Fr Thomas Plant, Anglican Priest and Comparative Theologian

Month: November 2020

Averroes is not the answer

The narrative of Ed Husain’s Spectator article (below) on the supposed decline of Islamic philosophy into a “Dark Age” after Al Ghazali keeps reappearing in the popular press, but has been discredited in academia for some time. Rightly so, as it is both misleading and dangerous. For example, the doctrines which Al Ghazali defended included the notion that the universe had a beginning and will have an end, denied by Avicenna on the basis of Aristotelian empiricism. That this should much later be approved by the same empirical methods only goes to show their limits. Empirical rather than a priori reasoning has been used not only for medical and technological advances, but also to justify slavery, sexual inequality, racialism, social Darwinism and eugenics. 

No stupid fideist, Al Ghazali made (albeit unacknowledged) use of Platonic reasoning to oppose what he saw as the wedge the followers of Aristotle were driving between faith and reason. The mediaeval Church was as condemnatory as mediaeval Islam of the “Averroism” which threatened to accelerate that divide. Yet while Christendom veered down an ever more Aristotelian path, a Platonic revival in the Islamic world gave birth to sophisticated and beautiful schools of thought including the Illuminationists and the Akbarian tradition, each quite mainstream in their insistence that the life of faith grounds reasons rather than opposing it. Islamic fundamentalism does not date from Al Ghazali, but is rather a late 19th century response to Western imperialism, particularly in Egypt. 

To many traditional Muslims and Christians, the fruits of the European Enlightenment’s decoupling of science from religion are ambivalent. For all its goods, there is much in European secular society that the more conservatively minded throughout the world are loath to import or to emulate. Perhaps Mr Husain has found that some of those whose disaffection with the West extends to a murderous degree are swayed by appeals to Averroes, but these are unlikely to affect any broader positive cultural change. To tell Muslims that their only worthwhile thinkers are those who resemble 18th-century European empiricists appears condescending. But worse, it blinds the West to our own flaws – and to the possibilities which philosophical developments from outside Europe might offer for peaceable critical reflection.

Lockdown clergy quarrels

As lockdown looms, Twitter begins to buzz again with clerical outrage. Inevitably, bemused or disgusted onlookers will (in not so many words) echo Tertullian’s refrain, “how these Christians love one another.” But given that we have, at least in theory, only a fixed term of a month to contend with, perhaps we can treat one another better this time. 

As a sometime purveyor of clerical invective, I come to this with a grudging mea culpa, and resolve to set out my thoughts briefly – before the storm, as it were – yet, I hope, irenically. 

I see a division of two broad camps of outrage, and without wanting to encourage the spraying of uninvited liquids into one another’s tents, it might help to articulate what those are. One camp is outraged at the idea that some Christian leaders (aka: “irresponsible, clericalist, ritualist regressives who think buildings are more important than people”) want to keep the Sunday morning Eucharist going even in lockdown, thereby putting vulnerable people at risk of exposure to the virus. The other is outraged that some Christian leaders (aka: “a liberal Evangelical nexus of pseudo-pastoral, paternalistic quasi-secularists who want to close down all our churches”) don’t understand or don’t beleive in the efficacy of sacraments or share a sacramental worldview. 

I have at times perpetuated these stereotypes. Let me try to get beyond it to where I think the division really comes from: basically, I think it’s a matter of metaphysics. 

On the one hand, liberals and Evangelicals share with secular atheists a suspicion of superstition which has developed from their firm insistence on the utter transcendence and separation of God from the world. If God acts in the world at all, it is by sheer power of his sovereign will. This naturally tends towards a more receptionist sacramental theology, or to a rejection of the need for the sacraments and an internalisation of their effect: it is the internal life of prayer in faith which channels grace rather than any external rites or objects. 

On the other is that worldview of metaphysical continuity between God and creation which one might rightly call sacramental, in which the immanence of God is emphasised along with his transcendence. God’s grace is mediated in things of this world, and his will is one with his nature as absolute goodness. The highest instantiation of God’s grace comes through the sacraments which he, as Word Incarnate, ordained, and through the Church and her rites by which he commanded its perpetuation. The sacraments are therefore efficient in their own right (rite?), objectively so, and are indispensible in the spiritual life of the believer. They are ultimately not ‘external’ to God or mere signs of his grace because they participate in him and enable human participation in him to the highest degree possible in this life. 

There are Evangelicals who miss the gathered assembly of the proclamation as much as Catholics miss the Sacrament; Catholics as concerned for the safety of their flock as liberals. Everybody is losing out on something they value. Perhaps now is the time for sympathy rather than point-scoring.

It’s clear which camp I belong to. Nonetheless, it might help us to understand one another’s positions rather than merely to sneer at one another. Can we manage a month without outrage? 

The Mass 1: Confession

The first instalment of a brief series during lockdown on what the Mass is and why it matters.

We’re going into another lockdown. Among other things, this means that for a month, at least, Churches are closed for public worship, and we will not be able to celebrate Mass together. You may be thinking, “so what?” Can’t people just pray at home? Well, of course they can. But there’s more to the Mass than that: so, for these weeks in the run-up to Christmas, I thought we could spend our time thinking about what the Mass is and why it matters.

There’s nothing like starting on a high note, so today, let’s begin with – sin. Yes, the fire and brimstone stuff that people who don’t go to church think people who do go to church are fretting about all the time, but we really shouldn’t worry about too much: in fact, we laugh at the idea, we don’t take it seriously at all. There are nightclubs called “sin,” chocolates called “temptations,” perfume called “taboo”: sin’s just another sales device, something to stoke up the desire to spend more cash. Nothing to worry about; nothing to worry about at all, nothing to see here – it’s not as if we keep mentioning it so casually and laughing away because somewhere inside, as a society and as individuals, we’re actually deeply worried that we might be getting it all wrong, surely not… It’s only the religious nut jobs who worry about it, while we’re all happy, happy, happy, all the time, doing whatever we want. Right?

Wrong. Britain is reportedly one of the least happy countries in the world. It doesn’t look as though throwing off the shackles of religion has really cheered us up all that much. And I think there’s a reason for that.

The Mass begins with confession: in the new rite, we make our confession literally at the beginning, and in the old rite, in the middle, in between the Bible readings and the Eucharistic prayer – but either way, the Mass begins with confession because we come to it with an awareness of – here it comes – our sin. The priest may leave a few silent moments during the confession to invite you to recall anything you wish you had done done or said – but ideally, we should come to Mass already having thought this through, ready to meet Christ in bread and wine in humility and honesty about our failures and about our inability to fix ourselves without help. And that bit is important. Humility does not mean grovelling and beating ourselves up, not even metaphorically, let alone physically. It doesn’t mean getting stuck in a mire of guilt and shame. Actually, it’s the direst opposite. It means recognising what we have done wrong, but also knowing that we cannot sort it out by ourselves, and asking God for his help – the help we receive in the Eucharist, that medicine of the soul, when we ask for it.

But there’s something else, equally important, and the bottom line of Christianity: forgiveness. If we spend our lives pretending we have no sin, pretending we are not guilty about anything, we are lying to ourselves and bottling it all up inside, where it will brew into something potent and nasty – and when it comes out, it hurts us and the people around us. But when we are honest, and confess our sins before God, those of us who believe are convinced that God forgives us, wipes the slate clean, gives us another chance and the help we need to do better and to be better. Whatever you have done, however awful you think it might be, remember that Jesus forgave the people who nailed him to the Cross. What you have done can’t be as bad as that. Turn to him, and let him release you, set you free from the pain that weighs you down.

You don’t have to go to Mass to make your confession: you can speak to God wherever you are, in private, and he will listen. Sometimes he will give you the healing gift of tears. And if something is really weighing on your conscience, you can go to a priest (like me) for one-to-one confession: it’s not generally like you see on TV, in a darkened box, these days, and takes the form of a spiritual conversation where you tell the priest in confidence what you have done, and he pronounces God’s forgiveness and suggests some prayers or readings – many people find this a valuable spiritual discipline. But the most common way to confess is at the Mass.

So that’s why the Mass starts with Confession. In the words, Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy, we ask God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to pour his compassion on us. It’s not because Christians like to start the day with a good grovel before breakfast. It’s because we try our best to be honest about our mistakes – our sins – and because we trust that we have a Father who loves us all the same, forgives us, and helps us to grow. And that is the first step in a healthy spiritual life.

This week’s Collect from the Book of Common Prayer (Trinity 21) is almost providentially appropriate. So, I invite you to join me in prayer.

Grant, we beseech thee, merciful Lord, to they faithful people pardon and peace; that they may be cleansed from all their sins, and serve thee with a quiet mind; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

One, but never alone

Sermon for the Feast of All Saints 2020, preached at the church of the Holy Angels, Hoar Cross

Ut unum sint: may they be one. Not words from today’s readings, but from the same school of S John from whose Revelation and First Epistle we have just heard, guiding us towards the Gospel, the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. Words which help us to hear more clearly what both Ss John and Matthew heard spoken by the Divine Word who lived among them, and whom they loved and knew: words from his final prayer, just before his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. Ut unum sint: may they be one.

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