Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Wednesday, 26 March, 2008

Last week and this week we are on mid-term break and I had hoped to do some preparation for a course I will start teaching in April. However we had the retreat in Bali last week and just before we left for Bali I was asked to give a presentation today for a monthly forum organized by the Faculty of Theology. The topic I was given was 'The Philosophy of Plato'. I wasn't able to do any preparation before Bali and so I had to rush something together since we returned.

This event represents one of the dilemmas I have. I am at the university as a Philosophy professor but I am sent to the university by MCC, and so I am trying to satisfy both. The obvious problem is how giving a discussion on the philosophy of Plato can be understood within my role as an MCCer. I can feel the skepticism of many Mennonites with the idea of MCC supporting a Philosophy professor.

What has happened is that I recognize several issues that might overlap the interests of both UIN and MCC. One such issue is that of the peaceful relationship between religion and political life. I have been assigned a graduate course on Global Issues and one of those issues is that of religion and public life. This is the course I will begin teaching soon and so I have yet to see how the students respond, but the material I am putting together will explore the ways in which religion and political life can peacefully relate.

I am hoping that this is in line with the expectations of both UIN and MCC. UIN is a relatively progressive Islamic institution and so I am hoping that in my class we can explore the issue of religion and politics, an issue that is particularly sensitive for Indonesians as well as Muslims. I am hoping that this also lives up to the expectations MCC had for me in creating my position. Because my position is such an unusual one, both for UIN and MCC, I am feeling my way through this.

So, I had the topic 'The Philosophy of Plato'. I decided to focus on the discussion of justice and politics in The Republic. I think my spiel went well but I had some interesting questions. One set of questions had to do with the relationship of my discussion to the politics in Indonesia. I try very hard not to make any direct connections, but only give material and tools for people to do their own reflections. There is a deep skepticism about politics here with the feeling being that it is too corrupt and that people who might be able to contribute something positive, like the some of the people here at UIN, are ignored. I tried to encourage them that being a positive example of political involvement can make a difference.

The second set of questions had to do with the relationship of philosophical reflection on justice and the teachings of Islam. Here I have to tread even more carefully. I make very clear that whatever I say, I say as a philosopher not a Christian, and that I am in no position to comment on Islamic thought. I simply present the material to the best of my ability and leave it up to the Islamic scholars to figure out if or how it connects.

For example, I presented Plato's argument that it is better to suffer injustice than to risk acting unjustly. I was told that in Islam there are times when it is permitted to kill and asked how this fit Plato's argument. I responded that, for Plato, there were very few if any conditions under which one could justly kill someone, and I gave his reasoning. This seemed to be an acceptable response though it was clear very few were buying it. I always try to be clear that I am not commenting on Islam but rather providing arguments for various positions.

The other question I had was how God fits into Plato's philosophy. This is a tricky one because I don't think God does fit in, or at least God as those of us in the Monotheistic traditions consider God. I therefore try to balance between giving an accurate account of Plato and making sure he isn't summarily dismissed. There is a stereotype among many Muslims that Western philosophy is atheistic and so I regularly get asked how God fits into the material I am teaching. I have the personal answer I give as a Christian, but I don't give that answer when I am teaching and I certainly don't give it when I am teaching here. As to the answer I give in my classes here, I tend to deflect it by pointing out that this isn't a theology class but a philosophy class and so I give a philosophical answer. The students are rarely satisfied because they want a theological answer. I am not sure I am satisfied either but at this point it is the safest answer as far as I can tell.

So, I had my forum on Plato and I think it went pretty well. I am hoping that with these sorts of events as well as through my teaching, I will be able to build enough of a reputation so that I can make some sort of difference. And I am hoping that this difference is of a kind that will satisfy UIN, MCC, and Mennonites back in N. America.


Sunday, March 23, 2008

MCC Team Retreat - Bali 03/08

We have just returned from an MCC retreat on the island of Bali. The goal of MCC retreats is to provide an opportunity for MCCers to get away from their assignments and build relationships with other MCCers that they might not otherwise see. In the case of MCC, there are people working in Papua, Java, and Aceh, places that are far from each other. Retreats usually have a guest speaker and in our case it was Lawrence and Shirley Yoder. Lawrence and Shirley have a long history of working in Indonesia with MCC and Lawrence has written two books on the Mennonite church in Indonesia.

We stayed in a nice hotel that caters primarily to backpackers. Our kids loved the pool and spent as much time in the pool as we allowed. While we adults were meeting, the kids had their own program. For the most part we stayed at the hotel though we did do some walking around Lovina. Two excursions were arranged, one to see dolphins and the other to see a Hindu temple set on an island in the middle of a lake, but we didn't go on either.

There was also a talent show night where Katie sang a song about peace. On our last evening there, the owners of the hotel brought in some Balinese dancers to entertain us. Katie says that the best part of the dancing was how the ladies used their eyes and face as part of the dancing. Another part of the show was two men dressed as monkeys who did a monkey dance. The children were encouraged to participate and enthusiastically chased the 'monkeys'.

A cold bug was going round the kids and Raina picked it up towards the end of the week. She is still coughing and has a fever.

We arrived early in Denpasar for our flight home so we spent a bit of time visiting Kuta Beach, the main tourist area in Bali. We didn't actually get to the beach, it was too hot, but spent our time eating lunch and walking around the shopping district.

We are back in Jogja where the rainy season lingers on. I am on a mid-term exam break and won't begin lecturing until the beginning of April. However, I have been asked to give a talk on Wednesday to a Philosophy/Theology club at the university. The invitation came just before we left for Bali so I am not quite prepared but hopefully I will have enough time over the next day or so to work something up.

Mia's birthday is also coming soon. As soon as she turns five, she can enter Kindergarten at school. Right now she goes to school Mon, Wed, and Friday in a pre-school program that is only half-day. This makes transportation very complicated. We car pool with another family who live near us. Having to make an extra trip to pick up Mia takes up a lot of my time. However, when she starts Kindergarten, she will join the schedule of the other kids. She loves school and is very much looking forward to going to school every day.

As for Katie, she now has braces. Her teeth have been coming in crooked and we wondered how it would work with our being in Indonesia. We were very fortunate to find an Indonesian orthodontist here in Jogja and Katie is now using a retainer. Hopefully in a year she will have train-tracks. The bonus is that it is much cheaper to have it done here.

Sara continues to grow. She spends her time at home playing with the helpers. She is still adjusting to all the changes and for example when we traveled to Bali, she clung to me most of the time. She is healthy and with no strangers around, she talks without stopping.

As for Lori, I will try and encourage her to write about herself. Her work responsibilities are not yet clearly defined and she continues to try and navigate the expectations people have for her. But I won't say anymore.

While we enjoyed the retreat, we also enjoy being home here in Jogja.