The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 7: Facing Death

1440px-Placid_death

© Tomas Castelazo, http://www.tomascastelazo.com / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

 

Krishna says to Arjuna that he need not despair about the coming battle. He can approach it in almost a detached way if he thinks differently about his despair, and if he changes how he thinks about the nature of reality. Psychologists call this “metacognition”—how we think about thinking. It is a principle of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) that if I change my thinking, I can change how I feel. I’ll share more about this in the coming weeks.

Krishna tells him 1) that the Self is imperishable and cannot die, 2) that pain and pleasure are simply data, and cannot touch the Self unless we let them. Then he says

O mighty Arjuna, even if you believe the Self to be subject to birth and death, you should not grieve. Death is inevitable for the living; birth is inevitable for the dead. Since these are unavoidable, you should not sorrow. (BG 2:26-27)

Whatever you believe about life after death—whether our souls wing their way to heaven, get reborn in another form, or simply cease to exist—our fear of death is not rational. It may be functional, in that it keeps us alive by helping us avoid playing in traffic or juggling hand grenades. But death is part of life; if we’re in for a penny, we’re in for a pound. It doesn’t benefit us to worry too much about it. Or, as Jesus says:

Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life?… Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.  (Matthew 6:27 & 34)

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus doesn’t tell us not to worry because our soul is immortal and we cannot truly die. He says God will take care of us, and he implies even if we do die permanently, there is no sense worrying about it.

People who are not religious often claim that religion is simply a way to comfort people in the face of death. And religions often do construct elaborate mental models about what happens when we die — we might go to heaven or hell, get reincarnated, merge with a cosmic consciousness, time travel, or wake up to a new reality. But in the great wisdom traditions, the sages point out even if none of these are true, why worry?

The stoic philosophers present a similar idea. Epictetus said, “I cannot escape death, but at least I can escape the fear of it.” It doesn’t mean death and loss don’t affect us, but we can face them squarely. So much of our life’s energy is wasted trying to avoid death and the pain of loss, but as Seneca said, “It’s better to conquer grief than to deceive it.”

Qoholeth, the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, spends a lot of time on these questions:

Who knows if a human being’s life-breath rises upward while an animal’s life-breath descends into the earth? So I perceived that there was nothing better for human beings but to enjoy what they do because that’s what they’re allotted in life. Who, really, is able to see what will happen in the future? (Ecclesiastes 3:21-22).

These wise teachers do not speak about what they do not know. Instead they say the worst case scenario is that we face death with courage, knowing it is inevitable and finding meaning in our actions even if we fail. This is an important point, and it often gets left out of religious doctrine and summaries of teaching: The wisest among us acknowledge that we could be wrong. Maybe there is no heaven, or resurrection, or reincarnation, or union with God. Maybe we just end. And maybe that’s not so bad.

But the best-case scenario is that there is the possibility that there is something better already at hand; not only that we can have eternal life and union with God when we die, but that we can have it right now in this life. On this point, both Jesus and Krishna agree.

Prayer:
Source of Life, help me to love life the way you do, so much so that I no longer fear death.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 5: Understanding Time

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Geological Time Spiral, from United States Geological Survey

 

Arjuna recognizes that he will have to fight his own family, and he despairs. Krishna responds:

You speak sincerely, but your sorrow has no cause. The wise grieve neither for the living nor for the dead. There has never been a time when you and I and the kings gathered here have not existed, nor will there be a time when we cease to exist.

…Every creature is unmanifested at first, and then attains manifestation. When its end has come, it once again become unmanifested. What is there to lament in this? (BG 2:11, 28)

I’ve often heard that the greatest difference in Eastern and Western cultures, or between Abrahamic religions and most of the world, is the conception of time. Does time march forward, like a digital clock? Or does it move cyclically, and everything that has happened will happen again?

Time doesn’t only move forward in the Hebrew scriptures. We get a minority opinion in the book of Ecclesiastes. The author of Eccelsiastes is referred to as Qoheleth, “The Teacher.” Listen to how much Qoholeth sounds like Krishna:

Whatever has happened—that’s what will happen again;
    whatever has occurred—that’s what will occur again. There’s nothing new under the sun.
(Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Einstein informed us that time is relative—it behaves differently depending on how fast we are moving, or how much gravity we are experiencing. Time is part of the created order, so much so that we cannot “see” back before the Big Bang. What existed “before” time got its house in order in those first few milliseconds of the universe?

C.S. Lewis pointed out that God is outside of time, and doesn’t measure time by the clock. God “has all eternity in which to listen to the split second of prayer put up by a pilot as his plane crashes in flames.” We experience one moment after another, but from the perspective of eternity, our moments are spread out like a sheet of paper. All moments are NOW to God.

While I think this is a powerful perspective and I believe its theological truth, let’s not ascribe the same worldview to the ancient Hebrews. In the Bible, while God has an eternal perspective, there is still the notion that God experiences time:

You return people to dust,
    saying, “Go back, humans,”
because in your perspective a thousand years
    are like yesterday past, like a short period during the night watch.
(Psalm 90:3-4)

The ancient Hebrews understood God as a liberating God who acts in history: Tell [your children]: We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. But the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand (Deuteronomy 6:21). Creation has a start and an end, and both are held in the hands of God as time moves in one direction.

But there is a place where Jesus turns this notion inside-out. When he is debating with Sadducees about the resurrection, he says: “…haven’t you read what God told you, I’m the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?  He isn’t the God of the dead but of the living” (Matthew 22:31-32). Of course, everyone listening had always thought that God really meant “I was the God of Abraham.” Jesus puts the weight on I AM.

So to understand our relationship to time and to God, Jesus tells us that either a) we are resurrected—or “manifested” in the words of the BG—again at some point in the linear future, or b) all times are present to God as now, because the advance of time is simply an illusion we are bound up in. Eternity and eternal life is either on the horizon, or it is present even now.

Either way, in both traditions, this thing we call “death” does not have the last word.

Prayer:
God, my world is full of moments. Help me to experience them all as now. Bring eternity into our time.

This May Hurt a Bit

CN: Death and dying.
“This may hurt a bit.” I prefer it when health professionals—dentists, doctors, nurses—tell me up front. And that’s what they’ve been telling us for weeks.
I think saying these words is the kind thing to do. It’s one human being letting another know that we are all familiar with pain, that we are together in this even if we are having separate subjective experiences. It’s sympathy in advance. (Is there a word for this? Because there should be.)
The only way I know of to prepare for what is coming is to breathe, and enjoy every breath, knowing that pain is coming, and is already here. To breathe with the full knowledge that some of us will not be able to breathe when we are on a ventilator, and many will die for lack of breath. The only way I know of to prepare is to find joy where I can, and gallows humor where I cannot, because even dark humor is a form of resistance against the powers and principalities who consider some of us expendable.
When I read that Madrid designated an Olympic ice skating rink as a morgue, somehow it makes the amorphous dread concrete. I know what a skating rink is. I know, when this crisis passes, there will be medical professionals who will avoid skating because they will not be able to disassociate the two. But somehow it helps me to have a visual image of what is coming, to give it specific measurements and boundaries. It allows the horror to be contained, even as it expresses it.
The only way I know of to prepare for mass death is to frame it in the context that this isn’t the end, but a beginning. I mean this both in a hopeful and a scary way. Scary in that this is only the first pandemic of the modern age, but not the last, and only one kind of mass death among many in the shadow of climate change. Hopefully in that It isn’t the end but the beginning of humanity learning a new set of skills, of us reframing our own mortality and how we will live together.
Buddhism teaches us to meditate on our mortality. I am from a tradition that preaches and practices resurrection. I read it as God embracing our mortality, but I fear too many Christians do so as a form of death denialism.
I hope we can look at it squarely, not just as individuals, but as a society and a species. Death denialism is what has allowed our economists to act as if eternal growth is a law of nature, to build temples to wealth. By contrast, when confronted with the plague, people in the middle ages built whole churches into ossuaries, decorated with human bones. That was their version of an ice skating rink as morgue.
I don’t know what our response to this first of many mass deaths will be as a culture or as a species. (Especially because so many are walking around in denial still.) My hope is that we build something more hopeful and humane in a post-capitalist society that recognizes we are all in this together, that my neighbor’s health and well-being is tied to my own, that our separate-ness is an illusion. But my fear is that the disaster capitalists who are always working on a 20-50 year plan to increase their power and place more burdens on the rest of us are already organizing to make the most of this crisis, while the rest of us are reacting instead of responding.
But that’s looking years down the road. And most of us aren’t even looking at the next few months.
So I don’t know how to prepare except to breathe, and believe, as Jesus said, that tomorrow’s troubles are enough for tomorrow, that I am more than my body or my thoughts and feelings or my fears, that I am something breathed by God and that I am not somehow separate from the rest of the universe and my neighbor, but part of the same event. I trust that the grassroots power of the Holy Spirit keeps leading from below. And I hope what’s coming leaves us all wiser, kinder, and more determined to live fully.
Peace be with you. Those of you in the medical field, including my sister and many friends, please know that I’m praying for you many times a day.