Dion's random ramblings

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Be intentional about finding joy in life!

I recently read a single line that has left an impression upon me - 'At work, on purpose'!  I think that sometimes we forget that where we are, what we can do, and who is around us are all very important in God's plan for our lives and the lives of those among whom we live and work.

I have met far too many people that live for a different reality - heck I have even fallen prey to escapism myself.

I recently read Gretchen Rubbin's fantastic book The happiness project.  In it she discusses the discipline of cultivating thankfulness and joy for what you already have.  She calls the discipline 'mindfulness' - I have often spoken of 'living with intention'.

It is important to build such simple little disciplines into our lives so that we can make the most of what we have, instead of wishing our lives away!

So, tomorrow I shall return to work, and I pray that I will be there 'on purpose', i.e., fulfilling the purpose for which God has placed me there.  I will have chances to transform both people and systems with Christ's love.  I can model the including love of Christ, make a stand for justice, and gently do my best to make the lives of those around me better.

But, this requires intention!  Here's a sneak preview of my next radio broadcast from my program 'The Ministry and Me' from http://www.radiopulpit.co.za - as always I would love to hear your ideas and feedback!  You can download the MP3 file here (6MB)

Stretching my legs in preparation for the Argus Cycle tour

This morning I woke up and hit the road LLLOOOONGGG before the sun rose!  At a few minutes to 5am (at around 4.50am) I got onto my road bike for a long ride!  It ended up at 83km's with a lot of climbing (Hellshoogte, Klapmuts and then back up to Somerset West).  It was awesome. Although I can't walk all that well this evening!  Ha ha!

Seriously though, as I approach 40 I am finding myself feeling fitter than I have been in more than 20 years.  My weight is at a level that I last weighed when I was in my 20's.  Also, the cycling helps to keep my stress under check.  As I ride I find that the dendrites fire at double speed - not only do I think more clearly, but I often find that the added energy allows me to get more done during the day.   I am also particularly grateful that it has been exceptional therapy to bring back the strength in my leg after a serious motorcycle accident in early 2008.  So, all in all it is a good thing.

Cycling can be time consuming.  So, as a result I make the sacrifice of leaving long before my family are up and about so that I can get back home without 'stealing' family time.

This morning's ride took around 3 hours (not a great time for the distance, but great for me).  At this pace I should be able to do the Argus in about 3 1/2 hours (if the weather is good!)  I managed to get out and be back by 8.30 so that I was ready to help Megie get the kids ready for Church.

Anyway, I'm not sure why anyone would be interested, but just in case you are, here's a picture of the ride route (from Somerset West to Klapmuts, then up Hellshoogte and back to Somerset West).  You can also view it in Google Earth here.  This is a standard KML file.  If it doesn't open google earth automatically when you download it simply right click on the file, save it and then open it from your hard drive.

What do you do for fun?  I know that we're not all 'wired' for activity!  Perhaps it is reading, or maybe cooking?  I'd love to hear what helps you relax and enjoy life!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Are you facing a financial crisis? A resource to help you - Dr Wessel Bentley

Last year (2009) was my second year labouring as a minister in the corporate environment.  It has been an extremely interesting and challenging experience! In many ways I have rediscovered my passion for Jesus and his ways (particularly for encountering people and systems with God's transforming love so that God's justice and mercy may transform individuals and society).

I remember many years ago there was a huge thrust to mobilize prayer and missionaries to go to the 10/40 window to engage in mission and evangelism efforts among some of the 'unreached people groups' of the world (i.e., those regions where the Gospel had not yet been shared in a meaningful manner).

Since then I have come to discover that there is a massive 'unreached people group' right under my nose!  These are the people in the 9 to 5 window!  It has been an incredible awakening to discover just how little intentional ministry there is to support and care for persons during their workday!

I am writing the last two chapters for a book on this subject for Struik Christian Media this week.  So, keep an eye on this space for more!

Well, 2009 was a year where this kind of ministry was more necessary than most other years!  2009 was an incredibly tough year for businesses!

My two primary orientations as a minister in the marketplace are 1) to help persons to understand God's loving purpose for their abilities, their time, and their location, and 2) to ensure that they find creative and practical ways of utilizing these gifts in order to see God's Kingdom established (a Kingdom in which God's loving will is experienced - not just preached!)  I frequently ask my Christian friends - 'when Jesus said that he came to bring "Good News to the Poor", what did he mean?  What IS truly good news to the poor?'  I can tell you, it is not a sermon!  It is work, dignity, security, justice, health care, food, shelter etc.  People need to taste the goodness of God before they will believe propositional statements about His nature, love, and intention.

Last year was a challenging year to get alongside business people.  The recession in the USA spread throughout the world, and it impacted many people in a very negative way.  At times such as these we need encouragement, wisdom, guidance, hope and care.

One of the resources that I found most helpful in my ministry in the marketplace is Wessel Bentley's book 28 Days of Prayer during financial crisis.  Wessel is an incredible pastor and theologian in a large Church in Pretoria.  His devotional book is filled with practical insights that come from personal experience (read his book to find out more about that).

What I liked a lot is that Wessel's theology is so sound - he avoids the temptation to trivialize the struggle that a lack of money can bring by offering 'inspirational quips' or 'quick fixes'.  Moreover, he does not present a 'prosperity' teaching approach to getting through financial crisis (I am yet to see sustainable and lasting results from prosperity teachings - more often than not the only person who benefits is the preacher!  Truly sad! This is not the way of Jesus - it is heresy).  Rather, Wessel's book grapples with the issues of financial need, and offers real, practical, sustainable perspectives that can help a person in financial crisis and carry them through it.

So, Wessel's book has my endorsement!  You can find out more about the book here.

In this regard I want to make you aware of an important event.  If you live in the Gauteng Area please consider visiting the Northfield Methodist Church on the 7th of February.  Wessel will be sharing at the services on this topic.  I am certain that it will be an incredibly meaningful time!  For more information please visit the Northfield website here.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Love and marriage!

1994 was a very important year for South Africans - it was the year in which we voted to end apartheid and establish a free and fair multiparty democracy.

I remember 1994 for another very special reason though!  On the 29th of January 1994 Megan and I were married in the Trinity Methodist Church in Sunward Park.  What a wonderful day that was!  I was so in love with Megan!  Man, oh man!  She is so beautiful, and she has such a bubbly personality and so much energy and love.

I'm pleased to say that none of those qualities have disappeared in the last 16 years.  Rather, they have matched by many other wonderful virtues.  Megan and I were just 21 years of age (well, I was 22 by two weeks) when we got married!  In truth we have grown up together.  We've been through so many joys together (the birth of our children, our first home, our first camping trip, holidays, graduations... the list goes on and on!)  And, we've shared in a fair share of struggle and sorrow (we've been very poor, and quite rich - each one has its own challenges!  As a minister, in the early days, there were many times we went without.  We survived our little Liam's traumatic entry into life, and the joy of journeying with him ever since.  Megan has helped me to survive motorcycle accidents, changes in career - from minister, to academic, to marketplace minister.  She has celebrated my achievements, and I have celebrated hers.  She has survived cancer and a few other health concerns).  All of this has bonded our lives together.

I can truly say that I have been blessed!  Megan remains patient, attentive and caring.  She is extremely capable in her work.  A graduate in Human Resource management, a formidable business woman, a mother and a wife.  She loves Christ - and I am thankful that she loves me.

Please join us in thanking God for the 16 years of marriage we have shared, and for the many blessed years that lie ahead.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Your work as an act of worship

If you read my blog, and if you follow my twitter feed - see http://www.twitter.com/digitaldion - you will know that I am a proponent of the notion that work can be an act of worship.  According to Col 3:23 we can choose to do our work for Christ (both honouring His will for our labour, energy, creativity and time; but also achieving his desired will to encounter people in love and transform systems to reflect the pattern of God's loving Kingdom).

The following quote inspired me today:

Inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally. There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It's made up of all those who've consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners -- and I could list a hundred more professions ... A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it's born from a continuous "I don't know." Wislawa Szymborska,from her lecture upon winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1996

I would like to encourage you to read the quote above, and the scripture reading below a few times.

A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold. The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them allProverbs 22:1-2

What is God's intention for your worklife?  If Jesus were 'doing your job' how would he deal with the people and systems you encounter each day?  What commitment can you make in order to use your work as an act of declaring Christ's worth?

May you be richly blessed this week!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

In support of a friend - Bishop Paul Verryn

I returned home last night from 3 days of 'media isolation' -  I was on a farm about 70km from Beufort West with our team doing some strategic planning for 2010.

When I got home I noticed scores of emails and messages on facebook and twitter about Paul Verryn.  I fired up my broswer and found that Paul had been suspended by our denomination, the (MCSA) Methodist Church of Southern Africa.  It is a matter of grave concern for me - I worry deeply for Paul and also for the MCSA.

You can read about the suspension in this Sowetan article (the image of Paul at the top of this post comes from the same link).

I have been party to numerous disciplinary hearings in my years as a Methodist Minister - I served on disciplinary committees and have had two occasions to appear before them.  I am not certain of the reasons for the disciplinary action.  I was not able to reach Paul on his cell phone.  Regardless, even if I knew the reasons I would not post them publicly at this stage.

However, from what I have heard from mutual friends and read in the media I have come to understand that Paul is being charged either for approaching the High Court of Johannesburg to have a curator appointed over the refugee children who have sought sanctuary in his Church.  Our Church's polity (the law that regulates the Church) states that only the Presiding Bishop or the General Secretary may initiate any legal action on behalf of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa.  As such regardless of whether the action is valid, necessary, or otherwise, any person who acts on behalf of the Church as a whole without sanction is subject to disciplinary action.  If this is the reason for the disciplinary action by the MCSA then I would ask why the Church had not take the action in the first place?

The second 'strand' of rumors also relate to the underage refugees in the Central Methodist church.  What is clear is that the Church has far too many people living there.  This is a problem of inadequate intervention by the national and provincial government!  The state has the primary responsibility to deal with such matters, and since they have not adequately acknowledged the problem in Zimbabwe, they are not willing to deal decisively with the Zimbabwean refugee crisis!  Paul and the central Methodist Church did what any Christian should do - they offered shelter and care to persons who were living on the streets of Johannesburg.  The overcrowding that has since resulted would never have happened if the local government had responded to Paul's calls for just treatment of the refugees, adequate temporary housing, schooling and care.  The Xenophobic attacks of 2008 accentuated the crisis and these seems to have been very little respite in the struggle and controversy at the Central Methodist Church.  Some have suggested that Paul is facing charges (from whom I don't know) that he has not cared properly for the persons living in the Church (and in particular the many unaccompanied minors who have sought refuge there).

The reason for his High Court appeal was precisely to have a curator appointed for the children.

Regardless of the reasons for the disciplinary case (it may be something completely different), I would ask you to please pray for Paul and for the MCSA.  This is not necessarily a combative relationship.  For example, if any person brings charges against any other the Church is duty bound to suspend the minister in question until the matter is resolved.  The disciplinary committee may find that the person is not guilty of any contravention of Church polity.  However, they have a responsibility to investigate the charges in defense of justice.

So, please can I encourage you not to get caught up in rumors and the divise game of blame?  Please do support Paul with your prayers.  I know him to have done his very best for those who are in need!

Let's wait to see what the facts are and then we can offer informed and helpful comment and directed prayer.

I am afraid that I am running at an incredible pace for the next few weeks with lots of travel (national and international), so please do update any information you find in the comments on this page.  If you would like to leave messages of support for Paul here you are also welcome.  I'll make sure that they reach him.

You can find some of my other posts about Paul Verryn here.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

God's patience with my 'becoming'

I found the following quote inspiring.  God is indeed patient and gracious in allowing us to become what we think we ought to, while God knows full well what would best suit our gifts, abilities and temperament.

The God who made us what we are knows what we desire to be and waits with infinite patience while we become what we can. We, on the other hand, know that whatever we need to become all that we can be, this same great and loving God will supply. For all of that, we are thankful. From that gratitude grow love and commitment, faith and trust, wonder and worship.  Joan Chittister, from her book The Liturgical Year.

How do you cope with stress and pressure? (and remain productive)

Like many others I returned to work early in January after a break over Christmas and the new year.  It was great to get back into the swing of things.  I love what I do, and I like being engaged in multiple tasks; I even enjoy working with a bit of pressure!

However, 2010 is a massive year for me!  First, we have a large stadium prayer gathering in Cape Town (in the new Cape Town stadium on the 22nd of March 2010 - see http://www.gdop-sa.com for more details).

Next, we have an international conference for the Global Day of Prayer from the 17th - 23rd of May at the Cape Town international Convention Centre.  I am responsible for handling the programme at this conference, but I also play a central role in most of the other committees for the events.  You can see more about this conference at http://www.gdop2010.com - it is actually two events, a conference from the 18th to the 20th and then a stadium event at the Newlands Rugby stadium with a global television broadcast on the 23rd of May).  There is more work to be done for this conference than I have hours in my day!

Next, there is the Lausanne Congress on World evangelization which is taking place here in Cape Town in October this year.  I am a member of the arrangements team, as well as serving on the Theological working group, heading up the social media strategy, and I am also one of the officially invited delegates to participate in the congress (there are 50 persons from South Africa who were invited to participate in the congress, so it is a great honour to be among that number.  I am fairly certain that I must be among the most junior of the group, and that my practical involvement in the congress is what got me the spot!  There are certainly far more gifted theologians and leaders in our context!  However, I shall do my best). You can read more about the Lausanne Congress at http://www.capetown2010.com and follow Lausanne on Facebook and on Twitter.

Together with these big responsibilities I also have two new books coming out in 2010.  I had a very tight deadline to write a book on workplace spirituality and faith at work for Struik publishers (this book will be launched at our Global Day of Prayer conference in May - so, the content must be finished in the next week in order for it to be edited, proofed and sent to India or China for printing (I'm not sure where it is printed, but it is in the East, and then it is shipped back to South African in bulk).  Please do pray for me!  I have been waking VERY early and going to bed VERY late to try and finish the 12 chapters for the book!  I need both strength and inspiration to meet the deadline (I have done 7 chapters and have 5 more to go).

The other book that I am working on is a reworking of my doctoral research which Cambridge Scholars Press is publishing entitled 'Why you may not be who you think you are! Adventures in neuroscience, artificial intelligence and theology'.  I'm afraid that is on the back, back burner for a little while (until May at least).

Apart from these big projects I have my regular work to contend with.  I am a chaplain in a company that has 2000 employees, I am a chaplain to the Global Day of Prayer, serving on the regular working team of various ministries and boards, and then also still doing a bit of teaching and some post-graduate supervision at the University of Pretoria and the University of Stellenbosch where I hold academic posts.

Most importantly I have to take time for my family and my faith, and of course there is my health....

When I consider all of this I do get a little stressed at times!!!

SO, here's the question... What do you do to remain productive and cope with stress?  Please not that emphasis on remaining productive while coping with stress.  I love my work, and I like to be busy, but I want to find some tools to keep a 'handle' on it.

Here's a little video that explains what I am currently doing.

However, I'd love to hear your wisdom please!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

It is HOT in Cape Town!! 42 degrees C! Yikes!

This message has been scanned for viruses and
dangerous content by Pinpoint, and is
believed to be clean.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Here's what I've been reading (and writing)...

In 2009 I read a few interesting (and some not so interesting books...  I enjoy reading - sometimes it is because the book is worth reading, at other times I simply enjoy reading a particular book to understand what makes the author 'tick', or to better understand the perspective of the person who has recommended it to me).

So, here are a few of the books that I read in 2009.


These are the books I read when I want to 'get my mind off work' - you can see that there are quite a lot of them!  For years, when I was busy with my doctoral research, I was forced to read with a narrow field (neuroscience, consciousness studies and theology).  Now that I no longer have to read to complete a research project, I turn to whatever takes my fancy.  Most of these books are read while I'm traveling, or when I can't sleep.

  • 'Ringworld' by Larry Niven - this is a classic sci-fi book.  I enjoyed it a great deal.  It is getting a little dated, but it was wonderfully entertaining and a great distraction from some of the other serious books I was reading.
  • 'Made in America: An informal history of the English language in the United States' by Bill Bryson.  I love Bryson's books!  He writes with intelligence and humour, and this book was no exception.  It was filled with incredible facts and gave me a real insight into the formation of American English (yes, by this I mean the dialect of English that is spoken by North Americans).  But it also offered some wonderful insight into the history and cultural development of the most powerful nation on earth (with all of the quirks, struggles, and abuses that come from holding that responsibility on the globe).  I would highly recommend this book.
  • 'The lost symbol' by Dan Brown.  I love reading Dan Brown's books.  I like the pace with which he writes, and his style appeals to the conspiracy theorist inside of me!  Some folks didn't enjoy this book.  I thought it was great.
  • 'Confessions of an economic hitman' by John Perkins.  This was another interesting book.  I'm not sure how true it is.  It was interesting, and I can certainly see how greed would drive persons (and nations) to enslave others for their own interests.  I have certainly seen how African nations have been enslaved by foreign debt and how much of our natural and human resources get channeled out of Africa to repay foreign nations for so called 'development'.
  • 'The year of living biblically' by AJ Jacobs.  This was one of the funniest and most entertaining books I read last year!  It was wonderful to see how a secular person (who does not have an anti-theist agenda) views the faith!  AJ Jacobs was so sincere in his desire to try and live by the 'rules' of the Bible, and the consequences were hilarious.  This is a must read!  It deepened my faith and helped me to reflect a great deal on my own religious convictions and spirituality.
  • 'London:  The biography, street life and the people' by Peter Ackroyd.  This was another very interesting historical book!  I so enjoyed learning about London.  It is one of my favourite cities, it is so cosmopolitan and has such a rich history!  I would encourage any person who is heading to London to read this book before leaving.
  • 'Outliers'  by Malcolm Gladwell - this must be one of the best books I've ever read!  I love Gladwell's style and his approach!  This book is filled with obscure facts and interesting data.  I found his conclusions somewhat selective and at times quite speculative.  However, they were always entertaining.  I bought all of Gladwell's books (except Tipping Point which is not available in Africa!)
  • 'What the dog saw'  by Malcolm Gladwell.  This was the least interesting of his books so far.  It seems to be a collection of essays from his Newspaper column.  I am enjoying it (I have not yet finished reading it), but less than the other Gladwell books.
  • 'Blunder'  by Zachary Shore.  This books was interesting, although it lacked the pace and finesse of Gladwell's books (it is in the same genre, although from the perspective of a military historian).  It traces how and why smart people make bad decisions. 
  • 'Blink'  by Malcolm Gladwell.  I enjoyed this book a lot as well.  Again, it has lots of interesting data and obscure facts about how persons make decisions (both good and bad decisions).
  • 'Story  by Robert McKee.  This is a classic text for any person who writes, does public speaking, or has to share information in a manner that will both entertain and inform an audience.  It was filled with practical examples from the world of script writing.  I would recommend this work for preachers - it could just help us all to deliver better sermons!

Inspiration and faith

These books are the ones that I read because I feel I need them - they help me to grow spiritually and intellectually. Some of them were read a review books for journals (I am a reviewer for the Church History society's journal Studia historiae ecclesiasticae.  I enjoy these reviews since I get a copy of each book that I review to keep.  Moreover, I am forced to read wider than my personal interests (which stretches me and creates new interests).  Lastly, having reviews published in successive journals is a good way to remain up to date in the academy (and one gets research points for such publications, very few, but still there is some recognition).  You'll notice that many of the books are books written by friends (like Wessel and John).  Some of the books are not in keeping with my own theological perspective... These are normally books that I am asked to read and review for someone else, or to give an opinion or insight on.

  • '28 days of prayer during financial crisis' by Wessel Bentley.  My friend Wessel wrote this sterling set of reflections - how I wish he had the 'might' of a large publishing house behind this project!  It deserves to be read, distributed, and made available across South Africa and the world.  It is well written, it is free from trite advice and bad theology.  I loved it!  I am glad for the support that Africa Upper Room has given him with this project, but as I say, I would love the book to get introduced to a wider audience.  Please visit http://www.wesselsplace.blogspot.com to read about Wessel and get a copy of this book.
  • 'The notion of mission in Karl Barth's ecclesiology' by Wessel Bentley (pre publication).  I had the joy of reading a pre-publication electronic copy of this book (which was Wessel's PhD, picked up by Cambridge scholars press).  As you can expect, it is a superb theological text - it challenged me to think deeply about my own perspectives on mission and ministry.  This is a must read for any missiologist or Barthian scholar.
  • 'SHE book reviews (Biko, development, Cornels books)
  • 'You were made for this' by Bruce Wilkinson.  I try to read all of Bruce's books as they come out.  He is a good writer and his books sell well (which means that many of the people I minister to will buy copies and read them.  Best I am prepared before they are!).  I enjoyed this book, and in fact it has impacted by approach to ministering to others.  There are some areas in which I did not agree entirely with the theology of inspiration and the theology of wealth and money.  However, it is worth reading and it inspired me to be much more generous and flexible in my giving.
  • 'Not by might, nor by Power'  by Graham Power with Diane Vermooten.  This is the story of the Global Day of Prayer - I am constantly amazed when I read about these events all over the world.  This  is one of the most inspiring and encouraging South African Christian books I've ever read.  I first read it in pre publication, and then had to re-read it several times as it went through the editorial process.  Most of my family and colleagues have copies of this book since I give it as a gift frequently.  It is worth reading!  You can get copies from http://www.globaldayofprayer.com
  • 'The legacy of Stephen Biko:  Theological challenges'  by Cornel du Toit (ed).  This book was an inspiring reminder of how far South Africa has come since the dark years of Apartheid.  As with all of Cornel's books, this one had some very deep and challenging theological reflection.  The chapters for the book came from conference papers - some were more scholarly than others, all were worth reading.
  • 'Imitating Jesus: An inclusive approach to New Testament Ethics' by Richard Burridge.  This was an exceptional book!  Perhaps one of the best books on ethics in general, and New Testament ethics in particular, that I have ever read!  I loved the approach and particularly appreciated Burridge's thorough analysis of New Testament ethics in the South African context.
  • 'Seasons in theology:  Inroads of postmodernism, reference and representation' by Cornel du Toit.  This was a very dense and complex book.  It was a reworked compendium of numerous of Cornel's best academic papers.  For the serious theologian this is a must!  However, for anyone else it may be heavy going!  It is technical, crosses disciplines (particularly, theology, science, and philosophy) and the subject matter is challenging to say the least.  It assumes a great deal of theological and philosophical education.  It would make a good reader for pre-doctoral research students who want a good overview of varying approaches to theology through the ages.
  • 'Viewed from the shoulders of God:  Themes in science and theology' by Cornel du Toit.  This is a must have book for any theologian who is interested in natural science.  Cornel is arguably one of the most astute and thorough theologians in this area.  This book is another compilation of various scholarly articles (among them are some that have won awards for research).  This is a good reference work that also has enough depth to keep the advanced researcher interested.
  • 'A twenty yard stroll' by John Baillie.  This was a  good read.  I have enjoyed John's books.  This one was no exception.
  • 'What is a good life? An introduction to Christian ethics in 21st century Africa'  edited by Wessel Bentley, Andre van Niekerk and Liouse Kretzschmar.  This is an absolute MUST have book for ministers and theologians!  It covers the basics of ethics, from methodology to specific ethical issues.  Among the authors are numerous top notch scholars, and some younger 'emerging' scholars (such as myself).  Please see http://www.wesselsplace.blogspot.com to get a copy of this book.  If you're an ethics student at UNISA it is the current prescribed text-book.
  • Lastly, I supervised one Masters student (homeopathy and theology), and examined two Masters students and three PhD's in 2009.  Only one of them had to resubmit some revisions.  I currently have three PhD's to examine and on Masters student - once again, this is great work since it forces me to read outside of my regular area, plus the research is often quite fresh and novel!

On my 'to read' list

  • Badass, The happiness project, tipping point...

I own copies of these books and am busy reading them at the moment. 

My reading has been curtailed a little in the last while since I am under a heavy deadline for a book that I am writing that will be launched in May 2010 by Struik Publishers!  This is my first 'popular' book with a big name publisher!  So, please do keep an eye on this space!

What I've been writing

I have been keeping my pen on paper this year as well.

  • I have two journal articles awaiting publication (one in HTS and another in the UK journal 'Theology').  These are currently under review so I will share details as soon as I'm able to.
  • I wrote three chapters on HIV/AIDS (one for a Methodist book by Epworth press in the UK, another for a book on mission and social justice in the USA, and a third one for a book by my friend Joerg Rieger in the USA).  These will all be published in 2010.
  • I did three magazine articles (two for 'Today' magazine, and one for 'Joy!'), as well as a few Newspaper inserts for 'New Hart'.
  • I wrote the chapter on the Bible and same sex relationships for the ethics text-book 'What is a good life' (see above).
  • I delivered two papers (one on the emerging Church conversation at the Hugh Price Hughes lectures in England in March), and another paper on the environment and African theology at the Theological Society meetings in Stellenbosch in June.
  • I leave for Beirut in Lebanon (!) in a few weeks time to attend the Lausanne Theological Working Group meetings where I shall deliver a paper on HIV AIDS, suffering, justice and poverty (that paper has already been written and sent).

Let's hope that 2010 is as productive as 2009!  I often get asked how I manage to write and read so much... The answer is quite simple, I sleep less than most people!  I have a 'day job' that keeps me very busy, plus I am deeply committed to my family, I enjoy cycling, and I belong to my local Church (with a forum group).  All of these things bring balance and help me to keep my theology and thoughts grounded.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

More than just a bag of neurons, or, are we more than our brains?

My friend Phil Collier is posting some wonderful content on his Brain Science blog brain sparks

He posted an interesting question about whether we are merely the 'stuff of our brains' (i.e., if our neurons determine who we are, or if our identity and consciousness is more complex than that). 

Here's my response to Phil (please see his post here): 

Hi Phil, 

As I mentioned in our conversation this morning, I tend towards an inclusive approach that suggests that we are the stuff of our minds (of course 'the brain' extends into the body through the nervous system, and regulates and is informed through the endocrinatic system). As such we would have to say that in part we are our bodies (not just the cells of our brains, although those are important!) 

However, I have found Ken Wilber's all quadrant, all level (AQAL) approach to consciousness quite helpful in breaking down the false dualism between consciousness and matter. 

Thus, on an individual exterior level (my biology) the individual's brain has a great deal to do with their identity and consciousness. However on a collective exterior level (the human or mammalian brain) there is also an element of additional identity forming activity going on. Then of course you have the individual interior (what I think and believe about myself that forms me) and the collective interior (what 'our' culture, religion, socialization, has contributed towards my understand of myself in relation to others). 

You can read more about my understanding of Wilber here, and a few other Wilber posts here

Then, with regards to the idea of an objective mapping of the functions of the brain (i.e., how the electrical and chemical components function to create outputs of action or thought), you may be interested to read some of Ray Kurzweil's thoughts. 

He has done a great deal in trying to map and emulate brain function (his speciality has been speech synthesis and speech recognition), but more recently he has become knowing for his mathematical predictions of the exponential increase in computational capacity in machines. 

I discussed this at length (and also discussed Wilber and consciousness at length) in my doctoral thesis. See the following post for links and information about Kurzweil (discussed in chapter 2) and you can read about Wilber in chapter 4. 

I am currently under contract with Cambridge scholars press who will be publishing my Ph.D in a more 'popular' form as book in 2010 (the working title is 'Why you may not be who you think you are - adventures in neuroscience, strong artificial intelligence and philosophy'). So keep an eye on this space! I'll post updates on the progress as they come.

The original interview with Ray Kurzweil in h+ can be found here.



Tuesday, January 05, 2010

An interview with Ray Kurzweil - Spiritual machines, artificial intelligence, and some interesting banter!

I was first introduced to the work of the theorist, Ray Kurzweil, some years ago when my initial interests in strong Artificial Intelligence emerged (probably in 2001 or thereabout).  I have since read just about everything that he has published (mostly as part of my doctoral research).  You can find a number of posts I've made about Ray Kurzweil on this blog here.

If you're interested in reading some of my thoughts on Kurzweil you can download a copy of my Doctoral Thesis here (please see chapter 2). Some other books that are worth reading to understand Kurzweil's relationship between computers, the human mind, and the future of technology are:

The age of spiritual machines, and Are we spiritual machines. By Kurzweil.
Wiredlife - who are we in the digital age? By Jonscher.

What I found most interesting was Kurzweil's 'Law of accelerating returns' (again, see chapter 2 of my thesis above).  It is an amendment of Moore's Law - simply stated Kurzweil shows by mathematical proof that if the exponential development of compunational power continues to surpass Moore's law we should soon have sentient machines (his prediction was that this would happen by 2029).  At first glance this may seem quite unbelievable, yet consider that we already rely on machines for so many 'higher' functions in our lives.  A simple example is memory - I don't know my mother's telephone number!  It is saved as a contact on my cellphone.  I were to loose my phone I would not be able to phone her.  Then there are other examples such as the reliance on machines to complete complex tasks, such as landing in bad weather or poor visibility. In my research I name other examples of our relationship to machines at subtler levels (such as developing attachments to certain technologies such as emotional attachments to 'virtual pets' - like the Farmville craze).  There are many examples of how we relate to current relatively 'dumb' and limited technologies in complex and subtle ways.

Can you imagine how much more reliant we shall be on these technologies when they can perform ALL tasks more accurately and with greater speed and ease than humans can?

The one philosophical possibility that exists with Kurzweil is the fact that just because something doesn't currently exist, does not mean that it does not have the potential to exist at some point in the future.  So, in my thesis I deal with the counterarguments to strong Artificial Intelligence (i.e., those who say that it is not possible). Have a look at those arguments and counterarguments and let me know what you think!

Kurzweil not only writes about technology and the future, he has also made some significant technological and theoretical contributions towards our understanding of brain modeling (particularly as it relates to consciousness and the move from information to knowledge).

So, if you're still reading after all of the above, you may be interested to follow the links below to an interview with Ray Kurzweil.

Inventor Ray Kurzweil is interviewed by h+ magazine about consciousness, brain modeling, global warming, and the Singularity.
201001041224SO: James Lovelock, the ecologist behind the Gaia hypothesis, came out a couple of years ago with a prediction that more than 6 billion people are going to perish by the end of this century, mostly because of climate change. Do you see the GNR technologies coming on line to mitigate that kind of a catastrophe?
RK: Absolutely. Those projections are based on linear thinking, as if nothing's going to happen over the next 50 or 100 years. It's ridiculous. For example, we're applying nanotechnology to solar panels. The cost per watt of solar energy is coming down dramatically. As a result, the amount of solar energy is growing exponentially. It?s doubling every two years, reliably, for the last 20 years. People ask, "Is there really enough solar energy to meet all of our energy needs?" It's actually 10,000 times more than we need. And yes you lose some with cloud cover and so forth, but we only have to capture one part in 10,000. If you put efficient solar collection panels on a small percentage of the deserts in the world, you would meet 100% of our energy needs. And there?s also the same kind of progress being made on energy storage to deal with the intermittency of solar. There are only eight doublings to go before solar meets 100% of our energy needs. We're awash in sunlight and these new technologies will enable us to capture that in a clean and renewable fashion. And then, geothermal -- you have the potential for incredible amounts of energy.
Ray Kurzweil: The h+ Interview

This portion of the post is originally linked from BoingBoing.net.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

The belief of science and the science of belief

This morning as I was sweating my way on a mountainbike ride through Lourensrod I had a very interesting and thought provoking conversation.  On today's ride we had a doctor, a theoretical mathematician, an engineer and myself.  I know that at least two of us (myself and the doctor) are people of faith - I am not sure about the other two guys.

As we commonly do on such rides we discussed a variety of topics (from the correct rebound on a full suspension bike, to the best cadence for slippery climbs, and of course the more serious stuff like the cricket test!)  Among the topics discussed this morning was the relationship between faith and science.  One of the guys was talking about a particular granite rock formation that seemed out of place in the middle of a whole host of 'Table Mountain limestone' (most of the mountains in our area are limestone).  This huge granite rock outcrop is quite out of place!  It is a single massive rock formation with no other evidence of granite in the surrounding area.

As we discussed the various theories of how the rock formation came to be I jokingly said 'I think the farmer had it delivered overnight by helicopter'.  There was a bit of laughter, and then one of the guys said something along the lines of 'stranger things have happened! But how would we know if it is true?'

This was where we entered into a long conversation on the nature of belief, and the difference between science as a supposedly epistemological discipline and faith as a phenomenological discipline.  I could see that the engineer and mathematician had never considered that science is as dependent on faith as religion is.

Science is based upon assumptions which one then attempts to prove by repeatedly testing the assumptions with which one began.  For example, when we say that something weights 1 kilogram the only way that we can prove it is to verify our claim or assumption by repeated proof.  So for example you may cut a piece of cheese that you believe weighs 1kg, and then cut a piece that is twice the size, then cut the 2kg piece into two piece and see whether the first piece, and the two new pieces all have the same mass (even if their dimensions differ).

If enough people agree with your verified findings your assumption becomes the accepted starting point for future experiments (at least until someone finds fault with your theory, or improves upon it).

Another example is the measurement of time (as discussed in the previous post on this blog).  Time is not an a-priori reality that is part of the ontological fabric of reality.  Rather, our measurement of the space between a sequence of events is our conscious attempt to link elements in a manner that is both sensible and measurable.  Thus, when enough people agree on the measurement of a particular space of time (i.e., 1 minute = 60 seconds) it is the common agreement that gives the measurement worth.  The measurement has no value outside of the agreement (thus the value of the agreement is held by those who 'believe' it to be true or correct).

That kind of sounds like faith to me!  Truth is not always true.  Scientists (and religious persons) have frequently had to adapt their fundamental theories in the light of scientific, historical, or philosophical discoveries.

So, as we struggled our way up another hill (in absolutely perfect riding weather!) we all agreed that science has an element of belief or faith attached to it.  We also agreed that there are certain instances under which the collective belief of a group of persons (based on their repeatable experience) could be grounds for science (as is frequently the case in unexplained physical cures as a result of prayer).

I'd love to hear your thoughts!  You don't even have to follow me up the mountain to share them - just type a comment below, or drop me an email.

Friday, January 01, 2010

A new neuroscience blog, and the concept of time (does time exist?)

A friend of mine, Philip Collier, has just launched a new neuroscience website at http://www.brainsparks.co.za

Phil and I are cycling buddies, but we also share an interest in the brain - Phil graduated with a Masters in research psychology at the University of Port Elizabeth.  He and I often spend our rides up the Helderberg mountain talking about how the mind functions!

Please do check out his new website - it looks set for great things!

I read one of his first posts with great interest.  I would encourage you to have a look at the post here - where are you now.  What struck me as I read it was the question about the nature of time (and how a poor understanding of the nature of time can hamper a person from truly living in the present moment).  I once read a wonderful quote that said, 'we crucify ourselves between two thieves, the regret of yesterday and the fear of tomorrow'.  I'm not sure who said it, so help me with a reference if you know!  However, what I can say is that I have a much more positive view of the concept of the present - 'the now'.  I believe that there is great spiritual value in learning to live in the present moment.

Once you've read Phil's post you may like to consider my response to him (I have copied it below).  This gives some insight into how I view the concept of time.

All that being said, happy new year!  May the next decade be truly blessed for you!

Hi Philip,
Congratulations on the launch of your new site! It looks fantastic.  I look forward to great content and many wonderful interactions in the years to come.
The notion of time has been one that has occupied my mind as well - I have read Tolle's 'The Power of Now' (in fact it is one of the books we use in our conscious leadership programme with the senior management of our company).  I found it a most stimulating and helpful book.  I do think that his intention is much more focussed upon awareness of the moment than on the actual concept of time.
However, your question raises some very interesting thoughts indeed!  The ancient Greek philosophers spoke of two kinds of time, chronos (from which we get our English word 'Chronology' - this is a linear, historical, concept of time).  Then they spoke of kairos, this is the kind of time that has to do with moments of rightness, instead of marking sequential events.  It has often been described as 'pregnant' time: when a child is to be born and gestation is complete, or there is some form of trauma, then kairos comes to the fore, it is the 'right' time, or the 'selected' moment.
The sages of many of the world's mystical religious and spiritual traditions (Christian, Hindu, Muslim and Jewish mystics to name but a few) have long emphasized the incredible value of being 'present to the moment'.
Some years ago when I was doing some research on 'the new science' (particularly the work of David Bohm the quantum physicist) I came to realise just how 'the lived moment' is hardwired into all of the cosmos.  The constant implication and explication of matter in and out of the source of reality (what Bohm called 'active mind') is only perceivable in the moment of realisation.  Of course this concept was discovered much earlier by Einstein, Rosen and Podoslky (also called the EPR or tunneling effect).  You can read about it in one of my books (download a PDF copy here).  See pages 38 forward, but particularly from page 40.
One final note about the philosophy of time, as I have come to understand it, is that time is a construct (like mass or speed).  Time is not an aspect of the ontological nature of reality - rather, it is something that we have created in order to make sense of the sequence of experience and events that we process in our conscious minds.
Consciousness, however, is an ontological necessity!  Becoming conscious of the present moment, and the power of the present moment, is the key to finding blessing and peace in life.  However, history is equally important (since our consciousness of our past and the past of others gives us a sense of perspective on the present, and hopefully it makes us wise enough to act with intention and courage).  Moreover, a conscious aspiration is also a helpful thing (however, not to the extent that it draws us out of the present moment so that we miss the joy and opportunity of 'the now').
Well, those are a few of my thoughts.