My STORY in Ministry
In 1984, I met John Stott in London. He invited me to consider serving God in a new ‘ministry of the mind’ and 6 years later, I made the decision to do just that. How does one get started with all the wrong qualifications? By 1990, I had been a Christian for 14 years, but had never actually read the Bible in its entirety, let alone understand it all. And now I am supposed to teach it to international students from all over the world?
In fact, how does a Malaysian trained scientist in biochemistry who became a British-trained lawyer become a Christian missionary in America?
It was a kind of ministry pathway unrecognized by any church. You are supposed to first seek institutional permission, get the required training and then a green light. But I felt the urgency of the Gospel message and being in a foreign country, did not wait.
To my utter surprise, my home churches in Kuala Lumpur, Community Baptist Church (1976-1984) and in London, All Souls Langham Place (1984-1988), invented new categories for me.
It was unheard of for a small Asian church to sponsor one of its own to the economically mighty America, but Pastor Richard Toh pushed for my ordination as ‘Malaysia’s Missionary to the USA’.
Similarly, it was unheard of for a British church to send missionaries to America. To circumvent the unwritten rule that missionaries are sent to Third World countries, Rector Emeritus John Stott commissioned me as their ‘Missionary Envoy to the US’.
When I arrived as a total stranger to New York City, the survival of my mission was in no small part due to the unwavering support of another small church in Kinnelon, New Jersey. Stan Salvigsen heard me speak and worked hard to enlist me as Christ Chapel Evangelical Free Church’s ‘Minister of the Gospel to Manhattan’. This tiny church welcomed me to my new life in America. In Manhattan, the first church that supported my mission was All Angels Episcopal Church, led by the British expat, now retired, Bishop Martyn Minns.
This was how a British-educated Malaysian became an American missionary to international students, and now an interdisciplinary theologian.
I have been here in New York since 1990. I owe so many debts to so many people that I cannot expect to remember them all, from pastors to missionaries to professors such as J Wentzel Van Huyssteen, Lamin Sanneh, Andrew Walls, Marilyn McCord Adams, John Hare, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Diogenes Allen, Dennis Olson, CL Seow, Richard Fox Young and Max Stackhouse. They all shaped my thoughts and reflections about God’s love expressed in Jesus’ compassion.
Along with my studies of the Bible and other religions, over the past 26 years in full-time ministry, I embarked on 2 fields of scientific inquiry: Human Origins & Neuroscience.
I drew two conclusions that answered some disturbing thoughts:
1) Human Origins-Why does the Bible seem to describe a racist God who so privileged one single race, who fought among themselves to create two nations, the Jews & the Samaritans, based on their genetic bloodline?
This led to my studies in what makes humans human – paleoanthropology.
2) Neuroscience-How can obedience to God’s will be judged when changes in the human brain, often fixed from birth or due to traumatic accidents, make it harder for some people more than others to be moral?
This led to my studies of neuroscience, moral cognition and divine love.
Both topics became the core of my interdisciplinary PhD for which I labored 9 years, only after taking 3 Masters degrees over a four-year period in preparation for it.
My 13 years of academic inquiry was not embarked upon for any academic posting and indeed, I never applied for any professorship anywhere. My quest for knowledge was entirely in service of Jesus’ proclamation of God’s love for people everywhere, and to make disciples of all nations – this was the eternal message of God. We best proclaim this message by loving the weakest among us as if they were Jesus himself, and to love God with all of our minds.
My theological studies were always designed to equip me with the best biblical training available. An interdisciplinary training to draw from my legal instincts of suspending pre-judgment as well as my training in biochemistry & astronomy so as to be conversant with scientific discoveries, technological innovations & medical advances.
HOW does my investigation into HUMAN ORIGINS and THE HUMAN BRAIN from a Christian perspective strengthen my faith?
1) My explorations into the field of paleoanthropology from a Christian perspective, by learning how archaeology works and how different instruments help scientists make educated guesses as they attempt to reconstruct the past, led me to the conclusion that we are all truly one species of God’s creation given the gift of 3rd level self-consciousness (only humans possess this awareness of God). It is this capacity to respond to God’s love which is also a capacity to reject God and cause all manner of evil. More on the brain later.
From a convergence between my studies of the history of Israel and of the formation of the Bible, I came to realize that when and for what purpose specific books of the Bible were composed tells us what each writer wanted to convey about God. Many books were brilliantly written as satire, in poetry, as lament, hidden as apocalypse, made memorable as parables, weaved into the dramas of comedy and tragedy, all reflecting the writing and communication styles of the dominant civilizations the writers lived in.
Seven civilizations were dominant in the history of Palestine leading up to the writing of the Bible: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece and Rome. Let me lead you through a whirlwind tour of how these 7 Civilizations over their 5000-year history shaped the writing of the Bible’s 66 books which took place over 1000 years by many authors who wrote in 3 languages.
From Mesopotamian and Egypt, Abraham and Moses both registered God’s eternal message – God loves us and in all our suffering, we are not alone. But the messengers politicized the message. They made the messengers uniquely loved by God. Thus God’s love for all creation became God’s love for specific people only. Moses’ dream of a People led by God became David’s dream of a Nation led by him. Solomon further misused his ‘wise heart’ to get rich, have 1000 women, and enslave his own people to build his kingdom.
Just before the Assyrians attacked Israel, Amos tried to show that God’s message had been corrupted and that other nations also enjoyed God’s favor. Following the destruction, Jonah was sent to the Assyrians to establish God’s love even for Israel’s political enemies.
As the Babylonians attacked Judah, Isaiah and Jeremiah tried to show that once again, God’s message had been co-opted for political ends. What befell the Israelites was to be taken as punishment for their sins of using God’s love in the service of nationalism.
By the time Cyrus established Persia, Isaiah referred to him as the Messiah and Ezra declared God’s rescue plan to return the Jewish exile back to Jerusalem. This was the first time that mixed marriages were banned and divorce was required of those who were already married to foreign wives. Again the people focused on building a temple and distanced themselves from other Jews by declaring the Samaritans impure (genetically). And again this fueled nationalistic aspirations.
By the time the Greeks ruled Palestine, Daniel’s interpretation of dreams recalled Jeremiah’s prophecy not to fight their political masters. But they rebelled, further politicizing God’s message and fed the expectation of a military messiah.
Finally, during the Roman Empire, Jesus came to tell the Samaritan woman that God does not need temples to meet His people. But Jesus’ failure to meet the militant expectations of his fellow Palestinians led to his being abandoned by them during his crucifixion. But his message was clear – the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20 recalled God’s covenant with Abraham to bless the world, recalled Moses’ insistence to pharaoh that God must be known to all nations, recalled Amos’ list of other nations that God cared for, recalled Jonah’s lament that God was merciful beyond comprehension, recalled the stories of non-Jews such as Rahab the Canaanite, Bathsheba the Hittite, Tamar the Canaanite and Ruth the Moabite, all of whom diluted the bloodline of Jesus himself. So clearly, God was not interested in genetic pedigree. The birth of the Church launched by the twin Gentile Missions of Peter and Paul created the world’s first truly global theological religion.
Christianity began 2000 years ago and Judaism began over 3500 years ago. How did people think about God before writing itself was invented some 5,500 years ago?
What about humans who lived even before that, the ones who built Stonehenge 5,000 years ago, or those who built the world’s oldest oldest temple at Gobekli Tepe 12,000 years ago?
The rise in archaeology in the 19th century followed by the invention of radio-chronometric dating techniques in the 20th century changed everything.
Archaeology allowed us to peek into their lives and thoughts through their art in caves dating back to 100,000 years ago. Paleoanthropology discovered ‘Lucy’ the half-human half-ape who lived 3.2 million years ago in Ethiopia, footprints of two hominids walking side by side from 3.6 million years ago in Tanzania, and hominid fossils in Chad dating to 7 million years ago.
For the first time in human history, radioactive dating techniques allowed us to date artifacts to a high-degree of accuracy. Scientific discoveries combined with technological innovations advanced biblical studies that transformed our understanding as never before. Many errors and misjudgments were corrected and fresh insights led to major social changes in morality and ethics. Slavery was seen to be absolutely indefensible after 1800 years of Church tolerance and support, sexism was exposed for what it was, human and animal rights became major concerns and now, environmental responsibility is a part of Christian theology.
Whenever and wherever humans like us first came about, they are our ancestors. The 7 million year old fossils represent remains of ancestors to every person on Earth. They were ‘made’ by God through the remarkable process of evolution that began with life on the 4.5 billion-year old Earth some 4 billion years ago. Our solar system of 8 planets was formed 4.6 billion years ago. But from a cosmic perspective, our bodies are made of elements forged in the furnace of stars in the sky, so we are all recycled 14 billion year old stardust.
Why does the Bible seem to describe a racist God? In fact, the Bible does not. Rather, it is a record of how people perceived God and despite being told that God loves everyone, religious leaders politicized the worship of God and distorted the message. Today, with this fresh understanding of how the Bible was written, we can be assured of God’s love despite the seeming inconsistent statements as believers in each of the seven civilizations described God’s will using the vocabulary of the dominant culture of their times.
My exploration of human origins reminds me that in the 14-billion year history of the visible universe, there has been many hominids of which we are the sole survivors. Today, there is only ONE race, the human race There must be only ONE creator God. The human sense of the divine is a COMMON characteristic of the human mind, so that we are all religious. The atheist is simply one who has yet to find a religion he can live with. The Christian Bible is an account of how 7 civilizations shaped the faith of Israel and Christianity. The common theme shows that God’s message of love was distorted to become racist, and sexist. God’s message to all mankind became a specific love of a single nation to privilege them above all others. Jesus’ powerful message corrected the politicized nationalization of God’s promise to Abram in Mesopotamia. In Christianity, we can recover God’s message of love for all of humankind
2) My studies in cognitive neuroscience focused on how emotions, memory and consciousness shaped our morality. This led to two important areas, Alzheimer’s dementia among the old and Autism among children. In between are tragic neurological afflictions such as multiple personality syndrome, Schizophrenia, Tourette’s syndrome, the various vegetative states of existence, false memory registrations, etc.
How do we theologians help the Church figure out urgent issues that in the past, led to horrific crimes against victims of brain damage? How can we get past our ideas of normalcy and fear of those who are different from us?
The Gospels hint that Jesus was aware of those who suffer neurological compromises. Both of Jesus’ physiological (lame can walk) and mental (demons into pigs) healings reflect something that began to take shape with the Greco-Roman period. It was the early emergence of psychology and modern psychiatry.
How can obedience to God’s will be judged when changes in the brain makes it harder for some people than others to be moral? Today, as I study the origins and effects of autism, I conclude that before God, we are all theologically autistic.
Our cognitive limitations and insecurities about who we are often lead us to make terrible choices. One way to stop demonizing others who do not share our view of life, both within and without the Church, is to acknowledge that God’s love for us is not based on our love for Him.
We trivialize God’s love when we make salvation conditional upon intellectual assent or joining the right tradition or denomination. Indeed, the very history of the Church shows how many doctrines were invented to keep others at bay when Jesus himself called the outcasts of his own society to follow him in being compassionate to the weak and disenfranchised.