Fr Thomas Plant, Anglican Priest and Comparative Theologian

Month: September 2015

Spiritual Terrorism

Ah, angels. Tricky subject. Maybe they’re best just left looking pretty on Christmas cards. Take them more seriously and it all gets a bit “Mind, Body and Spirit,” really, doesn’t it?
But they are biblical, so what are we to make of them? “Angel” of course means “messenger,” from the Greek “angelos.” And that’s what they are in relation to us, bearers of messages from God. But they do other things, too. The angel Raphael heals Tobit, for example, and in Revelation, Michael leads the heavenly armies of angels in warfare against Satan. So Pope St Gregory the Great, who sent St Augustine of Canterbury to be the first Archbishop of these isles, says that “angel” describes their function, rather than what they actually are: it’s basically a job title. (By the way, part of the reasons Gregory sent Augustine over here was that he thought the natives looked angelic. Seeing some English blonds up for grabs on the slave market, he quipped: “they’re not Angles, but angels”.)
Anyway, if angels are more than just their job description, what are they? The Bible does not give us a generic term, but we can glean something from how they appear. First of all, they are terrifying. Almost every time one appears, its first words are “do not be afraid,” which implies that whoever beheld it was perhaps looking a trifle terrified. Second, they’re hard to describe. Sometimes they appear like people, but elsewhere as six-winged or many-faced with lions’ heads or eagles’ beaks, even as wheels of fire. They can be described only in poetic language, because prose is too blunt a tool. So they reveal some aspect of the unknowability of God, and maybe this is why the biblical writers resist giving them a generic name.
We find creatures like these in other cultures. The Greeks called them “daimones,” from which we get the word “demons,” but the Greek doesn’t carry the connotation that they are evil beings. The Arabs call them “Djinn” (that’s “Djinn” with a D, not with T). And what these are is invisible, created, spiritual intelligences. Like us, as fellow rational creatures, they are free to choose between good and evil: and this makes some sense of the notion that Satan and his legions are fallen angels. Angels and devils are the same things, but they have made different choices. As a priest, I find that people are by and large far readier to believe in devils than in angels, and more interested in them. There’s a sort of allure to them, sweetened by hokey Hollywood exorcist films. In these the Devil promises power, whether the magical powers of witchcraft and ouija boards, or political power, or the power of money, fame, sex: but it is all about power, the power to defy nature and usurp God.
Now comes the bit of the sermon where I routinely take a word or concept that is unpopular and explain why actually, it’s a good thing: and today’s word is “hierarchy.” This word invented by a sixth-century Syrian monk who named himself after Dionysius, the pagan St Paul converted at the Areopagus, literally means ‘sacred order.’ There’s a hint of it in today’s Collect, which begins, “Everlasting God, you have ordained and constituted the ministries of angels and mortals in a wonderful order.” God is the source of all things; those spiritual intelligences which we call angels come next, in their various ranks, then intelligent creatures like us, and last of all inanimate matter. All things flow from God, and the hierarchy is the sacred order God has established to bring them back to him.
Now moderns often object to the idea of hierarchy, because the word is so often abused to mean keeping people in their proper place by the exercise of power. But an order based on power is the very opposite of true hierarchy, of genuinely sacred order. It’s not a sacred order at all. It’s the Devil’s order, upside down from God’s.
Yet it’s the Devil’s order that persists. There are those who confuse the Devil’s order with God’s and resort to terrorism to achieve it, and even British politicians who support them; and they are traitors, just as much as the young idealists who actually sign up to fight for the Islamic State. But you can see why they are seduced by it all: the glamour of the freedom fighter, of establishing a new world order, of righting all the perceived injustices of the world to forge a new order that’s worth the collateral of countless human lives on the way, because history will be written by the victors, and we will soon learn to forget.
Christians used to talk about “spiritual warfare,” evidenced by old marching tunes like “Onward Christian Soldiers,” out of fashion now, of course. There’s much to commend the idea, but one problem with it is that it risks legitimising the enemy; but the Devil isn’t engaged in spiritual warfare so much as spiritual terrorism. Hhe recruits by seducing with promises of power; he attacks the innocent; he exploits our personal weaknesses to help us to justify to ourselves unjustifiable thoughts, words and deeds. We tell ourselves that what he whispers is right, that the ends justify the means. And once you are his, it is very hard to turn back.
The difference between the heavenly hierarchy and the Satanic order of violence, in a word, is – Jesus. In that ancient, pre-Pauline hymn of Philippians 2.5-11, Jesus is placed above all creatures both in earth and heaven. He is higher than the angels. If we want to find their meaning, and his, we will find it in him. And we know that the Jesus who told Peter to sheathe his sword in the garden of Gethsemane conquers not by arms but by love. We know that the Jesus who acquitted the adulteress did not stop short to condemn sinners but carried on reaching down from heaven all the way into the depths of hell itself. And we know that the Jesus who rose and ascended lifts us all up into oneness with the Father in Heaven. The means of Satan is violent discord; the means of God is forgiveness and harmony. The motive of Satan is control; the motive of God is liberation. The purpose of Satan is destruction; the purpose of God is blissful reunion.
There are times when we have to take up physical arms in this world, but we need to be absolutely sure that our motives are for the liberation of the imprisoned and the protection of the weak. But most of the time, it is the spiritual battle we must fight, against spiritual enemies within ourselves and without: against those insurgent voices that lure us to sin. In that fight, the only legitimate weapon is self-giving love; but we can always call upon our comrades-in-arms, St Michael and his great company of God’s Angelic Hosts.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Matter matters

“If you put together all the relics of the True Cross, you’d have enough lumber to build a merchant ship!” A good punchline from the 16th century Humanist Erasmus. Maybe you’ve heard it before. It would be funnier if it were true. But in 1870, a French scholar named de Fleury measured all of the extant fragments and calculated their volume, and he worked out that altogether, they wouldn’t make up even a tenth of a Roman cross. Definitely not enough to carry freight. Not even enough to crucify a man. But then, to paraphrase Einstein, common sense isn’t much more than the prejudices we acquire by the age of eighteen.

Our cynicism about relics of the Cross was not shared by the ancients. In the early fourth century, St Helena, wife of Emperor Constantine, reputedly excavated three crosses hidden by Christians under the streets of forcibly paganized Jerusalem. By the end of that century, even the great St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan and mentor of St Augustine, had no doubt that they were genuine. We live in an age and nation where only disbelief is really credible, certainly an age to mock Catholic credulity. But I do wonder: is Protestant scepticism really better? The scepticism of our Northern European nations, where religion is safely boxed in for private consumption on Sundays, and, surely by no coincidence, atheism flourishes. Is that better than the Catholic religion of our southern neighbours – the religion which spills out of the churches into the streets, in fiestas, shrines, processions, and even sometimes in popular devotions to such anomalies as relics?

I was in Rome a few weeks ago, and the highlight of the trip for me was celebrating mass in the catacombs of St Callistus. Call me superstitious, but the reason it was so moving was that I was reciting those ancient words in the company of the human remains of two centuries’ worth of saints and martyrs. Of course, whenever we celebrate the Eucharist, we do it in the presence of the saints and martyrs, even the angels, and the whole company of heaven. But if we take seriously the fact that the Word became flesh, that God entered matter and even human bones; if we take seriously the claim of our faith of a bodily resurrection, that in some way our very bodies will be reconstituted in the Heavenly Kingdom, if, in short, we don’t fall into the old gnostic heresy of placing an impenetrable dividing line between the spiritual and the physical, then the bones of the saints do matter. They’re the physical, material connection not just to our forbears in the faith but to our future companions in the Kingdom, because we know not how but trust in faith that those bones will be there!

In the Christian faith, we cannot neatly separate the spiritual from the physical. Matter matters. It matters because of the Incarnation. This is something that our Anglican Reformers firmly emphasised, unlike their Calvinist counterparts in Europe, and that’s because alongside their Bibles they read deeply of the tradition of the Early Church. The 17th century Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, one of the translators of the King James Bible, defined the Anglican way as: one Bible, two Testaments, three Creeds, four Ecumenical Councils and the first five centuries of the Church Fathers. In these scriptures, creeds, councils and the words of the Fathers, our Reformers found a clear emphasis on the Incarnation: on God in the world, the Word made Flesh. They did not share the obsession of their Calvinist contemporaries with personal justification and salvation, and returning to the ancient sources, they saw the Cross as something much more significant than just “how it relates to me.” For them, as for the Early Church Fathers, the Cross was not some spiritual doctrine for the chosen few, but that real piece of wood, that real instrument of torture, was the matter through which the God Incarnate in matter chose to bring the whole realm of matter into union with him. Continental Protestants taught that Christians have to choose: it was faith or works, scripture or tradition, God or world, saved or damned. But the Anglican theologians recognised the ancient Catholic truth that Christianity is not a religion of ‘either/or.’ It is the religion of ‘and:’ grounded in a real person who is not God or man but God AND man. In the Incarnation and in the Cross, God tears down the veil between the spiritual and the physical. We have to find the spiritual in the material; find the maker in what he has made.

“Materialism” is not a highly favoured word at present. Yet in a way, Christianity is a highly materialistic religion. It is no coincidence at all that two materialistic economic systems sprung from European soil, growing in the ruins of Christendom. We’ve heard a lot in the news recently, especially around yesterday’s election, about the materialistic philosophy fertilised and nurtured by Karl Marx. The other shouts at us from advertisements every day. But both Socialism and Capitalism are materialist systems, concerned with the redistribution of material wealth, and both developed in largely Protestant countries. As a Christian, you may favour one or the other, but only an ideologue would believe that either system is perfect. If you ask me, the flaws of both systems come from that Continental Protestant tendency to separate the material from the spiritual. It’s seeing matter as the end in itself, rather than as just the means towards the the spiritual end for which God provides all creation.

So what is that end? What’s the point of existence – and so of the Christian religion? Lancelot Andrewes found it summed up best in the words of St Augustine, which he translated: “God has become man, that man might become God.” It is none other than the flesh and blood of Christ and the hard wood of the Cross that effect our union with God. At our peril do we sneer at it or spiritualise it away or sell it off. Tomorrow’s feast of the Holy Cross is not the celebration of an abstract doctrine about salvation. It’s the celebration of matter, of wood and nails, flesh and bone and blood. Far be it from the Christian to despise matter when is through matter that God has chosen to save the world. Rather, it is our chance to see in matter God’s hand, God’s work. It’s about taking up the Cross into our hearts and truly knowing, in our innermost being, the fundamental Christian truth: that God shares in our nature and so we share in His, and so does the rest of Creation. I pray that God will open all the world’s eyes to the glory that lies hidden, waiting, in ordinary matter, ordinary bread and wine, ordinary people, neighbours, foreigners, refugees, because with the folly of the Cross will come the peace and plenty which purely human wisdom and ideology cannot bring.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

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