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

Month: October 2018

The hubris of humanism

“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”

So begins one of my favourite books in the Bible: Ecclesiastes, the Preacher. His message? Basically: everything is meaningless. All our work, all our effort, ends in one thing: death. Everything that we achieve will one day be forgotten. “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.” I’m pretty sure that if Ecclesiastes walked into a Clinton Cards shop and saw all the Hallmark motivational messages – “you make a difference,” “life is a story you write as you go,” “your only limit is you” – he’d probably laugh, rip them off the walls, and either burn them or just use them for toilet paper, if he was in good mood. Happy Monday, everyone.

I wrote a little last week about the biblical books of prophecy, and how we need to be like the prophets, speaking truth to power. Well, Ecclesiastes is part of a different collection of Old Testament books called the “Wisdom” books. The other ones are the Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiasticus (not to be confused with Ecclesiastes) and the book we just heard from: Wisdom (clue in the title). They are all different, but there is a common theme: wisdom is the highest thing we can seek – more beautiful and precious than gold – and as Proverbs puts it, the beginning of Wisdom is the “fear of the Lord.”

Wait – fear? What can fear have to do with a God we’re told to call “love?”

Well, one of the greatest dangers, it seems to me, of a world where God is not feared, where his existence is considered an irrelevant speculation, is that we humans start to think that we are in charge. And that is a truly terrifying prospect.

We think that because someone somewhere discovered electricity, we are all wonderfully clever, even if all we ourselves can do is push the button to switch on the telly.

We think that because there is food on the shelves of our Tescos, water in our taps and cisterns, air we can still just about breathe in the sky, it will always remain so.

We think that with our technological advances, we can control the environment, we can make the world a perfect place to live for all.

Well, Ecclesiastes has news for us: we haven’t done a very good job so far. And as the world polarises between the rich and poor, between abusers of the environment and its victims, humans versus humans, humans versus nature, as we tamper with delicate ecosystems and social structures – I don’t see the world becoming a better and better place day by day.

If there’s no God, there’s a danger that we see ourselves as gods, set over nature rather than being just one really quite recent part of it. Yet scientists are well aware that we do not have the intelligence or the information to master this world, we do not have a “theory of everything,” and there are things about which we probably never can know. We have limits.

Post-human artificial intelligences may be able to work it out – but what will the motives and interests of disembodied intellects like theirs be in a universe of matter? What use will they have for animals or trees – or us? Food for thought.

Ecclesiastes does not give us an answer. He concludes that the greatest wisdom is to realise just how unwise we human beings are. “I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly,” he says (with typical levity); “I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” I’ve always thought that would make a good motto for a school.

I do have hope: but it’s not in humanity. The best I think we can do is to try to be like God instead of trying to be gods. I mean, rather than being like the capricious deities of pagan Greece and Rome who seek only their own advantage, selfish users and abusers of people, animals and natural resources, we must become more like the God revealed in Christ: the good shepherd, the loving and nurturing parent, the suffering servant who enters creation and takes in it a humble part. Certainly, let’s use all our skills and power to repair and nurture what is left of this world, including one another; but let’s have the wisdom and humility to know our place: within Creation, and not above, it. 

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Moses: a model leader for our times?

The Lord came down in the Cloud. He spoke with Moses, but took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. When the spirit came on them they prophesied, but not again. 
Two men had stayed back in the camp; one was called Eldad and the other Medad. The spirit came down on them; though they had not gone to the Tent, their names were enrolled among the rest. These began to prophesy in the camp. The young man ran to tell this to Moses, ‘Look,’ he said ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.’ Then said Joshua the son of Nun, who had served Moses from his youth, ‘My Lord Moses, stop them!’ Moses answered him, ‘Are you jealous on my account? If only the whole people of the Lord were prophets, and the Lord gave his Spirit to them all!’ – Numbers 11:26-34
Numbers: the fourth book of the Bible, which probably wins the prize for the least exciting title, but nonetheless contains some interesting stories. We’re going back here way before the time of Jesus. Moses has liberated his fellow Jews from generations of enslavement by the Egyptians. They set up an elaborate camp at Mount Sinai with a tent or tabernacle at its centre, marking the presence of the Lord. This is where Moses had his meetings with God, as it were; where he prays for guidance about leading his people to the promised land: and he’s been told that it’s time to strike camp, and move on. So, that’s what they do.
But as they move further into the wilderness of the desert of Paran, the people start to get fed up. They’re tired of the miraculous manna-bread that God has given them: they want something more. Sadly, ice-cream had not been invented yet, but you get the idea. They start to challenge and question Moses’ authority, and that of his right hand man, Joshua. There is a danger that Moses will be overthrown.
So, you can see why Joshua gets a bit tetchy when Moses summons the seventy elders he has appointed to help him govern the people to God’s tabernacle, and two of them stay outside in the camp. These two, Eldad and Medad, start speaking out prophecies of their own, just like Moses does. Joshua doesn’t like this: only Moses is supposed to prophecy, only Moses has those special meetings with God – and if Moses’ power is challenged, then how could Joshua ever become leader himself? Arrest them, he says, throw them in gaol. Who do they think they are, speaking up against their leader?
I was going to say, now just imagine a modern leader of a nation being publicly criticised by his close deputies and senior figures in his own administration, and what he might say or do in response. But you don’t really need an imagination to do that at the moment. You only need to watch the news. Or Twitter.
I don’t think many of our world leaders today would say what Moses said. “No need to be jealous! Let them speak! If only everybody would speak out for the sake of the truth all the time!”
Moses could see that Eldad and Medad were inspired, in the true sense of the word: they had been ‘breathed into,’ they were ‘in’ the ‘spirit’ – in-spired. Jews, Christians and Muslims alike believe that people throughout history have been inspired to be prophets like them, people who speak with the full truth of the spirit of God, whatever the personal cost to them: whether it’s biblical prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel or John the Baptist, or more modern prophets like Martin Luther King or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Christian pastor who died for speaking the truth to the Nazi regime.
Christians, who believe that we receive the Holy Spirit at Baptism, have a duty to be prophets: not just to jump onto the most convenient bandwagon, not unthinkingly to take sides on controversial topics, but to retain a critical perspective, to seek always to speak truth to those in power. I hope that all of us, whether we consider ourselves Christian or not, can be inspired by the example of the prophets to do just that: and by Moses’ example, to hear and allow criticism from those with different views, especially from those who have less power and influence than ourselves.
The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Do not be afraid

Now, we all know that God isn’t some kind of white-haired old man sitting on a throne up in the clouds – but wait a minute! – that is just how the Old Testament prophet Daniel sees him in a vision: a white-haired old man sitting on a throne up in the clouds. Surrounded by fire and angels, ten thousand times ten thousand all around.
The Bible is full of pictures of God. Most of them are not of an old man at all. A cloud of darkness at the top of a mountain, a pillar of fire, a burning bush, the sound of thunder, a still, small voice of calm, a potter, a rock, a gardener, a warrior, a mother, a builder, even a drunk waking up with a hangover: all these are different pictures of God from the Bible.
They are not all as comforting as the “white-haired grandad in the sky.” Nor can they all work at once: some are contradictory. How can God be both cloud and fire? Both father and mother? Both still small voice of calm and destructive thunder? It doesn’t make sense.
And that’s the point. God is not meant to “make sense.” The idea behind having all this different, contradictory images is that whatever “God” is, is beyond anything that we can imagine, certainly beyond anything we can put into merely human words. Language is just too blunt a tool. St John writes that no one can see God and live: it’s impossible. “Seeing God” would blow our tiny little minds.
This is where angels come in.
The word “angel” comes from the Greek word angelos, meaning ‘messenger:’ hence the ‘Ev-angel-ists,’ the writers of the Gospels, are the ones who give the eu angelion, the ‘Good Message’ or ‘Good News.’ Yet angels in the Bible are much more than just messengers. The Greek theological tradition calls them dynameis, ‘dynamic things,’ the powers or activities of God. The idea is, that because we cannot cope with seeing God, he reveals himself to people through the angels, who adopt some form which humans can just about comprehend.
But even then, angels in the Bible are not straightforward. Thanks to Christmas cards, we tend to think of them as pretty androgynes with dove-like wings, or even chubby little flying babies. Angels in the Bible are nowhere near so tame. They are described in all kinds of ways: angels with six wings, angels with four faces, angels with animal heads, angels like flying snakes, angels covered in eyes. You can see why the first thing angels say when they visit people in the Bible, is “do not be afraid!” Even just seeing an angel is enough to drive people cowering to their knees. Even the angels are almost beyond imagination – let alone God himself.
And yet, Daniel’s vision prophesied that someone would come like a “Son of Man,” and would be greater even than the angels, even closer to that unimaginable Godhead, a king and ruler of all forever. As far as Christians are concerned, that Son of Man is Jesus – if you like, the ultimate “angel,” because in him that invisible, incomprehensible reality we call “God” becomes a person we really can imagine, relate to and love.
The ancients thought that the sky was a place miles away from us. We know now that the sky is all around us: it is the air we breathe and live in. The idea of the angels tells us that heaven is not in a cloud miles away from us, but that the spiritual realm is all around us, invisible, like the air we breathe. The Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths teach that all around us, the angelic armies are there, invisibly waging their spiritual warfare against evil, and that they can help us defeat the evil within ourselves.
Is there really a spiritual battle going on around us? Look at the news; look at the world – and I’ll leave you to decide.
The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

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