The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 19: Moral Panics and the Divine Self

Beatles_burning

United Press International photo, August 1966. Students in Waycross, GA burn Beatles albums. From Wikimedia Commons.

After telling Arjuna that Krishna is one of many incarnations of the Divine, Krishna continues:

Those who know me as their own divine Self break through the belief that they are the body and are not reborn as separate creatures. Such a one, Arjuna, is united with me. Delivered from selfish attachment, fear, and anger, filled with me, surrendering themselves to me, purified in the fire of my being, many have reached the state of unity with me. (BG, 4:9-10)

There is so much here that we will pause on these lines for a few days.

1) One thing I’m illustrating in this devotional series is a critical concept called intertextuality. That’s simply a fancy academic word that means we cannot hear a text “purely,” without hearing it in dialogue with lots of other texts. For example, whenever I read Amos 5:24, I hear it in Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s voice: “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” This was part of his famous “I have a dream speech” he delivered in 1963. Whenever I read Amos, I think of the struggle for Civil Rights in the country. I cannot bracket or close off those associations—nor do I want to. The words of Amos and Dr. King, 2500 years apart, present an intertext, a space where words meet, overlap, expand each other, and sometimes wrestle. This is a valuable space.

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When I read the Bhagavad Gita, I automatically hear it in dialogue with the Bible. That’s the obvious intertext. But for me, there is another an implicit intertext. I’ve alluded to it already, but I want to make it explicit as I delve into these verses.

2) Growing up in the 1980’s, I remember a lot of moral panics. Ouija boards, Satanism, New Age beliefs, Eastern philosophy, Dungeons & Dragons, comic books, tattoos, heavy metal music, healing crystals, all were threats to Good American Christianity™. One of the most dangerous beliefs, I was told, was the New Age belief promoted by people like Shirley MacLaine (among others) that you are God. “We are that God force, we are perfect,” she said (in this linked article from 1987). “I most certainly am not God,” came the evangelical retort. In evangelicalism, salvation depends on admitting one’s sinful imperfection and need for Jesus’s forgiveness. We are in a state of original sin, of separation from God. New Age beliefs that emphasize our unity with God, from a conservative evangelical perspective, undercut the gospel. “If we are already in unity with God, why do we need Jesus?” goes the reasoning.

Moral panic is why, in the 1990’s, Alabama even made it part of state policy to forbid the teaching of yoga and meditation in school. This law was only recently rescinded.

Today, those moral panics continue about both beliefs and practices. Recently, a debate about the practice of burning sage erupted on social media, with one popular pastor calling it “satanic aromatherapy.” He connected it to the New Age belief that people can “become their own gods.”

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A screenshot of an evangelicalist website ginning up moral panic. I will not link it, but you can certainly Google it if you like. Pretty sure that I qualify as hell-bound in their framework. 

3) I share all of this about intertext and moral panics because in order to address the first line of the above verse—Those who know me as their own divine Selfwe have to acknowledge the intertext of moral panics in American Christianity, of a decades-long culture war waged on multiple fronts. Moral panics have been a weapon in that fight. There is an intellectual front: Are people basically good or basically sinful? And a political front: How should we structure policy in light of it, and who gets to decide?

Though I’ve spoken dismissively of moral panics, I do recognize that there were and are beliefs and practices that are dangerous, that do harm to bodies, souls, communities, and the planet. You can make a convincing case that institutional Christianity is one of them! Capitalism is another. There are plenty of people who keep trying to gin up a moral panic about Christianity, who refer to religious teaching as “indoctrination” and claim raising children to be religious is child abuse.  

But if we are to understand the line Those who know me as their own divine Self, we have to acknowledge and name that a) there is a fundamental misunderstanding between Christian Evangelicalism and Eastern religions, and b) that there are social and political forces who benefit from maintaining that misunderstanding. We see it so clearly today, in disinformation campaigns and political rhetoric. There is a concerted effort to gin up moral panic, to advance a worldview that people are fundamentally evil, lazy, selfish, and out to steal souls from Jesus.

This worldview is not biblical. And it isn’t true. It harms people.

More tomorrow.

Prayer:
God of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, deliver us from false religion and oppressive power. Bring about your kin-dom where all people can thrive, and no one has to live in fear.