Knowing Persons

Hey, I’m back! Sorry for the long period of absence. I did not have as much material/ ideas to write on for this semester, as I only took one content module for Psychology— Personality Psychology. My understanding of the module was a little all over the place (which I believe is inherent in Personality Psychology, given its relative newness, and that it is traditionally learnt through the presentation of various alternative theories by pioneering theorists in psychology, rather than through a coherent synthesis) until it was consolidated while preparing for finals, particularly, through the reading of McAdams & Pals (2006).

In this post, I wish to share my learning of the complexity of human personality (particularly, from the McAdams & Pals article), and I dearly hope that a more nuanced understanding of persons would help us better speak biblical truths into the lives of our fellow brothers and sisters.

Biblical truths, for the sake of brevity, can be quickly summed up by Romans 3:23-25, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation (i.e. wrath absorber) by his blood, to be received by faith.” Specifically, we “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”, “because we [they] exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature (which includes ourselves) rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever”.

These are great truths that must be spoken as we counsel/ encourage one another in this walk of faith, but these truths must not simply be unloaded onto the other, without taking into consideration the person that we are interacting with. Indeed, we need to consider the various aspects of an individual, some of which are like all other persons, some of which are like some other persons, and some of which are like no other persons (Kluckhohn and Murray, 1953).

In the remaining of the post, I will be extracting “5 fundamental principles for an integrative science of personality” from McAdams & Pals (2006), which will then be accompanied by comments on how this might help us administer to our brothers and sisters as persons.

Principle 1: Evolution and Human Nature— Human lives are individual variations on a general evolutionary design. An integrative framework for understanding the psychological individuality of persons must begin with human nature and with the ways which every person is like all other persons.”

Comments on Principle 1: I do not wish to discount evolution; I believe that there is a role and place for it in our understanding of people. However, what I wish to challenge is its role as “Principle 1”. In my opinion, just as how evolution is a fundamental belief in secular psychology and therefore forms the primary principle of understanding individuals, biblical truths, which are our fundamental beliefs as Christians, should form the primary principle of our universal understanding of individuals. That said, we need to bear in mind that just as it is foolish for anyone to think he understands a person just because he knows evolution, it will be equally foolish for us to think we can fully understand a person just because we know biblical truths which speak of human nature.

Principle 2: The Dispositional Signature— Variations on a small set of broad disposition traits implicated in social life constitute the most stable and recognisable aspect of psychological individuality. Dispositional traits are those broad, nonconditional, decontextualised, generally linear and bipolar, and implicitly comparative dimensions of human individuality that go by such names as extraversion, dominance, friendliness, dutifulness, depressiveness, the tendency to feel vulnerable, and so on.”

Comments on Principle 2: In walking with others, it is important to consider the fact that God designs each of us uniquely, and gives each different personality (which can either be our gifts or area of struggle). By doing so, it could help us shine gospel truths into the life of others, while being sensitive to their needs and struggles. Let me present you an example of an introverted and slightly depressive sister who gets very frustrated (to the extent of being bitter) at having to devote a significant proportion of her time to people around her. It would be necessary and good to point out to her the problem of selfishness/ love for comfort etc, which manifests in how tightly she guards her time and space and her bitter responses. However, if you were only to do so, chances are, your well-meaning advice will fly past her head. She needs you to counsel her through her struggles which occur in light of her introversion and depression. Remember, she responds not only to the fact that people are taking out time from her, but she responds also to her anxiety, tiredness, and lowness of mood which comes about as a result of the former interacting with her dispositional traits.

Principle 3: Characteristic Adaptations— Beyond dispositional traits, human lives vary with respect to a wide range of motivational, social-cognitive, and developmental adaptations contextualised in time, place, and/or social role. Characteristic adaptations include motives, goals, plans, strivings, strategies, values, virtues, schemas, self-images, mental representations of significant others, developmental tasks…”

Comments on Principle 3: One of my favorite axioms of the socio-cognitive approach to personality (a subset of characteristic adaptations) is that people don’t simply respond to events, but that people respond to their construal/ interpretation of events. Interpretations, and its close relative, appraisals (e.g. very crudely, whether the event is positive or negative), often occur in relation to goals, motives, and self-schemas. As such, counselling a person cannot only entail challenging the behavior in response to an event, but must also entail challenging the goals, motives, and self-schemas from which construal of events arise.

Principle 4: Life Narratives & The Challenge of Modern Identity— Beyond dispositional traits and characteristic adaptations, human lives vary with respect to the integrative life stories, or personal narratives, that individuals construct to make meaning and identity in the modern world”.

Comments on Principle 4: We are all meaning-makers, and we seek to make meaning and construct coherence from the events that occur in our lives. Typically, new events, especially significant events that occur in an individual’s life fit into a bigger narrative. Similar to Principle 3, we don’t necessarily respond objectively to events, but respond to them in light of how they fit into the bigger narrative. For example, I have rather recently responded rather violently to a possible change of future career plans. I was well aware of ungodly pursuits, but that did not seem to cut to the heart on why it was so difficult to lay my career plans down. Not until a sister pointed out to me that my career plans were in reality a replacement to broken dreams I had experienced previously. In my life narrative, my future career plans had unknowingly become events to help me make sense and create hope out of my past broken dreams. My response was violent, not so much because of the career in and of itself, but because I had not laid my narrative of healing from a broken dream before the Lord, and instead sought to find healing in other ways of my own.

Principle 5: The Differential Role of Culture— Culture exerts different effects on different levels of personality….Culture..rich mix of meanings, practices, and discourses about human life that prevail in a given group or society.”

Comments on Principle 5: Not much comments on this; I think it’s rather self-explanatory– it is always good to consider how culture affects narratives, characteristic adaptations, and expression of behavior as we walk with others.

 

References

Kluckhohn, C. E., Murray, H. A., & Schneider, D. M. (1953). Personality in nature, society, and culture .
McAdams, D. P., & Pals, J. L. (2006). A new Big Five: fundamental principles for an integrative science of personality. American psychologist, 61(3), 204.

Man in the Museum

A couple of days ago I visited the National Museum of Singapore. I actually meant to visit the National Gallery but was confused by the two… nonetheless a highlight there was the ‘Treasures of the World’ exhibit featuring artefacts from the British Museum. Relics were present from places spanning the entire globe, from Europe, Asia to Africa and so on. There was something about looking at millennia old artefacts that is arresting. Many of these artefacts were from cultures far removed from my own, but it seemed as if I was looking at the culture of my own forefathers; I was looking at the culture of Man.

There were certain commonalities in the objects on display; some where household items, a number were religious artefacts, there was even pornography and of course a large number of royal regalia. All reflected a still recognisable facet of man today. Why might the mere passage of time result in this universalisation of particular, otherwise ordinary, objects? I have no answer. Perhaps the everyday objects of every particular culture have always reflected the universal heritage of man, but it is only when they have been defamiliarised by the distance of a thousand years that we see them as they are.

Dust

What do these artefacts as a whole speak about Man? What first came to mind was our futility. This was evident especially as I observed many of the Royal Regalia. They were to be symbols of power, often divine or supernatural power, meant to inspire awe and terror. The objects are left limp in the museum, while their bearers themselves are gone. Man strives to leave a legacy, but their very legacy is but a testament to our vanity. Shelly notes in his famous poem about one such artefact:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Solomon himself claims:

“I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts … man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.” (Ecclesiastes 3:18-20)

Glory

And yet this cannot be all, for the very artefacts too are a testimony to the glory of Man. Many of the artefacts were beautiful — they were awash with colour and made with intricacy. There was a beautiful Chinese screen divider which depicted the four seasons and the sun and moon and a number of ritual masks that were as detailed and complex as they were terrifying. What sort of creature is this? The terror and subtlety of the artefacts surely reflect the strangeness and the glory of Man.

And I am then reminded of Lewis’ by now cliche remark:

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”

The artefacts in the museum are astounding and amazing, yet they testify not to themselves but to another more wondrous creature. Lewis calls us from Man and Culture as considered in the abstract to the people around us, and so should the artefacts in the museum lead us to see their makers afresh. The glory of civilisation is indeed the glory of man; the people around us whom we live with and hate and love — they are the more appropriate and deserving objects of our wonder than any object in the museum.

And so we are left with this odd paradox, Man the wretched accumulation of dust and Man the being of utter glory. What shall we make of this combination of our futility and yet our beauty? The bible says that we were made to reflect the very glory of God himself, and yet by choosing to turn away from the source of all life, our very existences became futile and transient. Our lives now express this duality — there is yet glory and goodness left in all of us but in the end all our strivings will be  in vain.

Behold, the Man

Another image in the Museum caught my attention — it was a painting of another kind of exhibition. A man wearing a robe and a crown of thorns was thrust before a large crowd to be put on display before them. The robe and the crown indicated that he was some sort a glorious king and yet they were clearly meant to mock him at this show trial. I lingered over this painting for a few moments before passing on. In reflection, I realise that this man represented us all — our glory and our shame mingled in a beautiful and wretched sight.

Jesus was the source of our glory, and yet he took upon himself our shame and futility that we might from thenceforth be free of it. What shall we say in response? There is no need to innovate,

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?

Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.”
(Psalm 8:3-8)

Mindfulness: Mindful of God and His Creation

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Sometime last year, while in Abnormal Psychology class, I was briefly introduced to this practice called “Mindfulness”. To be honest, I was initially rather wary of it because of its origins from other religions. As usual, being kind of a nerd, I read more about it. As of now, my personal opinion is that it is no more dangerous or safe, and no less dangerous or safe, when compared to other forms of secular psychotherapeutic practices. I will not be discussing the pros and cons of practising psychotherapeutic practices as Christians, but I just wanted to share about how Mindfulness has helped me to delight and be in awe of God even more.

Before we move on, let me first clear up a common misconception of mindfulness/ meditation (that I also had previously). It is NOT the emptying of one’s mind such that one’s mind is occupied by nothingness. This instead is the definition of Mindfulness: Mindfulness is a type of awareness that focuses on the present moment with an attitude of friendly curiosity (Baer, 2014).

God has given us humans a great gift–that of conscious awareness, and that we may use it to worship Him. Yet, how often is it that we move through life on “autopilot”, planning the next moment, such that we never are really consciously aware of the present moment. Here is where I have found Mindfulness help in my fight for joy in and awe of God– by being in the “here and now” of God’s creation. The above picture was a beautiful sunset I captured from my window some weeks back. Our most common tendency is to look, without really looking, and then to subsequently be buried again with the work we need to do. But Mindfulness teaches one to pause, to look at the sunset and to be fully conscious of every sensory experience– the hues of the sky, the sound of the wind blowing and birds chirping, the feeling of our breath.  Can you see such a sunset, and not be captured by the majesty of creation? Can you be captured by the majesty of creation and not be in awe of The One who created all these? Indeed Psalm 19 v1 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.”

Finally, as the Psalmist says (Psalm 8:3), “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” When we consider the majesty of God’s creation, the moon and the stars, how can we help but feel, the smallness of man. How can we help but ask, what is man that you are mindful of him? What is man, that you should pursue in love, making a way through your beloved son Jesus Christ at the cross, that we may dwell and not be destroyed in your presence…

Really tasting God’s majestic creation can help us to be in awe of His glory, and to taste the greatness of His salvation as ever more sweet. This is where the practice of mindfulness has helped in my delight in and awe of God.

 

 

Evolution of the Gaps

Guest post by Paul Yuen

A few nights ago, a good friend shot this question at me: how can I, as a medical student, possibly believe in a miraculous deity? Maybe it was the time of the night (or morning), but we foolishly jumped into a 3 hour long discussion that ended with the sun arisen. Nevertheless, it is a powerful question that well reflects the tension that many feel exists between Science and Religion. As one being schooled in the medical sciences, I am taught the virtues of evidence-based medicine and randomised controlled trials. I learn to observe the world at human scales with my eyes, and at microscopic scales with microscopes. One might say that medical science is of the surest proofs of the benefits of Science and the legitimacy of the scientific method – and one would be right.

On Religion, and Theism in particular, such praise is rarely lavished. Religion is the opiate of the people, said Marx. God is dead, said Nietzsche. Religion is merely wish fulfilment, said Freud. The new atheists, Dawkins at their helm, are only too happy to feast as vultures on the rotting corpse of Theism, all the while cawing the evils of Religion. In particular, they like to point out that science provides (or will provide) all the explanation necessary for man to understand everything. And so Genesis was displaced by the Big Bang, the divine breath of life with primordial soup, the mind-body duality with star dust. Much ink has already been spilled on both sides of the fence, and people much smarter than me have duked it out in public debates (see John Lennox vs. Richard Dawkins at the Oxford Museum of Natural History on ‘Has Science buried God?’). Here, I present not a defence of Theism, but a small challenge to Science which, we shall soon see, are not as straightforward as it first seems.

But first, to define the terms. Science is that field of study involving the gathering of data by the senses and the synthesis of that data to reach a general conclusion. Put another way, Science takes what we can see/hear/smell/taste/touch, puts it all together and presents a statement or law that describes what we saw/heard etc. Medical science is simply Science applied in Medicine. Theism is the unequivocal assertion that the Divine is ultimate reality. Or, Theism says, “this is true: God exists.”

On to the challenge then. We begin our journey in the control hub of a tiny E. coli bacterium – the nucleoid. All around us is a long, colourful ribbon made of scarlet, indigo, azure and verdant (or red, purple, blue and green for the more boring amongst us). And everywhere we turn we see little machines splitting the ribbon down its length and all of a sudden, there are two ribbons, exact copies of each other – fantastic. We know from school that we just witnessed Binary Fission, the duplicating of DNA, the act bacteria use to reproduce; and our teachers don’t hesitate to tell us that bacteria reproduce according to the law of Natural Selection – fitter, stronger bacteria survive to bring forth children bacteria and in this way, everything in the little E. coli cell gradually came to be.

So here’s the question: if
1. Everything in the cell came about by Natural Selection
2. Natural Selection works by the fit reproducing more than the weak
3. The ‘ribbon’ and ‘machines’ are what effect Binary Fission (the reproductive process)

Then where did the ribbon and machines come from? … Evolution? But if so, what can Evolution really do without Natural Selection?

The challenge increases in intensity when we consider that DNA (the ribbon) codes for mRNA, which codes for proteins, including the enzymes needed to replicate DNA (the machines), and to make DNA (by processes called De Novo Purine and Pyrimidine Synthesis). So how can the ribbon come about if there was no machine? And how can the machine exist without the Ribbon? This presents the idea of irreducible complexity. It is the chicken or the egg question at the heart of Biology.

Now it is obvious to any serious Science student that Natural Selection is real and observed, and that Binary Fission is effected by DNA and certain enzymes. That is, statements 2 and 3 above are true. Indeed, the problem lies not with them, but with statement 1: the assertion that everything in the cell can be accounted for by Natural Selection.

[[By now, the astute reader will realise that I have left my arena of very questionable expertise: Science. Obviously, I could not come to a definition of Science through the gathering of data etc. Indeed, I was dabbling with the Philosophy of Science (if our resident philosopher will forgive my trespass), and not Science itself. I must therefore tread very lightly.]]

In the same way, not all statements made by Scientists are statements of Science. Hiding behind statement 1 above are the philosophical assumptions of Naturalism – that (very crudely put) ‘the Cosmos is all that is, was, or ever will be’. This is not a scientific statement because it is not something available to testing by Science. No one can say with any scientific backing that they, with their powers of observation, have synthesized and deduced a general law that supports Naturalism. The claims are simply too far removed from us in time and space for us to test.

It is clear to all that men and women of great intellect, scientific giants, stand on both sides of the issue – which is not between Science and Theism (or religion), but between Theism and Naturalism; between the claim that “God is ultimate reality” and “The Cosmos is ultimate reality”. Just to name two, on Theism’s side stands Newton, who having discovered the laws of gravity did not conclude God’s irrelevance, but instead wrote in his Principia Mathematica that he hoped his work would lead thinking people to belief in a deity. While on Naturalism’s side stands Hawking – one of the preeminent physicists of our time, the brain behind Black Hole Hawking Radiation.

The real question is not how I, a medical student, can believe in Christianity, but which side does Science support more – Naturalism or Theism. The argument from irreducible complexity is just one of many arguments pointing Science towards Theism. Other arguments include the reality of the Big Bang, the fine-tuning of the cosmological constants, the constraints of evolution, the Origin of Life, and the origin and nature of information. Outside science, there is the argument from morality, the existential thirst for meaning, and many others.

But there is one more card thrown around these days, one I feel may have been behind my friend’s question after all. Miracles violate the laws of nature, therefore miracles cannot be true. What if the laws of nature were like arithmetic, and miracles like a thief? I will let C.S. Lewis end this little write-up.

“If this week I put a thousand pounds in the drawer of my desk, add two thousand next week and another thousand the week thereafter, the laws of arithmetic allow me to predict that the next time I come to my drawer, I shall find four thousand pounds.

But suppose when I next open the drawer, I find only one thousand pounds, what shall I conclude? That the laws of arithmetic have been broken?

Certainly not! I might more reasonably conclude that some thief has broken the laws of the State and stolen three thousand pounds out of my drawer.

Furthermore, it would be ludicrous to claim that the laws of arithmetic made it impossible to believe in the existence of such a thief or the possibility of his intervention.

On the contrary, it is the normal workings of those laws that have exposed the existence and activity of the thief.”

Addendum: Why does secular literature so readily dismiss Irreducible Complexity as pseudoscience?

For the benefit of those who may have wiki’d ‘Irreducible Complexity’ and are reeling from the jargon, I have included a response here.

According to Wikipedia, Irreducible complexity (IC) is a pseudoscientific argument that certain biological systems cannot be evolved by successive, slight modifications to a functional precursor system through natural selection acting upon a series of advantageous naturally occurring chance mutations.” Fittingly then, Central to the creationist concept of intelligent design, IC is rejected by the scientific community, which regards intelligent design as pseudoscience”. And lastly, “Pseudoscience is a claim, belief or practice presented as scientific, but which does not adhere to the scientific method.”

It strikes me as very odd that some authors have placed Irreducible Complexity in the same category I have for ideas like homeopathy, the idea that ‘like cures like’. Homeopathy teaches that if one is poisoned by a snakebite, the cure would be something like a drop of the same venom diluted to one part in 10 with many 0’s following behind, so many in fact, that it makes Avogadro’s Number, L=6×10^23 look small. For the uninitiated, L is the number of molecules in a solution of concentration 1mol/dm^3 – the implication being that in the ‘curative solution’, there is something like 0.00000125 of a venom molecule in there. This of course makes no sense – at the molecular level, part of a molecule is not the same as the whole molecule; just because hydrogen peroxide is H2O2 doesn’t make OH half the amount of hydrogen peroxide. It is a wholly different molecule altogether.

Indeed, homeopathy works like this:

  1. If you get bitten by a snake, a really small amount of venom can cure you
  2. We can make that venom solution by diluting it – a lot
  3. If you drink our really dilute venom solution, you can get better

The big problem? The really dilute venom solution does not contain any venom at all – it’s plain water.

I am explaining homeopathy, an actual pseudoscience, to draw a difference between it and Irreducible Complexity. In homeopathy, statement 1 is supposedly backed up by scientific study but science itself (specifically Chemistry) says statement 2 is intrinsically impossible – half a venom molecule is not half as much venom as 1 molecule, on the contrary, it is not venom at all. Irreducible Complexity, on the other hand, works like this:

  1. We, through our powers of observation, have elucidated the biochemical events at the molecular level (that is, beyond the level of individual cell parts)
  2. These events interlock tightly with each other to form systems and pathways to perform certain functions, so much so that to remove one event from the system is to lose the function
  3. These functions are essential to life
  4. Hence, these functions with their constituent events must have arisen simultaneously

Statement A is undoubtedly backed up by scientific study. Statement B provides the foundational explanation for what I’m learning – pathology. Statement C is empirically verifiable in every hospital morgue. Which leaves only Statement D open to debate, and hidden in here is the crux of the difference.

Homeopathy claims that a venom molecule split in 2 is half as venomous as before. To affirm this is illogical. Hence, we must affirm the negative: that venom molecules cease to be when split.

Irreducible Complexity claims that the constituent biochemical events that provide essential functions for life are so interlinked that that must have arisen simultaneously. The negative is: that these constituent, interlocked events essential for life must have arisen sequentially. The example with homeopathy is so self-condemning logically that we have no need to consider it. But the positive and negative claims of Irreducible Complexity are not in that category – it does not strike me as ludicrous to demand evidence for both the positive and the negative stand. Because here’s the issue: homeopathy as a statement of fact fails to correspond with what we clearly know, through science, of how reality really is like; on the other hand, the negative of Irreducible Complexity, namely that the events came about sequentially, is something deeply challenged by Science. Hence, it is because of Science that I reject the negative claim, and accept the positive claim of Irreducible Complexity, that is, Statement D is true.

But hold up, someone cries. What do I mean that science challenges the sequential appearance of these biochemical events? Well, I mean something far stronger: Science refutes the sequential appearance of these biochemical events and points very clearly to a simultaneous emergence. To go into the meat of this is beyond the scope of this essay, but listen to John Lennox speak on Youtube on the subject, or read his book ‘God’s undertaker’ for a broad, deep but generally accessible introduction to the arguments.

The question I set out to answer here is why secular literature so readily dismisses Irreducible Complexity. The definition given by Wikipedia provides strong hints: Central to the creationist concept of intelligent design, IC is rejected by the scientific community, which regards intelligent design as pseudoscience. Does it not strike one as very unscientific to reject Irreducible Complexity not on the basis of evidence, but on the grounds that Irreducible Complexity provides the grounding for Intelligent Design? Indeed, the secular world a priori rejects Intelligent Design because for them, the cosmos is all that is, was, or ever will be – there is no possibility of a designer in their thinking.

(I have noted some of the arguments in the Wikipedia article. The arguments are hollow, and the sources are dubiously quoted or sourced.)

And that is why secular literature dismisses Irreducible Complexity so. It is not a war between Science and Design, but one between Theism and Naturalism that sits near the bottom.

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. – Romans 1:18-23

Indeed, they exchanged the glory, the honour of the Designer, the Creator by teaching that the Creation created itself.

The New True Meaning of Christmas

[This isn’t really a post about philosophy, but since its the Christmas period I feel obliged to write something related. What I plan to do here is to analyse our culture’s worldview by looking at my favourite non-Christian Christmas song (‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’). Unfortunately, my training in philosophy compels me to write a short summary in the introduction to the biblical framework of idolatry that I use for completeness sake — its largely just the understanding of idolatry from the reformed tradition. I have been much helped in my understanding of this by reading “For Their Rock is not as Our Rock” by Daniel Strange. (Which is really an update and summary of the thoughts of many earlier thinkers.)]

Christmas is a time of celebration, and as a Christian what I celebrate is the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who came into our broken world to identify with sinners and ultimately to die for their sin. But everyone celebrates during Christmas, and clearly not everyone is a Christian, so it begs the question: what exactly are they celebrating? Some Christians may immediately shoot back: “Materialism!” (i.e. the insatiable consumption of goods. Not to be confused with the metaphysical hypothesis of the same name.) Perhaps some really do see Christmas as an opportunity to satisfy their endless desire for consumer products, but when we see other non-Christians decrying the same materialistic strain during Christmas, we know that this cannot be the root of their celebration.

Man and Worship

The bible’s thesis about humans is that we are all worshippers — all of us have been made to know and to worship God and it is as we come to him that we find our deepest longings and needs met, when men reject God they do not cease to worship but the bible says that they begin to deify and idolise something in creation. Men “claiming to be wise, [have] became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” (Romans 1:22-23) Idolatry is not confined simply to physical idols made of wood or stone — idols are whatever our hearts, the core of our beings, find rest, comfort, identity and indeed salvation in; they are whatever we long for and sacrifice and worship.

These idols are counterfeit gods — that they are counterfeit means two things: (1) they reveal something about the sinful hearts of men who created them (2) they reveal something about the God of which they are a counterfeit. To understand what one worships points us to the sin of man, but because we are made for God, even the idols we make resemble God as a cheap imitation. Christopher Wright thus notes:

“The fallen duplicity of man is that he simultaneously seeks after God his Maker and flees from God his Judge. Man’s religions, therefore, simultaneously manifest both these human tendencies.”

A New Christmas Liturgy

What we find in the modern celebration of Christmas is an almost literal exchange of the worship of God for the worship of other things. The best way to understand the new worship is to look at our new liturgy, one manifestation of which is the secular Christmas songs that are heard alongside the old hymns in shopping malls. Some songs are of course, utterly frivolous — ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Frosty the Snowman’ don’t really reveal any of the deep longings of humanity. Others, however, do reflect some kind of deep longing, such as ‘White Christmas’ and ’Last Christmas’. The song we will look at is ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. I confess this is partly because its my favourite non-Christian Christmas song — the tune is excellent and the lyrics are utterly poignant. But more importantly I do believe the song reflects something of the heart of modern Christmas. For those who don’t know the song or do not recognise the title:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Let your heart be light
Next year all
Our troubles will be out of sight.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Make the Yule-tide gay,
Next year all
Our troubles will be miles away.

Once again as in olden days,
Happy golden days of yore.
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Will be near to us once more.

Someday soon, we all will be together,
If the Fates allow
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow,
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

(These lyrics are from the original song sung in the movie “Meet Me in St. Louis”)

‘Once Again as in Olden Days’

The first two stanzas hint that we look to the Christmas holiday as an opportunity to rest, to escape from the myriad “troubles” that we face. The world is broken and messy — we are bogged down and exhausted by turmoil at work and relationships and there is the expectation that we will find rest at some place. I think many of us expect this rest to come during Christmas. Even secular people who bemoan the consumeristic materialism of our age and during Christmas as well seek rest from the spiritual exhaustion of chasing after the next flashy consumer product. But what exactly is the rest that we look forward too?

The heart of the song, I believe, lies in the third and fourth stanzas — here we see what we worship, what we long for during Christmas. There are two interconnected elements (1) a sense of nostalgia and (2) the warmth of family and friends. When we come to Christmas, we are overcome with nostalgia for the innocent times of our childhood, perhaps memories of when as children we looked forward to Christmas as the time when there would be parties with our families and all seemed rosy. If we never experienced this in our childhood, Christmas sells us the idea that we can recreate that experience which we never had. Consider the first line of another song, ‘White Christmas’: “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas, just like the ones I used to know…”.

There is something sublime that we look for during Christmas, something intimate and precious. We think that we will have it by revisiting the olden days, by gathering our dear friends and family back again. It is to these that we have turned to seek and find our rest. Yet anyone who has been to any Christmas party since their adolescence knows that the hope of recreating what we thought we experienced is a lie — we are made to long for it, but it never finds its fulfilment as we attempt to recreate our past or gather our loved ones.

C.S. Lewis gives an insightful analysis of this longing:

“Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

The last thing we see in the song is the bleakness of the secular worldview. The possibility of reunion is left to blind fate and until the next Christmas, we drag ourselves through the year. Some versions of the song have edited and changed the line “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow” and replaced it with the utterly facile “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough”. The original better reflects the sentiment of Christmas — it is the time we huddle as we peer over the dark precipice of the coming year of bustling emptiness. The final instruction is deeply poignant: “So”, in light of the muddle of our world, “have yourself a merry little Christmas now”. We must create and seek these precious moments now, before they are taken forever by the dead fates.

That Little Town of Bethlehem

No, this hopelessness cannot have the last word. The Israelites of old held in their hearts the promise of a day when those who walk in darkness will see a great light (Isaiah 9:2) but indeed this is the longing of all our hearts. We all long to cast off this sense of emptiness and dread and guilt that we feel and to be reconciled to something. Christmas reignites these longings, but we have been looking for this reconciliation in recreating our childhood, by being surrounded by our loved ones — soon we are alone again and the cave is even darker now that the small candle has gone out.

But the image of that town, that manger, draws me in again. The theological paradox which is the incarnation, God become Man, becomes strangely warm. In the still of that night, Christ was born. He was born into a life of labour and loneliness, ultimately dying forsaken — he would become one that men would shun and reject and spit on. But he holds a strange attraction to all who have known brokenness in some way both within themselves and without. Chesterton rightly said that this is “the place where God was homeless and all men are at home”. Christmas day comes and the same strange longing comes to me again as it does to everyone else, but as I think of Jesus it hits me afresh, ‘Ah! This was what I was celebrating all along.’ And then I sing:

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

Cognitive Triad

In Abnormal Psychology class last semester, we learnt about Aaron Beck’s Negative Cognitive Triad, which describes the cognitive (thinking) patterns of individuals with depression. They triad comprise of negative perception of the self, negative conception of the world, and negative projection of the future. In very casual terms, these are the thoughts characteristic of each component:

Self— I am so lousy/ terrible/ stupid/ filthy.

World— Everyone out there are out the hurt and exploit me./ Everyone looks down on me./ Nobody will accept me.

Future— I will never succeed in…/ I am going to remain like this (in some perceived crappy and undesirable state) forever…

I ended up wondering instead, how the “Christian Cognitive Triad” might instead look like. Here are some quick thoughts:

Self— I am sinful and broken, but God has sent his son Jesus to bear my condemnation. Jesus has said that “It is finished.” Christ is sufficient for all my inadequacies and failings.

World— There is much pain in the world; this is a reflection of the brokenness of our human condition. Nonetheless, there is good to behold, for this was how God created the world to be before The Fall occured.

Future— There will come a day where Christ will come again, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. Death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore. We will dwell with our Creator in all eternity.

Not at all saying that Christians will not be susceptible to the Negative Cognitive Triad, but when they do, this might just be a possible alternative triad they can be telling themselves. (:

The Problem of Good in the Problem of Evil

This post represents my attempt at exploring what has been known as the problem of evil as an argument against the theistic God and is an expansion of a short paper that I submitted a year ago on the same topic. The problem of evil and suffering in the world is no trivial topic, it represents a huge obstacle to belief in the God of the bible — pain and suffering is real, indeed the fact that Christ came to suffer with us is the greatest evidence for this. Here I do not pretend to have all the answers to why suffering exists or to answer the emotional objections that people may have and I wish in no way to trivialise suffering. My goal is to engage with the problem of evil philosophically, and argue that it is impotent against the true God, who reveals himself through the Word of God.

Formulation of the problem

The problem of evil is an argument against a specific conception of God, namely the theistic and biblical conception, where God is considered to have the attributes of:

  1. Omnipotence
  2. Omniscience
  3. Moral perfection

Omnipotence and omniscience are (relatively) straightforward, simply put, they imply that God can do anything he wishes and that he knows everything. What about moral perfection? My argument in this article is that this attribute is misunderstood when one conceives of the biblical God. Nonetheless, the attribute is normally taken to imply that God wishes to create the world with the highest moral value and this seems to mean that he would want to prevent or evil and suffering, or at least all unnecessary evil and suffering. David Hume puts the problem thus:

“Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?”

Philosophers generally talk about two more specific ways of talking about the problem: (1) the logical problem of evil and (2) the evidential problem of evil. The logical problem of evil attempts to show that the existence of any evil whatsoever is logically inconsistent with the existence of God. The evidential problem of evil, on the other hand, argues that the presence of and the horrifying levels of evil and suffering that we see indicate that it is unlikely that God exists. It doesn’t really matter which problem one chooses, because both rely on a certain conception of God’s moral perfection which I will argue is mistaken.

The Problem of Good

The evidence of evil that is in our world that is usually offered is that of suffering on the part of humanity or some other creature. William Rowe’s famous example is that of “A fawn’s being horribly burned in a fire caused by lightning, and suffering terribly for five days before death ends its life.” The corresponding goodness that God is supposed to exhibit seems to be that he would prevent such suffering.

However, if God has perfect moral character, this must mean that he has to pursue that which leads to the greatest intrinsic good. However, if God is God, it seems to follow that God himself is the highest good! The often used term ‘omnibenevolence’ is thus somewhat misleading in this regard, for it seems to imply that for God to be good, he must necessarily be benevolent to his creation. But the good that God necessarily has to pursue is (in Christian terms) his own glory. This is simply the straightforward view of biblical Christianity, consider:

“Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came.” (Ezekiel 36:22)

“For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David” (2 Kings 19:34)

If creation (including humanity) is not of the highest or intrinsic value, then suffering on the part of creation is not intrinsically evil. Nonetheless, the problem may still remain. For example, the suffering of creation seems to imply a deficiency on the part of the creator. A proper reply to the problem of evil (these are called theodicies) must thus seek to explain how God’s glory is not diminished because of creaturely suffering. The theodicies more popularly regarded as promising, however, seem concerned with righting the wrongs of humanity in exchange for the seemingly pointless suffering we endure. John Hick’s soul making theodicy and the free will defence seem to fall into this category – suffering is the price to pay for either the spiritual improvement or the freedom of the will of humanity. They struggle to succeed because it seems intuitive and inescapable that human suffering, especially the more extreme kinds we see today, will always be on balance bad for humanity. The goods that suffering produces cannot ultimately and (as I have noted) should not be traced back to humanity but rather to God.

Suffering and God’s Word

Let us note that the bible itself presents countless examples of sufferings and records of the saints of old doubting and crying out to God amidst these sufferings. However, consider that because they understand God’s character rightly, the way they formulate the ‘problem of evil’ is vastly different from how our contemporaries do so. For example, the Israelites saw national disaster as evidence against the LORD because God had said that he would put his name in the city; Israel was called by God’s name and the destruction of the city and especially the temple was an insult to God. Which is why the agonising cries of the Psalmists always tend towards, “How long, O God, is the foe to scoff? Is the enemy to revile your name forever?” (Psalm 74:10) Job doubted the moral perfection of God’s character not simply because of his suffering because his situation was one of great injustice despite his reliance on God.

Note also that the fact that these accounts and these agonised cries are in the bible indicates that God answers them. Scripture is God’s revealed word and it is woven with suffering. The answers to specific sufferings are varied, some are dark and sublime as in Job, and others indicate that suffering leads us toward glory as in the New Testament (e.g. Romans 8:17). My memory fails me as to where I have read this, but someone once remarked that it was amazing that suffering, something many early christians considered to be a mark of their discipleship of Jesus (cf Matthew 10:25, 1 Peter 4:12,13 et al.) would now be turned into evidence against God’s existence!

Finally, the bible also provides a specific reason as to why there is suffering on a global scale and it traces the problem to the fall of mankind in the garden. Because our first ancestors sinned and rebelled against God, God justly plunged the world into suffering and sin. As such, suffering and death in general vindicate God in justice over guilty humanity.

Now, I have no doubt that these theodicies and such a formulation of God are sure to outrage modern moral sensibilities, and a number of philosophers might simply chafe and dismiss these with a handwaving reply. Nonetheless, an atheistic argument cannot simply target the straw man of a God that fits modern sensibilities, but must contend with this biblical view of God if it is to convince. The god that fits our moral sensibilities is unlikely to exist, for it would be an idol that we have created. Anyway it should not be surprising to us that God and the bible always offends and challenges our ideas of Him, we are sinners after all, and a quick survey of the gospels reveals that Jesus offended the sensibilities of half of Israel. I shall have more to say in the conclusion, but if the ‘problem of evil’ uses an unbiblical formulation of God’s attributes, then it is utterly impotent. We must stare in the face of who God reveals himself in the bible, one who reveals himself amidst a world of suffering and who finally took on suffering himself. Such a God is compatible with— no, is necessary, in our world of grief.

Final Thoughts

Earlier this year I went on a mission trip to Myanmar to teach a bible overview module for some leadership training along with a few others from my church. As we were teaching them about God’s curse on the land from Genesis 3, my friend asked them if they had heard the (seemingly) ubiquitous objection to Christianity that God cannot be good because there is suffering in the world. Their reply was a resounding silence. This was an entirely novel objection to them; how could it be? Might it really be that the problem of suffering is only a problem for people who are not really suffering? This made me realise afresh that the problem of suffering is not an apparent logical contradiction in the Christian conception of God. Rather it is simply an emotional and irrational objection which is the result not of logical reflection but a sense of entitlement that comes from holding the worldview of the privileged. That God is good does not immediately translate to mean that suffering should not exist. After all, God’s being good does not immediately imply that he must be good to us. It is precisely because he has no necessary or intrinsic obligation to be good to us and yet he is immensely so that is the sublime greatness and scandal of the cross of Christ. We will not have this if we audaciously continue to hold a sense of entitlement towards God.

Suicide; Why We Live As Christians

I took Abnormal Psychology this semester, and we covered “Suicide”. It grieved me when we went through this topic because I could not help but consider that suicide is a reflection of the utter brokenness of this world. Suicide is often an expression or manifestation of hopelessness in the brokenness of life.

The risk of suicide affects Christians and non-Christians alike. Risk factors include, but are not limited to, mental illness and facing of an overwhelming crisis. Susceptible to the same influences and brokenness of this world, it set me thinking on how Christians might set apart their responses to compelling suicidal ideations and urges, from non-believers. In essence, the question is: when a Christian becomes so utterly burdened beyond his strength that he despairs of life itself, how might he, as a redeemed person of Christ, find strength to live on?

Here are 5 broad ideas that have convicted my heart as I searched through the bible, thinking through this question.

(1)Human Life Is Valuable
God has declared the value of human life when (a)He made Man in His own image, and (b)when He sent Christ, fully God himself, to take on human flesh. Put in other words, human lives are valuable by virtue of the fact that they are image bearers of an infinitely valuable God, and a kind in which God chose to identify with in Christ.

(2)Our Lives Are Valuable
Our lives are valuable, because they are the work of God. We have been “fearfully and wonderfully made” by the Creator who breathed us into existence.

(3)It is No Longer Our Lives
As redeemed persons, ransomed by the blood of Christ, we no longer own our lives. Instead, we belong to and exist for Him, who gave us life twice over, in creation and in redemption.

(4)Reconsidering the Purpose of This Life
The purpose for which we are saved and called is to fill the earth with God’s glory, by being salt and light, and proclaiming His name to the world. We can do so by living each day faithfully, in the unique positions of life that God has placed us in. And thankfully, our God is a God who looks not to external greatness, but one who perceives the heart. I am always moved by The Widow’s Offering in the gospels, of whom Jesus comments, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” If one struggles with suicidal ideations and urges, faithfulness can too be displayed by the act of simply carrying on each day, trusting that God’s grace is sufficient. Also, do not underestimate how God can use us in our sufferings to proclaim His name to others in suffering too.

(5)A Hope Beyond Ourselves
We have a hope that is far mightier than the darkness of our internal mental/ emotional state or external circumstances. The Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in us, and will grant us grace, day by day, to fulfil the purposes of this life in which we were called.

Purpose of this blog

We are two Christian students studying psychology and philosophy at a university in Singapore. This blog represents our efforts to think deeply and biblically with the issues that we are studying.

The bible says that we must be ‘sober-minded’ as we continue to live in this world. Secular academic institutions and subjects claim to be (at least at times) engaged in the neutral pursuit of the truth, but there are hidden naturalistic and atheistic assumptions and presuppositions that are sometimes consciously or unconsciously held. We want to be careful about what we study and engage critically with it.

At the same time, the bible declares that “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” (1 Timothy 4:4-5 ESV). Psychology and philosophy are good things, they contain valuable human insights that we as Christians can learn from. But we believe that these insights ultimately have to be viewed from the lens of the Word and the gospel; true knowledge is knowledge that is in submission to God’s word (cf Proverbs 1:7).

The articles are mainly written for our own benefit, to think through for ourselves and glorify and honour God through our studies. But we hope that they would be useful in helping any readers better think through their own studies as well.