The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 6: Introducing the Self


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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.

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

Dear Songwriters: Please Learn This!

Okay, I’m going to make people mad with this post because I’m writing about music.

Songwriters, if you want a congregation to actually sing along with your cool new worship song, you need to know what this is. These few pages in the back of a traditional hymnal are called a metrical index:

from Church Hymnary, Canterbury Press, 2006

You see some little numbers in bold, and under those numbers are some tune names. Those little numbers show how many syllables comfortably fit the meter of a tune.

For example, in the above photo, John Bell has written some lyrics to fit his tune called “Lincoln.” The first line has five syllables, the second has five, the third has six, and the last has five: 5-5 6-5. The most natural way to fit lyrics to this tune is to write one phrase of 5-5 syllables and one of 6-5 syllables, like this:

Now that evening falls,
gently fades the light;
moon replaces sun and
day takes leave of night.

-John Bell

Judging from most of the contemporary worship music produced these days, I figure writing lyrics that fit a meter is either passé, or people just plain don’t know what a meter is.

Here is an example of lyrics that fit a meter:

The very first lines convey information about the rest of the song, and listeners can immediately predict the pattern of the verse: 9-4, 9-4. This makes it easy to sing along, clap, gyrate your booty, or whatever you do when you hear such stuff. Nearly every syllable has it’s own note in every phrase.

Here is an example of lyrics that are irregular or have no meter at all:

Now, as much as I like the song “Jeremy,” there is no way to sing along with it the first time you hear it. You cannot predict where the syllables are going to hit the notes, if they hit at all. Rhyme, which also helps people predict how to sing, is totally absent in this song. Again, I like this song, but it isn’t singable on a first (or second, or third) hearing. You wouldn’t actually use this song in worship, but it would be nearly impossible to do so for the simple fact that the lyrics are unpredictable.

U2, a band a lot of contemporary musicians try to emulate, also sing a lot of irregular lyrics. Now, if you listen to the words often enough and memorize them, you may be able to sing along with them, but if you try to get a group of diverse people who have never heard the lyrics before to sing along, you are pretty well guaranteed to fail.

I’ve heard artsy-fartsy songwriters criticize metrical tunes as being too “singsongy.” YES!!!!! Exactly! Singsongy predictability is what you need if you want a group of people to sing along. Using an irregular meter says to visitors, “You need to be a regular attender, an insider, to know and understand this music. Maybe you’ll be able to sing along after you’ve been coming for a few weeks.” No, thanks.

I’m going to go ahead and lay this out there—this is one of the reasons contemporary Christian music in white churches is so white. African-American musicians don’t seem to have this problem. In most African-American churches, the roles of the soloist and the choir are clearly spelled out, and anyone who wants to can sing along at least with the chorus. In addition to meter, there is a tradition of call and response:

Even funky lyrics that play with irregularity can be predictable. You can use rhymes and rhythm to create a predictable pattern, and then layer your soloist’s unpredictable lyrics over the top:

The ironic thing is that I’ve heard worship musicians say that the above songs are too much like performances. When I’ve said that worship music should be more like Ben Harper and Lenny Kravitz and less Bono, they make the same comments. Really? Who is easier to sing along with?

Even the most rhythmic and inspiring of white-people worship songs lend themselves not to groove, but to swaying gently with hands in the air partially because they have irregular meters. Check this one out by Chris Tomlin, and if you don’t already know it, try to predict how to sing it even when the lyrics are projected in front of you:

Here is how the meter goes:
First verse: 12-10-12-12-4
Chorus (first line): 55-13-6 (cheating because “Amazing” actually hits four notes)
Chorus (second line): 44-13-6
Second verse: 12-12-12-12-4

Not only are the lyrics complex, there are just too dang many syllables in each line. Again, I want to point out that I like the song just fine, I just think it’s lousy as a congregational song. It may have a place in worship as a special musical offering or a solo.

Here is a song that I really like. It has great lyrics, consistent imagery, and is just plain beautiful. But if you’ve never heard it before, try to figure out where to sing, even if lyrics were projected in front of you.

Again, I will say that I like this song. It is just not a good congregational song. This is where many music leaders object that if you hear it enough, you can sing with it, but that’s like saying an auditorium full of 20,000 Pearl Jam fans can sing along to Jeremy.

People often talk about the distinction between “worship” and “performance,” and they can get into all sorts of abstract arguments about it, most of them dealing with the subjective emotional experience of the individual. But when you worship you are dealing with a community, and the more relevant questions are things like, “What enables this body to act as one in praising its creator?” I think it’s primal stuff: bread, wine, water. Rhythm, call, response, melody, harmony. I wish more contemporary songwriters understood this.

One more thing with regard to meters: My pet peeve is the song “Hungry.” This song has a meter, but the syllables hit the notes in odd places.

I’m FALLing on my knees
Of-FERing all of me
Je-SUS you’re all my heart is longing for.

As a friend of mine from high school used to say, your emPHAsis is on the wrong sylLABle.

It drives me nuts that we have such a rich musical heritage in Birmingham churches, black and white, high church and low, mainline and independent, secular and sacred—and we keep singing stuff like this. It’s not that I don’t like songs by Chris Tomlin and David Crowder, it’s just that as a pastor and worship leader it’s my job to help a community work, pray, and sing together. It’s hard to do that with lyrics that are not easily singable.

I went to Innerchange UMC last Sunday (which I will talk about in my next post), and I loved the fact that they write a lot of their own music. The last song they sang was instantly singable and it had lyrics relevant to their own community. I would love to have such music in our new church.