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

Month: August 2014

Deserve the truth

“What is truth?”, as Pontius Pilate asked Our Lord. I can only assume from his question that he didn’t wash his hair in TréSemmé shampoo, because they’ve got the answer written on the back of their bottles, as I keep seeing every morning in the shower. TréSemmé’s “philosophy,” they write, is based on a “simple truth:” “every woman deserves to look fabulous, like she’s just stepped out of the salon.” Well, that’s that one sorted, then, Pontius. Look no further. What is truth? Every woman deserves to look fabulous.

Except: hang on a minute. Really? Every woman deserves to look fabulous? What – Myra Hindley? Does she “deserve to look fabulous?” Rose West?

No? Then, we’ll have to modify that “simple truth” a bit, won’t we. Maybe, “some women deserve to look fabulous,” then. But I don’t think that will quite do, either, actually. It’s the word “deserve” I’m having trouble with: in what sense do women “deserve” to look fabulous? In the sense that a dog deserves a biscuit for doing a trick? Presumably not. I suppose that’s where the “every” comes in: every woman deserves it because looking fabulous is a basic, fundamental right for all women. Not sure where that leaves men – perhaps we have no right to look fabulous – but that’s the philosophy. Every woman has a fundamental right to look fabulous.

Well, it’s rubbish, isn’t it: because actually, nobody has any right whatsoever to “look fabulous,” whatever the pronouncement of some PR guru at TréSemmé. And actually, I think this “philosophy” of deserving, of having a right to something, of the world owing you a living, is quite a serious problem. Because despite it being really quite obvious that we don’t have any right to anything, it’s a philosophy that is pretty much considered common sense nowadays in the western world.

A lot of this comes from the doctrine of human rights, developed in the mid-twentieth century for very good reasons: an agreement to make sure that those with next to nothing would no longer be abused. This is, of course, quite right and proper. But there are two problems with it. First, there’s the problem that it leads to a mindset of entitlement: “I know my rights.”

But second, there’s the more fundamental problem of who exactly came up with this agreement in the first place. China, for example, when accused of human rights abuses, points out that this supposedly universal truth, that everybody has certain fundamental basic rights, actually originated from a bunch of academics in Europe, all from a Judaeo-Christian background. Nobody else had a say. So why should they listen? And they’ve got a point: actually, there is nothing fundamentally true about human rights at all. They’re a useful collective fiction, maintained by consensus if at all. But perhaps it was naive (and a trifle arrogant?) to suppose that a bunch of westerners could solve the world’s problems by getting together and making up a system of universal moral truth.

I think it has to be said, that although there was considerable input from churches in the formulation of the doctrine of human rights, and although it’s grounded in a clearly Christian set of ethics, it doesn’t actually always sit very well with the teaching of the Gospel. I think that churches should rally behind the banner of human rights as a convenient ally in improving the world, but we also have to be careful that we don’t make an idol of it, and we need to be ready to be critical when the ideal is abused, when it stops being about the genuinely needy and starts being about “everybody’s right to look fabulous,” or to have a wide-screen TV, or to go on foreign holidays, or whatever.

That idea is quite the opposite of what Jesus tells us to do today: to deny ourselves and take up our Cross. The truth is not what TréSemmé thinks, but the very opposite. The truth is that we do not deserve anything at all. The truth is that we do not have any right to anything. Everything that we have, whether it’s our looks, our money, our talents or whatever, everything is a freely given gift from God. Our duty and our joy is to learn to be thankful for this and to use it for the sake of others and for the growth of the Kingdom: and never to expect it as a right.

And isn’t that what the Eucharist teaches us, too? We come to this altar only when we have repented of our sins, acknowledged our unworthiness to receive the body and blood of Our Lord. Yet God forgives us always, He cleanses the Image in which He made us and makes us worthy vessels for Christ to offer Himself through us, and for us to receive the overflowing goodness of His love. It’s the Christian life in microcosm: repentance, forgiveness, self-offering, receiving the free gift of God’s overwhelming love, and going out to let that love overflow to those around us. This altar is where real truth, goodness and beauty reside: not inside a bottle of shampoo.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Take up your cross

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. “

I’ve known parishioners elsewhere to get understandably cross at their clergy urging them to “take up their cross” and do more every year, especially as it seems to be the ones who do most who keep responding to the call to do even more. But there is surely something every one of us can do to follow Christ more closely.

“Self-denial” is, it must be said, a pretty unpopular notion these days. Humility is hardly the virtue of our age. And there’s good reason for this: modern psychoanalysis and, frankly, a good dose of common sense shows that generations of repressed egos and the old English stiff upper lip lead to depression, self-hatred and often, sadly, to abusive and violent behaviour later in life. I don’t think the young and (increasingly) not-so-young things throwing up on the streets and starting fights on Friday nights truly love themselves, for example. So we do have to be careful about encouraging self-denial.

The problem, it seems to me, is discerning between the true self and the various false selves that surround it, like rotten onion layers. The true self is the image of God in which we are all made. It is the spirit of Christ’s self-sacrificial love which dwells within every single one of us and is just waiting to be released; the slavery which yields true freedom.

The false selves, on the other hand, are the puffed-up ideas of ourselves, the masks we wear for whatever reason as we try to live up to the demands of the outside world. The Christian tradition has a good word for these obfuscations and distortions of our true nature: sin. It’s all too easy to fall into, but a hard habit to break.

Fortunately for us, we don’t need to break sin: that has been done for us, by Christ on the Cross. What we do need to do is humbly acknowledge our sins and repent of them, knowing that God will forgive us. This is an essential part of preparation for the Eucharist, and if our general confession at the beginning of every Sunday service is merely lip-service, then we really need to think again. Repentance is the beginning of denying our false selves and growing to live in truth and freedom.

An excellent resources which you might use to prepare yourself for each Eucharist, perhaps the night before, can be found here:

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Who holds the keys?

Arriving at All Saints on Tuesday morning to celebrate mass, I found something of a furore: who has got the church keys? By the time you read this, I suspect we will know the answer. The only reason I mention it is that it ties in rather nicely with this Sunday’s passage from Matthew, where Jesus bequeathes Peter the “keys of the Kingdom.”

Without the keys to All Saints, we would not be able to open the safe to get to the various eucharistic vessels, so the keeper of those keys has quite a responsibility: he or she can provide or prevent access to the Sacrament. This is why the keys are usually in the possession of the Rector, and at the moment are most likely waiting with a Church Warden for the next incumbent, on whose appointment they will be ceremonially handed over to him or her. Even symbolically, they represent a certain authority.

According to Matthew, Jesus gives such an authority especially to Peter. By extension, it is given to all the Apostles, entrenched as they are in the shared bedrock of Peter’s faith in Christ. The precise nature of that authority, referring back to Isaiah 22, is as legitimate stewards of the truth of the Kingdom of Heaven, which in many parts of Matthew means the same thing as the Church. The Church has the authority not to declare new truths, but to declare the truth of the Law that it has been given in Christ.

We can listen to that truth, grounded in the faith of the Apostles in Christ, or we can reject it. We can find other authorities for our lives. Some are no doubt better than others. We can look around the world, especially the Middle East at the moment, and judge these various authorities by their fruits; but it is instructive to remember that God judges us by exactly the same criterion, which is the living Law of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Sermon for Trinity 7: The Feeding of the Five Thousand

So, the feeding of the five thousand. Let me start by saying: Jesus is not just showing off. This miracle is not at its heart just about Jesus proving Himself with divine powers. It’s not part of a checklist of “a hundred impossible things to believe before breakfast.” There is more to it than that.
For a start, there is the numbers: five thousand people; five loaves, plus two fish – makes seven; twelve baskets left over at the end. What would Matthew’s listeners and readers make of these? Well, not much if they were gentiles, probably, but if they were Jews – and because the numbers would make sense to Jews, it makes sense for us to assume that the target audience was indeed Jews – the numbers would be quite familiar.
Five is the number of books in the Torah, the Law of Moses, the “Pentateuch” or first five books of what we call the Old Testament. So, the five thousand and the five loaves carry an association with Moses, the Jewish people and the Law.
Seven, on the other hand, was the traditional number the Jews gave to the number of the gentile nations: the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, according to Deuteronomy. There’s one for the pub quiz.
Twelve, of course, is the number of the Tribes of Israel and, consequently, of Jesus’ Apostles.
So let’s think again about the story with these numbers in mind. Like Moses, Jesus retreats into a “desert place” at the beginning of the story; but where Moses’ gift to the Jewish nation is the five books of the Torah, Jesus’ gift to the Jews, symbolised by the number 5000, is five loaves of bread. Moses nourished his people with the written Word of the Law, but Jesus does something different: He gives living bread, bread that grows and increases and nourishes many people. And not just Jews, either. The two fish add to the five loaves to make seven, the number of the Gentiles. From now on, the bread of life will nourish all peoples.
But even once it has fed everyone, that bread is not exhausted. There is excess of it: twelve baskets full, to be precise. Enough to fill all twelve tribes of the Jews even while the Gentiles eat their fill. Enough for everyone.
So what does this miracle say to us today? Today’s Collect can help us towards an answer to that. You may like to have a look at it again:
“Lord of all power and might, which art the author and giver of all good things; graft in our hearts the love of thy name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of thy great mercy keep us in the same.”
This ancient prayer was collated by the fifth century Pope Gelasius and translated by Cranmer for the first English Prayer Book of 1549. Notice the powerful series of verbs: graft, increase, nourish, keep. God gives us a little piece of the bread of life to sow the seed of His love in our hearts; thanks to His work in us, it grows and increases within us, like the five loaves, nourishing not just us who receive it, but overspilling to those around us; and so it keeps us all together in God’s true religion, the Christian religion not of the stale word of laws but of the living Word who is Christ Himself, our bread of life.

And how do we receive that bread? Well, that should be obvious. Surely that is the reason why we, with the whole Church around the world, gather at His altar today.  
The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

The Great War and the Twentieth Century: Taking the Kingdom of Heaven by Storm

It didn’t take a war to tell the world at the threshold of the twentieth century that a new age was on its way. Half the map was coloured pink, won by British Imperial might, driven forward by rapid innovations in military and industrial technology. Evolution was in, God was dead, and philosophers like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer prophesied with glee the selective breeding of a new superman to replace Him, unfettered by the stale dogma and bourgeois moralism of the past. On the British Left, the Fabians, including one Winston Churchill at the time, championed the new science of Eugenics, and sought to engineer a new world order from which the weak and deficient elements of the gene pool would be eradicated: “The multiplication of the feeble-minded,” wrote our future Prime Minister in 1910 to his predecessor in that role, “is a very terrible danger to the race.” The artistic and musical world clamoured for revolution and wanted it won by arms: in 1914, the composers Ravel and Schoenberg were among the chief rattlers of the sabres so recently forged from ploughshares. And not just sabres, but deadlier weapons, now: breech-loading rifles, machine guns, aeroplanes, even rudimentary tanks. With our new technology and industrial might, we could manufacture death like never before, systematise it, sanitise it, even sanctify it: for yes, we were told, this was a holy war. No more waiting for the Kingdom of Heaven: it was time to take it, break it, remake it in our own image.

Yet for all its modern trappings, the First War still had a foot sunk deeply in more venerable ways of brutality. Field medics would find themselves treating not just bullet wounds or the atrocities of artillery bombardment, but the almost mediaeval lesions of sword and lance, limbs severed, raw bone exposed. Men fought on horseback: one million of the animals were requisitioned from farmers by the British Army alone, leaving the people at home hungry for want of the harvest. And old-fashioned methods were applied to modern maladies, still not understood, for all our forebears’ confidence in their new science. Men we would now know as suffering post-traumatic disorders, brain damage, shell shock and the like, were simply lined up and shot as deserters if they staggered from their post.

So much for the brave new world. So much for the patriotic sermons, so much for the patriotic songs: “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag And smile, smile, smile.” So much for the miracles of modern science ending all those old troubles, so much for the war to end all wars: the unfortunate but necessary, surgical solution to all our ancient ills.

We are now well into the new age, and looking back over the twentieth century, we can see the benefits it yielded: the advances of modern medicine, travel, communications, food production technology, for a start. But we must not blind ourselves to the cost, a cost which haunts us still. Our leaders were like children playing with lethal toys, and we loved to try them out.

We tried our technological innovation in the Blitzkrieg, in the gas chambers, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in Agent Orange, in the cluster bomb, in biological and chemical weapons and all the myriad tools of modern warfare.

We tried our political hubris and newfound certainties in the doomed and deadly experiments of Imperialism, Communism, Fascism, and we feel their ripples still in Islamism and strident Neoconservatism. The crayons our masters used to scribble out new borders for the world have turned to serpents in their chubby little fists.

Let’s step back now to 1914. The mood was exuberant. But it only took a couple of years for people to see what was ahead, and this caused a loss of faith in the new order. The artists and musicians who had been tearing up the old conventions, confronted with the barbarity now being unleashed, retreated back to safer, more familiar classical modes. Ravel recanted. Painters who had once turned people into series of squares and blotches went back to showing them as human beings, dying among the wires. The new artistic register, the languages of the new age, just could not express the full breadth of human emotion encountered in the trenches and the eastern fields. For a while, at least, we walked back on older, more familiar paths.

So it was with religion. Clergy at home preached the sixteenth century Protestant novelty that the dead were dead and God had made his mind up about them, so there was no point in praying for them. But this did not ring true for the men and their chaplains abroad, nor for the relatives left behind to mourn them. Again, they retreated to the older ways of the Christian Church, and soon, for the first time since the Reformation, Requiem Masses were being sung in English parishes again. People needed to believe that God was not deaf to their appeals for their men who died perhaps with the enemies’ bloodstains on their immortal souls.

People also needed that basic certainty of the old faith which modern liberal religion at the time risked eroding: namely, the truth of the Incarnation, that God the Son really had walked the earth among us as Jesus Christ. They needed to know that God was not some distant satrap or fanciful theory, but that He had truly lived and suffered and died as bloodily as they and their kin. And it was only in the light of His historic sacrifice on the Cross, only by their participation in it through Baptism and the Eucharist of the Church, that many found meaning in their own sacrifices in that otherwise frankly quite meaningless War. Through the Cross, they were given hope in the promise of a true new world order, a promise made millenia ago, and one which would not rely on barbarity and slaughter to bring it to fruition: the Kingdom of Heaven, where swords would turn to ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks.

That promise was (and is) yet to be realised. As the detritus of the Great War settled, the new certainties fought back to replace the old: the new religions of Bolshevism, Fascism, nationalism, eugenics, all promising their own home-made utopias. Look at the fallout of Russian socialism, Islamist anti-Semitism, Israeli nationalism, Anglo-American consumer capitalism, and decide for yourself if any of the -isms are going to bring us to a glorious new world. But, whatever certainty you might choose, and whatever you think of the Christian promise, the First World War surely proved us right on one thing: the Kingdom of Heaven cannot be taken by storm.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

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