It is not all that bad, but there were some instances when a few desks and chairs were moved in order to get some extra persons into the venue who arrived late. So please just skip through those bits.


The gist of the lecture is this: Does a secular state contribute towards the decline of moral and ethical values? Many religious groups and faith communities would seem to suggest that this is so. Martin makes an exceptional argument that a secular state (not to be confused with secularization) makes for a high moral and ethical standard in society.

The reasons, as stated above, is quite simply that the only alternatives to a secular state (i.e., a state that his not swayed in an direction by religious beliefs) is a theocracy (such as nations in which Islamic law is applied in the name of God), a anti-faith states (such as the USSR under Karl Marx). Neither of these are desirable for truly moral and ethical development. Rather, what is necessary is the kind of freedom that allows all citizens to participate in developing ethics for the common good of the whole of society.

He makes some wonderful statements about what ethics is in its broadest terms. He also discusses the notion of a secular state and makes reference to problems with Southern African constitutional democracy.

I found it most interesting! I would love to hear your comments and feedback!

Here's the lecture - it is a 10MB mp3 file.

If you do use this lecture or download and share it could I please ask that you reference it to Professor Martin Prozesky, 22 June 2009 (Stellenbosch), and also please send a link back to me here at http://www.dionforster.com


Thanks!

 

Wednesday
Feb192014

A blessing for absence

Today we have James Alison presenting a seminar at the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University. (By the way I stall cannot believe that I am so blessed that it is my work to attend a seminar!) It is a wonderful to be reminded of the importance of reconciliation and forgiveness and the central role that this plays in the expression of our faith in the world. We know this concept is central to our belief, yet sadly we often separate belief from action. James is a wonderful Dominican scholar who has a deep understanding of René Girard and the 'fresh' and 'creative' reading of Biblical texts. The meeting was opened by Rev Laurie Gaum with the following meditation from John O'Donohue:
May you know that absence is full of tender presence and that nothing is ever lost or forgotten. May the absences in your life be full of eternal echo. May you sense around you the secret Elsewhere which holds the presences that have left your life. May you be generous in your embrace of loss. May the sore of your grief turn into a well of seamless presence. May your compassion reach out to the ones we never hear from and may you have the courage to speak out for the excluded ones. May you become the gracious and passionate subject of your own life. May you not disrespect your mystery through brittle words or false belonging. May you be embraced by God in whom dawn and twilight are one and may your longing inhabit its deepest dreams within the shelter of the Great Belonging. (Eternal Echoes 275)>
- A blessing for Absences John O'Donohue.
Monday
Dec092013

Reflections on my first week in Nijmegen, Holland December 2013

I arrived in Holland last week on Sunday 1 December - I flew with Doris my Brompton all packed up from Heathrow Terminal 5 (British Airways) to Schipol in Amsterdam. I was a little worried since when Doris is packed in the B Bag with all of my clothes and toiletries she weighs in at around 27kg's and the BA baggage allowance is only 20kg's (a maximum of 23kg). Normally the extra weight is no problem because I am a Voyager (Star alliance) member with a 'few' airmiles - so I get to travel with 30kg.  But BA is not part of Star Alliance.

I said a little prayer, packed as well as I could, and headed to the airport at 5am (thanks Craig and Kath! You guys are AWESOME!) Thankfully my prayers were answered - the check in staff didn't even bat an eyelid.  I put Doris on the conveyer belt and off she went! Sadly because it was so early in the morning the bag wrapping service was not yet operating - so for the first time my Bromtpon B Bag went into the hold without any plastic wrapping.  However, it was a short flight (and very empty as well).  When I collected Doris at Schipol she was perfect! No damage, no problems.  So, I put the B Bag onto my luggage trolley (I take this with since it is easier to wheel than the wheels on the B Bag) and went to Schipol station for the 2 hour train ride through to beautiful Nijmegen.

The train ride was relaxing - with only one changeover at Utrecht where I literally walked from one side of the platform to the other.  On the first part of the trip I sat with an elderly Dutch couple who had just returned from a few weeks of holiday in Southern Africa - Cape Town, Kruger National Park and Victoria falls (and they did it all by train!) amazing. They spoke very enthusiastically about the beauty of South Africa.

When I arrived in Nijmegen I fired up my 9292 app on my iPhone and saw which bus would take me to Platolaan near the Erasmusgebou of the University.  The guesthouse (gastehuis) is right across the road.  While it is called a guesthouse it is actually just a large block of flats.  I have stayed here before.  It is very comfortable and such beautiful views.  Last year I overlooked the Brakenstein woods, this year my view was of the Astro turf hockey fields and the main University building.

By the way, it snowed here on Friday! I couldn't believe it! It wasn't very heavy snow, but it left a beautiful white covering on the ground for a few hours.  It was absolutely FREEZING!

I was very pleased to be in my flat in Nijmegen - I unpacked my clothes and Doris, pumped up her wheels and then headed to the Coop shop in the town center which is open later on a Sunday for some supplies. It was wonderful to be on the beautiful cycle paths, quite a change from London where every ride is like taking your life in your hands! Here cyclists seem to have more rights than motorists - special cycle lanes, special traffic signals, and of course thousands of fellow cyclists! It makes a real difference!

When I got back home I set up my laptop and connected to the VERY fast broadband connection (wired via ethernet - thankful there was an ethernet cable in the room since I forgot mine at home!) And then set up internet sharing on my Mac so that I could use my iPhone and iPad for Facetime.  I immediately called Megie, Courts and Liam - by this time it was already dark. I miss them so much, I can't tell you.  There is an emptiness in my heart, a dull ache all day. I can't wait to get home next week! We had a great chat. It is such a blessing to be able to 'call home' for free and just chat to them for as long as we want with crisp, clear, video.

On Sunday evening I had a wonderful dinner with Professor Jan van der Watt and his wife Shireen and a fellow PhD student Alexander from St Petersburg in Russia (Alexander's wife and son were also with us - it was great to have a little guy around the place. It made me thing of Liam).

On Monday my work began big time! Sadly this year has been so busy with EXPOSED - Shining a light on corruption and Unashamedly Ethical work and travel that I have done very little on my second PhD. I have done some reading, but had not had much time to convert my thoughts and ideas into text.  So, with my first deadline looming on Monday afternoon I worked from late Sunday evening, early Monday morning until I met with Prof Chris Hermans - my co-supervisor who is helping me with Practice Oriented Research methodology (since I am doing some qualitative empirical work in my current study). I managed to send him something worthwhile, and then I started working towards my deadline for Professor van der Watt - I am working on the text of forgiveness with him.

I had BibleWorks 9 fired up on my Mac (in Parallels of course) and was digging deeply into the Greek text to do a thorough Exegesis.

On Tuesday I had to spend the afternoon on a conference call with the other directors of TEE College, for which I am a director.  We did our final business for the year, of which a part was to receive the final results for the 2013 examinations. So the students should be getting their results very soon!

Then, I had two further deadlines, a Wednesday and Thursday meeting with Prof Chris, and a Friday meeting with Prof Jan.  So, every moment was spent behind my keyboard, reading and writing.

I also had a wonderful opportunity to meet with a friend Johan who lives in Holland - he connected with me via the internet.  He follows my blog and saw that I was in Holland.  It was great to spend some time with him talking about his work, ministry and research.  He used to be a community health worker here in Nijmegen (actually he taught health care at the University - he has a PhD in epidemiology).  Now he is studying theology and serving an international Church in his city. I was so inspired by his commitment and service!

On Saturday I took a few hours for exercise - other than walking to the main University building and cycling a few km a day for supplies, I have not been as active as I am back home.  So, I set out in WET and COLD weather for a 30km ride along the Waaldijk.  It ended up being 43km because I got a little lost on the way back (road works meant that I couldnt' get back along the road that I knew). It was awesome to be out! The scenery is beautiful, and it felt great to stretch my legs, open my lungs and just be quiet and reflective.

There were lots of other cyclists out - the group which seemed to be part of a cycling team were excited to see a guy on a Brompton! ha ha! I say if you can't fold it you shouldn't ride it!

By the time I took this photo I was rather soaked and a little hungry.  Ha ha. Still, lots of fun.

On Saturday and Sunday I spent the 'off time' working on some editing I am doing for the Sentinel Group on Transformation materials. It was a nice change of pace and I found it inspiring and also very encouraging to be able to 'tick off' a few projects.  Achievement is an important part of the human psyche - to be able to work hard during the week, cycle well on Saturday, and do good work over the weekend left me feeling content and blessed. I am very thankful for all of the opportunities that I have.

It was also wonderful to spend some time on Facetime during the week, and a few hours over the weekend, chatting with Megie, Courtney and Liam.  I cannot tell you how much I love them!! I look forward to being home in a week's time! Family, sunshine, and mountainbiking!

Friday
Nov292013

Hermeneutics and homiletics - On Malcolm Gladwell's story of David and Goliath  

A good friend of mine @JohannGrobler alerted me to a fascinating TED talk given by one of my favorite authors, Malcolm Gladwell on the Biblical narrative of David and Goliath.  You can watch it on Youtube below.

It is fascinating to watch Malcolm share his perspective on this well known Biblical narrative.  He is not only a very creative and astute thinker - able to find a novel angle to well known data, and then develop a point that opens up new possibilities for thought - he is also a very engaging and effective orator.  I enjoyed watching the talk a great deal!

What Johann wanted to know was whether what was said about David (that he was probably more agile and skilled than Goliath as a warrior) and Goliath (that he was so large because of a cancer that causes unnatural growth (acromegaly). One of the side effects of this disease is short sightedness and double vision) were true.  Well, my answer to Johann's question is quite simply, I am not sure!  Unless we have medical evidence on Goliath's condition and corroborating testimony to substantiate the suggestions made about David by Malcolm Gladwell, Gladwell's theory is as plausible (or unplausable) as any other theory.  We cannot have absolute certainty on the theory without substantive evidence to support it. 

I can say, however, that I found what Gladwell said sensible and very interesting. What he suggests is certainly not outside of the realm of possibility. He does offer some second tier evidence to support his hypothesis.  To support his claims about David's skill he cites historical documents and data about the effectiveness and accuracy of sling shot users in the ancient world.  To support his claims about Goliath he cites some studies from contemporary (modern) medicine - although I am sure in both cases there is probably equally significant evidence and cause for reaching different conclusions.  That is the nature of academic debate.  Simply because and article is published, or a point is substantiated, that does mean that it is more true than another point.  There are some very bright and intelligent people who believed all sorts of crazy things (with medical evidence to support their claims).

What struck me as most significant about this talk was the manner in which Gladwell has adapted the disciplines of hermeneutics and homiletics so effectively in making his point.  What he is doing is very similar to what millions of priests, pastors, rabbi's and imman's do every week.  He has taken a narrative (in this case the Biblical narrative of David and Goliath) and interpreted it creatively in order to argue a particular point - the point here is found in his conclusion, i.e., that we must not be too simplistic about our accepted view of dominant narratives, and that giants may not always be what they seem (which implies that underdogs may also not always be what they seem).

Homileticians use this approach frequently, they communicate and idea by using 'foundational knowledge' as a connecting point with the audience.  Then they draw on other authoritative sources (in this case history and medicine) to introduce new knowledge that will support the reasonable acceptance of desired truth.  In Biblical studies we teach our students to understand that the text always has a historical context, that the 'players' in the narrative have depth to them (they are seldom what the narrator or author of the text has presented).  The intention is to use whatever data is available to unpack the deeper and more subtle truths about the elements of the story (the characters in the story, the plot lines, the intention of the author or narrator (what did he or she include or leave out, what was emphasised, what was underplayed - Gladwell does this a number of times in his talk), what was the situation of the recipients of the narrative (what did the author assume about them, their needs, their religious and social framework etc.).  The process us called hermeneutics - the science of interpretation.

I am grateful to Johann for pointing me to this great talk, and for raising the question that allowed me to view Malcolm Gladwell's talk with a more enquiring mind than just accepting admiration.

Sunday
Oct202013

Faith and Reason

I love theology. I love theology in this sense, that is, theology as an attempt to know something about God and God's nature and will.

There are few theologians that I love as much as Stanley Hauerwas. Here's one more reason why I love his theology:

[The claim] that some think theological claims must be grounded in empirical proofs is based on the assumption that there is an essential tension between faith and reason. Even Christian theologians have sometimes underwritten the assumption that the faith of Christians cannot be rationally defended. However, the very presumption that reason is one thing and faith is another betrays a distorted view of reason. What Christians believe is not a “take it or leave it” choice, but rather an ongoing claim that all that is exists by God’s good grace. The working out of that claim is never finished.

- Stanely Hauerwas

Via @irregulartheology.