The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 11: Seeing God Everywhere

960px-Helmmycena_(Mycena_galericulata)_(d.j.b.)_06

By Dominicus Johannes Bergsma – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

 
Krishna is still telling Arjuna about the difference between yoga as theory and yoga as practice.

Just as a reservoir is of little use when the whole countryside is flooded, scriptures are of little use to the illumined man or woman who sees the Lord everywhere (BG 2:46).

I love this metaphor. Even the holiest scriptures do not contain God—they point to an overwhelming, ever-present reality. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” in the words of Gerard Manly Hopkins.

As I said at the beginning of this series, scriptures do not hold the same place of reverence in Hinduism as they do in Christianity. Paul specifically talked about the usefulness of the Old Testament: “Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character” (2 Timothy 3:16). For Jews, the Torah itself was given by God to Moses at Sinai. I do not imagine Jesus would say, “scriptures are of little use,” even for the enlightened person.

But what he was preaching and doing obviously rankled his Bible-believing, rule-following detractors. You can hear Jesus respond to his accusers in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). From Christian perspective, Jesus was the flood, and the scriptures could not contain him.

Christian theologians make a distinction between special revelation (the Gospel) and general revelation. General revelation is God’s character revealed everywhere, including nature: “Ever since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities—God’s eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, because they are understood through the things God has made” (Romans 1:20). Creation has sometimes been called “the first Bible.”

Evangelical Christians view “enlightenment,” or salvific knowledge, as coming to see God revealed exclusively in the person of Jesus Christ. Special revelation becomes the only kind that matters. Krishna is talking about going the other direction: seeing the Lord of Love (the divine Self) revealed everywhere; the particular becoming universal. I think this was more like the experience of the early Christians. Their understanding of God’s work in Christ was not narrowed, but broadened. It was not the Bible (they wouldn’t have a completed New Testament for hundreds of years!), but Christ who was the Word of God, and the whole cosmos came into being through him (John 1:1-5).

It’s important to note that this insight is for “the illumined man or woman,” because there’s a difference between saying, “God is everywhere” and knowing in your bones that God is everywhere, between “seeing” as an intellectual metaphor and seeing as deep understanding. I suspect that most folks who think they are enlightened and don’t need any particular scriptures to help them see God are groping in the dark.

Prayer:
Word of Life, Word of Creation, Word of Scripture, Word of God, let me hear and see your Word all around me.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 10: Brain vs. Mind

CT_of_a_normal_brain,_sagittal_20

image by Mikael Häggström, M.D.

 

I’m using Saturdays for summaries and tangents, a little bit of lagniappe as we go through the Bhagavad Gita.

On Monday I referenced this lyric from For the Beauty of the Earth by Folliott S. Pierpoint:
For the joy of ear and eye,
   For the heart and brain’s delight,
For the mystic harmony
   Linking sense to sound and sight.

But this isn’t the way we usually sing it in church. Some editor disliked the word “brain” and substituted mind. Mind sounds more spiritual, doesn’t it? “For the heart and mind’s delight.”

It changes the meaning completely. Pierpoint is talking about the joy of being aware, appreciating the sense-data that comes into our brains and marveling at the mystery of consciousness itself. It is a “mystic harmony” that allows us to make “sense” of our senses, to turn this data into meaningful information. We do not experience the world directly—it comes to us through these neural pathways. Today we know it takes our brains about 250 milliseconds to make up a story about what is going on “out there” while we are stuck “in here.” It’s how we “make sense” out of the world, linking sense to sound and sight.

But by changing “brain” to “mind,” the editor muddies the meaning. Now we’re singing about the mind’s delight, which is probably in thinking big thoughts about abstract things. “What’s on your mind?” is a different question from “What is your brain experiencing?”

I’m a fan of neuroscience, and I’m fond of saying, “All of our spiritual experiences are brain experiences.” In other words, if you have a profound experience of God’s presence and grace, we can see it on an fMRI scan. But ever since the Greek philosophers, Western people have made sharp distinctions between the physical and the spiritual, the natural and the supernatural, the physical and the mental. Even though the Bible says very little about metaphysics, Christian doctrine, following our Greek tradition more than our Hebrew one, has been obsessed with mind-body dualism.

And in the Christian West, the body has been on the losing end of that duality. “Spirit” is good, and “flesh” is bad. And while we’re concerned about spiritual things, like saving souls for heaven, we can ignore physical things, like poverty and the way bodies are incarcerated.

Not only do I reject this dualism, I also think the original lyric expresses what Pierpoint was getting at: How is it that these biological, physical phenomena create this thing we understand as experience? What is this thing I understand as me, that takes these auditory and visual inputs and turns them into meaning? And is that process really me? Am I having an experience? Or is experience having me?

The Hindu sages, practicing meditation for generations and passing down the wisdom of their introspective insights, followed this existential question and came to some conclusions which are both unsettling and liberating:

I am not my experiences.
I am not my thoughts and feelings.
I am not my wants and imaginings.
I am not my memories or beliefs.
I am not my even my will.
I am not my even my brain.

They concluded that the core of who I am, my identity, is pure consciousness. This Self, Atman, is an observer—an experiencer. The data comes in, but I am not the data. Decisions are made, but I am not even really the decider. I am pure consciousness, poured out from God like water from a vessel, or rolling like a wave on the ocean.

Their metaphysical explorations did not lead them to mind-body dualism. The physical world was a manifestation of spiritual forces. There is quite a bit in the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads that delve into how these forces manifest in the physical world.

All of that is to say that I think the Hindu sages would appreciate Pierpoint’s lyric better than the Christian editor who decided it needed changing. My brain is made of the same stuff and communicates with the same neural pathways as my eyes and ears. It is a delusion that my mind is somehow more me than my brain is. I am both of these—and neither.

Prayer:
God Who is Forever Beyond Our Understanding, you delight in all my senses. Help me find bliss in knowing my essential union with you.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 6: Introducing the Self

Atman

Click image for source

 

Atman is usually translated as self, soul, or breath. It is a basic concept in Hinduism and Buddhism. The sages put the Self under a microscope through meditation and introspection, and understood their practice to be a voyage of discovery.

Today, modern psychology, neuroscience, and even physics and mathematics are wrestling with the notion of consciousness. What is this thing that I understand to be my self? Am I a soul in a body, like a “ghost in a machine?” Am I a thing, an event, an illusion, or an emergent property of the universe? Regardless of how we understand it, neuroscientists have learned—or simply affirmed—that the practices taught by Hindu sages for thousands of years actually work for our mental health.

The impermanent has no reality; reality lies in the eternal. Those who have seen the boundary between these two have attained the end [goal] of all knowledge. Realize that which pervades the universe and is indestructible; no power can affect this unchanging, imperishable reality. The body is mortal, but that which dwells in the body is immortal and immeasurable. Therefore, Arjuna, fight in this battle. (BG 2:16-18)

Just in case you forgot, the last line reminds us that the context of this philosophical discussion is a battlefield. Though the battle is part of the impermanent world, it is still a battle that must be engaged.

One believes he is slayer, another believes he is slain. Both are ignorant; there is neither slayer nor slain. You were never born; you will never die. You have never changed; you can never change. Unborn, eternal, immutable, immemorial, you do not die when your body dies. (BG 2:19-20)

Is this comforting or disconcerting? If our souls are imperishable, then why does killing matter at all? After all, Christian crusaders who captured Jerusalem justified the indiscriminate killing of Muslims, Jews, and Christians by saying, “Kill them all; God will sort the dead.” Christian theology (and other religious thinking) has often dismissed injustices in this world and unnecessary suffering by offering people “pie in the sky by and by.” White evangelicals still insist that saving souls, not social justice, should be the main goal of the church.

I think the sages would say that this kind of thinking is unenlightened. Such people do not understand the true nature of the Self.

In contrast to Hindu scriptures and Greek philosophers, Jewish and Christian scriptures do not spend a lot of time on metaphysics. This is one reason there are so many different understandings of what happens when we die. Are we a soul trapped in a body? Or are we a “psychosomatic unity,” a soul-and-body mashed together, which can die permanently, but has the hope of resurrection? Our doctrines point to the second explanation, but I grew up hearing the first more often in church.

Something Jesus said corresponds to Krishna’s words to Arjuna:

Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body but can’t kill the soul [psyche]. Instead, be afraid of the one who can destroy both body and soul in [Gehenna]. (Matthew 10:28).

The first part of the saying affirms that there is part of us that survives death; but the second rejects that it is eternal. I honestly don’t think there is enough here to hang a doctrine of the soul on. From the Bible we have a handful of parables about souls—a few clearly intended for humor value—some poetry, and some references to breath and resurrection, but nothing about what consciousness is.  

The Hebrew Bible doesn’t say much about souls in part, I believe, because they had escaped slavery in Egypt, and Egyptian religion was all about souls. The Egyptians had an elaborate metaphysics about the soul (ka). The Pharaohs filled their tombs with gold that they could take to the afterlife, while countless slaves labored to build their fine cities. The escaped slaves wanted nothing to do with the religion of their oppressors, who viewed the afterlife as more important than this one.

That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty about consciousness in Christian tradition and mysticism. One of my favorite hymns is For the Beauty of the Earth by Folliott S. Pierpoint:

For the joy of ear and eye,
   For the heart and brain’s delight,
For the mystic harmony
   Linking sense to sound and sight.

It’s a beautiful lyric, but the place I want to draw your attention is to this “mystic harmony”—because there is no Christian metaphysical explanation about how our nervous system interacts with a non-physical soul. The Bhagavad Gita delves into this metaphysics. The Bible is mum.

Prayer:
Eternal God, you revealed to Moses that your name is I AM. Teach me who you are, and who I am.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita: A Note on the Text

I do not know Sanskrit and to be honest, my Greek is shaky at best. I rely on the wisdom and translations of others.
 
For this journey through the Bhagavad Gita, I’ll be using Eknath Easwaran’s translation (Easwaran, Eknath. The Bhagavad Gita. Nilgiri Press, 2007). It is readable and his commentary is helpful.
 
If you’re interested, you can compare it to the publicly-available 1900 translation by Sir Edwin Arnold.
 
I typically use the Common English Bible (CEB) for devotional purposes. and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) for more scholarly purposes. I’ll make a note if I use a different translation. 

Some Learnings on Sadness and Worry

This is my own learning, and it may be helpful to you, or not:

As much as I believe that we can feel better if we reframe and adjust our thinking, there is healing that comes from acknowledging pain and honestly naming our hurt.

I am incredibly sad. I was looking forward to things that now are not going to happen, at least this year. Sometimes I am tempted to minimize my sadness: after all, other people have it worse. But that is not actually helpful thinking.

I am also worried—about individuals, about the church, about the economy, about our failing government, about what the world will look like on the other side of this unmitigated clustertruck. Sometimes I am tempted to just put a good face on it, to mimic non-attachment and parrot the words of Jesus, to say, “Well, tomorrow will take care of tomorrow.”

It is not weakness to name sadness and worry, and it is not strength to avoid them.

Here are my learnings:
1) If I name my negative emotions instead of avoiding them, if I look at them squarely, allow myself to feel and cry, I am able to feel my gratitude and my hope more deeply on the other side of it. I cannot be truly grateful unless I also acknowledge my disappointment. In Buddhist terms, I cannot experience “non-attachment” by being dishonest about what I’m attached to. In Christian terms, God embraces my suffering. I have to name my worry—that my brain is trying to solve an unsolvable problem—in order to move toward solving the problems I *can* solve.

2) When we name our negative emotions in public in a supportive community, we find that others feel the same way. The Powers that Be want us to be silent about our pain, to put a good face on it, so they can pretend that their policies are effective and the status quo is fine.

Naming our pain is the first step to community organizing. The Powers that Be do not want us to do that. They describe our exhaustion as laziness, our anger as “divisiveness,” our worry and fear as cowardice. It is in their interest to gaslight and minimize our cries. We have this critical voice in our heads and in the world, always policing our pain. It is not the voice of God. The last thing they want us to do is say to each other, “Oh, you are afraid of losing your for-profit healthcare in the middle of a pandemic, too?”

3) Any version of Christianity that tells you that negative emotions belie a “lack of faith,” or that your pain and fear is unacceptable to God is garbage. Exodus 2:24-25 describes God’s activity when the Israelites “cry out” — God hears. God remembers. God sees. God understands. Hagar names God “God who sees me.”

Many would-be spiritual gurus think policing negative emotions is a sign of sanctification or enlightenment. They think their job is to help other people feel better. It is not. Holy Week is, in part, about God embracing the whole reality of human suffering and loving it to death. This kind of divine incarnation is “beyond good and evil” the way we normally think of it.

It’s okay to feel whatever you feel. Preachers and pundits will gaslight you in the name of Jesus, Buddha, the Market, the Party, or whoever. But acknowledging our suffering will allow us to distinguish between the suffering that is manufactured—by our individual selves and by society—and the suffering that is simply part of being human.

A Prayer for Your Well Being

Hi, friends,
I hope you are doing well. I hope you are hanging in there. I hope your loved ones stay safe and healthy. I hope you are managing your worry, and I hope you are finding hope and inspiration.
 
I hope that as the effects of this economic downturn begin to manifest, that we are not all hung out to dry by our national and state leaders. I hope they are transformed by the realization that our self-interest should be theirs. I hope that our collective hope-finding works real transformation on our society. I hope our anger scares the right people, and that it leads to action—theirs and ours—on specific policies around work, health care, safety nets, and economic policies. I hope that when we see we ALL need a safety net, we will be more compassionate towards those who do when we are not faced with a pandemic.
 
I hope we all learn to live more humbly and in harmony with the earth.
 
I hope that your faith—in whatever is most sacred, awe-inspiring, and mysterious to you—does not disappoint, and when it does, that you emerge with a wiser version that is more authentic and true.
 
I hope, even when you feel hopeless, you still find a way to be happy.

Lent, Day 24 — Living at Peace in the Moment

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Living at Peace in the Moment

Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t sow seed or harvest grain or gather crops into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth much more than they are? Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? Notice how the lilies in the field grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. But I say to you that even Solomon in all of his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, won’t God do much more for you, you people of weak faith? Therefore, don’t worry and say, ‘What are we going to eat?’ or ‘What are we going to drink?’ or ‘What are we going to wear?’ Gentiles long for all these things. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them. Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
(Matthew 6:25-34 CEB)

  1. Reading this passage is like medicine. If there’s one thing that characterizes modern life, it’s worry. I can’t help but wonder at how much life has changed in two thousand years, to consider that our worries are both like and unlike theirs: famine, war, the daily struggle to stay alive. Yet the advice doesn’t change.
  2. Part of me wants to rebel against these words. “What are you talking about, Jesus? Lilies and birds!? People have bills to pay! People are chronically hungry!” But deep down, I know he’s right.
  3. Let’s pick up the thread: Jesus is talking to his students (including us). He’s told them they will be a prophetic community. He tells them he’s raising the bar on scripture, not lowering it; that we need a transformation that is heart-deep. He tells them it’s not about seeking social or religious approval. And he has just finished telling them life is not about acquiring stuff.
  4. He has just been talking about money and our relationship to it. He said a) our hearts follow our treasures, b) we need clear eyes to aid our inner light, and c) we wind up serving either God or money.
  5. But Jesus recognizes our relationship to money is not just motivated by greed. It’s motivated by fear. Jesus is not being judge-y, wagging his finger at our materialism. He knows we’re scared. We seek money because we seek security. It’s a hedge against all the bad things that could happen to us in the future.
  6. “Gentiles long for all these things.” Jesus has told us several times not to be like those who do not understand the character of God, both the Gentiles and the religious leaders. This is a reminder he is speaking to a prophetic community. “Y’all are supposed to be different!” he says, speaking to his Jewish contemporaries.
  7. “Your heavenly Father knows you need them.” Jesus seems to understand Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: water, food, clothing, shelter. But generally speaking, there is plenty of all of it to go around. If nobody was hoarding, there would be no poverty. “Live simply so that others may simply live” is a quote variously attributed to Mahatma Gandhi and to Mother Seton.
  8. “Stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has trouble enough of its own.” This is a great truth in all wisdom traditions. Buddhism and Hinduism make meditating on the present moment, on your own breath, a daily practice.
  9. This is a transformative truth. Once we realize that God is always calling us to the present moment, we have courage to do what needs to be done. It isn’t even courage, actually. It is simply the path presented to us. Those who walk it do not feel particularly brave. They simply recognize the present moment is all they really have.
  10. A people who lived this truth would be dangerous.

When It’s Hard to Let Go

(This post originally appeared on Ministry Matters.)

“I’ve tried to pray and give my problems to God,” the grandmother told me, “But I can’t seem to stop worrying. What does that say about my faith?” It was the third time in a week that someone had asked me such a question. The first had been a man who couldn’t let go of his anger toward his ex-wife. The second had been a woman who was full of guilt and regret about her past. Each had asked me if their lack of peace meant that they lacked faith in God.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Worried_People_2.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Worried_People_2.jpg

“Worried People 2” by Bhernandez from Miami –  Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Regret, worry, anger, and social inhibition are only easy to let go if you are an animated Disney character. For the rest of us humans, our grip on negative emotions is surprisingly strong. Even when life is going along swimmingly, my brain will often go searching through the dusty cardboard boxes of my memory and pull out a decaying recording of an embarrassing memory from middle school. I can still sweat and turn bright red as I relive trivial social gaffes from thirty years ago. Why do such things have such a powerful hold on us?

In these kinds of pastoral care situations, I find that Christian culture is mostly unhelpful. We repeat trite sayings from inspirational posters: “Don’t tell God how big your problems are; tell your problems how big your God is!” For years, preachers have attributed negative thoughts and memories to the devil: “That’s just Satan trying to bring you down! Keep your eyes on Jesus! Don’t let the devil steal your joy!” That approach may work occasionally, but for people overwhelmed by guilt, worry, or anger, policing their thoughts and attributing negativity to Satan only makes the problem worse. Now they not only have the stress of worry, but they also feel obligated to play emotional Whack-a-Mole, tamping down every negative thought. Someone who is a worrier now worries about their worry. Someone who feels guilty now feels guiltier.

What I share with people caught in such a bind is this: Your brain is a problem-solving organ. God gave you your brain to keep you alive. In fact, your brain loves solving problems so much that if you don’t have a problem, it goes looking for one. It rummages through the drawers of your experience and pulls out powerful memories and examines them, asking, “What can we learn from this? What could we do differently?” Sometimes it even invents problems or situations you haven’t encountered yet.

Our brains do this so that we can learn and survive. It helps us avoid mistakes. Usually it is helpful: Check your blind spot when you merge so you don’t have a wreck. Don’t let Billy play with your favorite toys, because he will break them.

The problem, of course, is that not everything is a problem to be solved. A man whose wife had an affair kept asking. “Why didn’t I see something? How could I have been so stupid? What could I have done differently?” His brain was approaching the experience as if it were a problem to be solved, when, in fact, there was absolutely nothing he could have done differently. Pointing out this fact to him could not make him stop obsessing over it, though. Nor could it help the woman who said, “If I had stayed on the phone with Mom another minute, she wouldn’t have been at the intersection when the drunk driver ran the stop sign.” These kinds of thoughts are impenetrable to logic or reason, because our brains keep trying to find solutions to these unsolvable problems.

“Metacognition” is the word psychologists use to describe how we think about thinking. It can be helpful to take a step back from our cognitive process and observe what’s happening. For many people, thinking about our brains trying to solve problems can be helpful. “This is just my God-given brain trying to solve an unsolvable problem.” If we acknowledge our irrational brains, we can allow the negative thoughts and feelings to have their moment and then pass away so we can get on with real life and solvable problems.

Of course, some folks feel empowered by the idea of spiritual warfare, and thinking of their lives as a cosmic battle is uplifting. They relativize their negative thoughts by attributing them to Satan. But it’s important not to treat negative emotions as if they are a failure to be adequately faithful. Although Jesus told his disciples not to worry about tomorrow, he acknowledged that we do, in fact, have trouble today. He was well-acquainted with human frailty, and treated it with compassion, not contempt. Unbidden negative thoughts and feelings are not a failure to be faithful. They’re simply part of the total package of being human.

Finely Crafted Fertilizer

Fotothek_df_roe-neg_0006438_014_Genossenschaftsbauer_Grygo_beim_Dungbreiten

“Deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody’s own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.” That’s Max Black’s definition of humbug, and it provides a jumping-off point for Harry Frankfurt’s essay On Bullshit.

Of course, the essay is itself BS, an example of the kind of delightful writing that’s more poetry than philosophy. Frankfurt waxes rhapsodic about the metaphor: He says BS implies a lack of refinement: “Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted, or dumped. It may have a more or less coherent shape, or it may not, but it is in any case certainly not wrought. The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves, then, a certain strain.”

The key distinction, Frankfurt says, between BS and lying is that a lie requires the liar to know or at least be interested in the truth, and to misrepresent it. The BS artist, on the other hand, is not really interested in misrepresenting the truth. He is interested in misrepresenting himself. The truth is irrelevant.

As I said, Frankfurt’s essay is, in many ways, also BS. Like a signpost, though, it points beyond itself to something that is true. Much of our language is not about truth, but about performance: gaining the upper hand, making peace, shaming, praising, wooing, or persuading. We often do one thing while pretending to do something else: shaming while making peace, gaining political advantage while praising, and so on. It is drama, performed by actors (or hypokrites, in the Greek).

Jesus and Paul used similar scatological metaphors (see Luke 13:8, Luke 14:5, 1 Corinthians 4:13, Philippians 3:8) to describe flavorless followers or praiseworthy credentials. Our English translations tame the metaphors into “manure” and “rubbish.” First century “rubbish” did not consist of aluminum cans and take out containers. It was far more vile. Manure is… well, bullshit. I don’t think either Jesus or Paul would have a problem with the way Frankfurt uses the word.

What happens among Christians, though (and especially preachers), is that since we have these important commandments to love each other, and we want to be more Christlike in our behavior, we pretend. We wind up attempting to be bullshit artists. Honestly, we’re not very good at it. We have too much invested in creating the illusion that we are nice people. We are especially fond of smarm, the kind of BS that allows us to occupy a morally superior position because we are so nice about it.

You may have heard the famous Winston Churchill quote about diplomacy being the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions. Most preachers, though, can only aspire to Churchill’s art. Instead of learning our rhetoric from schools (where it is no longer taught) we learn it from television. Our BS is not finely crafted. It is dumped.

At our Annual Conference, for example, one of my colleagues got up and made a speech, that went something like, “I am colorblind. Anyone who knows me will tell you I don’t see color. I don’t care who we elect to the delegation as long as we choose somebody who believes in the authority of the Bible.”

See, like cable news anchors, we have become practiced at using dog-whistles and code words. I actually agree with this colleague’s statement. (Well, except for the reality or even the desirability of being “colorblind.”) I, too, was eager to elect representatives who believe the authority of the Bible for faith and practice. I would say I want representatives who are orthodox (they can say the Apostle’s Creed without crossing their fingers,) evangelical (they believe in the Good News of Jesus Christ,) and Spirit-filled (they are pursuing sanctification.) But I mean very different things when I use those words. In the context of our Annual Conference, and in the context of the recent brouhaha over LGBTQ inclusion and rumors of schism in the United Methodist Church, what he said and what he meant were two entirely different things.

Of course, everyone listening knew it. There was no question that what he was really doing was making a campaign speech, asking folks to vote for someone who would not support LGBTQ inclusion. It was bullshit, a statement that had no interest in any particular truth-claim, that misrepresented the desire and intentions of the speaker. It was a performance. I could have made a similar speech by saying, “I think we should elect someone who really believes the gospel is Good News for all people.” With my voice and eyes, I could have communicated quite a bit. Of course, at that point, people would have groaned because I would have drawn attention to the BS performance in which we were all complicit. It would have been like polishing a turd.

And certainly, progressives often do the same thing. They can make pointed comments, insinuate, connote, and cast aspersions under a veil of politeness. People who claim to be neutral or moderate often bring buckets of smarm to the conversation, denigrating “both sides” as being extreme and virtuously claiming the middle. BS, all of it.

As Frankfurt concludes, insofar as we are unaware of our own selves, “sincerity itself” is BS. All language is, in some sense, a performance, and whether we find something convincing or not or even label it as true has a lot to do with how good the performance is and how much we trust the speaker. Most of us who read Catcher in the Rye resonate with Holden Caufield’s complaints about all the “phonies” in the world, even though the narrator himself is a compulsive liar. But we develop a sense that he is trustworthy. I have friends who I disagree with about a great many things, but I trust their yes to be yes and their no to be no. I trust them well enough to participate in bull sessions, in which we try out different ideas or points of view to see if we can convince ourselves of their truth value. If one can’t “pull off” the idea, another will usually point it out. So perhaps the real issue with BS is whether we trust the person with the shovel not to hit us with it.

I do not know if it is possible, or even desirable, to reduce the amount of BS in church life. Certainly, some of it is good fertilizer, well-seasoned, out of which may grow tasty fruit. But too much just stinks, and bad fertilizer can scorch roots and stunt growth. I’m not actually sure which I want more: better-quality BS, or more clergy colleagues who I can trust enough to fight fair. Honestly, I think I could go for either.

The Education of Shelby Knox

This is an excellent documentary, and it raises some great questions about contemporary Christian sexual ethics as well as the public discussion about “liberal” and “conservative” values. I re-watched it in preparation for our October Sermon Series.

It starts with this quotation: “Life in Lubbock, Texas, taught me two things: One is that God loves you and you’re going to burn in hell. The other is that sex is the most awful, filthy thing on earth and you should save it for someone you love. ~Butch Hancock”

I’m not a fan of describing world views in terms of “conservative” and “liberal,” but the fact is that both inside church and outside of it, this is the dominant narrative of American culture. Since the 70’s, political and religious language have grown even closer together. Since I believe in honoring the way people describe themselves, I’ll use their own language.

Even though I have harsh criticism for conservative Christian sexual ethics (summarized so well by the Butch Hancock quotation), I think it’s important to point out that one of the things that made Shelby such an excellent spokesperson is the lessons she learned from her conservative Christian parents. Her passion for social justice is inspired by their idealism. This fits with the findings of Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia, that self-esteem of young women who have conservative Christian parents is higher than those who do not. There are three related points I connect to this:

1. I believe that the Christian story is uniquely suited to teach kids that they have a source of value that is not dependent on their bodies’ social or sexual value to the surrounding culture. It is not the only story that can do so. But I believe its strengths for teaching are in a) the doctrine of incarnation and resurrection (because bodies and how we treat them are important) and b) love of God and neighbor (because loving your neighbor requires emotional self-regulation and delay of gratification). In other words, your body is connected to an ethical system that encompasses all of creation—even people you don’t like. So you deserve honor and respect just as much as your neighbor (or your enemy) does.

2. That conservative Christian fathers change some of their views when they have daughters. Slut-shaming and body-shaming become real threats when directed at your kids. Shelby’s parents gradually (and reluctantly) shift to supporting their daughter’s positions. The local pastors, by contrast, double down on the slut-shaming language. I love the scene where she is able to say to the pastor who attempts to shame her, “I’ve made a commitment to abstain, but not everyone has a supportive family like mine.” Saint Paul would be proud.

3. That liberal parents need to critically examine how they teach their kids about religion, character, pluralism, and activism. A lot of liberal parents I know say that they don’t want to “indoctrinate” their kids into one religion by taking them to church, and instead will just let them sample a buffet of beliefs and let them pick when they get older. As if they won’t do this anyway. Your kids are entirely able to critique their own religion if you do your job and teach them critical thinking. But don’t expect the marketplace to teach them about God, spirituality, commitment, faith, transcendence, or social justice. Don’t expect mass media to teach them about belonging to a community that values individuals’ gifts,  Abercrombie & Fitch will be happy to fill that void with their own values. Dang, join a humanist church if you must.

Anyway, I found the relationship between Shelby and her parents one of the most touching and grace-filled aspects of the whole documentary. In contrast to the political views of the white male pastors in the movie (who assert that liberal politics and Christianity are like “oil and water”), her parents sincerely want to understand her activism and her compassion.

“Do no harm.” This is what it looks like when you take it seriously.

(I’ve enjoyed following Shelby Knox on Twitter since I saw the documentary a few years ago. You don’t have to agree with her, but I think Christians should listen to her.)