Friday, February 10, 2012

A Question of Faith

My former theology teacher, David Pook died recently. David, who was a decade older than me, had the misfortune of getting cancer and succumbing to it. The event had a surreal feel to it. I hadn’t seen him for nearly a decade and our contact had been limited to Facebook messages. Then, one day, out of the blue he announced he was dying and three days later he was dead. His funeral by all accounts was a tribute to his dedication to the several generations of students that he taught at Churcher’s College and the King’s School Maccesfield. Over 600 people turned out to say goodbye to a man who had been both friend and mentor to so many. His Facebook page remains active as a place where people remember him.

It’s been a long time since I had contact with David and I think our relationship did take a bit of knock when I didn’t read theology at university. I’m probably not the best person to write a tribute to him, except I will say that he, in his theology lessons taught me one of the most important lessons in life - namely the nature of faith.

A-Level Christian theology is an academically demanding subject. In the course of two-years, one has to dissect the Bible and understand every intricacy of how its created. You are required to provide complex arguments over nothing more than a word of Ancient Greek or two. During the two-year period, you get the privilege of examining the very nature of Christ in the study of Christology.

One of the most interesting things about studying theology is the fact that you have to accept the possibility that everything described in the Bible is very possibly just a matter of an ancient way of explaining things. Learned men like Rudolf Bultmann argued logically and persuasively that Jesus was merely an ordinary man - his miracles were merely the way people explained things back when the knowledge of science was rather limited.

As we were doing this, I remember David telling us, “Lad’s, my purpose isn’t to weaken your faith - but to strengthen it.” I didn’t understand him then but in the two decades since I sat for theology exams, I’ve come to understand that some of the best things in life exist in a paradox. The most common paradox that most people deal with is the question of courage. It’s often pointed out that courage is not the inability to feel fear but the ability to carry on doing the necessary despite feeling fear. I’ve learnt that the same is true of faith.

Faith is not the absence of questioning but the ability to continue believing despite constant questioning. It’s the moment where heart and mind meld together and come with the answer. I think David was the example of this - he spent the better part of his life asking questions but he remained a true believer right up to the end.

This lesson about the nature of faith has been crystalised in a decade of living in Singapore. It becomes life this because this is a society where people have been brought up to believe things unquestioningly. The most extreme example of this is the Young Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC who pays for sex but condemns prostitutes as immoral aka Thambi Pundek. However, he’s merely an extreme version of a common trend - people who don’t question and except things based on faith.

People are desperate for something to believe in, whether its in a ruling party or in a religion. Pastor Joseph Prince and his McGod franchise thrive on the desperation of people to believe in something without question.

Both Gina and Joyce, the women who I had the most emotionally intense relationships with, were consistently frustrated with me because I simply could not just believe - I had to question. The Young Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC pays for sex but condemns prostitutes as immoral, aka Thambi Pundek, cannot get over the fact that

I refuse to accept government actions for what they are. On the human level, its important to question, especially when it comes to the topic of government. Do I think the People’s Action Party is good for Singapore? You get the likes of the Young Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC who drinks during Ramadan aka Thambi Pundek desperately labeling me a softy opposition supporter. What he and his ilk see is the fact that I have consistently been critical of government on various issues.

What they fail to see is that I am actually a supporter of the PAP. When I got the chance to vote, I did so in their favour. As a citizen, I am obliged to constantly question things - whether its about the heart of the policy or about the approach and communications method. I believe that the ruling party has done a darn good job and I believe they remain the best people to do that job. With the exception of the Workers Party, I find opposition candidates in Singapore to be a group of sad, vicious little twats. I shudder at the idea of the likes of Kenneth “Aged Toff” Jeyaratnam ever moving into the Istana. So why don’t I just shut up and accept with faith that the PAP are great? Well, I realise they need people to question them.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely and the only way to prevent that is by being prepared to question regardless of the consequences. I also realise that political decisions affect me and unless I don’t question and say something no matter how insignificant, I’m going to get trampled on. Nobody knows what you’re saying or feeling if you don’t say something. I think the same rules apply to God or at least the people who claim to represent him. I believe in the divine and I believe faith is rewarded.

However, faith tends to be mistaken as something you just accept without questioning because ...well....that’s always been the way. As such, you get the likes to Pastor Prince and Reverend Kong He milking their followers for a percentage of their salaries so that they can build bigger and better buildings to house their followers.

My theology is rusty but I don’t recall the passage where Jesus said, “Donate unto my agents so that you will have a bigger and better place to hang out on Sunday.” I do, however, recall the passage where he says, “Sell your possessions and become a follower of mine.” Gina and I used to go through this all the time. I’d constantly ask myself, “Is this God speaking or is this Pastor speaking.” Is anyone surprised that the marriage didn’t last very long?

Faith is based on free will and you can only have free will if you know about the brutal nasty things in life. Jesus was well aware that he was about to meet a nasty end, yet he had faith that the “Father” would raise him from the dead in his full divine glory. He says, “Let your will be done.” Many people forget this. Too often they talk about how they’re going to pray their way to prosperity and the path towards it will be smooth and easy. Well, if you believe that, you’ll believe anything.

Those with faith have doubts. Mother Teresa, regarded as the closest thing we’ve had to a Saint in the last five decades, admitted she had doubts. Yet her faith drove her on and she continued to do what she did in the slums of Calcutta. When was the last time that Joseph Singh ooopppps, I mean Joseph Prince (I forgot he was an ordinary bloke who decided he was royalty) went to anywhere resembling Calcutta?

Seriously, I can sit in the comfort of Suntec and have plenty of faith that God has entitled me to be his agent and enjoy the fruits of 20,000 clowns. It’s a different matter to show up in a hell hole and give of yourself because you believe that God has told you to be there.

Real faith comes when you question, have doubts and yet you carry on because you believe that it is God’s will for you. It is not an entitlement you achieve for attending a rock concert on Sunday.

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