The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 4: Harmony and Dissonance

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John Coltrane House, 1511 North Thirty-third Street, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, PA — Public domain

 

On Saturdays, I plan to take some time to reflect on what we’ve covered the previous week, and perhaps follow a rabbit trail or two.

As I describe the Bhagavad Gita, I’m taking my time approaching the things you may already know about Hinduism that differ from Christian theology: reincarnation, multiple gods, karma, the goal of the afterlife, cosmic unity, and the practice of meditation. I want to come at those things from the side, as it were, so that we understand them in context. When Christians encounter a different religion, I want our response to be not, “Wow, that’s weird,” but “Wow, we’re weird.” Or better yet, just Wow. Exposure to other cultures helps us to realize the things we assume are universally true are not necessarily so—and things we may have thought are unique to our culture are more universal than we expected. What we’ve been taught about other cultures or other religions is often a cartoon version of reality.

It’s also true that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. I take great care to make clear that anything I say about “Hinduism” is provisional. First, I may not know enough to know that I’ve misrepresented something. Second, there is great diversity in Hindu religion and philosophy.

But that exposure makes me even more aware that the same is true of Christianity. Saint Patrick and Joel Osteen can hardly be said to represent the same religion, and the same could be said of Dorothy Day and Mike Pence. Ask these famous Christians to define a word like “salvation,” and you’d likely get very different answers. What does it mean to say they all represent something called “Christianity?” How do they understand the call to “follow Jesus?”

“Enlightenment” in Hinduism and Buddhism is not the same thing as “salvation” in Christianity. They reflect different worldviews on what the central problem facing humanity is. When Christian missionaries showed up in India quoting scripture and saying, “You must be born again,” Hindus replied, “Are you crazy? We’re trying to stop being born again.”

So I reject the conventional wisdom that says “All religions basically say the same thing,” because a) even one religion doesn’t say the same thing! And b) because all members of a choir do not sing the same notes. In the most beautiful music, there is dissonance as well as harmony, places of tension and resolution. We do not have to collapse or ignore those differences to appreciate the polyphonic beauty.

Nor do we need to pretend that some things aren’t just flat out wrong. Sometimes in an ensemble, people get off key, or sing what they think is right, but it just ain’t. Even if you’re making it up as you go along in a kind of jazz improv, the professionals will wince and shake their heads when you hit a sour note.

My hope in listening to the music of different cultures and religions is that we come to a deeper appreciation and understanding of the whole, and our particular role in it.

Prayer:
Composer and Director of the Cosmos, let me be one with your music.