Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 14—When I’m Sick of Gratitude

Signs of gratitude for firefighters fighting the Grizzly Creek Fire, by White River National Forest (U.S. Forest Service). From Wikimedia Commons.

I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart;
before the gods I sing your praise;
I bow down toward your holy temple
    and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness;

for you have exalted your name and your word
above everything.
On the day I called, you answered me,

you increased my strength of soul.
(Psalm 138)

During the month of November, we are bombarded with admonishments to “be thankful.” Sometimes I find the constant barrage of sanctimonious advice irritating. It can actually put me in a foul mood: I don’t want to be thankful, and I don’t particularly want to be reminded and told and preached at by greeting cards, shared memes, and news articles on the mental health benefits of gratitude addressed to everyone and no one in particular. This year, in the midst of a pandemic, reminders to be grateful grate on my nerves!

This irritation is actually a reminder of how gratitude works, because gratitude is a function of attention, and in our advertising-saturated world, our attention is commodified. Billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg make money by manipulating our attention, capturing our eyeballs and measuring our attention in milliseconds. Facebook and Twitter and Instagram know exactly how fast you scroll, and use algorithms to make you linger over advertisements. Advertisers may use the word “gratitude,” but they make their money on our restlessness, boredom, and dissatisfaction.

The irritation I feel at having a multibillion-dollar company tell me to slow down and smell the roses is more than mental anger at its hypocrisy. My frustration is biological. My Grinch-like attitude is the function of a distracted mind.

It doesn’t change the truth of the importance of gratitude, though. David Steindl-Rast says that gratitude is the foundation of spirituality. In order to be thankful, to feel gratitude, we have to refocus our attention. It is difficult to be grateful when we are in a state of distraction.

This is why simple disciplines like meditation and keeping a gratitude journal are so effective. They are the complete opposite of the endless scrolling of social media. They are tools that help us to refocus our attention on the simple pleasures of being alive: I woke up today. I can take a deep breath and smell the air. I can see beauty in a fallen and decaying leaf which leaves behind a fragile, skeletonized system of veins.

The author of the psalm above says that an answered prayer “increased my strength of soul.” We don’t know what the prayer or the answer was, but pausing to be grateful, to focus our attention on the goodness of the gifts we receive—bidden or unbidden—makes our souls stronger. Gratitude increases our resilience and helps us make it through tough times.

If we want to feel grateful, it helps to go somewhere quiet and away from screens. I invite you to do it now.

Prayer:
Giver of all gifts, Source of all grace, I am grateful.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 13—Religion and the Brain

image by Mikael Häggström, M.D.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
(Psalm 139:14)

I’ve been interested in the neuropsychology of religious experience since I first read William James in college. As a pastor, I’ve talked to plenty of people who wonder if their mystical experiences, transcendent visions, or sense of calling are “genuine” or simply “all in their heads.” “Did God really speak to me, or am I going crazy?” is a common question.

It doesn’t help that so many mental health problems are related to religion. People do have religious delusions. Sometimes their anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder attaches to a religious idea, and they fear that they might accidentally sin or incur God’s judgment. People who are depressed may feel that God hates them or is out to get them. LGBTQ people have been subjected to so-called “conversion therapy” that leaves lasting trauma.

But religion can also be associated with good mental health outcomes. People who have supportive religious communities are often more resilient in the face of trauma. Adolescents have lower probabilities of risky behavior. LGBTQIA folks who have supportive religious communities often report high levels of life satisfaction. And William James pointed out that having “saints” and mystics to emulate and aspire to benefits humanity as a whole.

There are certain ways that religious practice changes your brain. We know from studies of Buddhist monks and Carmelite nuns that contemplative prayer and meditation—what the researchers call a “self-stimulating brain reward system“—can alter the function and even the physical structure of the brain. Mindfulness meditation is often prescribed as an intervention for anxiety and depression.

The prefrontal cortex, responsible for attention, is one of the places most clearly affected by prayer and meditation. Some areas of the parietal lobe respond differently: they relax. These areas are responsible for the distinction between ourselves and the rest of the world, the barrier between “self” and “world.” When this area relaxes, it may help us feel connected to the rest of the universe or to God. Attention and connection are two areas of our brains we can train with practice.

Moreover, prayer and meditation seem to quiet the “default mode network,” the systems in our brain that are often responsible for the story-telling function of our brain. The DMN is what keeps us thinking about the future and the past and often keeps us ruminating or worrying.

When stimulated, the temporal lobe sometimes creates a sense of presence, as though someone is in the room with us. People who are about to have seizures sometimes report this feeling. It’s not clear to me that this is necessarily a particularly religious experience, but it certainly could be.

Certain neurotransmitters are also associated with mystical-type experiences. DMT (dimethyltryptamine) is a psychedelic compound that appears to be produced naturally in our brains. It may be responsible for some of our more trippy spiritual experiences, but it, too is associated with changes in our default mode network, feelings of connectedness, and heightened attention and fascination.

So when people ask me about whether their religious experience is “real” or “all in their heads,” I shrug. ALL spiritual experiences are also brain experiences—at least for human beings. We cannot imagine having an experience without our brains. When you see a beautiful painting or fall in love, your brain gets involved. You may even feel it in your body, as a warmth or pressure in your chest, or goose bumps on the back of your neck. It is a biological as well as a spiritual experience.

We still have so much to learn about spirituality and the brain.

Prayer:
Creator of the Cosmos and my brain, I give you thanks that I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 12—Being Outside

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

On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
(Revelation 22:2)

The pandemic has forced more people to stay at home, but it has also forced more of us outside. We are going outside to lessen the monotony of being indoors. Meeting others outside lessens the chances of passing on covid-19. The sun disinfects us.

Collectively, we are experiencing the benefits of being outside at a time when a flurry of research is pointing to how nature-deprived we are. It turns out we needed this healing for a long, long time. Covid-19 has forced us to confront it.

Below is just a sampling of the recent research into the physical and mental health benefits of being outside. We’ve learned that bacteria in the soil and aromatic aerosols from trees affect our brains and bodies. We’ve learned that forests communicate and act as one large organism. We’ve learned that interacting with that organism gets us out of our patterns of ruminating and into our sense in the here-and-now. We’ve learned that being outside and getting our hands dirty lowers our heart rate and stress levels. We’ve learned that walking in forests boost our immune systems, increases our ability to pay attention, and even fights cancer.

All of these mental and physical health benefits are important. Most of us could benefit by spending more time outside. But nature is not just something that we take, like a drug, so that we can increase productivity and be more effective indoors.

As we intentionally spend time outside, a more profound shift can happen in our state of being. We begin to understand that human beings and nature are not separate. Our culture tends to think of “human beings” and “nature” as two distinct realms, in part because of the way we objectify the earth and conceptualize our place in it. But the truth is we are part of both a tamed “human world” and a wild “more-than-human world.” This term, coined by author David Abram, helps us consider ourselves in relation to the rest of the planet.

I am currently in training to be a Nature and Forest Therapy Guide, in part because I believe it is my responsibility as a pastor to help the 21st century church turn away from a toxic theology that treats the earth as if it were disposable. I take very seriously these words about protecting life on this planet:

“I used to think that top global 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 these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

Gus Speth

Spiritual and cultural transformation is my job. It’s what I’ve been called to do. And too often, Christian pastors have scorned the creation God loves. This toxic theology has practical consequences, leading not only to terrible policy that harms the planet, but to a population of people who increasingly feel sad, alone, and hopeless.

If we want to develop a public health policy that takes mental health seriously, I believe we need to help people fall in love with this planet and with the more-than-human world. I think the authors of the Bible knew that the leaves of trees could heal the nations.

Prayer:
Creator and Lover of the World, we tell the story of how you so loved this creation that you would even enter it yourself. Help us to do the same thing, to enter creation fully and bodily, so that it can teach us how to be more human and more alive.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 11—Boundaries And Intimacy

The Group Bond of Ducks, by Santrina HUYNH, from Wikimedia Commons

Why should you be intoxicated, my son, by another woman
    and embrace the bosom of an adulteress?

(Proverbs 5:20)

The book of Proverbs also has a lot to say about infidelity. It’s important to observe that there is a lot of cultural misogyny in its pages; “the adulteress” is blamed for being a snare. But this also serves as a metaphor for folly—we do stupid, short-sighted things because we fail to see the big picture.

This boundary violation is not merely a moral problem; it is a systemic problem.

What Townsend and McCloud observe in their book Boundaries in Marriage is that infidelity is usually caused not by seduction, but by intimacy, and intimacy is a function of boundaries. One of the most common scenarios for infidelity is when one spouse gives up talking about a problem or a part fo their lives with the other spouse. They have allowed a new boundary to form between them. A wall has gone up.

At the same time, one of the partners starts talking about their marriage problem with a third party who is not a professional. Instead of seeking a counselor or pastor, they talk to a coworker. If they gripe about their spouse or share feelings they can’t share with their spouse, they’ve opened a window into their lives for this other person. They share something with this third party that they do not share with their spouse, which creates a sense of intimacy. Now this new pair already have a shared secret.

When we look at case studies of infidelity, we can sometimes trace it back to a systemic problem in a marriage that existed well before it became an emotional or sexual act. One or both spouses ignored the problem because it was tolerable—until it wasn’t.

What applies to marriage specifically applies to all relationships generally. We simply don’t have time for all the people in the world. We only have brain space for a handful of close relationships. Our limited time and social energy is why friendships ebb and flow. What we share with some that we do not share with others creates a sense of bonding, a level of trust that reinforces itself the more vulnerable with each other we become. Our friends are people about whom we often say, “I can tell them anything.” We may trust our friends with our secrets, with keys to our home when we’re away, with care of our pets and other loved ones. We ask them to babysit. We take them on vacation. In good relationships, trust becomes a virtuous cycle.

We all have a public face and a private, interior world. If I share with you how I really feel or who I really am, something I don’t feel I can share with everyone else, it creates intimacy and trust. This applies to many parts of our lives we keep private, from our physical nakedness to our internet passwords, stories of our childhood to social gossip.

Of course, we all have different risk tolerances for the boundaries we create. Some people have few secrets and trust many people. Some of us are more reserved. Being “too open” or “too reserved” are relative ideas. Our boundaries only become a mental health problem if our behavior makes us lonely or chronically wounded, or if it damages relationships we find important.

It works the other way, too: People with social anxiety may long to connect deeply with others, but find it difficult to develop the intimacy they want. People who have a poor sense of identity may have few boundaries because they look to others for their sense of self.

Prayer:
Beloved, the Quran says that you are closer to us than the jugular vein. Give us a sense of intimacy with you that allows us to negotiate healthy boundaries and life-giving relationships with other humans.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 10—Boundaries Against Harm

You shall not pass!

An enemy dissembles in speaking while harboring deceit within;
when an enemy speaks graciously, do not believe it, for there are seven abominations concealed within;
though hatred is covered with guile, the enemy’s wickedness will be exposed in the assembly.
Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back on the one who starts it rolling.
(Proverbs 26:24-27)

The book of Proverbs has a lot to say about fools, liars, and enemies.

I think it’s important, in this contentious season, for Christians to acknowledge that Jesus told his followers to love their enemies, but he did not say that they would have no enemies. In fact, in the same chapter he tells his followers to love their enemies (Matthew 5:43-48), he says that they can expect persecution (verses 11-12). He tells his disciples to “beware the yeast of the Pharisees,” and says that religious leaders “tie up heavy burdens for others” that they do not bother to lift (16:6, 23:4). He himself would be betrayed by a friend, thrown under the bus by religious leaders, and turned over to Roman authorities who used crucifixion as a way to terrorize the populace and advertise their authoritarian version of “law and order.”

Enemies exist—but we don’t have to be enemies in return. This is also part of a healthy boundary. Setting a boundary is not an invasion of someone else’s privacy or an imposition on their right to live. It marks where my control stops. I cannot control other people, no matter how hard I try. I cannot make them love me, or act appropriately, or believe certain things. For me to have healthy boundaries, I also have to acknowledge theirs.

This is why the Proverbs’ writing about enemies isn’t just talking about other people: it’s addressed to me. “Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back on the one who starts it rolling.” The act of doing harm or nurturing animosity can harm us. Whenever I read this, I think of Wile E. Coyote.

You can see it coming, can’t you?

The world does have its share of fools, liars, abusers, bullies, thieves, and Wile E. Coyotes. It is not “unloving” to acknowledge this reality, or to name folly, lies, abuse, bullying, and thieving. We may not be able to control the behavior of others, but we can establish boundaries which keep our physical and mental health safer. And we do not have to respond in kind. We can respect other peoples’ boundaries. The Road Runner doesn’t respond with violence, but with a kind of judo, using Coyote’s machinations against him.

Yes, I realize it’s just a cartoon. Real life doesn’t have the kind of instant karma of Looney Tunes. But there is still a wisdom in its teaching.

It’s also important to recognize that in real life, “enemy” is not a static category. One of the sayings of community organizers is, “We have no permanent allies, and no permanent enemies.” We acknowledge that relationships change. We have the power to set new boundaries, or redraw old ones, even with people who may disagree with us.

In our present moment, I find that masks are a good illustration of this concept. These days when I meet someone in person and one of us isn’t masked, I simply ask, “What’s your risk tolerance? Would you rather stay masked, or is physically distanced okay?” This way I’ve given them an either / or option. (This is also a good strategy to use with toddlers! Give them a choice of options, and they are more likely to comply). I also have no problem asking other people to mask up when distance isn’t an option, but I don’t automatically assume they are an enemy. I find that if I ask, “What’s your risk tolerance?” and give them a choice, I make them aware that I’m willing to negotiate with them, but that I have boundaries.

While there are a few liars about the current pandemic (like our current president), and many people who are taken in by such lies, I try to see this as an opportunity to make the ideas of boundaries and consent more explicit in our social life. I can behave with integrity and respect, even if other people find it difficult to do so. If someone won’t respect my boundary, I do not have to be in relation to them.

These boundaries—the ones we set for ourselves—can be the most important ones of all.

Prayer:
God of boundless grace and gracious boundaries, you have designed a world in which we are most connected to others when we have a strong sense of self. Help us to be people of integrity, respect, and clear boundaries.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 60: Final Words

The Delivery of the Bhagavad Gita, from Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 57: The Demonic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drug Policy and the Church, Day 6: Whiteness and Drug Policy

Simplified visualization of the persistence homological scaffolds. left: normal state. right: under the psilocybin effect, by G. Petri, P. Expert, F. Turkheimer, R. Carhart-Harris, D. Nutt, P. J. Hellyer, F. Vaccarino. In plain language, the image on the left represents neural connection in a normal brain, and the right represents connectivity under psilocybin. From Wikimedia Commons

I have decided it is important to be bold in sharing that I have had psychedelic experiences for several reasons:

  1. I had the privilege of using them legally, in a safe, therapeutic, research setting. Part of that privilege was obtained by being an ordained religious leader, which in turn was made more likely because of the privilege of being white, male, and middle-class.
  2. I believe in the potential therapeutic benefits of plant medicines, not only for those suffering from various forms of mental illness, but also for “well” people.
  3. I believe in the potential of these therapies to address not only personal, but also generational trauma that has epigenetic effects.
  4. It is absurd that these naturally occurring substances are classified as schedule 1 drugs, and that nearly incalculable harm is done to human lives under the pretense of keeping them “safe.” We warehouse human beings in prison at tremendous cost to society, when it would be more humane and cheaper to give them free housing and mental health care.
  5. I had two experiences nearly two years ago, and continue to reap the benefits; whereas many people are taking a pill every day for years or decades in order to alter their brain chemistry.
  6. I obtain some of this power to speak for change by virtue of having practiced abstinence before and since. I have never smoked pot or consumed any illegal drug. I am no hedonist; my motivation for changing drug policy is simply the outrageous injustice and harm it is doing to our society.   

I started out this week sharing that the War on Drugs is a racist, failed policy, enacted by frightened men desperate to hold on to coercive power. I am very aware that the reason I am able to talk openly about my own experience is because of something known as “psychedelic exceptionalism.” Essentially, when white middle-class people use drugs, it’s okay.  

During the 1980’s and 1990’s, crack cocaine became a moral panic. Reflecting Nixon’s original logic in creating a War on Drugs, laws were written to create harsher penalties for drugs that black people were more likely to use. Drug policy was specifically geared to hurt black people worse. But in the current opioid epidemic, which is harming more white people, our national dialogue has changed course. Suddenly we are holding manufacturers accountable and talking about compassionate care for addiction.

All of this is due to white privilege, our society’s tendency to treat white people more humanely, as individuals with backstories, people who are worthy of respect.

Because I had the very rare opportunity to appreciate the therapeutic and spiritual benefits of a substance currently classified as a schedule 1 “illegal” drug, because I am white, not addicted, and hold a position of privilege, I have come to realize that I have a moral obligation to expose the hypocrisy and systemic racism of our nation’s drug policy. As a religious leader with a Ph.D in preaching and ethics, I cannot be silent about this obvious and outrageous harm we continue to inflict upon generations of human beings, especially if that policy is upheld by moralizing from the pulpit.

There are certainly important policy discussions we need to have about decriminalization versus legalization, and how to mitigate the very real harms that substance abuse has on individuals, families, and society. Some drugs are worse than others, and there must certainly be a way to control access, especially for people most vulnerable. Drugs can do harm. But the harm we manufacture must end, and it should not be illegal to grow any plant medicine that God created.

It is beyond reason that a living thing should be illegal.

Jesus said that his mission was to a) bring people abundant life (John 10:10) and b) set the captives free (Luke 4:18-21). While drug addiction can certainly be both oppressive and life-destroying, our social policies have done far worse. Addressing this wrong will require us to acknowledge both the existence of white supremacy and the harm done by the War on Drugs.

Prayer:
Lord of Liberation and Life, we are born into oppressive systems which we did not design; but we can unmake them. Give us the courage and discernment to break every oppressive yoke.