The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 13: Faith Versus Works


Ernst Nowak, Piggyback, 1919.


Arjuna is confused. If the goal is to realize the Self, to free ourselves from attachment and recognize our unity with the divine, why should he ride into battle? Krishna replies:

At the beginning of time, I declared two paths for the pure of heart: jnana yoga, the contemplative path of spiritual wisdom, and karma yoga, the active path of selfless service. …At the beginning, [humankind] and the obligation of selfless service were created together. Through selfless service you will always be fruitful and find the fulfillment of your desires. (BG 3:3, 10)

We see a similar tension between faith and works in Christian tradition.

Paul: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

James: For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead. (James 2:26)

In context, this is not really a disagreement. When Paul is talking about works, he is talking mainly about circumcision, which was a barrier for Gentile men who wanted to become Christian (see Galatians 5:2-6, or my book on the subject). But Christians started abstracting “works” to mean acts of service, and today our major doctrines seem to suggest that salvation is a matter of thinking correctly about Jesus instead of pouring ourselves out in love for the world, as he did.

Christian doctrine’s usual answer to this tension between internal work and external work was to say one proceeds from the other: our good works are the fruit of our faith in Jesus.

This is a terrible answer. First, it’s not the way human beings usually work: We don’t believe our way into acting—we act our way into believing! The consequence of this doctrine is inaction. Second, plenty of people who do NOT have faith in Jesus are capable of doing good. The consequence of this doctrine is exclusivism. In the 1980’s Bailey Smith, President of the Southern Baptist Conference, even claimed that “God does not hear the prayer of a Jew.” In his view, any good action that not washed in the blood of Jesus simply didn’t count.

Hinduism’s answer to the tension between internal and external work is more accommodating: there are lots of paths. Some people will take a contemplative path, and others will take a path of good works. Moreover, our desire to do good is grounded in our nature from the beginning.

There is a growing body of ecological and anthropological research to back this up. Nature express altruism: cooperation and symbiosis, perhaps more than competition for scarce resources, is how life grows and develops. Human beings have an innate need to show love.

Holy Spirit, erase the distinction for us between our contemplation and our actions, our faith and our works.