The Prayer Book Platonist

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

Why the Right has it right on education – probably

In the many column inches devoted to education, and especially to tuition fees, there is much talk of ‘privilege.’  You may well think that I, as a beneficiary of education at not one but three universities, am a clear example of it.  And you’d be right.  I have indeed been privileged.
I have been privileged by parents who valued my education enough that rather than let me flounder at the under-achieving local comprehensive, they paid boarding fees to send me to a state, grant-maintained boarding school (where, for the record, day pupils paid no fees).  They could have spent their money on other things, but chose to make a sacrifice.  They, in turn, had been privileged by the state grammar schools which educated them to be the first generation in their families to enter higher education, and so paved the way from working class life into the professions.  And they had the support of blue collar parents who learnt the value of education again at the grammar schools which they had to leave at the age of fifteen so that they could earn their crust.
So in short, I have been privileged by three generations of selective state schooling: the sort of schooling that the Left has for thirty years devoted itself to demolishing.
 It has taken a right-wing Labour Prime Minister and a Conservative-led government to stand up to the failing leftist orthodoxy of a one-size-fits-all compulsory education.  The number of schools applying for academy status is soaring as head masters and mistresses strive to take the curriculum back into their own hands.  Free schools, despite predictable attempts at sabotage by the more thuggish leftist elements, also seem set to return the privilege of a fine education to the children of those whose taxes fund it.
The new structures give some sign of hope that pupils from poorer backgrounds may have the learning (if not the earnings, but we’ll come to that) needed to matriculate at university.  Oxbridge admissions departments are often lambasted for admitting so many more privately than publicly educated entrants.  I have said before that universities cannot be expected to compensate for the failings of state compulsory education.  The government’s reforms are a step towards the social mobility that the old grammar school system provided.  True equality among university entrants will be achieved not by admitting the under-privileged, but by privileging all.
That said, we should note that the statistics for state school entrants can be misleading: not all state schools are the equal.  Public services in wealthy catchment areas tend to be far better than those in poorer ones, and schools are no exception.  Cambridge itself is notable for this: one of the wealthier areas of the country has the best health services and schools.  So, it’s a city of rich people who don’t need to spend money on private education or healthcare, but can spend it on overpriced houses, holidays and cars.  Are these really the people intended to benefit most from the welfare state, I wonder?  It would be shocking if their children were given an advantage in university admissions over privately educated pupils simply to fill a quota of state-educated pupils.  For this reason, I suspect that higher tuition fees will make very little difference to social mobility in the short term.  The people who would have paid fees anyway will continue to do so, and those who would not now have more of an excuse not to.  Governments will no doubt paint a picture of rising state school entrants, but I suspect that these will come from the middle class families who can afford to live in areas with decent state schools.  The money they save on private education they can spend on university fees instead.
The only problem with the great improvements being made to secondary education is that they are too little and too late.  In fact, about thirteen years too late for many an eighteen year old.  My wife, who is a primary school teacher by profession and a researcher in infant child psychology, tells me that there is something like a three year gap in emotional and mental development between children from middle class and poorer backgrounds.  Worse, she can see this in children as young as five years old.  The chances are that even before they get to primary school, their ability to concentrate enough to study has already been determined.  This sounds fatalistic, and I’m sure there are counterexamples, but it really does seem that the first step to increasing social mobility is changing the attitudes and lifestyles of poor parents.  The greatest privilege one can have is a supportive family and community of adult role models.  In areas blighted by generations of unemployment, alcoholism and an utter lack of self worth, this is just not there.  In such places, it will not matter how great the schools and teachers are until these issues are addressed.  One brief but unfashionable suggestion being proposed by Ian Duncan Smith’s crowd is this: finish school, don’t have children in your teenage years, and don’t have children out of wedlock.  Statistically, at least (which means it could be baloney, granted), it seems that those who have children later, when they are more financially secure, and bring them up with a partner legally bound to them, prosper considerably more than those who do otherwise.
If the governments changes in state education and the social initiatives of IDS do take off, high university fees will then become a genuine problem, rather than the bogeyman I suspect they are at the moment.  But counterintuitively, Oxbridge will be the best placed institutions to offer places to poorer students, rich as they are in endowments and real estate-funded scholarships.  Other universities will need to follow suit.  We will also need to rely more on philanthropy and alumni contributions.  The difficulty with the latter is that those institutions which educate people for the lower paying professions such as teaching and nursing will reap the least yield.  My own college, Selwyn, which has by the intention of its founders produced plenty of clergymen and schoolmasters but precious few business tycoons, is one example of this, something like those poor East End Anglo-Catholic churches which struggle to pay their incumbent while the rich, middle class Evangelicals up the road have a troop of curates. These are the institutions to which tuition fees pose the greatest threat.  Perhaps the answer is in selective government funding, rather than its wholesale removal.
Friends have been puzzled by my political shift in recent years.  How, we used to ask together, could anyone with a conscience ever vote Tory?  Tuition fees are enough to make my support wobble, I confess, although we will have to wait and see: sufficient bursaries could still make them work.  But for the rest, I remain secure in my conviction that my vote was and remains one for social justice.  I used to say that I was a champagne Socialist, in that I wanted everyone to have the champagne.  My means have changed, but not the end.  Now, I think that the way to give the poor the prosperity they need is not by increasing their dependency on the state which has failed them, nor by subsidising a welfare state which frankly benefits the wealthy more than the poor.  Rather, it is by building the economic productivity of the nation so that all have the freedom and responsibility of ownership.  Prosperity will be won not by a rhetoric of favouring the under-privileged, but by ensuring that all have the privileges which people like me have enjoyed.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Ascension 2011 – posted a bit late, I fear

“God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet. Sing praises to God, sing praises!” +In nomine…

Fitting, that I should preach this sermon facing the great statue on the East wall. Our Lord may have been rather better dressed at the Ascension, but otherwise, our statue fits St Luke’s description well: “He lifted up His hands, and blessed them. And it came to pass, while He blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven.”

But why? Why should Our Lord ascend to share God’s throne in heaven when He could have ruled so effectively here among us? The sort of earthly rule, perhaps, that David prophesies in his last words: “When one rules justly over men, he dawns on them like the morning light, like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning.” But Jesus, typically contrary, rises up instead into the clouds.

Of course, we have the theologian’s textbook answer: Christ ascends blessing creation in order to unite heaven and earth. Ah! So there we go, the end. Amen. Sorry: you haven’t got off that lightly. Because quite clearly, that isn’t the end of the question. We are still right here on earth, and even the delights of Selwyn College are not enough to make us think that we’re in heaven yet.

Excuse the platitude, but summer in Cambridge is a time of transition. While you’re sitting in libraries writing up dissertations or cramming for exams, as like as not your mind is all too often elsewhere. In the future. Dreaming up exotic holiday plans, worrying about starting your new job (or getting one), imagining curtains for your swanky new pad.

There is something of this ambivalance, this double-mindedness, about the Ascension. Our glorious Reformer Archbishop Cranmer clearly had this ambivalence in mind when he drafted the Collects, for Ascension Day, and for today, the first Sunday after. The former leaves us like those first Apostles who witnessed the Ascension, feet on earth but hearts and minds gazing into the firmament; while the latter tells of loneliness and separation, yet pleads for later comfort.

The Collect for Ascension Day, which Cranmer modified from the Gregorian sacramentary, has a mystical edge quite alien to the general proclivities of the Reformation: ‘Like as we do believe thy only begotten son our lord to have ascended into the heavens; so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell.’ Note that again: we pray to ascend ‘in heart and mind’ to be with Christ in heaven. No trifling request, given where Christ is: seated on the heavenly throne at the right hand of the Father. We are to rise with Him, as Ephesians has it, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named:” to the heavenly Kingdom beyond even David’s prescience.

Protestant orthodoxy tends to emphasise the unbreachable divide between our fallen world and the perfect realm of the Divine. Yet this Collect expresses a desire for mystical union between the two. Now, Cranmer would not have us pray for anything if it did not have firm scriptural support. And this he finds, a little further on in Ephesians, in the crucial sixth verse of chapter 2: God ‘raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.’ If Anglican theology rests not so much on the principle of ‘sola scriptura’ as ‘tota scriptura,’ and we are to take Scripture in its entirety, then we, no more than Cranmer, have any right to ignore the implications of this verse. We must live with the paradox that while we remain on earth, we are at the same time and already in some sense ascended into heaven; our humanity deified by a man on God’s throne, so that through the blessing of Christ ascendant, Creation and the uncreated are mystically bound.

The bit about ‘minds,’ it must be said, was Cranmer’s innovation. The original Collect spoke purely of the heart’s ascent. And so it seems to me that the locus of this mystical union lies precisely there. The author of the Cloud of Unknowing puts it succinctly: “Therefore saith Saint Paul…: Although our bodies be presently here in earth, nevertheless our living is in heaven. He meant their love and their desire. (…) And surely, as verily is a soul there where it loveth, as in the body that doeth by it and to the which it giveth life.” Our soul is with the object of its desire as much as in our body: and that desire must ever be directed towards Christ on His heavenly throne. Love, desire, eros, yearning, of God for us and us for God, is the invisible cement that binds Creation to its uncreated source. — Yet, at the same time, we must resist the temptation, like the Apostles, to stand gawping in mystic revery. Acts 1.11: the white-robed men (angels?) are sent to make a pointed reminder: ‘Why do you stand looking up into heaven?’ Or in modern parlance, perhaps, ‘get your heads out of the clouds!’ And this, in a way, is the message of today’s Collect, just three days after the Feast of the Ascension; modelled by Cranmer on the antiphon for Vespers of Ascension Day supposedly uttered by St Bede on his deathbed:

‘O God, the king of glory, which hast exalted thine only son Jesus Christ, with great triumph into thy kingdom in heaven; we beseech thee, leave us not comfortless; but send us thine holy ghost to comfort us, and exalt us unto the same place whither our saviour Christ is gone before.’

No time for mysticism here. Christ is gone! And we are left gazing upwards, slack-jawed. Leave us not comfortless, O God!

With the benefit of hindsight, we, unlike the Apostles, know the rest of the story. And so Jesus’ comments to them in Jn 16 and 14 are less obscure to us: ‘I will not leave you desolate. I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of Truth: you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you.’ We are not left staring, lost and dumb, at a God as unknown and invisible as before. We look to the hope of glory uncreated, incomprehensible, but are not left without the means of grace to find our way. The Christian faith is grounded even after the Ascension in the historic, concrete reality of Christ Incarnate; ours is a faith which embraces the material and the here-and-now. And so as Christ leaves, completing our redemption, He opens the way for Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit, for the gift of divine love and the establishment of its vehicle, Christ’s Church on earth. ‘You know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you.’ Our hearts ascended, we see Him still, dwelling within ourselves and each other. Our minds ascended, we know Him still by the breaking of the bread: and as the bread turns into His body, the wine into His blood, so our sorrow turns into joy and our hearts settle deeper in their true, heavenly home.

Christ ascended to reign: beyond the power of mortal reign, in the invisible kingdom of love. A rule not of compulsion and command, not contraining us to serve Him by demonstrations of power, but in the free response of love, the love of that Spirit which He had the Father send and plant in human hearts. Indeed, those who reduce our faith to external commandments stand against the Ascension of Christ: because they deny that His Spirit is now internal to us, indwelling, and that His true commandment is love.

“When one rules justly over men, he dawns on them like the morning light, like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning,” said David in his dying words. Christ rose into the clouds yet to reign as a brighter sun than any earthly king. Let me finish with some words by John Keble:

“We must not stand to gaze too long,
Though on unfolding Heaven our gaze we bend
Where lost behind the bright angelic throng
We see Christ’s entering triumph slow ascend.

“No fear but we shall soon behold,
 Faster than now it fades, that gleam revive,
When issuing from his cloud of fiery gold
Our wasted frames feel the true sun, and live.”

Amen.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Infant Latinists

So much for the rhetoric of ‘accessibility.’ If nothing else, the video below shows that we don’t need to patronize children by dumbjng down- in the classroom or at Mass.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Moses and Mary: the Commandments and the Annunciation

A sermon preached in Selwyn College Chapel, Tuesday 10 May 2011

I’m sure I’m not the only one here who likes a good steak. And while I understand that some people like theirs charred to a piece of boot leather, personally, I prefer it barely to have touched the grill – so I’ve got something to dip the chips in. But even so, when I see it there, prepared for me on a plate, or when I buy it shrink-wrapped in the supermarket, I don’t really pause to think of how it got there, that life was taken, blood was spilled. Death is commodified into discrete packages, spilt blood sanitised under the clingfilm or on my plate.

Tonight’s stories of Moses and Mary relate two quite different experiences of God, but are united by a common first response: fear. Pure fear at the awesome life-making, life-taking power of the divine, so far beyond comprehension that it risks breaking their minds. Noone has seen God and yet lives. And so it is that Moses, urged on by an awe-struck people, ascends towards God into a light so bright it blinds and becomes a dazzling darkness. And he descends, face shining, to lay down the Law: the first Covenant, for the people to obey strictly, in due fear of the Lord.

From that same bright darkness appears to Mary a shining envoy, whose first words are ‘have no fear:’ though seeing an angel in full glory must make watching Saw 3 seem like a picnic with the Care Bears. And Mary is afraid. But where God gave Moses commandments, to Mary he gives an invitation. It is her ‘Fiat,’ that ‘let it be,’ which redefines His Covenant with the world. God did not force Mary – God is not a rapist – but showing Himself as the free gift of love, He invited her to give an equally free, loving response. God is love, and love does not compel, but reaches out and welcomes.

But do not think for a moment that this tames the Divine. In the new Covenant of the Incarnation, where God gives Himself in human flesh, our relationship with Him is redefined: redefined, but not sanitised. People saw God and lived. Yet God revealed is no less hidden, the radiance of Christ no less blinding. The living God is even more the God of death, since even He has passed that gate which still awaits us all. Death must not be taken lightly: even the death of a terrorist should not be treated like a victory in a soccer match.

For we are all invited to follow Mary in bearing Christ: but in the wombs of our hearts. And we, like Mary, have the freedom to respond. This makes us no less, but all the more accountable to God: that God whom we know not in fuzzy feelings, or the prepacked sentimentality of feelgood hymns, but in dumbstruck awe at the boundless depths of His love.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

2nd Sunday after Easter: “The law that no man breaketh”

“I am Death; I am the law that no man breaketh” – the first words of Holst’s opera, Savitri, which my wife and I went to see last week. In this story, taken from the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata, Sāvitri, wife of the woodman Satyavān, hears the voice of Death calling to her. He has come to claim her husband. Satyavān arrives to find his wife in distress, but assures Sāvitri that her fears are just illusion, māyā. But for all his complacency, when Death arrives, all strength leaves him and he falls to the ground. Sāvitri, alone and desolate, welcomes Death. Death, moved to compassion by this, offers her a boon: anything she wants, except for bringing Satyavān back to life. So, Sāvitri plays a sophistic trick on Death. She asks only for life. Death at first is confused, wondering why she asks for something she already has. But she asks again, saying that all she wants is life, life in its fullest. Death grants her his boon – on which she tells him that a full life for her is impossible without her husband. Death is defeated and leaves, awakening Satyavān, and so proving right his original contention: that even Death itself is only māyā.
This Hindu tale might seem at first sight to have something in common with the Christian story. After all, did not Jesus also conquer death?
Yet a week after Easter, nobody doubted that Jesus had died. Even when he appears to the disciples, he emphasises not the defeat but the reality of his death; any illusion that his death was not real was shattered when he presented his wounds still bleeding for Thomas to test and touch. God did not become man to dismiss suffering as an illusion, to go through the motions of death; but to enter into the reality of human suffering, to submit to the real law of death. In submitting to the law of death, he breaks it; and entering into human suffering, transforms it. The grace of God does not destroy what he has made, but perfects it, not denying its reality, but bringing it to the fulness of reality. Death is indeed a gate that all must enter, but a gate which by the grace of God poured from the Cross leads to fulness of life.
This is what makes the Christian religion fundamentally a sacramental religion; a religion of which the fundamental sacrament is the Cross. The schoolbook definition of a sacrament is, I suppose, a real and effective sign: an action which simultaneously signifies and effects the grace of God, blessing some part of creation with the uncreated, bringing closer to full reality that which is real but imperfect. The gracing action of the Holy Spirit did not eradicate death, but transformed it into the fulness of life; and it is this same Spirit that animates the Church and effects God’s work through it. The same Spirit that, this evening, will take our reality in Baptism and brings us closer to the perfect image which we were made to reflect. The same Spirit by which the Church is commissioned to forgive the sins of the repentent and reconcile us, imperfect as we are, to the God who is perfect. The same Spirit that, two days ago, took what was already there between Prince William and Catharine, but transformed it, moving it closer to the self-sacrificial bond of love that the sacrament of Matrimony signifies and embodies. And the same Spirit which, this morning at the altar, will transform humble bread and wine into its fulness as the Body and Blood of Our Lord, corporeal food into spiritual food, food which as we eat it transforms what we are into what we are meant to be. All this is born from the sheer bodily reality of the Christ’s death, a victory over a very real enemy, but by a merciful conqueror, who does not destroy but redeems.
Yet we must remember that the Kingdom to which that primal sacrament of the Cross points to a Kingdom where ultimately, all sacraments shall cease; and this brings us back to Savitri. We cannot conclude, with her, that all is illusion. But nor can we avoid the fact that the reality of the world we live in is at best only partial, and will remain so until all is brought to the fulness of reality where all illusion, all suffering, and even death itself are finally dispelled. It is a Kingdom to which our present reality blinds us; but blessed are those who do not see, and yet believe. So, let us continue groping forward as blind witnesses to the invisible grace that Christ bestows on us in Church and Sacrament.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

The Libyan Crusade

Right since the beginning of the Anglo-French intervention in Libya, Colonel Gadaffi has called it ‘a crusade.’ It pains me to say it, but he may have a point.
The word ‘Crusade’ of course points back to grim old days of yore when Western Christendom decided to export its clearly superior and universally applicable mores to degenerate pagan lands.  It was patently clear that anyone in their right mind would agree with the indisputable reasoning by which the Church governed our society.  So when the foreigners failed to warm to our ideas and renounce their inferior barbaric philosophies, we could not understand why.  We had to liberate their lands and people from the darkness of ignorance by all means – and it seemed the only thing they would listen to was force.

Fortunately, of course, we are much more civilised these days. We have grown out of the barbaric philosophies of our Christian past.  In fact, we’re so civilised that anyone in their right mind must surely agree with the indisputable reasoning by which we govern our societies.  Democracy, capitalism, human rights: who could fail to warm to these universal values?
I think you get my point.
Funnily enough, not everyone does warm to our supposedly universal values. So, just like the old masters of Christendom, when we flex the biceps of our ‘muscular Liberalism,’ we cannot understand why Johnny Foreigner fails to yield in fawning admiration.
Here’s a clue: maybe democracy, capitalism and human rights are not universal values at all.  Maybe they are Western values moulded in historical continuity with their specifically post-Christian, secular culture.  Maybe the idea that they are in some way universal, rationally objective and value-neutral is a pretence, and just as imperialistic as the old cultural hubris of Christendom.
Nowhere is the lie of Western secularism’s value-neutrality more vividly exposed than in the imposition of democracy in the Middle East.  When we finally manage, generally by force, to ‘liberate’ nations with the gift of democracy, we do not understand why the people routinely vote away their newfound freedoms.  We assume that they will naturally want their societies to mirror ours, given our obvious superiority.  Yet they do not.
This is true even where democracy has been established by popular revolution, as in Egypt.  On the eve of the revolution, Yasmin Alibhi-Brown appeared on Newsnight exuberantly proclaiming the inevitable victory of liberalism, poo-pooing more cautious voices that suggested the future may not be so rosy.  Such prophets of the myth of progress are starting to look very naive indeed.  Quite clearly, a desire for the kind of society we enjoy is not hardwired into every human heart, nor is it the inevitable fruit of every rational mind.  We think so, not just because it has been educated into us from the earliest age, but because the worldview that underpins it has developed organically over centuries.  We may take it for granted, but you cannot expect others to turn their worldviews upside-down quite literally overnight.
Herein lies the problem.  Despite its rhetoric of tolerance, Western secularism cannot really engage with any other worldview.  It supposes its own values to be neutral, scientific and objective, and any disagreement therefore to be a matter of fact rather than opinion.  In short, it believes that it is superior to all other worldviews.  It cannot cooperate with them or argue with them, because it rejects their terms outright.  So, like a giant child, well-meaning but unaware of its own strength, all it can do is trample them, and start crying with surprise when their thorns stick in its foot.
One dogma of the secularist credo is that democracy goes hand-in-hand with its other values, which will naturally shine through in due course.  Yet democracy per se has created nothing but an open arena for a conflict of political wills.  The supposedly value-free public space that secularism creates is just a space for the exercise of raw power.  And the most powerful contenders in such a conflict are not going to be the undertrodden, the uneducated, the women and children and poor.  They are going to be the best funded, the best organised and all too often the best armed.
In the Middle East’s public ring, there are very few serious contenders.  Communism is little more than a spectre since we helped Al Qaeda fight off the Russians in Afghanistan.  Capitalism – the power of the markets – is the Western candidate of choice.  But not everyone wants a capitalist society, and looking at ours, we can hardly blame them.  The most powerful and best organised by far is Islamism.  This is not a savoury prospect, but the secular West is going to have to learn to deal with it in a way that doesn’t involve stamping about in its size twelves.  But how?
The answer to this, I think, lies in the locus of genuine engagement and dialogue between non-Western worldviews and traditions.  This locus is certainly not given by the supposedly value-neutral secular public square, which discounts a priori the fundamental grounds of non-secular worldviews: that is, the existence of something that transcends the material world.  We do not need to look hard to see that religious groups are already engaged with each other far more deeply than secularism is engaged with any of them.  And so, ironically, we need to get back to precisely that institution that secularism tries hard to shrug off: the Church.
We are right to look sceptically at the Church’s past.  But we risk throwing the baby out with the baptismal water.  Bereft of its former political and military might, the Church has in many ways been forced to become much closer to what it was always meant to be.  We find this particularly in its modern engagement with non-Christian faiths, not just at a theoretical level, but very much locally and in parts of the world where few westerners dare tread.  Whether it is the work of the Jesuits among Hindus in India and Buddhists in Sri Lanka, the presence of monastics in the Middle East so movingly portrayed in the recent film “Of Gods and Men,” or the work of inner-city priests and pastors in our own country, the Church is at work reconciling people of different worldviews at the grassroots, supported by the inter-faith work of university theology deparments.
Meaningful interaction with people who profess to be Muslim simply cannot happen without reference to God.  And so, Islamism is as much a theological problem as a political one.  We may not hold the values of democracy, capitalism and human rights in common, but we do at least hold the common belief that we follow the God of Abraham.  Where Islamists can reject human rights discourse, quite reasonably, as crusading Western imperialism, they cannot so reasonably withdraw from debates on human worth and dignity that are grounded on honest and respectful engagement with their own Muslim tradition.
The Church is by and large blessedly reticent to engage in crusades these days: it can leave that to its secular progeny.  In the case of Libya, preventative action may well have been necessary, but if it is to be avoid becoming the crusade that Gaddafi declaims, our political masters would be well advised, when they get round to formulating the ultimate aim of their mission, to take a lesson or two in theology.  

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Altar of repose

At Little St Mary’s, Cambridge. The garden in the Lady Chapel is about to be dismantled after the Good Friday liturgy. It looked marvellous back-lit last night during the Vigil. I’ve also attached photos of the tomb, ready for the Blessed Sacrament, and the stripped altar after today’s veneration of the Cross.


The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Selwyn in bloom

Spring is here at last and the scaffolding around the Chapel is gone. Perfect day for hopping into a punt with a bottle of prosecco, I’d say.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

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.

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