Fr Thomas Plant, Tokyo-based Anglican priest and comparative theologian

Month: March 2011

Thoughts on the Tsunami

I hope you will forgive me for a few words on wordlessness.

There is a strange kind of Christianity that always has a fixed smile on its face; the kind that thinks that people get what they deserve, that if you pray hard enough, everything will always be OK. I think the recent events in Japan should make us very sceptical of this kind of religion. It does not tie in with the deaths of thousands of innocent people. And it does not tie in with the words of Jesus himself, who taught that it rains on the just and the unjust alike. Even the book of the Bible that deals most explicitly with the problem of terrible things happening to good people, the Book of Job, is ultimately inconclusive. A Christianity that gives easy answers to painful questions does nobody any favours. Indeed, faith if anything should only make us question more deeply.

Nor does the idea that people get what they deserve tie in with the God who, we believe, knew suffering and torture on the Cross. One who knows a thousand loves knows a thousand sufferings; and we believe in a God who suffered precisely because He loves. When those we love suffer, we suffer too.

I cannot presume to speak for my Buddhist readers, and I hope that I do not speak out of turn. Please forgive me if anything I say is ignorant or simplistic; I speak with deepest respect. But during my studies, I have learnt much from the work of Shinran Shōnin, founder of the Jōdo Shinshū, Japan’s largest Buddhist school. In his view, the one who realises enlightenment, the end of suffering, returns in the Buddha’s great compassion to this world of suffering to guide others along the way. Indeed, Shinran believes that ultimate enlightenment can only be realised when all sentient beings have realised it. One person’s suffering will finally end only when all suffering has ended. This strikes me as great compassion indeed.

Such compassion was the theme of the Emperor of Japan, when he said on television yesterday: “I hope from the bottom of my heart that the people will, hand in hand, treat each other with compassion and overcome these difficult times.” ‘Compassion’ is simply the Latin word for the Greek ‘sympathy;’ and sympathy literally means ‘suffering together.’ Questions about why this has happened – angry questions, theological questions – have their place. But right now, the answer to the question, ‘where is your God now?’ will not be answered by engaging in verbal acrobatics to get Him off the hook. It will be answered only by showing compassion; by suffering with those who suffer, mourning with those who mourn, weeping with those who weep: because the Gospel of Christ, like the wisdom of the Buddha, is too deep to express with such blunt tools as words.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

This Lent, you must be perfect

You must be perfect. 

You have heard that it was said, you shall love your neighbour. To love your neighbour only is not enough. The old law is too easy: even the pagans can manage that. I say to you, love your enemies.  You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

If only. But even the first law, love your neighbour, the law that Jesus says is easy, seems too hard for us. So we hear reports of elderly patients abandoned to their ailments in NHS care. We hear of ‘honour killings,’ where not just neighbours but even family betray their sisters, daughters, wives. And even we live only streets away from people living homeless and despised, and seem as a society unable to care for them. To be honest, most of my neighbours – even most members of this college – I hardly know from Adam: so how can I love them? Yet this, Jesus asserts, even the pagans do.

If I can hardly love my neighbour, what chance have I of loving my enemy too? Pray for those who persecute you, Jesus says: if they strike you once, turn the other cheek. If they punch you down, stand up and give them another go. If they take your coat, give them your shirt also. And not just this, but love them! Is this the precept I must follow to be perfect: perfect, as my heavenly Father is perfect?

“Behold,” says the psalmist, “I long for your precepts. Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it.”

If only, if only.

If only I did long to turn the other cheek, to love my enemy and my neighbour too. But there’s not much in me that wants to be downtrodden and abused. So many of the precepts of the Lord seem too hard for me: I do not long for them – at best, I only long to long for them.

But as I realise my utter inability to do as Jesus commands, as I see my lack of love and come to know that I cannot contrive it, all that is left is to trust in the Lord. So with the psalmist, I can only pray: teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes. For I have not come to love them yet. And as I pray the Lord to teach me, I begin to see that He already has, by His own example. Did His neighbours not become His enemies? Did they not strike Him down?

Christ is risen and lives again. We are baptised into His death, for Him to come and dwell in us. It is not our love, but His that lives again in us, the Spirit of Love that animates the Body of His Church. The Lord does not command impossible things, but the love that he commands, through His action on the Cross He provides.

So do not worry if you personally do not feel love for neighbour or for enemy. The love that Christ has shown us is not the love of sentiment, of feelings or emotions. At times, even He gave it grudgingly, and seemed to resent His Father’s call.

Rather, the love He shows is love of action. Action which we, individually, often fail to take. Action which the Church itself has often woefully neglected. But action which, by the new life of the Spirit given us through Christ, is still the Church’s true foundation, and still, I think, bears fruit overall.

Notwithstanding his more controversial readings, these are the times I give thanks for St Paul. The Kingdom of love that Jesus heralds and the Body of Christ foreshadows in embryonic form will not be built, he says, by our own efforts, our attempts to keep God’s precepts, our faltering love of neighbour, enemy or laws. No other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. We build only on that foundation. The loving action we effect is the gift of love He gives. Be perfect, Christ commands: but that perfection is out of our hands. No house is built except that God builds it, on the foundation of love which is not of human hands but the work of God alone.

Incline our hearts to your testimonies, O Lord, and teach us to love your Law. Amen.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Islands in the wilderness: privatisation of marriage in New Hampshire

Temptations, temptations.  One of the many is to believe that we know better than our forebears.  But it ain’t necessarily so.  Sometimes even new wineskins burst, and it’s all the more a pity when they are filled with a sturdy vintage. 

A friend on Facebook recently posted that New Hampshire is considering a bill to privatize marriage. The state government would no longer issue marriage licenses; instead, it would grant domestic partnerships to any legally consenting individuals.  Well, almost any.  As long as there are only two of them, and they’re not too closely related by blood. 

Yet if marriage is really just a private contract between individuals, presumably there should be nothing to stop multiple-partner, incestuous or even fixed-term ‘marriages,’ either.
I could ask by prospective partner for an 18-month contract with the possibility of an extension at the end, presumably with an initial low-rate tariff.  Some people may think this is fine, but it does rather ask what the term ‘marriage’ would continue to mean.

The main misunderstanding of marriage in secular western societies seems to me the idea that it is a matter for two private individuals, where in the Christian understanding from which it originated, it remains very much a public act of commitment not only to one another but to one’s community and family.

The question is whether governments should be concerned to promote the communal vision of society that they used to take for granted, or whether they exist only to mediate between private individuals. The latter would imply a more reductive and individualistic notion of society than has ever been known. To me, the mantra that ‘choice is all’ seems rather too comfortably compatible with free-market capitalism and the polarisation of power that it implies.  Marriage becomes a commodity for sale.  In this instance, as with all important financial contracts, it particularly leaves room for those freely consenting adults who have not had the benefit of an education in commercial law to fall into one-sided and abusive arrangements.

New Hampshire seems to want to have it both ways: to make ‘marriage’ an entirely private and voluntary free contract without reference to religious mores, but still to exert control over certain aspects – such as ensuring it remains monogamous and non-incestuous. I wonder on what grounds it wishes to impose these restrictions?

In the case of New Hampshire, both are in origin Christian religious dictates. Of course, monogamous and non-incestuous marriage can be found in many (though not all) other societies. But it is through Christianity that they have been assimilated into European, and by extension, American culture. It is a matter of historical fact, not of faith, that our society and laws were founded on Christian assumptions, whether we like it or not.  Nonetheless, one can justify monogamy and the illegality of incest not only from a Christian perspective, but from that of other ideologies.

My point is that secular liberalism is not one of them.

If the basic grounding of society is individual autonomy, then the natural conclusion is surely that individuals should be free to associate in ‘marriage’ contracts exactly as they wish, including polygamous or incestuous arrangements. It’s quite simply their own business to do as they will. This to me seems to be perfectly logical from a secular liberal perspective. After all, if the government’s only job is to allow the greatest possible freedom to individuals, why should it stop them making contracts between any number? And since such a contract would not necessarily be consummated by sex, as Christian marriage necessarily is, why not an incestuous civil partnership between blood relations? Then, even if it were sexual but one partner was incapable of procreation, why on libertarian grounds should the state intervene?

The more I probe at secularist convictions, the more I believe that for all their talk of ‘reason,’ they are little more than an incoherent watering down of the Christian tenets which they affect to disown or despise.  In other words, I think that secular liberals are deceiving themselves when they try to make out that presuppositions inherited from the culturally specific Christian heritage that they disavow are in fact universal truths – such as the monogamous or non-incestuous nature of marriage, for example. These simply cannot be defended adequately on the premise of individualism.

So either the secular liberal needs to accept that marriage should be an entirely free contract between any number of free individuals whoever they may be, or to acknowledge the source of the prejudices which prevents them from doing so. I use the word ‘prejudice’ advisedly – for a Christian, it is not prejudice because it is rationally compatible with the Christian belief-system. The same might be said for a Jew or a political conservative or even some kinds of socialist, for example. But for the secular liberal, with whose beliefs it is rationally incompatible, it is nothing but a prejudice.

Freedom of the individual alone cannot offer a stable basis for society. This is not to say that the individual is unimportant or lacks freedom of will, but that the individual exists only within society, and that one person’s freedoms impact upon another’s. ‘No man is an island,’ and in the discussion of marriage, we would be well-minded to remember this, our society’s older and better foundation.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Ash Wednesday: Giving up love for Lent

Today begins the greater penitential season.  We have doubtless heard much, as every year, in its run-up about ‘taking things on’ rather than ‘giving things up’ for Lent.  So much so, perhaps, that it is in danger of becoming (like so much other church-talk) a platitude. 

It ceases to be so first when we realise that ‘taking on’ is in fact a kind of ‘giving up.’  It is a giving up of time, of effort, of other more enjoyable things.

Second, it is no platitude if we realise that giving up something for Lent is not the same as ‘giving up’ in standard usage.  It is not the giving up of resignation, of handing in one’s work card or hanging up one’s soccer boots.  It is not giving up for God.  It is giving up to God, giving upwards, giving in the sense of gift. 

God does not need our gift, of course.  We cannot buy God’s favour. 

Nor do we need to give the gift.  We do not get anything back for it. 

But exactly this makes it the truest kind of gift, in that it is utterly free.  We give it freely and God receives it freely, with no compulsion, no necessity on either side.  It is that absolute freedom in which God gave us creation and life, and in the same freedom we return ourselves to Him. 

In short, if we do it properly, what we give up at Lent – even if we do so by taking something on – is the totally unnecessary gift of love.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

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