Fr Thomas Plant, Anglican Priest and Comparative Theologian

Author: Fr Thomas Plant Page 1 of 30

Weak prayer means weak mission

“The mission of the Church is weak because its prayer is weak.” 
Not my words, but those of the Franciscan friar, Fr William of Glasshampton. If you haven’t heard of him, you might assume that he is some dim and distant mediaeval figure, perhaps around the time of our native diocesan patron saint Chad, pre-Reformation, definitely Roman Catholic. If so, I’m afraid you’re wrong: because Fr William was a Victorian friar of the Church of England. People these days are sometimes surprised to hear that we still have monks, nuns and friars in the C of E: weren’t they all suppressed by King Henry VIII during the Reformation? Well yes, they were; but they were revived in the mid 1800s and they exist still today.
Glasshampton, the house which Fr William founded, still exists close to my parents’ house, in Shrawley, Worcestershire. Nowadays it is the training house where Anglican novice friars receive their initial formation in the Franciscan spiritual life. You can go there on retreat, if you like: they are very hospitable. But you have to find the house first, which is not always easy, as it is extremely secluded. So much so that my little car once came off the rugged track as I tried to drive up there on an icy winter’s day. 
The seclusion is deliberate: exactly what Father William intended. Now, don’t get the impression that he was some kind of holier than thou, otherworldly figure, incapable of surviving in the bustle of the real world. Far from it. At first he responded to God’s call to serve the desperately poor and marginalised in London’s East End, including a leper community. He did this for years, not an easy option in the old, smoggy, deadly, gaslit London of the late Victorian age. And it was only after all those years that he became convinced God wanted him to leave all this behind to start up an enclosed, secluded, contemplative community, purely dedicated to the inner spiritual life of prayer. 
His own community was at first resistant to the idea. Then, as now, there was a danger that the church relied too much on its own efforts, its own activity, its own sense of mission, rather than on the power of God. But Father William saw clearly that for the church’s mission to thrive, there needed to be some people dedicated solely to prayer. He saw that the Church of England’s claim to be part of the one, Holy Catholic church could not be fulfilled without the ancient tradition of religious communities, monks and nuns, whose constant rhythm of prayer should be the very beating of the Church’s heart.
Yet, you don’t have to be a monk or nun to engage in contemplative prayer. The way they live their lives in absolute poverty, simplicity, hospitality and constant prayer is a powerful witness and example to the rest of us, but in our own albeit lesser way, we can all be contemplatives, mystics, people of prayer, too, in our parishes, our homes, even our workplaces.
But how? A fair question, echoing that of the disciples, as they find Jesus at prayer: “Lord, teach us how to pray” (Lk 11:1). 
In Matthew’s version of the story, before Jesus teaches what we now call the Lord’s Prayer, he first tells the disciples, “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father… and when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words” (Mt 6:6-7).  
So, Jesus’ preliminaries for prayer are (1) solitude and (2) silence: going somewhere alone and ending the babble. You can see where Fr Wiliam was coming from. 
But even among monastics, there are different levels of solitude and silence, ranging from the Franciscans, who tend to live and serve in cities among the poor, but ground their lives in daily silent prayer and frequent retreats; then the Benedictines, who live in communities where there is a great deal of silence, but not total (many Benedictines run schools, for example); and at the most extreme end, the spiritual SAS of the church, as it were, you have the Trappists and the Carthusians, hermits who live in almost complete silence except for the hours of prayer that they observe together. 
So, there can be different levels for us, too: perhaps some can find only 10 minutes a day of silent meditation first thing in the morning or just before bed, perhaps some can pray the daily office of morning and evening prayer every day and incorporate silence into that, perhaps some of us can make an annual retreat at a monastery for a day or even longer. But make no mistake, if we want to come closer to God at all, and to be suffused with his love and joy, there is no shortcut: some time in silence is fundamental to the Christian life. 
What then? Once we have found our silence, what does the Lord’s prayer have to teach us about the way we pray?
The first thing is our orientation to God. Jesus tells us to call God “Father.” In an age where there were many religions of mother goddesses, Jesus is making an important distinction. We are not born from the womb of God: the Earth is not God’s body. Now of course, God does not have genitalia, but if we reduce the difference between male and female only to what is between our legs, then we are being both biologically and psychologically naive. The sexual binary of male and female is necessary for the generation of life, truth attested to by scripture and by reason, despite modern social scientists’ protestation (which is neither really social nor scientific). Male and female are not interchangeable. So while God properly speaking does not have gender, it is less inappropriate to speak of God as Father than as Mother, because calling God “Father” preserves the necessary distance between us and God. In prayer, we approach God first as our transcendent Father, equal to one another as brothers and sisters in his adopted family. 
Next, we call for God’s Kingdom to come. Here, we have to be careful: because God’s kingdom, in the Greek, is not a place (like the United Kingdom, for example). Rather, it means God’s kingship, his rule over us. We are putting ourselves in the position of being his subjects. We are not his equals in a democratic polity, we do not get to elect or unelect him: I’m not trying to draw parallels with our new prime minister, but there are reasons why we talk about the kingdom of God and not the Republic of God or the People’s Soviet of God. What makes us and the rest of creation equal to one another is precisely our inequality with God, our shared difference from him. And this needs to affect how we see and interact with the world, not as our property, but as God’s, with us acting as faithful stewards who look after what he has given us and not use it just for our own selfish ends. 
Asking for bread, we put ourselves at God’s mercy. We acknowledge that we rely on him for all that we have and all that we are. But also, what we will be, because the word “daily” in the English Lord’s Prayer is a very weak translation of St Luke’s Greek. The phrase ἄρτον πιούσιον actually means something more like “supernatural” bread. And so, in daily recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, we turn ourselves towards that bread of life which Jesus offers us in the Eucharist. We give thanks to God, which is what “Eucharist” means, not just for giving us our daily bread, but for giving us the bread of eternal life, the possibility of becoming one with God through Christ.
This gift of supernatural bread and eternal life is given freely, but not without cost. It cost Christ’s life on the cross, it cost his forgiveness of sin: and so in our prayer also, we must always be honest about our own sinfulness, praying for God’s mercy and compassion, and letting his forgiveness so seep into us that we can share it by forgiving those around us, too. Through repentance, we learn not to look so critically for the speck in our brother’s eye. We become part of the reconciling work of the cross, bringing all things into that peaceful order which is the Kingdom of God we are praying for. For only that Kingdom can save us, deliver us, from the times of trial and temptation that we live in now.
So, my challenge to you this week, your mission if you choose to accept it, is: spend more time in prayer. Five minutes of silence each day, followed by praying the Lord’s prayer, slowly, deliberately, stopping at each verse to think about what it means and what God is calling you to do about it. 
Because if the prayer of the Church is strong then so will be its mission, to reconcile all things, all people, to God and to one another, through the mystery of the Cross. 

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Rocky and the Million Dollar Question

“Who do you say that I am?”
That’s the million-pound question for Simon. He’s already got the ‘ask the audience’ answers up on the board, as it were: some say he’s John the Baptist (difficult, given that John was by this stage suffering from a slight case of death), some say he’s Elijah, others Jeremiah (both more decidedly dead, several hundred years before). Which means that everyone is saying that Jesus is a prophet, because Jeremiah, Elijah and John all prophesied the coming of the Messiah, the anointed one – in Greek, the Christ – who would come to judge and save the Jewish people. They thought that Jesus was yet another of these prophets, heralding the Christ’s coming.
But Simon doesn’t choose any of the answers on the board, because, to stretch the metaphor, he’s opted to ‘phone a friend. Or, properly speaking, he’s already been ‘phoned by a friend: God. Somehow, the right answer has been mystically revealed to him:
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
“That’s right,” says Jesus. “Correct! Spot on! Bingo! You, Simon, get to go home with this luxury three-piece suite.”
Jesus isn’t just another prophet, waiting for the Messiah: He is the Messiah and Son of God.
Just as Simon has correctly identified Jesus, so Jesus gives Simon a new identity: a nickname. “Peter,” Petros in Greek, wasn’t actually a proper name in Jesus’ day. It meant “stone” or “rock.” “Peter” basically means “Rocky” (cue The Eye of the Tiger for S. Peter’s fitness regime montage.) Jesus’ joke – if that’s what it is – makes more sense when you know this: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church” would really have sounded more like, “You are Rocky, and on this rock I will build my Church.”
Comedy gold.
But with a serious meaning. Jesus is making Peter the leader, even the foundation, of what will become the entire Christian Church. He is giving him the virtual keys to the Kingdom – that’s why, if you see a statue in a church of bearded man holding a pair of keys, it’s St Peter – delegating the power to set people free from fear and sin and admit them to eternal life in divine love.
But what: Peter, leader of the Church? You mean the fisherman Peter, who maybe couldn’t even write, definitely didn’t get C or above in GCSE maths and English (OK, Greek or Aramaic); Peter, who got so little of Jesus’ teaching that he’d get a sword out to fight the guards who came to take Jesus away; Peter, who would betray Jesus three times before the cock crowed, deserting his Lord and friend, the commoner, the runaway, the failure?
That Peter?
The same Peter who denied the crucified Lord three times would be told three times by the Resurrected Lord, “feed my sheep. Feed my sheep. Feed my sheep.”
All because he said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
So, it’s over to Jeremy Clarkson for the answer…
If Peter was wrong, then all we’ve got left is a dead prophet.
If Peter was wrong, then his own death by crucifixion on an inverted cross on 29 June in AD 64 was meaningless.
If Peter was wrong, then all the others who have followed Christ for the last 2000 years have wasted their time. You can’t feed a Church of millions with a dead prophet.
But if he was right?
Then love invites us to an everlasting feast, free from evil, free from fear – and Peter is already there, waiting to open the door, in his hand, the key:
“Who do you say that I am?”

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Pentecost, not Esperanto

Strange to think that a small Jewish sect could, within thirty years of the death of its founder in Jerusalem, spread at least as far as India to the East and Rome to the West. How could it happen?
There are sociological explanations: for instance, it was a religion which appealed particularly to the poor and to women, in a way that its contemporaries did not. There was the theological appeal, too, of monotheism, which resonated with the Platonic intellectual currents of the day better than the dominant polytheism of pagan folk religion, and pagans who admired the Jews now had the opportunity to join them.
At the same time, there was also bitter persecution, ridicule and humiliation, too. The well-off could have avoided all this by joining some other mystery cult, like that of Mithras or Osiris. Certainly, the fishermen, essentially small businessmen, who were leading the nascent Church could have afforded to avoid their martyrdoms by doing just this. Yet they did not.
So why?
The answer can be summed up in one word: Pentecost.
Ten days after the Ascension of the Lord, the Apostles were once again in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. Then it was as though a wind was blowing, and they had a vision of tongues of flame lapping around their heads – the shape which would later define the bishops’ mitres, marking them as descendants of the Apostles. Inspired, in the literal sense of the word, these fishermen went out into the streets to preach the message of eternal life.
Jerusalem was a cosmopolitan city. In those days, all the wealth was in the East. Europe was just a sideshow. Few Roman soldiers would want to go digging around the hovels of the savage Gauls and Britons when the riches of Judea, Persia and Babylon awaited. And so, in the streets, there were Jews and foreigners from all over the Middle East, meeting and greeting in a diverse babble. And as though reversing the story of Babel from which the word “babble” derives, the miracle of this story is that each of them heard and understood the message the Apostles were speaking as though it were in their own language.
This reveals a vital spiritual truth: God is not making the disciples speak Esperanto.
I don’t mean this literally, of course. The artificial language was not concocted by one Dr Zamenhof until the late 1800s. He was full of quite laudable Victorian optimism that all the world would one day communicate in a single tongue, and that this tongue could be “neutrally” contrived from a variety of other languages by a western European.
But no language is neutral. Language does not only express our thoughts, it guides and form them. A Chinese speaker thinks differently from a speaker of Farsi. Only one language means only one way of thought – which is why King Charlemagne said that to have another language is to have another soul.
To be sure, Esperanto is a simple and elegant language which can be learned quickly because it is all so neat and regular, constructed in one go by one person. In this respect, it is the linguistic equivalent of Paris, that city of Enlightenment precision, the winding alleys and juddering tenements of old swept away to make space for tidy, metric, Napoleonic blocks.
The languages which people actually speak, though, are more like London than Paris. The old irregularities, the funny little alleyways and dead ends, the buried rivers, all the quirks of the city’s layout are built around, but are all still there. Our languages are repositories of our peoples’ history, forming our thoughts in the pattern of our forebears. Shakespeare, Voltaire, Goethe, Cervantes, Homer, Rumi: none of these authors would be the same in Esperanto. The form of the language is inseparable from its content, and for this reason, there is no such thing as a “good translation.”
At Pentecost, God is not reversing Babel by forcing everybody into one language, one mindset, one way of seeing the world. Christianity should not be about making everybody exactly the same. At Pentecost, God speaks to every listener in the language that they understand.
So what is he saying?
In one sense, always the same thing, always the one word: but not a word which can be expressed in any human language. Rather, God’s Word is always the Word made flesh, written in DNA and bone and sinew, in the character of one man, Jesus Christ. The Word is always Christ, offering himself for the forgiveness of sin that we may share in his eternal, resurrected life.
And yet, this same Word is spoken differently to each of us, breathed in a myriad ways by the Holy Spirit which is God’s breath. Just look at the vast diversity of the saints: each of them reflects some different aspect of Christ, sings out his Word in a different tone. Their identity, and ours, is not erased by the Spirit, because his grace does not destroy our nature, but perfects it, in all its joyous multiplicity.
Only because they were inspired by the Holy Spirit could the little band of fishermen proclaim a message which would appeal to millions from every nation, right to the present day. And if we are willing to listen, who knows where the same Spirit might lead us?
Dio benu vin.
The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Why the Church needs to abandon Christian values

I’ve got a new article out on Living Church, here. Yes, the headline is a bit of an attention grabber. Mea culpa.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Forgiveness overcomes fear: 1st Sunday after Easter

Sunday evening: the first day of the week. The disciples have locked themselves away in their room, afraid – that they might go the same way Jesus did, two days before.
A figure appears among them.
“Peace be with you.”
The first time, they don’t understand. They don’t even recognise Jesus. It’s only when he shows them the wounds in his hands and sides that they understand who he is. Only when they see the marks of his suffering that they understand what he is saying.
“Peace be with you.”
Of course, they know the word, the Hebrew greeting which they as Jews would use every day: peace, shalom. And they know, as pious Jews, that this peace is the intended state of creation, the Sabbath rest of the seventh day in Genesis which represents perfection, a world in harmony with itself and its creator. But only on this eighth day, this second sabbath, do they realise what that peace of God really means. 
Easter, the fifty-day celebration of Christ’s Resurrection, is not about a zombie Jesus. It’s not a straightforward coming back from the dead. John’s mysterious account of the Lord appearing, revealing, breathing, vanishing should be enough to show us that.  And in fact, whenever the resurrected Jesus appears in the Bible, there is this common thread that at first, the disciples do not recognise or understand him.
He comes to Mary Magdalene outside his tomb, and she mistakes him for a gardener.
He comes to two disciples walking the road to Emmaus, even explains the prophecies in the Old Testament about him to them, but they do not recognise him or understand until he breaks bread.
And now, he appears and says, “peace.” But they do not recognise or understand until he shows them his wounds.
Only then does Jesus breathe on them and give them the gift of the Holy Spirit, and says that he is giving it for the forgiveness of sins.
Only then do they see that God’s peace comes through forgiveness: it is Jesus’ forgiveness of those who killed him, his forgiveness of themselves for having fled and betrayed him, which he is giving them to share with the world.
Only then do they see the full depths of that love, that self-giving, life-giving, forgiving love of God, which can free them from their fear.
And they are glad. 

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Felix Culpa, Happy Fault: and may the darkness dazzle you this Easter.

Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia. 
Notre Dame: 
France’s greatest tourist attraction? 
France’s premier museum? 
France’s top UNESCO World Heritage site? 
In secular France, the land of the Revolution, you’d think these descriptions would be enough. But clearly they are not. Not even for the French, the resolutely secular French, who knelt in the streets and prayed as she burned. 
Notre Dame. Our Lady. Through whom, at the Annuciation, our Saviour took flesh. At whose intercession Our Lord performed his first miracle at Cana, turning water into wine. Who stood with Him at the Cross. Who cradled his body in her arms, that her soul too was pierced. Whom He made mother to the lost and fugitive disciples. 
Our Lady: her powerful ministry of love quiet, unnoticed, downplayed. 
Forgotten in the turmoil of the Protestant Reformations, when God was made all power and sovereign will, all masculinity and muscle, unfettered from a mother’s love. 
Forgotten in the violence of the French Revolution, when tens of thousands were executed brutally for daring to perpetuate her love; when to be a “real woman” was to be more warrior than mother. 
Forgotten now, as our young men die in the cities by each other’s blades. 
Even in these times when a mother’s love for her sons is most needed, it is downplayed, degraded, ignored. And yet it persists, unseen: until some act of violence makes us realise what we have been missing. 
Notre Dame. Our Lady. 
Not some tourist attraction, some museum, some bit of heritage. But House of God; Ark of the Covenant; Gate of Heaven; Cause of our Salvation; Throne of Wisdom; Morning Star who shows the way: now that’s more like it. 
That’s Our Lady. That’s Notre Dame. 
If only, this Easter, we could have a faith like hers. 
Persistent in adversity. 
Persistent when forgotten and derided. 
Persistent even through centuries of scorn. 
Quietly discerning and reaping the fruits of the Resurrection, gently offering them to all who seek refuge. 
Can we have a faith like Mary’s? 
Maybe not. Maybe there is too much evil in this world. Too much darkness, too much scorn. Maybe we do not want to be noticed or known in a country where Mary’s faith in her Son is written off as superstition, reckoned as evidence of bigotry and ignorance. Maybe we do not want to be associated with the evil the Church itself has perpetuated through the ages and the abuses it continues to this day. Maybe we fear being discredited, put to shame. 
But listen again to the words of the Exultet, that ancient Easter Preface, which Deacons of the Church have sung for 1500 years. 
Felix culpa: “happy fault.” 
The Exultet proclaims the sin of Adam “truly necessary,” even “happy;” just as we proclaim the darkest Friday of the year as “Good.” For without Adam’s theft from the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the wood on which the New Adam hangs would never bloom into the Tree of Life. The Cross would be just an instrument of death; Our Lord, just a dead rabbi. 
There is no Easter without Good Friday. The Christian story is not a Sunday school tale of happy endings. God makes good come from evil, yes: eternal life from an instrument of death. But the darkness does not just go away. 
For as Christ awakens from the tomb, the Deacons sing, the “dark is itself radiant.” This echoes the Psalmists words to God, when he too sings: 
“Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day. The darkness and the light are both alike to thee.” 
The darkness begins to dazzle with new light. 
Even our most awful sins reveal the boundless mercy of that Shepherd who, on Easter Eve, would plunge as far as Hell to save his sheep. 
A happy fault. 
The faith of Mary is the faith which sees this clearly. 
When He rises,  Jesus is changed. 
Seeing him again, alive, in his new form, knowing that she will forever live with Him, brings Mary joy: but what could ever take away the soul-piercing pain she knew from watching him suffer and die, from holding her Son’s body, stabbed by a spear, mangled by the Cross? 
The pain and the joy coexist. 
Christian faith does not take all your pain away, does not turn all the world into bunnies and bonnets and chocolate eggs. You meet people who think that it does, that they’ve won a one-way ticket to heaven, but you can see straight through the smiles they force. 
True faith does not take the darkness away: it makes the darkness dazzle. 
So perhaps with eyes of faith, we might see the devastation in Paris in a different way. Perhaps we might see the people kneeling, praying, questioning – noticing. 
And not now, but in time, maybe we will be able to say that after all, it was a happy fault. 
Christ is Risen.
Death is conquered. 
But the victory was not easy, and we do still feel the sting. 
So let’s rejoice, but let’s not make the joy cheap. Let’s not take the Sacrifice for granted. 
The austerity of Lent may be over, but our new life in faith has just begun. And so, I urge you: deepen your prayer life, don’t drop it. 
Learn to pray the Rosary, to see the Lord with Mary’s eyes. Dwell deeper in the dazzling darkness and learn in it to see the light. 
If you are not baptised, be baptised! Join in Christ’s death and let His Resurrection liven you. 
If you are baptised, prepare for Confirmation if you haven’t already, and receive the Eucharist, often and with faith, learn to see more clearly the Body and Blood of the Saviour here, and taste the bittersweet fruits of eternal life.  
As you participate in the divine mysteries today, may the darkness become as light for you, death as life, water as wine – and all your faults be happy. 
Alleluia, Christ is Risen!  
He is risen indeed. Alleluia. 
The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

“Stop preaching at us!” – defences of relativism in Religious Education

Even RE teachers who acknowledge the relativistic bias of their subject are often happy to defend it. 
Some say that first, the students are not interested in learning about religious traditions in their own right, and second, they consider such teaching to be tantamount to preaching – which is, of course, a dirty word. After all, who might dare to tell them what to think, when they have been told from the outset that they themselves as individuals are the sole arbiters of truth? The fact that they accept this teaching without question or criticism goes unremarked. 
So, I am told, they switch off. 
Yet, we might ask: how many teenagers are really interested in Shakespeare, photosynthesis, trigonometry or the Second World War? 
We persist in teaching them nonetheless. In subject areas other than Religious Studies and PSHE, it would be unthinkable to define the syllabus purely according to student interest. The way in which we choose to teach any subject and the content we choose to include in it are both subject to value judgments. 
Even the belief in objectivity and neutrality is itself a truth-claim with a particular, value-laden tradition being it:    
The belief that there are objective values on which any rational being can agree, is itself rooted in a particular tradition – the tradition of European, and particularly British Liberalism. Instead of searching for an objective set of virtues beyond any one religious or moral system, we could begin from the particularity of religious and moral systems. – The Fruit of the Spirit, Church of England Education Office, p.12
The objection that teaching religious doctrine is tantamount to preaching is a delusion because relativism is itself a position which is being preached at the pupils both by word and example, especially when Religious Studies teachers feign agnosticism as a supposedly neutral position. When we teach religions in dribs and drabs, with no overarching narratives behind them, and posit them as arbitrary and relative truth-claims, we are making a surreptitious truth-claim of our own: that we inhabit a vantage point from which we can objectively view and judge those religions. 
The dogma of tolerance, enshrined in the vacuous litany of British Values, dictates that all positions must be respected regardless of their intellectual merit. That this is itself an arbitrary position, enforced not by persuasion but by coercion, is unacknowledged. And this is the one and only intellectual tradition which cannot be challenged – because it is not even acknowledged as an intellectual tradition. It is simply to be accepted, dogmatically, as the one incontrovertible truth.  
Part of the problem of Religious Studies which leads teachers into this sort of quandary is methodological. The sociological study of religions, as opposed to the intra-traditional study of theology, is based on the assumption of a secular orthodoxy by which religions are judged and from which they are ultimately condemned as deviations, arbitrary personal decisions not to conform: or, to use the familiar Greek word for ‘choices,’ heresies. 
Yet in strictly historical terms, the opposite is true. From ancient Judaism sprung the sect we now call Christianity, and six centuries later, Jewish and heterodox Christian movements were midwives to Islam. From the perspectives of their sire, both Christianity and Islam are heresies. Each of these titanic offspring ultimately outgrew and overthrew their parents, establishing their own orthodoxies within their geographical domains. And yet, in historical terms, each are “heresies” from what came before. 
Secularism did not come from nowhere. It most certainly did not pre-exist religions, and whilst it seems intent on patricide – or at least shuffling its embarrassing parents off to a rest home where they can rave at one another and be forgotten by the young – it too must own up to its place in the genealogy of ideas. And the fact is that it was born not in Arabia or China or Africa, but in Europe: Christian, post-Reformation Europe, at that. In the history of ideas, secularism is a “heresy” from Christianity. 
I am not using the word “heresy” to make a value judgment here. An orthodox Christian is, in a sense, a Jewish heretic. Yet it seems to me that there is something of a rapprochement nowadays between Jews and Christians, more of a sense of filial piety developing as Christians discover hidden depths of their own faith in that of their parent. It has, admittedly, taken the horror of the Holocaust for Christians to admit our culpability and seek understanding. 
And yet, despite the horrors of the French Revolution and of systematic state atheism imposed under Communist regimes, the tens of millions executed for dissent (many of them for daring to cling to the Christian faith), secular modernism has made little attempt even to acknowledge, let alone understand, its sire. 
For the Church and its schools, it is important to recognise that the very secularist assumptions on which so much Religious Studies teaching is based are not merely indifferent, and certainly not neutral, but actively hostile to any religious orthodoxy. 

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Learning the languages of the soul

“To have another language is to have another soul” – Emperor Charlemagne
My love of languages started at age 11, when I was made to take Latin. I enjoyed French, too, though not as much. There was something about learning an ancient tongue, belonging to such an alien and distant civilisation. At the age of 12, I managed to pester our school chaplain into teaching me Greek, too. In the end, I took all three languages to A-level and pursued Classics as my first degree. 
My favourite linguistic pursuit was “prose composition:” translating from English into Latin and Greek. I relished the puzzle of trying to frame my thoughts, or those of the writing I was translating, into a completely different mode of expression, with such different assumptions. 
In literature, what drew me most was poetry. Translating poetry, even more than prose, shows just how unscientific an act translation is. 
Under the influence of science’s empirical method, we tend in the West to default to the linguistic theory of nominalism: the idea that there is some objective reality to the world onto which humans map concepts, as words. 
Try to translate poetry, and you will see just how weak this theory is. 
This objective reality, separate from the workings of the human mind, if it exists at all, is simply unfathomable. Our language does not merely reflect some underlying reality which can then be perfectly remapped in an alternative linguistic “code.” Rather, that code itself defines reality. 
This is not as strange as it may sound. Imagine, for instance, translating Shakespeare into Japanese – which is, nowadays, my second language. Just think of how much nuance would be lost. Plays on words, cultural and historic references, effects of rhyme and metre, and especially jokes: all these would be lost. Some words may have no direct equivalents, and even those which seem to may have quite different implications. Does the modern English concept of the word “love,” for example, map identically onto any word in Japanese? There is of course such a word in Japanese, but its precise connotations are different. In fact, our modern connotations of romantic love implicit in that word are probably somewhat different even from those of Shakespeare, let alone another language. 
To make anything like a good translation, you would need to know not only the Japanese language, but to be as fluent as possible in the culture that it preserves and imparts. And even then, the translation can only go so far. 
This is because language does not just express what we think: it defines how we think. Learning Latin, Greek and Japanese have, as Charlemagne put it, given me three additional “souls:” or to put it into the modern language of psychologist Lena Boroditsky, three “cognitive toolkits,” or even “parallel universes.”  
The theory of nominalism is decidedly old hat, and comes from the same very specific intellectual family tree as relativism. Postmodern European philosophy is gradually catching up with the non-European religious traditions and realising the limitations of this model of understanding reality: insights shared, as we will see, by certain pre-modern Christian, Jewish and Muslim ways of seeing the world. 
A religion is much like a language. Each offers a different way not just of speaking about reality, but even of perceiving it. A parallel reality, in fact. 
Teaching religious issues by theme, rather than teaching them systematically in their own right, ultimately precludes fluency in any religious tradition. It is like teaching scraps of vocabulary from Mandarin and Pashto to someone who is barely literate in their native tongue. To learn another language, you need to learn its grammar, not just some disparate bunch of words. And to understand the grammar of another language, you need to know the grammar of your own. 
The Church of England has expressly called for a return to the systematic study of religions in their own right in its 2014 Review of Religious Education in Church of England Schools:
“Crucially, a return to the systematic teaching of specific faiths in their own terms is the key to improving children’s understanding. In line with the Statement of Entitlement that means the skills being developed are the skills of understanding and interpreting each faith in its own terms and not imposing illegitimate overarching constructs on material that develops within widely different cultural and intellectual contexts.” – Foreword to “Making a Difference?”: A Review of Religious Education in Church of England Schools
Both nominalism and relativism are such “illegitimate overarching constructs.” What we need to aim at, instead of uncritically imposing such unacknowledged cognitive codes on religions, is to try to attain some degree of fluency in them. 
But first, we need to know our own language. The Bible, liturgy, history and the theology of the Christian Church are a key components of the grammar of European and national history, literature, philosophy, music, politics and art. An analogous case could be made for the classical education from which I was unusual to benefit at a state school, as they have been systematically expunged from almost all but private schools in Britain. Biblical literacy is going the same way as classical literacy. And yet, it is simply impossible to have any fluency in the last two thousand years of European culture without knowledge of these spheres.
Yet many Upper Sixth form RE students will never have needed to touch a Bible, let alone read an entire book of it. St Paul and Isaiah are names as vaguely intuited as Cicero or Sophocles, known merely as sources of Tweet-length citations to be mined for examination points. That is not to mention Sankara or Plato or the Qur’an or the Bhagavad Gita. What our educational masters have historically counted as ‘religious literacy’ does not involve reading or listening to any religious texts on their own terms at all. 
Failure to teach our pupils fluency in the Christian tradition of our nation, far from leaving them open to a wider variety of ideas, in fact stunts their capacity to understand any religious tradition at all. If you are not fluent in one language, it is impossible to learn a second. 
This is emphatically not to say that we should learn Christianity at the expense of other religions. Rather, a deep understanding of Christianity gives a far better and more sympathetic vantage point for the study of Islam or Buddhism than the uncritical adoption of a relativistic approach. There is more overlap in their languages than there is with that of western secular modernity. 
The irony of this is that if Religious Studies is offered from a theological perspective and takes seriously the truth claims of the major faith traditions, it can offer a genuinely critical perspective to the otherwise arbitrary and coercive set of so-called ‘British’ values imposed by the State. It is far more conducive to encouraging dissent and free thinking than the cosmetic liberties which relativist ‘objectivity’ purports to afford. 
Relativism is not a freeing of the mind, but a prison, a pandering to our all too common monoglot tendencies of the Anglophone world. 
And, we will see, relativism has its own purposes and vested interests, quite contradictory to those of Christianity or any religion. 

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

What’s wrong with relativism, anyway?

Relativism is the new absolute and tolerance the new prime virtue. But so what? Maybe the moderns are right, and this is the only way to ensure a peaceful, ordered or at least bearable society. One in which, even if we do not achieve perfect harmony, we can at least put up with each other’s differences as long as they do not get in the way.
There are worse possibilities. Authoritarian regimes, acts of uniformity, prisoners of conscience, persecuted sexual minorities, ethnic cleansing. History has seen enough of those, many (though by no means all, or even the worst of them) under the aegis of religious “truth.” Such truth, history seems to teach, is not worth the cost. I respectfully return my ticket.

How Religious Education props up the post-truth worldview

“Teaching must renounce the authority of the teacher… The teacher must aspire to be neutral.” – The Discussion of Controversial Values in the Classroom, 1969

Thus spake the influential educationalist Lawrence Stenhouse, back in the swinging,  freedom-loving sixties. And so, relativism has not just crept in. It is actively promoted in schools. 
For some decades now, we have taught our children that there is no absolute truth which cannot be demonstrated by science. Anything which cannot be reduced to numbers – including morality, the question of what is good – is purely a matter of personal taste. And on this schools must remain “neutral.”  
Stenhouse’s lofty aspiration to neutrality remains a commonplace in schools, particularly in the controversial arenas of PSHE and Religious Education. 
In the latter, taught often by non-specialists, remains the preferred modus operandi of many RE teachers. Religions, whether Christianity, Islam or whatever, are not taught as a whole, in anything like a systematic way. Their own voices and teachings are not presented. Rather, they are presented as rival “opinions” on otherwise “neutral” subjects – which are, of course, editorially selected by whoever devises the curriculum. 
A topic – say, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, women’s clothing, law, or the afterlife – is introduced from the supposedly ‘neutral’ perspective of secular modernity. Examples are then given from one or two religions, along with snippets from their respective scriptures, which the pupils are expected to evaluate and employ to furnish their arguments. 
Imagine for a moment that English was taught like this: not by reading books, but by offering snippets of literature thematically arranged. The pupils would study not Shakespeare or Milton or Harper Lee, but love, or tolerance, or diversity, and be given two- or three-sentence snippets from the great authors as prof texts to demonstrate the relative position of those texts on the topic in question. They would then be required to express their opinion on the relative merits of the texts they have glanced at. 
You would hardly deem pupils subjected to such a pedagogy “literate.” Yet this is the approach advocated by Religious Studies orthodoxy. 
The recent emphasis on a knowledge-based, systematic curriculum is gradually alleviating the problem. Yet the hangover from the older, supposedly “skills-based” emphasis on teaching persists. The attitude behind it will take much longer to erase, and the pendulum of educational trend could easily swing back to where it was. In a nutshell, this is the belief that pupils need to learn how to process knowledge and argue about it convincingly, rather than learning the knowledge itself. The knowledge, on this assumption, is value-free and readily accessible, especially in the Internet age. 
But how can pupils “choose” what they do not know? 
How can they make reasoned arguments on the basis of minimal and highly selective evidence? 
How do they know which evidence to trust?
And who, ultimately, defines the range of data from which they may legitimately “choose?” 
The impeccably neutral teacher. Or the neutral State. Or the neutral textbook writer. In other words, whoever “neutrally” curates whatever particular snippets of data the children will be fed. 
This neutrality is a myth. 
In the words of the Church of England Education Office: 

There is no such thing as a neutral education. As soon as we begin to teach something to someone else, we are inevitably making value judgements about what we are teaching, how we are teaching it and why we are teaching it. Any decision we make about what or how to teach contains within it, an implicit understanding of the human condition, of what is important in life, of the relationships we want to foster, and of what is worth learning, knowing or questioning. – The Fruit of the Spirit, A Church of England Discussion Paper on Character Education, 2015, p.3

This kind of phenomenological approach to Religious Studies encourages not neutrality, but absolute relativism: as teachers mime agnostic neutrality and present this as the “neutral” norm, they inculcate not only by word but by example the firm conviction that there is no truth. Students are encouraged write about what, say, Islam or Christianity teaches, but only that ‘some Muslims believe…’ or ‘some Christians believe…’. 
In other words, “some believe x, some believe y, but ultimately, the only truth is that you can believe whatever you want.” Because none of it really matters. 
This is exactly what our pupils have been taught to think by the very people who are claiming not to be telling them what to think: by our “neutral,” secular educators. By departments of State, university lecturers, unionised teachers. 
All of whom, of course, have no political bias at all. 

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

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