Link

1) The linked article is for those who choose to engage.
2) Frequently it is not worth your time, energy, or mental health to engage.
3) I continue to resist the false, often implicit claim that persuasion is the only value of rhetoric on social media, or that the only merit in engaging is converting someone to your point of view. As Jesse Williams said, it is not your purpose in life to tuck ignorance in at night. Vituperation is an ancient and important rhetorical form. 
4) Still, it’s important to know how to talk to someone who has gone off the deep end, especially of that person is important to you.
5) And I persist in the belief that everybody can be saved from our tendency to harm ourselves, each other, and the planet.
6) And I persist in the notion that people with certain forms of privilege are the best suited and most obligated to speak to those who will listen.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 48: Visual Lessons

One of the most enjoyable (and sometimes confounding) parts of writing these devotionals is finding royalty-free art to share with you that fits the theme. This is challenging when the theme is something abstract, like “non-attachment,” but is often surprisingly challenging when the theme is something obvious.

It is especially difficult to find inclusive art that fits these themes in the public domain. Since I don’t have a budget to pay for good art produced by minority artists, I draw heavily from Wikimedia Commons.

As I’ve looked back over these devotionals, though, I find that there are visual lessons to be learned. Since I’ve just written about Arjuna’s vision, I thought this might be a good place to pause and engage our right brains a bit.

Part of the lesson of enlightenment is that our narrative brain needs to hush. Not everything can be explained with words. Sometimes it just needs to be seen.  So I’m going to recap some of my favorite visuals I’ve used over this series. Look at them. Pause over ones that seem to speak to you. Practice Visio Divina. (Click the images for the associated blog post and source info). 

Prayer:

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 47: The Paradox of God

 
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Daqing Science and Technology Museum Optical Illusion Pillars, 2018, by Jason Zhang, from Wikimedia Commons

 

Overcome with his vision, Arjuna bows and worships. He says,

Lord of the gods, you are the abode of the universe. Changeless, you are what is and what is not, and beyond the duality of existence and nonexistence. (BG, 10:10-12)

There are two statements here that I think bear exploring. The first is that God is “changeless.” The second is that God is beyond “the duality of existence and nonexistence.”

Let’s look first at God’s changelessness. This is a common statement in both the Gita and the Bible. In the Bible, James says that God is one “with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17, NRSV). The author of Hebrews says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (13:8). Likewise Krishna says in the Gita, My true being is unborn and changeless. (BG, 4:5)

The tricky bit about this assertion is that we are saying it in spite of evidence to the contrary. In Arjuna’s world, Krishna is his chariot driver… which means there was a time when he was not employed as his chariot driver, which means he changed. In Christianity, Jesus was a man who was born and grew up. Are these not changes? He is a man who died. Is death not a change?

Not from a timeless perspective. Jesus has always been both alive and crucified, because he is “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8).  All times are available to God, and God’s mercies are “new every day” (Lamentation 3:23). So while God is changeless from a perspective outside of time, God has joined us, and we are very much present within time.

The claim of incarnation is that God has chosen to dwell with us in time. God is still a God of history, who acts to free slaves and liberate the oppressed. The very act of creation and intervention makes God subject to time. It is an act of self-limiting, of creative destruction, which is present in every kind of art. The changeless one becomes subject to change, and this is one of the primary points of process theology. I quoted the Afrofuturist author Octavia Butler earlier: “All that you touch You Change. All that you Change, Changes you. The only lasting truth is Change. God is Change.”

Our understanding of God must accommodate these paradoxes, which brings me to the second one: God is beyond the duality of existence and non-existence. A God who is both changeless and becoming something else means that God must contain both being and non-being. This was theologian Paul Tillich’s main theme. God is not a “supreme being,” which would make God simply a thing among other things. God is Being Itself, or the “Ground of Being.” God is the Ultimate Reality, to whom even those who have died and no longer exist are still alive. We finite beings exist somewhere between being and non-being, and God dwells here with us, even as God contains both our being and non-being.

That’s a lot to chew on.

Prayer:
Changeless God of Being and Non-Being, your mercies are new every morning.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 46: What Arjuna Saw

 
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The Universe, by Hildegard of Bingen, from WikiArt

 

Krishna has told Arjuna who he is, but Arjuna insists on seeing for himself. Krishna then grants Arjuna a beatific vision, a theophany, and Arjuna is overcome.

Here is how Sanjaya, the narrator, describes it:

[Krishna] appeared with an infinite number of faces… clothed in celestial garments and covered with garlands, sweet-smelling with heavenly fragrances. If a thousand suns were to rise in the heavens at the same time, the blaze of their light would resemble the splendor of that supreme spirit. (BG, 10:10-12)

Arjuna continues by describing Krishna’s terrifying and complex form, filled with fire, surrounded by heavenly beings, “ancient sages and celestial serpents” (10:15). He goes on: your presence fills the heavens and the earth and reaches in every direction… the gods enter your being, some calling out and greeting you in fear. Great saints sing your glory, praying, “May all be well!” (10:20-21).

There are several similar visions of God in the Hebrew Bible.

I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, the edges of his robe filling the temple. Winged creatures were stationed around him. …They shouted to each other, saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of heavenly forces! All the earth is filled with God’s glory!” (Isaiah 6:1-3)

Above the dome over [the angels’] heads, there appeared something like lapis lazuli in the form of a throne. Above the form of the throne there was a form that looked like a human being. Above what looked like his waist, I saw something like gleaming amber, something like fire enclosing it all around. Below what looked like his waist, I saw something that appeared to be fire. Its brightness shone all around. Just as a rainbow lights up a cloud on a rainy day, so its brightness shone all around. This was how the form of the Lord’s glory appeared. (Ezekiel 1:26-28).

Even though the Ten Commandments forbid making images of God, there are visions of God in the Bible. They don’t go into detail about God’s face. They spend more detail on what’s around God. Visions of God tend to focus on God’s enormity. There are references to bright light, impossibly colorful garments, jewels, odors, and often lesser divine beings who worship the Divine Presence. The whole experience is overwhelming.

But there is always the sense that this vision is just that: a vision. Our finite senses cannot adequately register the infinite. We are blinded by the sun, or we are seeing a funhouse mirror version of God, something distorted because we cannot fit God’s glory into the box of our understanding.

I’m reminded of the hymn “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise,” by Walter Chalmers Smith. The author points out several times that God is only invisible because God is hidden by light: “In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes,” and “’Tis only the splendor of light hideth thee.”

We tend to think of God as somewhere else (like heaven), or as invisible, because we cannot see God. But God is hiding in plain sight—“in light inaccessible”—in the reality in front of us. We have to step outside our usual ways of seeing in order to see. This is why God is both hidden and revealed. The bright light and the glory are always present.

Prayer:
Lord, show me your glory.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 45: The Bold Request

 
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The Pillars of Creation, NASA, from Wikimedia Commons

 

Arjuna: Just as you have described your infinite glory, O Lord, now I long to see it. I want to see you as the supreme ruler of creation. O Lord, master of yoga, if you think me strong enough to behold it, show me your immortal self. (BG, 11:3-4) 

Moses makes a similar request in Exodus 33:18. After insisting that they will not go to the Promised Land unless God accompanies the Israelites, God reassures Moses that God will certainly go with them. Then Moses says, “Show me your glory.”

There is a long tradition in holy writing that seeing God comes with a risk. You will die, be driven mad, or be permanently changed. (And if you’re lucky, probably all three). So God grants Moses’ request, but with some conditions: Moses must hide in a cave, God will pass by, and Moses may come out and see God’s back. Seeing the face of your Creator will unmake you. Seeing God’s unfiltered glory is simply too much for us limited beings to handle.

In the Gita, the next long section of Chapter Eleven is narrated by Sanjaya (who is telling the story) and Arjuna. Krishna is silent for a moment while the author tells us what Arjuna sees. Toward the end, Arjuna says:

 I rejoice in seeing you as you have never been seen before, yet I am filled with fear by this vision of you as the abode of the universe. Please let me see you again as the shining God of gods (BG 11:45).

In other words, “tone it down a bit, please—just go back to being a God I can handle.” The vision pushes Arjuna to the limit. I cannot help but think of how Elijah also experienced God:

The Lord said, “Go out and stand at the mountain before the Lord. The Lord is passing by.” A very strong wind tore through the mountains and broke apart the stones before the Lord. But the Lord wasn’t in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake. But the Lord wasn’t in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there was a fire. But the Lord wasn’t in the fire. After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his coat. He went out and stood at the cave’s entrance. (1 Kings 19:11-13).

Elijah knows that he is limited in his ability to see God’s presence unfiltered. He wraps his face in his coat because he knows the unfiltered vision of God carries risk. Yet he also understands that as spectacular as wind, earthquake, and fire are, they do not contain the presence of God. God is in the stillness.

The consistent message is that whatever we think God is, God is both more and not what we expect. God is Other, yet also strangely familiar.

Prayer:
Infinite Motion, Eternal Stillness, fill me with your presence. Help me to hear and see You.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 44: I’ll Tell You Who I Am

 
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Detail of Elenita de Jesús our Shekinah, by by Puerto Rican artist and art therapist Tamara Liz, LMHC, from Wikimedia Commons

 

Arjuna: Tell me all your divine attributes, leaving nothing unsaid. Tell me of the glories with which you fill the cosmos. (BG, 10:16) 

When we start trying to talk about God, we quickly realize a couple of things: 1) God is indescribable, and 2) most language—even when it’s not about God—is metaphorical. The Bible is full of metaphors about God. God is a rock, a stronghold (2 Samuel 22:2-3), a master-builder and architect (Psalm 127:1), a mother eagle caring for chicks in her nest (Deuteronomy 32:11).

The second half of Chapter Ten of the Bhagavad Gita is mostly a series of metaphors. Among stars, he is the sun; among weapons, a thunderbolt; among mountains, he is the Himalayas; Among bodies of water, he is the ocean; among rivers, he is the Ganges. All of these metaphors are comparisons, and usually Krishna is the biggest, best, or most spectacular. He also uses examples from history, myth, and legend: Among priests I am Brihispati, and among military leaders I am Skanda (10:24).

Occasionally Krishna throws in a comparison that breaks the metaphor or that forces us to reconsider the pattern: Among the forces which restrain I am Yama, the god of death (10:29). Toward the end of this section, he makes a turn: Among the Vrishnis I am Krishna, and among the Pandavas, I am Arjuna… I am the silence of the unknown and the wisdom of the wise (10:37-38). 

He bookends this section by pointing, again, to the divine Atman in every being. He says at the beginning of his monologue: I am the true Self in the heart of every creature, Arjuna, and the beginning, middle, and end of their existence (10:20). And he returns at the end: I am the seed that can be found in every creature, Arjuna; for without me nothing can exist, neither animate nor inanimate (10:39).

I think the author intends us to bump up against the limits of language. How do we describe the Great Mystery in which we live and move and have our being? Even the verb “describe,” which means to put into writing, indicates the limits of language. The etymology of “scribe” is to cut or to trace, to outline. Similarly “define” is to limit or place a boundary, to make finite. By definition, God is limitless, that without boundary. We often think of God as “The Supreme Being,” but Paul Tillich pointed out that God cannot a being, but Being Itself. God is not like a large river among rivers, like a things among other things. 

I believe that is why God’s enigmatic name in the Hebrew scriptures is simply I am who I am (Exodus 3:14). There is no boundary we can place around God, no point at which we can say God ends and something else begins.

All of this sets up the cosmic vision which comes next.

Prayer:
Divine and Indescribable Word, our faltering words can reflect you, but they cannot hold you.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 43: Fruit of the Spirit

 
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The fruit of a pomegranate, by fir0002 (flagstaffotos [at] gmail.com), from Wikimedia Commons

 

Discrimination, wisdom, understanding, forgiveness, truth, self-control, and peace of mind; pleasure and pain, birth and death, fear and courage, honor and dishonor; nonviolence, charity, equanimity, contentment, and perseverance in spiritual disciplines—all the different qualities found in living creatures have their source in me. (BG, 10:4-5) 

Compare the above passage to this one from the Bible:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the self with its passions and its desires. (Galatians 5:22-24)

There is an important difference in these two lists. The Gita includes, in the middle of its list of virtues, a set of “pairs of opposites”—pleasure and pain, birth and death, fear and courage, honor and dishonor. All of these are things which Krishna has encouraged Arjuna to see as illusory opposites, things which are neither good or bad, but which anyone pursuing an enlightened path will experience as part of life.

These illusory opposites are nested within a list of virtues that we see as good: wisdom, forgiveness, self-control, nonviolence, charity, self-control. Moreover, the illusory opposites of pleasure and pain, birth and death, fear and courage are things that happen to us, whereas the others are descriptors of character.

Instead of being “found in living creatures,” which is a passive phrase, the Feuerstein translation says that all of these things are “states of existence” of the beings “who arise in all of their diversity from Me.” For Krishna, this is our “natural” state of being, when we see things as they truly are.

Paul likewise calls these virtues “fruit” of the Spirit, something that grows naturally. The natural growth of this fruit is compromise by our lower, deluded “self” that wants stupid, temporary things. Once we let that self die, we can have what the Spirit wants to grow in us.

We sometimes refer to this type of writing as a “virtue list” (contrasted with “vice list,” like Galatians 5:19-21). But I think it’s important to point out in both of these that the authors are arguing that these qualities are natural. They emerge from us as qualities of the God who created us, and the Spirit who lives inside of us. They are not qualities we have to grit our teeth and strive for, because they are already part of us. If we tend to the root, staying connected to the One who Pervades the Universe, God will take care of the fruit.

Prayer:
Root of all that is lovely and good, grow your virtues within me.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 42: A Hymn to the Divine

 
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The ceiling of Sagrada Familia Cathedral, Barcelona, Spain, by Alvesgaspar, from Wikimedia Commons

 

Chapter Nine of the Bhagavad-Gita is a hymn to the divine. Listen to some of these verses by reading them out loud, and compare them to some of the poetry of the Bible. I’ll use italics for the Gita, and plain text for the Bible:

All creatures find their existence in me. …They move in me as the winds move in every direction in space. (BG 9:4 & 6)

For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said. (Acts 17:28)

I am the goal of life, the Lord and support of all. I am the only refuge, the one true friend; I am the beginning, the staying, and the end of creation. I am the womb and the eternal seed. (BG 9:18)

I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me? Let them proclaim it, let them declare and set it forth before me… Do not fear, or be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? You are my witnesses! Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one. (Isaiah 44:6-8)

I am heat; I give and withhold rain. I am immortality and I am death. I am what is and what is not. (BG 9:19)

The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world. (1 Samuel 2:6-7)

I look upon all creatures equally; none are less dear to me and none more dear. But those who worship me with love live in me, and I come to life in them. (BG 9:29)

I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. (Acts 10:34-35)

There are some important differences in these passages, of course, especially when we examine them in context. But many of the metaphors and images we use for God, regardless of religion or culture, are similar. They express some intuitive truths: God is omnipresent and we “move inside” of God. God incorporates the beginning and end of creation. Life and death are part of the same process, and both belong to God. God pours out God’s love indiscriminately, and accepts those who seek God. God is both transcendent and imminent.

Prayer:
Beginning and End of All Things, root me in your life; bring me into your presence.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 41: The Two Paths

 
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Two Paths Diverged… by Ché Lydia Xyang. From Wikimedia Commons.

 

This Supreme Lord who pervades all of existence, the true Self of all creatures, may be realized through undivided love. There are two paths, Arjuna, which the soul may follow at the time of death. One leads to rebirth and the other to liberation. (BG, 8:5-7) 

Krishna goes on to describe the transmigration of souls. Those who have come to know and see Brahman, that the Lord of Love is everywhere and in all creatures, are able to finally shed the endless cycle of rebirth and join with God in ecstatic, eternal unity. The rest of us have to schlep back to the beginning and have another go.

But though we are all trying to escape rebirth, having another life is not really so bad. As Stevie Wonder puts it:

I’m so darn glad he let me try it again / Cause my last time on earth I lived a whole world of sin
I’m so glad that I know more than I knew then /Gonna keep on tryin’ / Till I reach my highest ground.

Biblical authors largely reject the idea of reincarnation. When they do speak of life after death, they favor the idea of bodily resurrection. Martha says at the death of her brother Lazarus, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24). Hebrews 9:27 puts it succinctly: “People are destined to die once and then face judgment.” New Testament authors probably knew that the Greek philosopher Plato had written about reincarnation and the transmigration of souls. They knew about reincarnation—they just didn’t believe in it.

Some folks point out Jesus’s reference to John the Baptist in Matthew 11:14 as support for reincarnation, “If you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come,” but it isn’t clear that Jesus actually means reincarnation. The second coming of Elijah was a widespread belief because Elijah had been taken bodily into the heavens (2 Kings 2:11), so people expected him to return a similar way. When Jesus says, “If you are willing to accept it,” he’s asking the crowd to interpret Elijah’s “return” metaphorically, since John the Baptist hadn’t dropped out of the sky.  

Today, nearly a quarter of American Christians also believe in reincarnation (see the Pew study here). Many conservative Christian leaders are alarmed by such findings. It’s probably not a surprise that I’m not alarmed by these unorthodox views. I think spiritual tinkerers (Robert Wuthnow’s term) who create a bricolage of theological beliefs are responding to toxic Christianity. I suspect many Christians prefer the idea of reincarnation because the two paths they were taught—heaven and hell—seem arbitrary and unloving. They’ve heard from fundamentalists that people who die without knowing Jesus are bound for hell, and they’ve rejected that worldview because it contradicts the notion of a loving and just God. They prefer the notion of reincarnation because it only seems right that people would be given another chance. (Although, I also wonder—couldn’t that be a kind of hell?)

I prefer to have metaphysical humility when it comes to these things. I don’t know exactly what happens when we die. We have first-hand accounts of near-death experiences, but since those people are still with us, I don’t take it as empirical knowledge.

There is so much we do not know about consciousness itself. I am skeptical even about this notion of myself as a separate entity from the rest of creation. There is a part of my brain that creates this sense of separateness, and it can be suppressed. So I question this notion that my soul is a unit that travels somewhere. Sometimes I suspect that we are already there, and the life we are living is actually a vivid remembering.

I take this as a challenge to remember a better life.

Prayer:
God, You are the Beginning, the Destination, and the Journey itself.


PS: I don’t think it’s an accident that Carrie Underwood’s video for Love Wins uses both Holi and gospel choir imagery. I think it’s pretty clear that the response of spiritual tinkerers to toxic fundamentalist Christianity is to reach toward other traditions. I think cultural appropriation is part of what happens when we realize our culture

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 40: How to Die (Part 2)

 
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The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David, 1787. From Wikimedia Commons

 

Those who remember me at the time of death will come to me. Do not doubt this. Whatever occupies the mind at the time of death determines the destination of the dying; always they will tend toward that state of being. Therefore, remember me at all times and fight on. (BG, 8:5-7) 

Last time, I explained why I don’t buy into the idea that “whatever occupies the mind at the time of death determines the destination of the dying.” I said that this philosophy does harm, and it attaches stigma to mental illness and to death by suicide.

But now I want to turn and look at it from the perspective of one who is preparing for death. In many traditions, contemplating one’s own mortality is a spiritual practice. We learn to approach death not with dread, and not even with courage, but with curiosity and acceptance. Saint Francis, in the Canticle of the Sun, even refers to death as a welcomed sister: “Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whom no living man can escape.”

Krishna goes into detail about how one is to accomplish this practice:

Remembering me at the time of death, close down the doors of the senses and place the mind in the heart. Then, while absorbed in meditation, focus all energy upwards toward the head. Repeating in this state the divine name, the syllable Om that represents the changeless Brahman, you will go forth from the body and attain the supreme goal. (BG, 8:12-13).

The idea here is that meditation has become such a natural practice that one can seamlessly transition from a state of meditative ego-death into real death. The energy that flows through our bodies simply departs and goes to be part of the cosmic dance. I am no longer I; I become We.

I should point out again that all of this dialogue is supposedly happening in Arjuna’s chariot, just before battle. There will presumably be many people who aren’t able to die in such a meditative state. Getting an arrow in the throat tends to disrupt mediation!

Still, the ideal in the practice of meditation is that one who is enlightened can maintain this meditative state even while going about daily tasks. A practiced meditator can meditate while doing the dishes. An advanced practitioner can meditate while being in conversation. Perhaps an expert meditator could be at peace in the midst of a battle.

So rather than read this scripture as a metaphysical description of what happens when we die, I read it as an encouragement to become so practiced at meditating that not even death disrupts your practice. Death becomes simply an advanced form of meditation. I read it as an invitation to reflect on our own mortality, to imagine what becomes of our consciousness at the point of death. If we truly see God everywhere, as Krishna repeats frequently, then we will see God even in “Sister Death.”

Prayer:
Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whom no one escapes. Let us not fear, but regard her as trusted family.