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

Month: November 2018

Serve God, and be happy – a homily for the Solemnity of Christ the King

Jesus said, “my Kingdom is not of this world.”

This week’s news reports a dramatic rise in mental health problems, including depression, among children and teenagers.

I wonder why young people seem to be getting less happy? In some ways, they have more than they’ve ever had. Luxury goods like electronics are cheaper than ever, and it’s hard to find even a really poor family without a TV, or a teenager without a mobile phone and some sort of gaming device.  So how can we be less happy than the generation of old boys I met on Saturday night, whose main entertainment used to be an early morning run and a cold jug of water over the head from Matron?

Part of the answer, I think, is written in the motto of Lichfield Cathedral: inservi Deo et laetare. Serve God and be happy – the two things are linked.

Really? How could serving anyone, or anything, let alone God, make you happy? Isn’t happiness about getting what I want, not doing what someone else wants? Sure, that’s what this world teaches us, the messages that infiltrate our minds every day: buy the right things, wear the right clothes, go on the right holidays, watch the right films, go on the right diet, get the right body, listen to the right music – and you will be happy. Happiness is something you can buy, as long as you’ve got the cash or the power to take it.

But that’s not what the stats on mental health seem to be saying, at all.

When I was a parish priest back in Camden Town, I worked with a lot of very unhappy people. Drug addicts, street drinkers, homeless people, people who really had nothing, whose clothes were sometimes literally stolen off their backs. Sometimes the rich, too, worried about the next mortgage payment and whether they could keep their high-paced jobs, on the verge of breakdown from stressful careers. Poor or rich, mental health problems were the common denominator.

There were times I despaired. We could offer prayer and sanctuary, warmth, kindness, tea and blankets, and parishioners even set up a free legal advice clinic, but there was no way a poor church with one priest and elderly volunteers could plug the gaps in state welfare provision.

Then we found something that did work. It was called Camerados, an organisation set up by a local psychologist, Dr Charlie Howard. She had made a simple but profound discovery: to be happy, people need purpose. Give people a service, and they become dependent, start to feel useless. Get people helping each other, and they feel they have a reason to live. They get happy. 

With help from Camerados, we set up a living room, sofas and all, in the church garden. We put a piano out there, and instead of us just giving people tea and blankets, the people themselves gave each other whatever they could – from food and drink through to games of chess, a singalong or French lessons. We made an anti-social space into a social space. And mostly, it worked. People found happiness not from getting, but from giving. People found happiness in serving.

The Kingdom of Heaven is not a place. It is not just somewhere the happy few go when they die. It is a nation here and now, without land or borders, made up of those who serve Christ as their King. His Kingdom, his kingship, is a sharp critique of the rule and power of this world, which spins the lie that happiness is won by wealth or might. It is a country where those currencies have no value, where self-giving love is the gold standard, where the rate of exchange is measured against the payment for sin by death on a Cross – where the richest is the one who gives himself completely away.

If we together live as those who serve this King, then even though we may not feel happy all the time, we may yet find in his Kingdom the deeper and enduring happiness which he wants for this world. So: inservi Deo et laetare. 

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Jesus: God back from the future

Mark 13:24-32

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘In those days, after the time of distress, the sun will be darkened, the moon will lose its brightness, the stars will come falling from heaven and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory; then too he will send the angels to gather his chosen from the four winds, from the ends of the world to the ends of heaven. ‘Take the fig tree as a parable: as soon as its twigs grow supple and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. So with you when you see these things happening: know that he is near, at the very gates. I tell you solemnly, before this generation has passed away all these things will have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. ‘But as for that day or hour, nobody knows it, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son; no one but the Father.’

This Sunday’s Gospel reading is about the end of universe. I didn’t choose it: it’s the reading given by the Lectionary for the Sunday that has just passed. Why? Because while the calendar year still has another month to go, we are coming to the end of the Church year: next Sunday, in fact, will be the last, with the Feast of Christ the King. Then the Church year starts again with Advent. But before we start our period of meditative waiting for the new birth of Christ, the Church wants us to ponder how the universe is going to end.
To put things into context, you may not have known that in Jesus’ time, the great philosophers and astronomers of the time did not think that the universe would ever end. For that matter, they didn’t believe that the universe had a beginning, either. It wasn’t until much later, in the twentieth century, that the astronomer Fr Georges Lemaitre proposed the theory that the universe did have a beginning – a theory which, as I have mentioned before, most scientists at the time laughed of as some sort of ‘Big Bang.’ Until then, it was only suspect religious types who believed that the universe had a beginning and would one day come to an end.
Charles Darwin, for example, had no scientific reason to believe that the universe had a beginning or would end when he developed his theory of evolution in the nineteenth century. His theory took account only of the biological world, not of the entire cosmos: he saw it as a process of plant and animal life. But what, I wonder, if evolution describes the lives of stars and planets, too? What if our world is just one part of a giant, cosmic evolution?
This is a question which was very much on the mind of another priest-scientist, the 20th century Jesuit geologist Fr Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
Teilhard points out that in both science and theology, we tend to look backwards. Whether we are thinking of the evolution of species or the cause of creation, we tend to ask about origins: where things came from, and especially us. The scientist describes the causes and effects which had led to things being as they are, including natural selection, while the theologian ponders why anything should exist in the first place at all, and whether there is any pattern or purpose to it rather than just blind chance.
But Teilhard suggests that we should look at things the other way around. The Christian religion, he says, is not so much about where the universe came from, as where it is going. Our focus needs to be at least as much on the future as the past. After all, if God is beyond all time and space, then he is as much in the future as he is in the past. We think of Christ as the Word of God pre-existing with the Father before all time, but he is just as much after all time, too: in a way, Jesus is God coming back from the future, to show us what that future is meant to be like. Jesus is traditionally understood as being 100% human and 100% divine, and Teilhard saw this as the pinnacle of evolution – Jesus came to bring all of creation, the entire cosmos, to its final consummation when everything becomes entirely one with him: all things become one in Christ.
According to Teilhard, Jesus’ suffering and death on the Cross are a model for how the universe evolves. Jesus himself says that terrible things happen both in earth – wars, earthquakes, famine; and in the skies or heavens – the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, the stars will fall, which is a poetic way of saying that the universe will finally die. And yet, he says, though this may all be terrible, without suffering, there can be no new life, no resurrection. Creation isn’t over, it’s still happening now, and we are a part of something greater still to come.
At this point, I must admit that I finding myself asking how much comfort this gives to people, real, individual people, who do suffer and die through the many horrors of this world. Teilhard said that we are not just separate individuals but are parts of the evolving mind of the entire universe towards its culmination in God. But, as I said last week, it’s not enough to say you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.
So, I’m still wrestling with many of Teilhard’s ideas, but he does offer a creative way for Christian thought to engage with and even add to the picture of the universe being built by science. He leaves us with an open-ended universe in which further evolution is not just possible, but desirable. He also leaves us with a refreshing change of focus, some new questions: does the evolution of the human mind suggest there is some driving purpose to the universe? What is at the end of time, towards which everything in the universe is being pulled?
He also gives a modern take on the traditional teaching about the Eucharist, in which divinity transforms the created matter of bread and wine, so as to transform us and perfect us. Perhaps there is something to seeing the whole universe as a kind of great Eucharist, in the process of being transfigured, evolved into a perfect oneness of creator and creation where finally, all can be at peace.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

WW1: A step towards a better world?

A popular view in the West is that history is the story of human progress. In the old days, people were ignorant, mired in superstitious beliefs enforced by a Church which suppressed learning so that it could hold onto its power over the human mind. Thankfully, the age of Enlightenment dawned over the dark ages, liberating us from these shackles, and by the power of pure reason we have progressed onwards to the happy days we now enjoy. Left to our own devices, humans are basically good. Modernity is better than the past, and we can make this world perfect.
If the events of the twentieth century have not disabused us of this myth, then I do not know what will.
The First World War: 20 million dead, thanks to marvels of modern technology.
The “war to end all wars?” Hardly.
Because then, there’s the Second World War: 60 million dead, including 9 million civilians systematically exterminated by mechanical processes in the Nazi camps and 80,000 killed by the new atom bombs dropped on Japan, but not including the extra 55000 who died of radiation poisoning later.
The Korean War: 36,914 deaths.
The list could go on. Apparently, in the twentieth century as a whole, some 123 million people died in war. And that’s not even counting the peacetime deaths of the Communist regime: 120 million civilians executed by their own governments, in the name of reason and equality.
Is this story of human progress?
Is this carnage an essential step in our evolution towards something better?
Undoubtedly, we’re better at many things nowadays than we used to be: healthcare and medicine, communications, making machines to take the drudgery out of work – which is great for those of us who can afford such things. Poorer people are gradually benefiting from some of these technologies, too.
But what it seems we’ve become best at is killing each other. Not to mention other species, or plant life. We’ve managed to kill off 500 species of other animals in the last hundred years alone.
Perhaps you will point to advances in Western society, about how much kinder we are to ethnic and sexual minorities, and this is surely both good and true. The Church has often had a poor record in this regard, with some noble exceptions. But if you believe on the whole that our neighbourhoods are kinder and safer and people are friendlier now than they once were, I suggest you ask your grandparents their opinion.
War, nuclear bombs, destruction and pollution of crops and seas, genocide of human races and animal species – all in the name of progress. All sacrifices for the future perfect world we are going to build. Can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs, perhaps?
I’m not convinced. If anything, I think that the modern Western story of progress is a myth – one which will bring us and the rest of the world to even further disintegration and devastation. And at the heart of the myth is this: that we are in charge. That we are the highest beings in existence. That humanity is above nature, rather than just one part of it.
But there are other stories: older stories, told and preserved in the religious traditions of the world. We have one of our own.
In this story, the creator saw that each element of the world was good long before humanity came onto the scene. Humanity is not the pinnacle of evolution: we are just one creature among others, and we are brothers and sisters to everything else in existence, not just animals but even plants and rocks, because infinitely above us is the One who made us.
In this story, what is evil in the world comes through us putting ourselves in the place of God, stealing the fruit from the forbidden tree. If the world is broken, it is only because we have broken it. There is nobody and nothing else to blame.
And yet, in this story, however much we keep breaking each other and everything else, the Creator does not destroy us but keeps on loving his children. We cannot repay the creator for all the evil has species has done, and so he pays himself, by becoming one of us. He shows what we are meant to be like, not by taking power over the world, but by giving himself for the world on the Cross.
The Cross offers an alternative model of history in which the suffering of other people and other species is not written off as a step towards some mythical progress: rather, it shows how we must suffer and give ourselves to be reconciled with one another and with our maker. In this story, it is not within our power to make a perfect world by force. In this story, God has given us enough, but we are too foolish to see it and to share it, and so instead, without him, we grasp, and take and exclude. The best we can do is not to take for ourselves, but to give all we can for the sake of others – and not just human others. We must have the wisdom to know when to act and create, but also when to withdraw and let be, and to let God do the rest.
The Church has failed to live up to its own story and still does. It cannot claim a monopoly on truth. But of the two stories – the story of human progress, or the Christian story – which do you think is closer to the truth? 
Which is more likely to prevent the events we remember from 100 years ago from happening again? 
Which story do you want to play a role in?
The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Salvation and Science: The Transhuman Future

Medical and technological advancements mean that humans can increasingly augment themselves. Biotechnology and nanotech are predicted to accelerate these changes rapidly in the near future. 
Might we one day eliminate all disease, mechanically or genetically augment our brains, choose new designer bodies, or even live forever? Might we go further still, and transcend our bodies altogether, living as pure mind in the aether? 
Questions arise as to how far we can and should push these limits. Advocates for transhumanism argue for radically augmented human lives. Some posthumanists foresee an age where the distinction between biological and artificial intelligence is completely eroded, and might even argue that the category of ‘human’ will no longer have any significance. Some argue that we should even become antihuman
These are common tropes in science fiction literature and film. The cyberpunk genre, generally considered to have been founded by William Gibson in the 1980s with his Neuromancer novel, explores the interaction between human and machine. But even before that, writers such as Phillip K. Dick had been imagining new futures for a hypertechnologised humanity. 
A new television series, Netflix’s Altered Carbon, considers the possibilities of eternal life and reincarnation potentially offered by new technologies (in this case, alien technology, though arguably, memory transfer may be theorised without recourse to such a deus ex machina). Far more radically, Dan Simmons’ novels of the Hyperion Cantos draw on Christian and Buddhist thought to posit new generations of technologically augmented humans so evolutionary distinct that any commonality is eroded, such that maximisation of difference and individual choice becomes the highest moral maxim. 
What, if anything, can theology contribute to discourses which posit a paradigm shift from humanism to trans- or even post-humanism? What might it mean to examine the issue with God, instead of humans, at the centre? And what criticism might theologians offer about the intellectual genesis of these new ways of thinking – can we discern in them any unacknowledged theological and philosophical roots? 
Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos Book 1) by [Simmons, Dan]
A literary criticism of Dan Simmons’ Sci-Fi quadrilogy, the Hyperion Cantos
Donna Haraway’s 1991 Cyborg Manifesto, a text which foreshadows the transhumanist movement. 
Francis Fukuyama writes against transhumanism
A theological approach arguing for a specifically transhuman, and not necessarily Christian, theology. 
Simon Oliver writes that technology, being mimetic, cannot reconfigure the division between nature and culture, and offers as an alternative a non-mimetic understanding of the Eucharist. 

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

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