Will the Church Care About Climate Change?

A few years ago, I was chauffeuring my teenage son and his friend to an event. They were in the back, telling stories and laughing about how annoying and hilarious young siblings and little children are. I was eavesdropping from the driver’s seat, but couldn’t help sharing an anecdote or two about my memories of my son as a toddler. We laughed and I concluded with, “What they say is that when you’re a grandparent, you’ll be able to enjoy toddlers for awhile, then give them back to their parents before they get annoying.” My son and his friend were silent for a moment. Then she said quietly:

Our generation isn’t going to have grandkids.

There was no sadness or despair in her statement. She said it patiently, as though she were having to explain to the adult in the car that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. There was something else in her voice—pity maybe? She had accepted it, but she was aware that I was still under the delusion that our human species has a future.

She did not have to say any of these other things out loud. It was all in that one statement: Our generation isn’t going to have grandkids. Don’t you know we are living in the middle of an extinction event? That older generations lit the fuse, handed us the climate bomb, and waltzed off into the short story we call human history? That they got to name themselves the Greatest Generation, and Boomers, and other snappy terms for the ones that followed; but that the generations after ours will remain nameless?

I’ve been in ministry for twenty years. I answered the call to ministry because I was convinced God had put a passion in my heart to reach folks the church wasn’t already reaching, and that God wanted me to be part of a Reformation or an Awakening or a Great Emergence that was on the horizon. The vision wasn’t so grandiose (usually) to think that I would lead such a change, but that it was coming whether I participated or not; and wouldn’t it be better to be part of it? I’ve always been partial to the notion that some of the most dynamic, important, world-changing movements of the church have been on the periphery and the margins, or even outside of it, so that’s where I wanted to be, so I’ve often seen myself as a reformer and outsider. Yet her statement made me realize how entrenched and institution-bound my vision remained. Though addressing climate change has always been important to me, I couldn’t feel the existential threat that the next generation takes for granted.

I wondered: as a pastor, what do I have to offer my son’s friend? Certainly not Bill Hybel’s notion that “the local church is the hope of the world.” Not a parental figure’s patronizing cliché that everything will work out. Not a scientific assurance from Jeff Goldblum that “life finds a way.” And if I offer her Jesus, she’s likely to hear the name as institutional Republican Jesus who believes in “beautiful, clean coal,” puts immigrant children in cages, and builds oil pipelines through sovereign indigenous territory and over drinking water.

I retain this conviction that “God so loved the world, the cosmos, that God gave God’s only child.” The salvage project God has been working on since the beginning was never about humans only, but the whole created order. God’s movement both in creation and redemption is about self-giving embodiment, sharing with us the divine breath and walking beside us both in human and more-than-human form.

I’ve also taken to heart Gus Speth’s prophetic words: “I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation, and we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

So when I heard the voice from the back seat say Our generation isn’t going to have grandkids, I heard God say to me, this is on you, buddy. Your job is spiritual and cultural transformation.

But this affirmation and valuing of creation is not the theology I see proclaimed and lived out in the institutional church. And I’m not just pointing the finger at right-wing pastors like John MacArthur who claim the earth is disposable. Instead, my home denomination is about to split over how people should be allowed to have orgasms. 81% of white evangelicals and over half of white mainline Protestants have demonstrated they have no problem with white supremacy and fascism. And although there are wonderful churches full of good people who help the poor and offer vacation Bible schools and tell wonderful heartwarming stories, most of them are too timid to acknowledge that a substantial portion of people under 20 don’t expect human civilization to continue.

A still from Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

(For the record, I think my young friend’s view of human collapse is overly pessimistic, but not because I expect Christians to suddenly start loving the world the way God does. I think God’s plan for human survival has more to do with Jeff Goldblum’s quote than Bill Hybel’s. The Good Lord was crafty enough to make human beings tenacious about survival and sexuality, so I suspect “life will find a way.”)

Yet the institutional church is still too much enamored with the success of white male celebrity megachurch preachers like Hybels, who resigned under a cloud of sexual harassment allegations, or Chris Hodges, who recently had to walk back his affiliation with white supremacists and fascists, to address a difficult and politically divisive problem like climate change. In the face of declining membership and participation even before the pandemic, our denominational leaders decided increasing worship attendance should be our “wildly important goal,” language we borrowed from the corporate consultants and CEOs who have helped engineer the destruction of our ecosystems.

It has become increasingly clear to me that the church can either pursue its dream of Great Awakening or Reform or Renewal for itself, or it can join God’s project of passionately loving the world and salvaging what we can. It cannot be about both. If we are going to be in a different relationship with our planet, we cannot do so without the help of non-Christians, of people well outside what we normally think of as “church.” If we are to love the world with the self-giving love of God, we will have to submit to learning from indigenous people who have been practicing reciprocity with the more-than-human world far longer than we white Christians been practicing our various forms of extractive capitalism.

Yes, it may be possible that in losing our institutional life we will save it. That sounds a bit like our gospel, after all. But whenever progressive Christians speak hopefully about this Great Ecological Awakening, they sound the most Asleep.

Confronting climate change means confronting — well, everything. White supremacy. Patriarchy. The way capitalism doesn’t actually pay for the real costs of energy and resource extraction, but only shifts the burden of paying for them onto the shoulders of the poor and of future generations. For the American church, these taboo topics are more sacred than God. We Christians don’t mind saying “YHWH” out loud, but these other things must be only whispered in church, never spoken from the pulpit.

I’m still following the call of God, but a young prophet spoke the Word of God to me from the back of my car: Will the church care about climate change? Will you love the world so much that you will give yourself for it?

Our generation isn’t going to have grandchildren. I pray that we will hear this young Jonah and repent. Maybe God will spare us after all?


*(I am grateful to Susan Bond for the giving me a new metaphor for understanding “salvation” as “salvage” in her book Trouble with Jesus.

*I am grateful to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass for such a wonderful description of reciprocity, and to David Abram (whose work I have not yet read) for the notion of the “more-than-human world.”

*I am grateful to Leah Schade for her research and practical work on Creation-Crisis Preaching.)

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. 

A Changing Spiritual Ecosystem

I do not think most people in the majority-white institutional church have any idea what is coming. Things are going to be radically different post-COVID, and not just because Trumpism has exposed white evangelicalism for the sham it is. Climate change is going to force a reckoning with the toxic theology of creation promoted by Christian colonizers and crusaders. The role of clergy is going to change because both economic reality and the mission of the church will make our jobs increasingly tenuous. New research into the nature of consciousness and religious experience is revealing the wisdom of non-Christian traditions that church leaders have shunned and condemned as heresy. As in the Great Reformation, people are claiming their own spiritual power and authority and the validity of their own experience outside of the church. The Southern Baptist church rejects critical race theory the way certain church leaders rejected the heliocentric model of the solar system, but the message is the same: white Christian men ain’t the center of the universe.

I felt a call to ordained ministry nearly 30 years ago, and answered it with the understanding that part of my role would be to reach folks the church wasn’t already reaching, to provide alternatives to the dominant and dominating theology of the South, to help people meet Jesus in community and in their neighbors in new settings. In many ways, the change that is coming has been one that I have been advocating for my whole life.

And now that it is here, I greet it with fear and trembling. I’m having to rethink my own ministry and how to keep doing the things I feel God calls me to do. I do believe that what is being born will be a better version of “church” than the capitalist suburban Americana we’ve been taught to expect. But the spiritual ecosystem is changing, and what will emerge is anyone’s guess.

Maintaining Your Peace in an Election Cycle

Image by Villy Fink Isaksen, from Wikimedia Commons

I do not want to dismiss the importance of voting and our political activity AT ALL. But I also want to offer some perspective in light of all the political, social, and climate upheaval that exists right now:

Our ability to make it through this next critical period depends on how we build or find alternatives to business-as-usual. Our power structures make it VERY difficult for us to “opt out” of an economy built on fossil fuels, extractive economies, and oppression of Black, indigenous, people of color, queer folks, disabled folks, immigrants, and religious minorities.

The political and social imagination of the people in power is very limited, but the political and social imagination of THE REST OF US is expansive, creative, and generative. We are literally a force of nature, which is always growing dandelions through sidewalks and making mold grow on Twinkies. “Life finds a way,” as Jeff Goldblum’s character says in Jurassic Park. You are an expression of life itself. Remember that.

The next two weeks is going to be full of imagination-limiting rhetoric and the words of narrow monied interests. Again, without diminishing the importance of voting or doing harm reduction for a society hell-bent on wrecking itself, please hear the invitation to find meaning outside of this binary bullshit. Crazy emperors and petty tyrants have been denying science and believing they can defy gravity or shout at the tide not to come in for millennia.

But the earth and her relentless move toward more life and greater diversity are not cowed by our myopic stupidity or our death-dealing policies. Jesus told us to look at the birds, who do not speculate on stock markets, and at the lilies, who do not follow social media for likes, fashion advice, or social trends. Our value and our meaning are not derived from the dominant culture’s ways of deciding “winners” and “losers.”

Our political and social imagination is very much the realm of what we call “spiritual,” regardless of whether you are a romantic or a materialist, religious or non. There are those who would limit your imagination. But we are the ones who shape culture through our spiritual lives—not the folks who are on our screens. We give these loonies so much power, y’all, because we give them our attention. The first step to removing their power over us is to turn our attention to other things.

Again, I’m not echoing the right-wing blame-the-media-for-our-divisions machine. I’m saying we give power to whatever we give our attention. And if we collectively give more attention to what is immediately around us, the things that we truly value that give life meaning, we can resist the self- and other-destructive forces of this world that do not have our interest—or the interest of our planet—at heart.

In order to make it through the next few weeks, focus on loving yourself. Loving the planet. Loving your people. Practice those things that you know bring more love and light into the world, like prayer and meditation, growing living things, being tender toward what is stretching toward the sun or snuggling down to hibernate for the winter.

Consider the bird that lingers at the feeder on its way south, and think of the mass human migration that is already taking place. How much longer until climate change forces us to move? What can we learn from the birds?

We need the wisdom of the birds and the flowers. Letting go, acting without attachment to the results of our actions, may be the greatest political power we have. Focus on what’s most important and under your control. Don’t sweat the rest of it.

Undeserved

I know the news is terrible, and our political system is garbage, and the climate is changing, and our leaders are inept,

…but my GOD, it is a lovely cool morning. The last straggling hummingbird is drinking from the feeder. He just checked in by my ear to see what I was writing. (Actually, he didn’t care. He was just being polite).

I’d say we don’t deserve such beauty, but that’s kind of the point of it, right? “Deserving” is such a long con. The world is here to remind us of the truth: absolutely none of this beauty and terror is about deserving. Every last bit of it is a gift.

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.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 56: The Ashvattha Tree

Ficus carica, an edible fig, aka pipal or ashvattha, by Dinesh Valke from Wikimedia Commons

Krishna uses a striking metaphor for reality: an upside-down tree.

Sages speak of the immutable ashvattha tree, with its taproot above and its branches below. …Nourished by the gunas, the limbs of this tree spread above and below. Sense objects grow on the limbs as buds; the roots hanging down bind us to action in this world. (BG 15:1, 2)

This is not just any tree. It is the “sacred fig,” or bodhi tree, the same kind of tree the Buddha meditated underneath when he received enlightenment.

The notion here is that we can see all of reality as such a tree, with its roots “upward,” in the heavens, and its branches “below,” manifesting as the created world. In truth, there is no up or down, but the image is intended to show us how the created world of sensible, changeable things grows out of timeless, eternal, ultimate reality. It’s a visual metaphor for how all of existence is “rooted” in God and grows out of God’s being. The taproot grows from Being Itself. All we tiny buds of sense-experience, with our thoughts and feelings about the changeable world, draw consciousness like nutrients from the root. Existence is not some static, dead thing. God does not merely exist, but lives, and we live because God lives.

Christians will likely hear two resonances in this description of reality: The Tree of Life and Jesus’ description of the vine and branches.

In the Garden of Eden, there are actually two trees, one of Life and one of Knowledge. Adam and Eve choose one and forego the other. They opt for an experiential understanding of opposites, “good and bad,” instead of intimate life with God. Christians have generally interpreted this decision as “the wrong choice,” or the doctrine of the Fall, but it isn’t clear from the text that the author understands it that way. The story makes no value judgment on their disobedience. They get what they want: intimate knowledge of shame and alienation. It’s only a “bad” decision from this side of the story, from the perspective of already knowing the difference between good and bad. Before that? It’s like asking what existed “before” time or the laws of causality. In a way, we’re still living that story, making choices about which tree we want to live by: the tree that offers a world of “pairs-of-opposites” or one that offers us transcendence and connection to God. In Hinduism, they are the same tree.

Jesus tells his disciples that they are the branches, and he is the vine. Abiding in him is a choice, something one has to will to do. Abiding is an act that connects us to what he calls “abundant life.” And when we get to Revelation, we see the Tree of Life again. This time its leaves are for “the healing of the nations.”

The interdimensional tree makes appearances in other faith traditions. In Norse mythology, it is Yggdrasil, and connects different worlds to each other. We can call it an archetype, if you believe in such things. Perhaps it is rooted in our collective unconscious, or perhaps it is a natural and handy symbol that different cultures attached significance to independently. Trees, after all, are mysterious to us. They are simultaneously familiar and alien to us. They typically outlive us, and many go through cycles of life and death (or hibernation) through the seasons.

I find the upside-down tree image particularly compelling, though, as a representation of multidimensional reality. We living consciousnesses are so much more complex than we know. There is more to us than meets the eye, more than meat held together in a skin-sack, running back and forth in a state of worry and lust to preserve a handful of microscopic genes. The world of sense-objects is held together by something vast, organic, and alive. We are part of it.

Those who attain enlightenment recognize that we are not locked in the isolated prison of our own subjective experience. We are connected, like limbs of an enormous tree, and we grow from the same Ultimate Reality.

Prayer:
Great One, you are so much more than animal, vegetable, or mineral can understand.