Thursday, February 07, 2008

Feasting and Larval Thoughts On Faith and Romans 4

In the prolonged festive season that spanned Christmas and the Lunar New Year, friends and family were shooting stars, flying asteroids, shining rocks, zipping through the darkness, dilating time to, like the Months of Neil Gaiman's October In The Chair, come together, sit around a fire, eat fat sausages, drink fresh apple cider and tell each other stories.

Sometimes, the stories were of well-lit parallel paths converging on a common future.

Sometimes, the stories were of farewells at crossroads; one person turning off to a path unexplored.

Nintendo at Dinner
Sometimes, the stories are about winning Kids Central's Record Breakers.

Sometimes, there was just feasting first and stories later.

Irene's Peranakan Recipes
(And feasting is fine if one is not the wild-eyed cook who still trails the unmistakeable smell of curry and garlic the morning after.

The story is: my nose was deep in Slavoj Žižek's The Puppet And The Dwarf when the orders came to get into the kitchen for the reunion dinner. The Puppet And The Dwarf was set in Joanna type, which was reminiscent somewhat of one of the fonts used in Irene's Peranakan Recipes.

So by process of free association, ayam buah keluak for reunion dinner it was[1] the consternation of Peranakan colleagues, who admonished that ayam buah keluak was the epitome of Peranakan cooking and a dish undertaken only by experienced cooks to demonstrate their culinary prowess; to the alarm of secretaries who immediately googled and printed out several recipes for me and then, as a backup plan, gave me the contact details for Guan Hoe Soon Restaurant in Joo Chiat Road (for the record, it's 214 Joo Chiat Road. Tel no.: 63442761); to the concern of the L who also insisted on formulating another backup plan; to the amusement of the B who suggested takeaway from Ivins down the road at Binjai Park.

Ayam Buah Keluak in Retro Bowl
Despite the unanimous no-confidence vote, I am pleased to report that no member of the Family was fatally poisoned. In fact, expressions of delight (with the food) were actually heard around the table. And this without me holding the household bottle of antacids ransom. Wonders never cease.[2]

Retro Claypot Rice Cooker
Oh. Plus the rice was cooked in a claypot. Retro or what. Enough water to cover grains + wind blowing out fire at right moment = unburnt rice. Nice.)

Sometimes, the stories were of long-distance relationships, which led to late-night discussions (until the coffeehouse we were at switched off the lights on us) on whether long-distance relationships required greater faith in one's partner.

What is faith? Søren Kierkegaard, writing as Johannes De Silentio in Fear And Trembling, thinks that faith is the highest passion in a man. There are perhaps many in every generation who do not even reach it. And he famously attempts to discover the movement of coming to faith itself, in which process he inevitably elucidates a definition of faith:

Kierkegaard/De Silentio commences his study by looking at the life of the "Father of Faith", Abraham. Specifically, he examines what must have been the most trying, faith-testing, part of Abraham's life: the almost-sacrifice of his only child and delight in his old age, Isaac. (Kierkegaard/De Silentio's many re-interpretations of the story would have made him BFF with Jorges Luis Borges.)

Perhaps Abraham's faith, says Kierkegaard/De Silentio, is great because of his lack of understanding, great by reason of his wisdom whose secret is foolishness, great by reason of his hope whose form is madness. But he runs up against the problem that the faith that is required of Abraham is paradoxical, for if he does his absolute duty to God, then he is being commanded by God to contravene the God-instituted ethical prohibition on murder. Perhaps then, understanding and reason can have no part to play in faith. Perhaps, it falls to passion to produce the final movement to faith. Kierkegaard/De Silentio does not expect the discussion to make Abraham's faith more intelligble. In fact, the discussion was in order that the unintelligibility might become more desultory. In the end, says Kierkegaard/De Silentio, Abraham I cannot understand, I can only admire him.

So Slavoj Žižek takes Kiekegaard as saying that faith must exclude knowledge. There must be a leap of faith that leaves the brain behind. Once something is proven, like how Bible Belt swindler Steve Martin in Leap of Faith discovers he can actually perform miracles, belief in it is no longer faith.

But, ever the contrarian and modern-day Socrates, Žižek adds that belief is far more complex:
Interestingly, the last time I was in Israel, I spoke with some specialists over in Ramallah who told me that they know people from the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. They told me that even those people who are usually portrayed to us [Westerners] as true believers, their belief is more complex that it appears. First, there are much more secular motivations at work. This is our Western racism, when we imbue them with motives like, "I blow myself up, and then I awaken with those famous forty virgins at my disposal." No, no, no, it's more like, "This sacrifice is for my nation." Even more importantly, it's a strange logic in which the bombers themselves have doubts, and their suicide becomes a way of confirming their belief. "If I kill myself in this way, I can calm my doubts and prove, even to me, that I do believe." So, even here, the issue of belief is more complex that it might seem. (Liberation Hurts: An Interview with Slavoj Žižek by Eric Dean Rasmussen)
On another occasion, Žižek opines that faith though because it is fictional, is a thing of sublime beauty:
The logic is here the same as that of Anne Frank who, in her diaries, expresses belief in the ultimate goodness of man in spite of the horrors accomplished by men against Jews in World War II: what renders such an assertion of belief (in the essential goodness of Man; in the truly human character of the Soviet regime) sublime, is the very gap between it and the overwhelming factual evidence against it, i.e. the active will to disavow the actual state of things. (With Or Without Passion: What's Wrong With Fundamentalism?)
I wonder what Kierkegaard or Žižek might say to a plain porridge reading of Romans 4. This, then, is the faith of Abraham: is written,"I have made you the father of many nations" — in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told,"So shall your offspring be." He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. (Romans 4:17 - 21)
The faith of Abraham is not merely propositional (ie. belief that God exists) for even the devil believes that. The faith of Abraham is attitudinal (ie. belief in God). What about God does Abraham believe in? God's promises - that God was able (both ability and commitment) to do what he had promised (Romans 4:21). Specifically, that Abraham would be the father of many nations when, at the time of the giving of the promise, Abraham and Sarah were old and childless (Romans 4:17-19); but also generally, that Abraham and his offspring (those who share in the faith of Abraham) would be heirs of the world (Romans 4:13).

Doing exactly what you've promised to do? Sorry mate, that doesn't quite make the news these days. But only if one doesn't understand the full import of Romans 1 - 3.

If Romans 1 - 3 is right, and we are in danger of being put to death for our abject failure to worship our Creator to whom worship is due, then, we suppose, this is easily remedied by doing what ought to be done in the first place. Except we can't. So corrupted are our minds and our hearts that we cannot get right with God by doing good works. We can only get right with God by having faith in him that somehow he will remain consistent to his own laws and ethics and yet be able to fulfil his promise to make Abraham and his offspring heirs of the world.

This is not a faith to the exclusion of knowledge, wisdom or understanding; nor a faith just to be commended because it is a thing of sublime beauty, aesthetically pleasing like Oscar Wilde's Catholicism of rituals and incense but otherwise quite useless. This faith is based on all that God has done through the centuries that has been recorded by various authors in the Bible. Everything God has promised, he has delivered; everything God has spoken about, has proven in time to be true.

Our relationship with God is, in a sense, the longest-distance relationship we have in our lives. Yet, that God can be trusted is one of the most certain things in life.

How can people so corrupted in mind and heart, think or decide rightly enough to make any movement to faith though? The answer is in Romans 5.


[1] and also because am uncommonly fond of this nut. Would use it as a condiment with every meal if I could.

[2] For the record, accidentally forgot to use Irene's recipes. Went off on own little jaunt. Turned out alright though, eh.


Working through current series on Romans:
First Thai, Jay Chou's Birthday Concert and Romans 1
Feasting and Larval Thoughts on Faith and Romans 4
Privé, Cilantro and the Marvellous Comfort of Romans 8:1 - 16
Basil Alcove and the Pre-destination-based Comfort of Romans 8:17 - 39
Kapok at Newton and Romans 9 - 11
Tin Hill Wine Bar & Bistro, The White Rabbit at Dempsey, Dim Joy, True Worship and Romans 12:1 - 2
Sodagreen 苏打绿 Sing With Me 陪我歌唱 Concert, Futsal Tournament, Romans 13

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