Spirituality and Mental Health: Critiquing Your Own Religiosity (Even if You Aren’t Religious)

Posthumous Portrait of Martin Luther as an Augustine Monk by Lucas Cranach the Elder, from Wikimedia Commons

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
(Romans 12:3)

There is a tendency for religious people to get carried away with their religiosity. People have flogged themselves with whips or worn hair shirts to “mortify the flesh” (which is the way the ancient King James language renders Romans 8:13). Monks who fasted sometimes worried that if they swallowed their own saliva, God would hold it against them for breaking their fast.

Sex is one area where religious people get especially carried away. Religious people throughout history, tormented by the idea that sexual arousal or pleasure is sinful, have policed their thoughts for any hint of lust. If they let their eyes linger on a lingerie advertisement or nude painting, they feel they have violated Jesus’s words from the Sermon on the Mount: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29). They hear these words literally and spend their lives terrified of hellfire, though presumably it was God who created us as sexual beings and, perhaps through some oversight, established sex as the way human beings would reproduce.

People who sought out life in a monastery were often trying to escape their mental torment, but they found they could not escape themselves. The monk Martin Luther would go to confession multiple times a day. He couldn’t feel confident that he was truly sorry, or that his plea for forgiveness was genuine enough. He imagined God as a bright light that illuminated all of his sins. He had a spiritual conversion, though, when he realized that the light was not God: it was the devil. Martin came to understand that Jesus’ work had made his own sinfulness irrelevant—God loved him enough to forgive those sins. Why should he doubt God’s ability to forgive him, or that forgiveness require him to gin up some “real” guilty feelings? His personal conversion transformed not only his own theological thinking, but started the Protestant Reformation.

So it was that many monastics learned to be gentle with these zealous tendencies, because religiosity often masks deep wounds or insecurities. Wise monks wrote about the dangers of “heroic faith,” the tendency for us to try to impress God or win some kind of cosmic virtue contest. Roberta Bondi, telling stories of these ancient monastics, writes,

Beginners in the desert had to learn to be humble, that is, to abandon the heroic image of the self and learn to believe that all human beings, themselves included, were weak and vulnerable. They had to learn instead to take up appropriate tasks, and appropriate tasks for weak and vulnerable human beings are ones that can actually be performed… How much easier it is to daydream about the dramatic acts of love and self-sacrifice I or the church might make to prove our love of God or neighbor!

Bondi, To Love as God Loves, p. 47

An abbott of a monastery prescribed an unusual therapy for one of his monks who was worried about his own sinfulness: he told him to steal small things from his fellow monks. The abbott would then return the items at night. Today, we can see that this was a form of exposure therapy. The abbott was training the young monk to worry less about his sinfulness by prescribing theft.

The human tendency toward heroic moralism is not merely a religious one. I find the same sorts of guilt, doubt, and self-incrimination in activist and social justice circles. The language is often just as harsh and unforgiving. Sometimes it does rise to the level of mental health problem: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder expressed in religious terms is called scrupulosity, which Joseph Ciarrocchi explores in his book The Doubting Disease.

But even if our doubt and self-recrimination doesn’t rise to the level of a clinical disorder, it’s important to recognize that even God doesn’t want us to be too religious. Our job isn’t to become moral heroes. It’s more important for us to learn to be truly human in solidarity with all the other weak and vulnerable humans on this planet.

Prayer:
Author of Life, wherever our religion works against on your desired flourishing for all of creation, help us to humbly critique our own religiosity.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Protect Your Melon

A bike helmet, by Jef Poskanzer, from Wikimedia Commons

But Jael wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground—he was lying fast asleep from weariness—and he died. Then, as Barak came in pursuit of Sisera, Jael went out to meet him, and said to him, “Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.” So he went into her tent; and there was Sisera lying dead, with the tent peg in his temple.
(Judges 4:21-22)

On TV, people are always getting knocked out. It isn’t uncommon for a main character to lose consciousness several episodes in a row, or even twice or more in one story. They lose consciousness by getting punched in the face, hit on back of the head, being too close to an explosion, or falling more than three times their body height. Most heroes in action shows are probably walking around with TBI—traumatic brain injury.

In real life, losing consciousness for any of these reasons would mean a visit to the emergency room. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show in which someone recovering from being knocked unconscious got adequate first aid. They just hop up, shake their heads, stagger a bit, and keep going. At the very least, they should be checked out to see if they are alert and oriented. The problem, of course, is that ER visits in the United States can take six hours (sometimes less in countries where there is universal health care), and by the time the patient gets discharged the nuclear codes would have already been stolen or the love interest would have been kidnapped.

This is probably why I’m not a screenwriter.

To protect your mental health, it is important to protect your physical health, and the most important physical piece of you to protect is your brain. Our fragile melons are balanced on top of our spindly necks, like bowls of jello resting on top of a spring. Violent shaking or rapid deceleration are not good for the contents.

This is why we wear helmets when doing construction, or riding a horse or bicycle, or going into combat. I once heard someone ask a cyclist why he wore a helmet, and he replied, “Because my head is where I keep all my favorite stuff.” Indeed, everything that is most important to us we keep in our heads: our hopes and dreams, our memories, our love, and the mental representation of the entire universe. My dad, who is a mental health counselor, has been saved more than once by a bike helmet. I take this stuff pretty seriously.

(There is some debate among cycling advocates about helmets, and whether or not helmet use creates a greater public perception that cycling is dangerous. Some research suggests that cars tend to give more space to cyclists who do not wear helmets, so wearing a helmet actually increases the risk you will be hit by a car. In an ideal America, we would have protected bike lanes and a robust cycling culture, like the Dutch, where cycling is a casual and accepted way to commute.)

There have been major advances in neuropsychology in recent years. We can even see the brain working with fMRI scans. This not only helps us understand TBI, dementia, and other forms of pathology, but also has a cultural impact: More parents are refusing to let their kids participate in football. One study in Arizona found that between 2015 and 2018, youth football participation had dropped by 25%. This mirrors that national decline more broadly. Some pediatricians point out that concussion is not a major problem among kids in contact sports, because they are lighter and have less momentum, but most recommend getting exercise some other way than football. I’m not a big football fan, but I do live in Alabama, and even I have some sadness that the sport will probably mirror the decline of boxing within a generation. Risking kids’ brains just isn’t worth it.

I think we can ask interesting philosophical questions about whether the brain is the same as the mind, and how we compose our sense of “self.” We discuss brain health and mental health most often when there is some kind of pathology, like dementia or chemical imbalances. But brain health should be important to everyone with a brain. One of the best ways to preserve our mental health is to protect our brains.

Prayer:
Thank you, God, for this amazing network of neurons. I don’t know where I’d be without it.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Starting Over (And Over)

The late leaves hanging on the plum tree, by cogdogblog, from Wikimedia Commons

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
(Isaiah 43:19)

One thing most spiritual traditions share is an openness to the possibility of starting over. We experience time as a succession of moments, and each one is new. This means we have the freedom to create and explore new possibilities in our lives. We can create new habits or extinguish old ones. We can change our lives. While nature, nurture, and the systems around us shape our behavior, we experience the freedom to create new behaviors and relationships.

This is one reason the New Year is a popular time to make resolutions. The first day of the year, or the school year, tends to be a hopeful time of change, and we can, in the language of yoga practice, “set an intention” to do something. When we set an intention, we are acknowledging the moment’s newness and possibility. It may be an action, or it may simply be a frame of mind. We are experiencing this. It is happening now.

Forgiveness is one such possibility. That’s an expression of interpersonal freedom. We can remake or transform our relationships. We can let old grudges go and start over.

In common discussion, we often speak about forgiveness and accountability, or forgiveness and ending a bad relationship, as if they were opposites. But they are not opposites. Both are expressions of the freedom we have to remake or transform how we relate to other people. I can let grudges go. I can also let abusive or toxic relationships go.

We can also extend this same grace to ourselves and our past behavior. Although we may make resolutions to change habits in the New Year, when we fail or don’t meet our goals, we get discouraged. But if I approach each moment as new, I am always free to start over.

My father likes to say, “If you start over often enough, you eventually begin to look consistent.” One way to change our behaviors and relationships is to see every moment as new, and the possibility of starting over as always before us.

Prayer:
Author of all things new, help me to see the newness of this day.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Spiritual Bypassing and Clergy Leadership

They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
    saying, “Peace, peace,”
    when there is no peace.
(Deuteronomy 6:6-7)

“Spiritual bypassing” is a way of avoiding or repressing uncomfortable emotions. It’s using spirituality or spiritual practice to side-step hard internal work. While the term was coined by a Buddhist psychologist, it has become more widely used to describe ways that (usually white) folks retreat into religious or spiritual clichés when confronted with social analyses or interpersonal interactions that make them uncomfortable. As in, “we just need to love more” or “judge people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.” These are fine words in context, but when used to sidestep hard issues, deny the lived experience of marginalized persons, or deny oppression, they become spiritual bypassing.

Lots of Trump-voting folks who are mortified by what happened yesterday are doing spiritual bypassing right now. It’s easier than reckoning with cognitive dissonance or simply being wrong.

Spiritual bypassing is the rhetorical ally to bothsiderism and generic complaints about the human condition. It provides an enabling smokescreen for privilege. It is behind most calls for “unity” without repentance or a change in power relations.

And spiritual bypassing it is regularly modeled by pastors and preachers who are reluctant to address issues of justice from the pulpit.

It is a hard and very fine line to walk when you are trying to hold a polarized community together (like the United Methodist Church), and I am glad that I have the freedom to be as plain-spoken as I want to be with my own congregation. But many leaders in our denomination could give a master class in spiritual bypassing.

It takes a personal toll. I suspect for clergy, it may even be form of “moral injury.” It leads to burn out. Like cheating on a test, the person who employs spiritual bypassing is denying themselves the opportunity to grow. But when you have to internalize it for a whole community, it hurts like hell. I’m afraid that a lot of our language about leadership for clergy normalizes this feeling. But we can resist and heal by naming it. It’s called spiritual bypassing.

Prayer:
Author of Peace, grant real us peace — peace with justice — personally and socially in our world.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Becoming Aware of Cues

Bellender Chocolate Labrador Retriever, 2016, by Wald-Burger8, from Wikimedia Commons

Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.
(Deuteronomy 6:6-7)

People had been training dogs for nearly ten thousand years before Ivan Pavlov described a “conditioned response.” He observed that if you ring a bell before you feed a dog, eventually the dog will associate the bell-ringing with getting fed and begin to salivate before the food even arrives. This is called “classical conditioning,” and it is one building-block of behavior change. We animals easily link one stimulus (a bell) with another (food) and it can cause us to respond, consciously or not, to our environment. When I hear the mail slot on our house open and close, I associate it with getting mail, and I feel a sense of curiosity. I’ll probably go check to see what the mail carrier has brought us. We call the sound a “cue” or a “trigger.”

The other building block is “operant conditioning.” If a rat pushes a level and receives some food, it learns that its behavior is linked to a reward. It is likely that when it is hungry, it will push the lever more.

These simple principles—classical and operant conditioning—are responsible for most of our daily behavior. I wake up in the morning and feel groggy, but the scent of freshly-ground coffee hits my nose and I start to crave it. Here’s the crazy part: I don’t even have to drink the coffee to feel more awake! I’ve been conditioned, like Pavlov’s dogs, to have a certain response to the scent of coffee. And through cues, repetition, and rewards over many days (wake up tired -> drink coffee -> feel refreshed) I’ve used operant conditioning to create a habit in my morning routine.

I think of this process in both behavioral and theological terms. The author of Deuteronomy in the passage above knew that it was not enough to say, “Keep these words in your heart.” The author added, “recite them when you lie down and when you rise.” They knew repetition was key to making something important in your life, and building into a morning and evening routine was the most certain way to give it priority.

We human beings are animals, and we learn things through repetition, by forming and strengthening the neural pathways along which electrochemical information moves. Ideas and experiences don’t just float around in the ether—they are embodied in proteins and neurotransmitters, incarnate in sound, smell, saliva, and morning routines.

This is why we don’t form or break habits through sheer willpower. I usually can’t simply decide to change my routine behaviors. I have to set up cues and rewards to train myself in that direction. For example, if I want to run in the morning, I may set out my running gear the night before. If I want to remember to set out my gear, I may need to create a reminder on my phone.

Or maybe my phone is the habit I’m trying to break. If I want to be less distracted and check my phone less often during the day, I may need to reduce the cues in my environment that cause me to reach for it when I’m bored or curious. If standing in line has become a cue to check my phone, perhaps I can carry a book with me when I know I’m going to be standing in line at the grocery store or the DMV. Part of this process is simply learning to recognize the cues that cause our automatic behaviors.

Becoming aware of our triggers and rewards is key to changing our habits. For all our lofty thoughts and goals, we humans are still animals. Our complex behavior is built on fairly simple principles.

Prayer:
God, may you be my first and last thought of the day.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Making New Year Resolutions “Sticky”

Photo of German mountain biker Kai Saaler in Finale Ligure, Italy, from Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Finale_Ligure_2018.jpg)

The appetite of the lazy craves, and gets nothing,
while the appetite of the diligent is richly supplied.

(Proverbs 13:4)

We generally don’t notice our habits. They happen so automatically that they barely register. They can be helpful or annoying, but our language reflects how strong they are: we talk about “breaking” bad habits, as if they were wood or stone. Our ability to create automatic behaviors is actually a superpower.

That’s one reason I think the scripture above can be misleading. A judgmental person will read it this way: “The world is made up of two kinds of people: the “lazy” and the “diligent.” If you work hard and have willpower, you can achieve your desires. But if you are lazy, you will be in want all the time.”

But this is a naive view of human behavior. Here’s the critical question: How does the author know? How does the author know the experience of a lazy person, and the strange feeling of wanting something, but not feeling strong enough do something about it? Paul was more introspective: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:19).

“Lazy” and “diligent” are character judgments. The words don’t actually describe what motivates people or how they change their automatic behaviors. Moreover, everyone has the experience of wanting something, but being frustrated at changing their own behavior to achieve it. “Lazy” is a word we apply when we are frustrated at someone’s behavior, whether that person is someone else or ourselves. We don’t generally change our behavior by simply gritting our teeth and applying willpower. I can shout “Be diligent!” at myself all day long and only succeed in shaming and demotivating myself. Unfortunately, this is often people’s experience with New Year Resolutions: they set goals for the things they want, but don’t consider the steps needed to achieve them. When they experience a setback, they become judgmental of themselves: “I just don’t have enough willpower.”

Most of us also have the experience of mastering some kind of automatic behavior, but these are easy to overlook once we’ve achieved them. After nearly fifty decades on the planet, I don’t have to exert “willpower” to brush my teeth—I just do it. I’ve mastered the complex set of behaviors involved in driving a car so well that I can daydream, or listen to an audiobook, or carry on a conversation with a passenger at the same time, all while paying attention to traffic patterns and following the relevant laws (usually). And though it took me a while to normalize only eating during an eight-hour window, I no longer have to think much about fasting. Habits fade into the background and we no longer notice them. If we took the time to make a list of our good habits, most of us would probably find we are very diligent about some things.

“Diligence,” then, is about becoming adept at creating good habits, programming ourselves for automatic behaviors that help us rather than hinder us. The processes for making New Year Resolutions that stick is the same for any goals we set for ourselves. I’ll look at these processes more in the next few devotionals.

Prayer:
We are fearfully and wonderfully made! Thank you, Creator of Life, for endowing me with the ability to program my own brain.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 60: Final Words

The Delivery of the Bhagavad Gita, from Wikimedia Commons

In the larger epic that contains the Bhagavad-Gita (the Mahabharata), blind king Dhritarashtra is the head of the royal family that opposes Arjuna. The whole dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna is being reported to him by his charioteer.

As Krishna draws his dialogue with Arjuna to a close, he says,

Make every act an offering to me; regard me as your only protector. Relying on interior discipline, meditate on me always. Remembering me, you shall overcome all difficulties through my grace. But if you will not heed me in your self-will, nothing will avail you. (BG18:57-58)

This last line has a particular poignancy in the context of the epic. We’ll get to that in a minute.

When Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Mount, he offers a similar warning: Those who listen to his words and put them into practice will be like a wise builder who puts the foundation of a house on rock. In the storm, such a building will stand firm. But a foolish builder builds a house on sand, which collapses in a strong wind (Matthew 7:24-27).

But if you will not heed me in your self-will, nothing will avail you. Remember, according to the story, we are “overhearing” this dialogue in the back of a chariot, but this is only a literary device. The phrase hints that Krishna’s words are directed to the reader, not just to Arjuna. Krishna has repeatedly told Arjuna that he is precious, that he is on the right path, and so on. While he could be speaking generally (because any young prince might be overcome by self-will), it’s written as though Krishna is gazing beyond Arjuna’s shoulder and addressing all of us who are eavesdropping.

The chapter—and the Gita—concludes in Sanjaya’s voice, the character reporting to Dhritarashtra. This whole dialogue is being reported to Arjuna’s enemies by one who has overheard. He says that hearing the conversation made his hair stand on end, and filled him with wonder and joy. Imagine if, in the Bible, the Sermon on the Mount were reported by Judas to High Priest Caiaphas and the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate! Would we read it differently?

I think it gives a little twist to the whole work. Your enemies are hearing this same wisdom; they have the same access to it that you do. It awes and inspires them. Does it change their hearts? Does it change the way you think of your relationship? Does it change your approach to wisdom? Does rivalry make you desire it more? Or would you reject it because someone you hate is putting it into practice?

Krishna goes on to tell Arjuna not to share these words with the unworthy and immature (which sounds like “do not throw your pearls before swine,” (Matthew 7:6). He also says that anyone who hears them with faith, “will find a happier world where good people dwell” (BG 18:71) So as this dialogue is being reported to the blind king, he is being offered a kind of peace. (And this is not the first time Krishna has offered him peace).

I think this is a particular aspect of wisdom in both Christianity and Hinduism: those who are pursuing wisdom have fewer reasons to be enemies. Those who are wise have sympathy even for their rivals. I think of David grieving over Saul, or Joseph reconciling with his brothers. If we are free of attachment to our actions, if we do not lust after wealth or temporary pleasures that cannot satisfy, what do we have to fight over? It’s not as if wisdom is “owned” by one party or tribe more than another. It is freely available to those who humble themselves enough to ask for it and its rewards are for any who diligently put it into practice.   

Prayer:
Foundation of the Universe, let me build my life on nothing but you.

This concludes my regular devotionals on the Bhagavad-Gita and the Bible. I’m going to take a short break and offer a reflective summary in a few days. I’m preparing to teach a class at UAB on America’s Religious Diversity, so this has been a helpful exercise for me in comparative religion. I hope you’ve enjoyed it!

I will start a new series in a week or two on mental health and religious practice. In the meantime, if you need a daily devotional, I recommend CAC’s and Richard Rohr’s here.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 59: Three Kinds of Knowledge

King Solomon and Queen of Sheba, 1430. from Wikimedia Commons

In the next chapter, Krishna continues to riff on the three gunas. He says,

Sattvic knowledge sees the one indestructible Being in all beings, the unity underlying the multiplicity of creation. Rajasic knowledge sees all things and creatures as separate and distinct. Tamasic knowledge, lacking any sense of perspective, sees one small part and mistakes it for the whole. (BG 18:20-22).

Krishna has described a kind of dialectic: Tamasic thinking (superstition and magic) is the thesis. People who hastily create a worldview from their limited experience tend to assume their perspective is universally true. Its antithesis is rajasic analytical and scientific thinking. This is a cognitive leap, where people dismantle the old superstitions. The synthesis is sattvic thinking, which understands the union of spirit and matter, science and spirituality. One who is enlightened “sees the one indestructible Being in all beings, the unity underlying the multiplicity of creation.”

I do not see this as three separate ways of knowing. I see it instead as normal human development. We all start off as children, trying to make sense of a world that makes little sense. We are taught concrete rules and concepts: Don’t touch a hot stove. Hard work is rewarded. These concepts are true for their context, and they shape a worldview. Some people get stuck in a childlike understanding of the world. They assume their experience is universally true, and that absolute truth is easy to grasp.

Generally, as we get older, we learn more scientific and relativistic ways of thinking. There are many different perspectives. To truly understand something, we must test it. Reality is complex. We have all kinds of “coming of age” stories where the protagonist goes through a lonely period of questioning and disillusionment. There is no longer any such thing as “absolute truth.”

As we get older still, many of us synthesize these two perspectives. There is a universality in our particularity. The distinctions between naiveté, cynicism, and wisdom become blurry. Part of our human task is to grow into deeper and richer forms of knowledge, where more than one thing can be true at a time, and where we transcend dualistic thinking. Light can be both a wave and a particle. Energy and matter can be the same thing. A human can be both a sinner and a saint, temporal and eternal. Life and death are no longer opposites, but part of an endlessly creative dance.  

In the Bible, scholars refer to two kinds of wisdom literature: conventional wisdom, and unconventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom represents the kind of knowledge you want to instill in children and young people so that they will be effective in life, like: “The faithless will be fully repaid for their ways, and the good rewarded for theirs” (Proverbs 14:14). But eventually we turn a skeptical eye on such simplistic wisdom. Job rails against injustice, asking, “Why do the wicked live on, growing old and increasing in power?” (Job 20:7). Ecclesiastes takes a more nuanced and personal view: “All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not” (Ecclesiastes 9:2).

That’s part of why I think these three kinds of knowledge are not rigid categories. They are a looping progression. And the more we know, the more we realize what we do NOT know. As the Buddha said, “we do not speak of enlightenment.” This is not the kind of knowledge you can put into words.

Prayer:
Wisdom Beneath All Things, I already know you. Help me to know you better.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 58: Three Kinds of Faith

Love, Hope & Faith sign during the pandemic, May 4, by Xnatedawgx. From Wikimedia Commons

Krishna has been telling Arjuna about how faith (shraddha) affects our behavior. He tells Arjuna that when one practices spiritual disciplines of the mind (self-restraint), the body (nonviolence), and of speech (honesty) with great faith, “the sages call this practice sattvic.” But he goes on to say,

Disciplines practiced in order to gain respect, honor, or admiration are rajasic; they are undependable and transitory in their effects. Disciplines practiced to gain power over others, or in the confused belief that to torture oneself is spiritual, are tamasic. (BG 17:17-19)

You may remember that sattva, rajas, and tamas are the three forces of evolution that Krishna describes. Sattva is the force of enlightenment; rajas is the force of passion and restless activity; tamas is the force of delusion and torpor. Krishna says that merely practicing religious disciplines doesn’t get you anywhere. How and why you are practicing are just as important. Is it to win social approval? To do penance? To gain power and harm others?

Jesus himself says something similar: Be careful that you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 6:1). He goes on to say that giving alms, praying, and fasting should be done secretly, so that our reward will be between us and God. Jesus calls people who practice rajasic religion to gain approval from others, “actors,” which is what hypocrites means in Greek.

Krishna includes a category of practice, though, that I think more Christians should know about. Some people practice religion either to gain power over others, or in the confused belief that to torture oneself is spiritual. This is where toxic, white supremacist, evangelical Christianity in the United States finds itself today. Religion used to gain political power causes manufactured suffering on a massive scale.

Jesus calls them out, too: “How terrible it will be for you legal experts and Pharisees! Hypocrites! You shut people out of the kingdom of heaven. You don’t enter yourselves, and you won’t allow those who want to enter to do so” (Matthew 23:13). The moral lesson that so many American Christians have learned from white evangelical Christianity is that human beings are terrible and deserve to be punished. This has justified all kinds of authoritarian religious and political behavior.

This delusion is tamas: the practice of religion to gain power over others, including the belief that self-torture, guilt, and wallowing in shame are spiritual. This does not move us closer to God. It merely fortifies the lie that we are alone and abandoned, separated by our sin from God. I’ve heard Christians say that God refuses to even look at sinful, broken, abominable humanity. It’s a great theology for authoritarians.

The truth is that God is, as Muslims say, “as close as the veins in your neck.” God doesn’t need our self-torture or an impressive performance. God has no use for religion as a tool of social control or political power. Religious disciplines are only useful insofar as they help us to know more deeply that love holds the universe together.

Prayer:
Love that holds all things together, open my eyes to those things that bring abundant life.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 57: The Demonic

Oversized Neogothic Gargoyle, Basilique Saint-Nazaire, Carcassonne, by Txllxt TxllxT. From Wikimedia Commons

Having described the life of wisdom and how enlightened people see God all around them, Krishna speaks briefly about the opposite: the life of delusion.

“There is no God,” they say, “no truth, no spiritual law, no moral order. The basis of life is sex [desire]; what else can it be?” …Hypocritical, proud, and arrogant, living in delusion and clinging to deluded ideas, insatiable in their desires, they pursue their unclean ends. …Bound on all sides by scheming and anxiety, driven by anger and greed, they amass by any means they can a hoard of money for the satisfaction of their cravings. (BG 16:8, 10, 12)

Krishna calls such a perspective “demonic.” It is the opposite of non-attachment. This is a path that leads to continual rebirth.

I need to point out that both in the Bhagavad Gita and the Bible, what is being described here is not doctrinal atheism. It is practical atheism. I know plenty of moral, kind atheists. It is entirely possible to reject theism (doctrinal atheism) and believe in a moral order, just as it is possible for someone to intellectually agree that God exists and act like a self-centered jerk. There are many Christians who are practical atheists, whose worldview has more in common with Ayn Rand than Jesus. Because of an intellectual or lifestyle commitment to their self-gratification, they store up for themselves treasures on earth instead of in the heavens.

Practical atheism, in the view of these authors, is about how one behaves. We find similar scripture in Psalm 14: Fools say in their hearts, There is no God. They are corrupt and do evil things; not one of them does anything good. People who read this verse often fail to notice the “in their hearts” bit, or how it relates to folly. “Fool,” in the Hebrew Bible, is not just an insult. Being a fool is a moral failing. And it is possible to say with your mouth that God exists, and to say in your heart, “there is no God.”

Paul delivers a similar polemic when he describes paganism in Romans 1. For Paul, people become like the gods they worship, and the pagan gods were constantly petty, selfish, vindictive, and lustful: Since [the pagans] didn’t think it was worthwhile to acknowledge God, God abandoned them to a defective mind to do inappropriate things. So they were filled with all injustice, wicked behavior, greed, and evil behavior. They are full of jealousy, murder, fighting, deception, and malice. (Romans 1:28-29)

(This Romans passage has often been used as a “clobber passage” against LGBTQIA persons, and I recently preached about how this is a complete misunderstanding of what Paul is saying. You can see this message here.)

Acknowledging God, for these authors, means acknowledging that the highest good is found outside of our temporary desires. There is a deeper longing in us for something eternal, something that connects us to every other creature in the universe. This is not about an intellectual assent to the existence of God. It’s about a commitment to seeking and knowing Ultimate Reality in an intimate, life-changing way.

Prayer:
Thou who art Truth, fill me with desire for what truly satisfies.