The Best Ocean View in the World

Since COVID scuttled our original plans to sail in Greece, our alternative was a sailing school in San Carlos, Sonora, Mexico. This was a long way from Paul’s journeys in the Mediterranean! But we decided that since sailing was our theme, it was more important to have an understanding of how sailing works than to visit archeological sites. 

We gave ourselves a few days in San Carlos before our sailing school started, in order to get familiar with the restaurants and practice our Spanish. 

Hanging out at the hotel

San Carlos was voted by National Geographic to have the most spectacular ocean views in the world. So after settling into our lovely family-run hotel, we took a taxi to “El Mirador.” There is an observation point that juts out over the ocean, with views on every side. Below, birds wheel and coast in the air currents. At the tip of the point, the wind is so strong that visitors clutch their hats or phones. 

View from El Mirador

The twin peaks of Tetakawi are visible from anywhere nearby. It is striking how these massive rocks seem to change every hour, although they never move. The air, the light, the clouds, all paint the mountain in different colors and shades. It’s like a giant kaleidoscope. I understand why Claude Monet was moved to paint the Rouen Cathedral again and again in different light conditions. We found ourselves pointing and staring at it every day, multiple times a day. It’s like God was painting it over and over again, showing off a divine impressionism. 

The other ocean view we had during our time in San Carlos was up close and personal. Jacques Cousteau said that the Sea of Cortez was “The Aquarium of the World,” filled with marine biodiversity. People come to snorkel and see huge varieties of wildlife. Dolphins would come and swim alongside our boat, attracted by the wake (and the fact that we didn’t have noisy engines). There was one large group of females, and a couple of adorable baby dolphins, who sped along at our side. Various sea birds bobbed on the surface. We also got to see thousands of two-inch wide purple jellyfish: the Portuguese Man-o-war. We kept our distance from their sting. 

Humans throughout history have talked about the ocean in reverential tones. It is massive, powerful, teeming with life. It responds to cosmic forces like gravity and the spin of the earth. I think it is important to experience it from multiple vantage points to cultivate the appropriate respect. It’s alive, and it’s essential for our survival on this planet. 

The city of San Carlos has a large ex-pat population. Many Americans and Canadians move to San Carlos to sail or spend their retirement near the beach. Like many places around the world, there is a large gap between rich — or even the merely comfortable — and the poor.  

Sailing today is largely a hobby of the wealthy and middle-class, not a vital transportation mode for everyone. But this shift in global dynamics is driven by “cheap oil.” Of course, we know that fossil fuels are not really cheap; they are deferred cost which will have to be paid by future generations. I suspect that as wind and solar power become more mainstream, gas-guzzling boats will give way to more sail power. Shipping companies are already going “back to the future” by exploring wind power. Part of my desire to become more proficient at sailing is simply to have a method of travel that doesn’t require airplane or boat fuel.

We were able to get experience on three very different boats: a single-mast 26-foot boat, a vintage two-masted ketch, and a very large catamaran (which our instructor called “a floating condo”). 

Having the skills to sail suddenly opens up a new world of opportunities for travel. Boat captains are often looking for crew to help them make journeys, and there are websites that match teams by personality, skills, and destinations. While I don’t plan on making any trans-Atlantic trips anytime soon, I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. There is much more of this amazing planet to see. 

Prayer: God who paints the landscapes, cosmos, and creatures, thank you for filling the universe with such beauty.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

The Boat and the Crew

In the fall of 2019, before the pandemic hit, we were scheduled to take our sailing class the following June in Greece. I was excited to get our curriculum package in the mail! I opened up a large folder full charts, and unwrapped the protractor and the navigation divider. I had seen these in movies, but had never used one.



Image description: Sailing curriculum including a workbook, notebook, clear plastic protractor, and navigation dividers.

But before we got to navigation, we needed to learn the basics. The first section of our curriculum was about the parts of a sailboat. And right here, in the first few pages of our workbook, I found one of my most important lessons. The V-shaped part of the boat above the bow is called the pulpit — the same word that describes the place in a church where a preacher delivers a sermon.

(It’s also the place where, in the movie Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslett shout and stretch out their arms into the wind. I’ll talk more about the Titanic and how it fits into “sailing uncharted waters” when I tell you about our time in Belfast, where the Titanic was built).

An illustration of the parts of a sailboat. The pulpit and pushpit are highlighted.

Churches have often used the metaphor of a sailboat to describe their community. At certain early Christian pilgrimage sites, you can often find graffiti of a boat carved into a stone wall or bit of plaster. After the early church stopped meeting in homes and started meeting in dedicated buildings, congregations referred to the main sanctuary as the nave, as in “navy,” because the vaulted ceiling looked like the ribs of a boat. They imagined the pews as seats in a galley, and the congregation as the rowers. The pulpit resembled the bow of a boat. 


An ornate Baroque pulpit is preserved in a modern church in Erfurt, Germany. Erfurt is where Martin Luther was a monk. We visited Erfurt in June, 2022

Above: a panorama of the vaulted ceiling of St. Canice’s Cathedral in Kilkenny, Ireland. Though it is distorted, you can clearly see the bit that looks like an upside-down boat above the nave.

But I realized an important church-related truth in this sailboat diagram: you don’t steer a boat from the pulpit. You steer it from the pushpit (or the cockpit), in the rear (or stern) of the boat. The person in front is not necessarily the person who is running the show. 

I think the early church communities understood, even after they began to become more institutionalized, that the clergy were not the only people in charge. See, it takes a lot of coordination to make a sailing vessel move. A boat probably has a captain, but a person on watch stands in the pulpit to see where the boat is going or to take bearings. A pilot stands in the rear to move the wheel or rudder and call out to the crew controlling the sails. A navigator takes measurements to make sure the boat is on course. 

And early church theologians talked about the Holy Spirit, like a wind or the breath of God, being the power that filled the sails and actually moved the church forward. 

When people talk about the church today, they typically talk about it as an institution or a business. I’ve heard people say “the church should be a hospital for sinners instead of a museum for saints,” which is true enough. But I wonder how it would change our perception if our main metaphor for church was not a static building or an institution, but something that actually moved under the power of wind or spirit. I wonder what would change if we traded our binary model of “leader” and “follower” for terms like captain, pilot, watchman, navigator, and crew. 


I snapped this photo in the Royal Observatory in London, England, in July. This is an exhibit about how the museum would curate exhibits in the future, considering England’s history of world colonization and the harm it has caused. I’ll return to this image, and how colonization plays into my sailing metaphor, later in my reflections.
Image description: A line drawing of a sailboat, with diverse crew. Large text reads “Our Guiding Concepts.” Banners on the boat read: habitability, adaptability, adversity, ingenuity, practicality, creativity, community, equality, identity. 

Prayer: Jesus who stills the storms, help us to be your competent crew. 

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Navigating Uncharted Waters: Starting Soon


Above image: San Carlos, Sonoma, Mexico. Personal photo.

In The Great Emergence, church historian Phyllis Tickle described how every five centuries, the church goes through a huge rummage sale, where everything we value — and many things we have taken for granted — get put on the table for sorting. Some of these things we, as a church and as a society, will decide to keep, and others we will discard. Our names for these rummage sales often involve the word “Great,” as in Great Schism and Great Reformation

We held the last rummage sale around 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenburg. His action kicked off The Great Reformation, separating Protestant and Roman Catholic churches and setting the stage for the Enlightenment. Many of the ideas we’ve inherited, the things we value and the things we take for granted, were hashed out in a few centuries. 

You may have noticed that we’re experiencing another rummage sale right now. Many ideas are on the table: ideas about gender, our preference for democracy over authoritarianism, male supremacy, capitalism, and the role of the media are just a few. And the stakes are very high. We are living in the early stages of what may very likely be a mass extinction. 

A few years ago I felt I needed to get some distance to consider all that we are facing. As a pastor and a public theologian, I wanted to see up close our Reformation history, and to consider where we might be going in the next 500 years — not just as a church, but as a species. I applied for  and was awarded a grant to take a sabbatical and to consider these things, and now I want to share with you what I’ve learned. I offer these reflective devotionals not as an expert prognosticator, but as a fellow traveler who is making some educated guesses.

If you’d like to follow along, you can sign up for email devotionals or visit my website here


Prayer: Creator, help us in this season of uncertainty. 

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

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

CT_of_a_normal_brain,_sagittal_20

image by Mikael Häggström, M.D.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 8: Yoga Is Not Hard

Thomas_R._Robinson_-_Oxen_Plowing_-_88.343_-_Museum_of_Fine_Arts

An example of yoked oxen, from “Oxen Plowing” by Thomas R. Robinsonpublic domain.

 

After explaining to Arjuna the nature of the Self and why he need not fear death or defeat in battle, Krishna says:

You have heard the intellectual explanation of Sankhya, Arjuna; now listen to the principles of yoga. By practicing these you can break through the bonds of karma. On this path effort never goes to waste, and there is no failure. Even a little effort toward spiritual awareness will protect you from the greatest fear. (BG 2:39-40)

There is theory, and there is practice: putting ideas into action.

The word “yoga” is related to the word “yoke.” It means union or joining, and it is a path of practices designed to free the Self and help it discover its union with ultimate reality. When we hear “yoga” in the U.S., we typically think of hatha yoga, the physical practice of breathing, stretching, and meditation. Krishna will go on to describe several different forms of yoga

One etymology of “religion” is related to the Latin religare, “to bind fast,” as in the word “ligament.” Both point to the idea that there is a connection between the human and the divine, and that our practice involves some form of tying together or binding. (It is important to note, especially for anxious evangelical Christians, that hatha yoga is not a religion, any more than prayer or silence or exercise is a religion. It is a practice.)

The Jewish sages also referred to Torah teachings as a yoke. One “takes the yoke of the mitzvot [commandments]” by following them—by putting them into practice. The doctrines and metaphysics of the religion take a backseat to the practice.

One Jesus-saying in particular comes strongly to mind:

Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30, CEB)

What do we make of this? We generally praise heroic faith and people who do hard things for noble causes. After all, Jesus told us to “take up our cross” and follow him (Luke 9:23). At the same time, he says his yoke is not difficult.

It hearkens back to the Bible Jesus was raised on:

This commandment that I’m giving you right now is definitely not too difficult for you. It isn’t unreachable. It isn’t up in heaven somewhere so that you have to ask, “Who will go up for us to heaven and get it for us that we can hear it and do it?” Nor is it across the ocean somewhere so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the ocean for us and get it for us that we can hear it and do it?” Not at all! The word is very close to you. It’s in your mouth and in your heart, waiting for you to do it. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14, CEB)

The regular practice of doing something small, creating a habit that shapes the way we experience the world, is a light yoke that seems too simple to work. And when we fail at doing it, we feel guilty, or brow beat ourselves about what we “should” do.  But on this path effort never goes to waste, and there is no failure.

Even a little effort begins huge transformations. This is the attitude that actually enables change. It is incredibly difficult to change the world, because it is incredibly difficult to change ourselves. But we can change one tiny thing: we can show up. We can listen. And when we do, we find that what we are seeking is much closer than we thought.

Prayer:
Breath Closer Than My Breath, I long to transform myself and the world. Help me to find that transformation in you. Put your light yoke upon me, so that I may breathe, rest, and change.

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 6: Introducing the Self

Atman

Click image for source

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 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.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 3: Family Values and Conventional Wisdom

Whore-of-babylon-blake-1809 (1)

“Whore of Babylon,” by William Blake, 1809, British Museum.

 

Arjuna laments that he must fight his own family. He then makes some statements that I think are illustrative and problematic.

Though [my enemies] are overpowered by greed and see no evil in destroying families or injuring friends, we see these evils. Why shouldn’t we turn away from this sin? When a family declines, ancient traditions are destroyed. With them are lost the spiritual foundations for life, and the family loses its sense of unity. Where there is no sense of unity, the women of the family become corrupt, and with the corruption of its women, society is plunged into chaos. Social chaos is hell for the family and for those who have destroyed the family as well. It disrupts the process of spiritual evolution begun by our ancestors. (BG 1:38-42)

First, let’s acknowledge that this is the patriarchy speaking. It is the same perspective we often find in Proverbs, which describes both wisdom and folly as women. The “corrupt woman” leads men astray and destroys families: Her feet go down to death; her steps lead to the grave. She doesn’t stay on the way of life. Her paths wander, but she doesn’t know it. (Proverbs 5:5-6). In this kind of conventional religion, women are constrained to play the role of virgin or whore, and society rises or falls based on the control of their bodies.

Second, let’s also acknowledge the truth of generational harm and trauma Arjuna describes. Much of the Hebrew Bible is about the disruption of family and the way that dysfunction is passed from parents to children: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, Joseph and his brothers, all jealous and fighting over the affection of parents or spouses. (Much of this strife is caused by the patriarchy, by who has power and who does not).

I also want to consider Arjuna’s statements in light of conservative social policy, which often idolizes “family values” even as it makes it difficult for families to survive intact. Often it is idolization of the family that leads to its destruction. The religious right in America has argued for decades that society is on the decline because women no longer stay at home, divorce is too easy, prayer has been “taken out of schools,” and the family is no longer considered as sacred as it was in our mythical past.

Jesus’s ministry was tremendously disruptive to family values. He said because of him, families would be torn apart (Matthew 10:34-35). But he believed in a chosen family.

 He replied, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” Looking around at those seated around him in a circle, he said, “Look, here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.” (Mark 3:33-35)

While there is truth in it, I think Arjuna’s lament is grounded in conventional religion—the notion that religion should create social stability and uphold the status quo. He is speaking as one who is not yet enlightened. He knows enough to know there is a problem, but hasn’t identified it properly yet. Krishna is going to point out to him that the problem is much deeper than family disunity; the problem is that we do not know who we are. What has brought all these people to the point of battle is that too many people are attached to the wrong things, because they do not know themselves.  

Practically, it doesn’t mean that Arjuna can opt out of the battle at hand, any more than it means we can opt out of resisting patriarchy and other injustices in our world. But it illustrates the failure of conventional morality, and why we shouldn’t fall into the same trap.

Prayer:
Source of my being, I may not have picked this struggle; yet I will follow you through it.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 2: Literary Context

30 x 40_Ranbhoomi

This 2012 animated movie is available on Netflix. It does not cover the part of the story featuring the Bhagavad Gita, but does introduce the main character.

 

Arjuna: O Krishna, drive my chariot between the two armies. I want to see those who desire to fight with me. With whom will this battle be fought? I want to see those assembled to fight for Duryodhana, those who seek to please the evil-minded son of Dhritarashtra by engaging in war.

 …And Arjuna, standing between two armies, saw fathers and grandfathers, teachers, uncles, and brothers, sons and grandsons, in-laws and friends. Seeing his kinsmen established in opposition, Arjuna was overcome by sorrow. Despairing, he spoke these words… (BG 1:21-28)

The Bhagavad Gita is a dialogue, told in flashback, on the advent of a great battle. Arjuna is the reluctant protagonist. Epic heroes often overcome great obstacles and fight big wars, but they also carry enormous grief. Often the foes they fight are close friends or members of their own family. Luke versus Darth Vader. David versus Saul. Both David and Arjuna have been wronged, forced into exile by corrupt kings.

David said to Saul, “Why do you listen when people say, ‘David wants to ruin you’? Look! Today your own eyes have seen that the Lord handed you over to me in the cave. But I refused to kill you. I spared you, saying, ‘I won’t lift a hand against my master because he is the Lord’s anointed.’ Look here, my protector! See the corner of your robe in my hand? I cut off the corner of your robe but didn’t kill you. So know now that I am not guilty of wrongdoing or rebellion. (1 Samuel 24:9-11, CEB)

Both in the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita, timeless truths and other-worldly wisdom are set against a violent political and historical backdrop. Sometimes this seems incongruous: how can a God who tells God’s chosen people to commit genocide (Deuteronomy 20:10-18) also admonish them to “love their neighbor as themselves” (Leviticus 19:18) and to treat foreigners as their own citizens (Leviticus 19:33-34)? How can we have such violence in one passage, and calls for peace-making in the next?

People who are disillusioned by Christianity often go seeking a more consistent religion in other traditions, but a universal truth of humanity is that our species does not come to enlightenment or salvation without baggage. The baggage is both personal and cultural.

Anthropologists who study religion suggest that religion serves an evolutionary purpose. It calls members of a social group to make individual sacrifices for the good of the whole. Your tribe develops a totem or mascot “god” who represents your spirit and values. Over time, humans recognize that they are part of bigger tribes, and their gods—and their interests—align. This kind of religion helps us survive, but it also maintains the status quo. Freud explained religion this way in Civilization and Its Discontents.

Religion has another vector—unconventional wisdom that challenges the status quo, that points out the fact that some people are forced to sacrifice more than others in order for powerful people to maintain their control of groups. This vector makes room for disruptive spirituality.

This is why conflict is a frequent backdrop for revelation. We are in an existential state of war, with others and within ourselves. Power is unequal, oppression exists, and we ask “Why?” Both Judaism and Islam describe our relationship with God as one of struggle: the words jihad and Israel both describe a personal wrestling with God.

Prayer:
Source of Everything, we do not come to enlightenment or salvation without baggage. Help us, in our struggle, to let go of unnecessary suffering.