The Prayer Book Platonist

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

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.

Epiphany homily

“Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.” The words God addressed through the prophet’s lips first to Israel are redirected at Epiphany. No longer is the ‘you’ God calls ‘you’ a race, or ‘you’ a nation, but you, just you, whoever, wherever, whatever you are. In the shining forth of the glory of God, the Old Covenant is transfigured into the New: no more the birthright of just one race or nation, but opened to the whole Creation. At Epiphany, the Church of the Jews, a Church of one people, gives birth to the Church we call “Catholic” – which means universal, complete, without exception, the Church that is given for all.

“His glory shall be seen upon thee, and the Gentiles shall come to thy light.”
The first to come and pay the Christ-child homage were not the rabbis, so versed in the wisdom of the Law, nor the high priests who tended the altar. It was the Magi, gentiles, uncircumsized, impure acolytes of a foreign creed and wisdom. Yet ultimately, it was not their wisdom that led them there. Their lifetime of searching and study was not for nothing- it directed their gaze, pointed them straight along the way. But what finally led them to Christ was that light which shone from the guiding star. In Cambridge especially, we might mark St Paul’s adage that ‘knowledge puffs up: love builds up.’ The wise men’s learning is of value only in opening their hearts to look for God; but it is He, only He who guides them with the radiance of His love.

“Thy people also shall be all righteous, they shall inherit the land for ever, the branch of My planting, the work of My hands, that I may be glorified.”
God says that we shall all be righteous, that we shall inherit the Kingdom, the promised land. But not through any branch of our planting, not through the work of our own hands.

Our branch has been grafted onto the vine of Jesse, taking root in the same venerable soil. But it is God who planted, God who tends the vine. Do not think that we deserve the glory He has shown us, or that we have a right to the Kingdom he bequeathes. Whatever our learning, our so-called virtues, even the wisest Magi could not find Christ without the guiding of the star. God’s glory is a gift that He gives for free. Divinity beyond all space and time gives itself in human flesh and form, one child, one man, to sanctify all Creation: to make all people righteous and guide them to the promised land.

The light the Magi sought and saw with mortal eyes in the star and the face of the newborn child we must seek and see with eyes of faith. We will find it in the Holy Scriptures and teachings of the Church. We will find it in the illumination that Christian baptism brings. We will find it at the altar, in the living sacrament of body and blood. And we must pray to be immersed in it, consumed and guided by that glory, to see it shine in everything around: to see the image of God’s glory without exception in the face of every creature, every person He has made. Then, like a mirror, we too will begin to shine with that same glory; and to show forth Christ’s Epiphany in our own lives.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Japanese music and fine home cooking

Went to a performance of koto, shamisen and shakuhachi, featuring my mother-in-law’s koto teacher. She’s 81 years old, though you would not believe it to look at her, or to hear her play with such incredible speed and delicacy of touch.
We then went to a very tempting antique fair, but with the Yen so strong, there was nothing I could really afford this time. Perhaps when I am a wealthy minister…
This evening, my mother-in-law as usual cooked up a feast. This is the season for crab, for which Fukui is rightly renowned. We ate it in the Japanese style, with rice and vinegar. Alongside the crab, we ate Japanese vegetables stewed in sake, two different kinds of fish cooked in soy and sugar (saba and buri), daikon radish cooked in mirin and grated tororo with raw egg and soy sauce. Japanese home cooking is quite different from restaurant food, utilising soy, mirin and sake to create a subtle palette. You have to taste it to know what I mean.

Perhaps Fukui would be a good place to live for a while. The church is in need of new blood in the congregation, which is lively but depleted and aged. There is plenty going on here in the world of traditional Japanese arts. Perhaps I could stay here next summer, commuting to Kyoto once or twice a week to use the libraries at Otani and Ryukoku. It would be a great opportunity to practise Aikido at the local budokan and study shakuhachi, too.
Midnight, and we´re watching a pristine TV recording of a shakuhachi and biwa performance that is mindblowing in its intensity. I was thinking earlier, at the live performance, how the Japanese instruments are free from the constraints of Western classical scales and harmony, and this performance of ´November Steps´ – played originally at Carnegie Hall, New York – shows the depths of their chaotic potential. Where western instruments are confined by the placement of their keys, say in the case of the piano or woodwind instruments, the koto, biwa and shakuhachi are more like guitars and brass instruments in their flexible tonality. They play with Dionysian atonality and vigour, taking the listener beyond the comfort-zone of our rational and even clinical harmonics to the realm of disorder that we try so hard to contain. And so, despite being in many cases very ancient music, it feels very modern to Western ears. The Japanese were there well before Schoenberg or Bartok.
It is probably not an exaggeration to argue that their music represents the proximity to nature that they are so keen to boast, as found in their Shinto tradition; and further, given that the Shakuhachi was traditionally the preserve of Komuso or ´Nothingness monks´ of the Fuke school of Zen Buddhism, it probably also represents the ultimate non-duality of nature and artifice, things as they truly are and rather than as they merely seem. The rationality that we impose on that which is beyond all understanding is never quite enough to contain it: Japanese music at its best is honest – sometimes, almost painfully so – in maintaining this point.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Autumn leaves in Fukui

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

St Stephen´s Anglican Church, Tokyo, Hatanodai: 聖三光教会

Another beautiful High Mass at this lively church. Having been to the consecration of the new church building some weeks ago, I was surprised to find myself at the 90th anniversary celebration of the church´s original foundation, for which Tom Foreman and I were invited to eat an excellent curry with the congregation.

This afternoon, we went to an intimate chamber concert in which the organist of the church, who is a professional pianist, and her husband, a cellist in the Tokyo Philharmonic, performed works ranging from Mozart through Rachmaninov to Brahms. The venue was the house of an academic whose late father was a celebrated architect. The house has a performance venue, replete with Yamaha grand piano and original modern art, where some twenty or so of us gathered for the performance. Afterwards, we were treated to wine and a buffet in the garden, which unusually for Tokyo featured a full swimming pool. All this was at the kind behest of the Kurogawas, the musicians, who invited us without charge. This is only one of many examples of Japanese kindness and interest in meeting foreign people. If only English people extended the same kindness to Asian visitors.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Autumn leaves on Mount Takao

A day trip to Mount Takao to look at the Autumn leaves.  Click to see the gallery. 

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Otani University

Friday took me to Otani University, the college of Higashi Honganji, the other large sect of Jodo Shinshu.
There I met professors Blum and Dobbins under the wing of Esho Shimazu, who has been very helpful in his advice on my studies.  I also had a good talk with a young Shinshu minister from America, Michael Conway, who has just submitted his PhD, and met a young Italian Catholic MA student interested in Catholic-Shin Shu dialogue.  It was particularly helpful to meet another young minister from a different religion, but who like me is preparing to combine academic interests with ordained ministry. 

There will be a worldwide Shin Buddhist conference in honour of Shinran´s 750th anniversary next year at Ōtani.  I very much hope to make it out there, and perhaps even present a paper. 

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Ryukoku University

Kyoto’s Ryokoku University is affiliated to the Nishi Honganji sect of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, and has a beautiful Meiji-period campus within the grounds of the synonymous temple.
Professors Dake, Nasu and Hirota welcomed me and gave me valuable advice on my PhD studies.  I stayed at house of Michael Pye, an Anglican deacon and former professor of Buddhist studies at Marburg in Germany, who now works at Ōtani University in his so-called retirement.  He also runs the National Christian Centre for the Study of Japanese religions. 
Next year, look out for the opening of a new museum dedicated to Shinran’s life and works at Ryukoku, celebrating the 750th anniversary of his death. 

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Meiji Jingu

Meiji Jingu
The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

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