Theology and Kink in the News

Today’s reporting from CNN. Click for story.

The unfortunate thing about the salacious sex lives of our so-called-conservative leaders is that not only are they unsurprising, but when they are outed it simply reinforces the stigma associated with being honest about sexuality.

None of us believes Falwell’s particular kink is unusual, right? Or that “cuck” is a term loaded with contempt precisely because *so many* manly men sense that their jealousy is an aphrodisiac, and they are secretly embarrassed about it, right? Just like so many virulently anti-gay pundits are in the closet. We hate most in others what we see in ourselves. We are masters at projection.

I have to admit feeling some schadenfreude, because Falwell is a cruel and hypocritical person.

But y’all, it’s also so, so sad. We cause so much misery in our own lives by refusing to be curious about *why* something appeals to us that is socially taboo.

For example: there is a reason the woman in the Song of Songs teases her lover by saying,

Tell me, you whom I love with all my heart—
where do you pasture your flock,
where do you rest them at noon?—
so I don’t wander around with the flocks of your companions. (Song of Songs 1:7)

She teases him by saying she will give her affections to his friends. She says this BECAUSE jealousy evolved to create this very response, a mixture of anger and arousal that is highly stimulating. White conservative men, many (but not all) of whom are perpetually angry, are particularly attracted to this brew of emotion. They are also highly defensive about it. That (and misogyny) is why “cuckold” is their epithet of choice.

(FTR, I think it’s pretty obvious that what we’ve heard in the media is only the surface-level stuff. Also, I don’t really need to hear any more.)

The Bible also tells the story of an explicit BDSM relationship between Samson and Delilah. Pastors have often preached that Delilah “tricks” Samson, but she doesn’t. She asks directly, “Tell me how to tie you up.” He tells her, and then submits to being tied up. THREE TIMES.

You think *modern* people invented bondage play? Like human beings only *recently* learned about kink? (And that’s not all that’s in the Bible, BTW).

Why does Samson eventually reveal his secret? Because even the strongest man in the world needs to feel vulnerable sometimes. The burden of being strong is exhausting. Samson was tired of performing all the time. So it’s particularly bitter that he ends his life performing! (Judges 16)

All that to say: so much of religious conservatism is about performing. Most of these preachers and pundits who have such loud voices in our society are performing. When Falwell says he was depressed, I believe him—but not for the reasons he gives. It is sad that their comeuppance creates *more* incentive for people performing conservative religiosity to be incurious about their own brains, their own sexuality, and their own spiritual lives. Seeing their colleague publicly humiliated, they bury their secrets deeper.

And no, admitting, “We’re all sinners” is not helpful. Sin isn’t even the point. The point is if you’re afraid of your own internal life, you will never be at peace. You are at constant enmity with the world and God because your theology of sin sucks. It is our own incuriosity about our inner life and our binary view of good and evil that creates such manufactured suffering.

When you live your whole life under a giant SHOULD, you develop a “worm” theology. “You are not worthy, and you never will be, you pervert, you miserable worm.” It does not shame one into being a virtuous person. It makes one into a hypocrite.

Hypocrite literally means “actor.” A performer.

In our society, we are lousy with them. And this kind of religion is killing our planet.

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.


Drug Policy and the Church, Day 5: Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy

Children playing in a fountain in Centurion, South Africa, by Brian van der Spuy. From Wikimedia Commons

“What are you experiencing, David?” asked Bill.
“Um… I see some stained glass patterns, I think. There’s some movement and a faint light.”

I was about twenty minutes into a psilocybin session at Johns Hopkins. I was lying on a couch wearing an eyeshade and headphones. My support team sat next to me on the floor. An automatic blood pressure cuff gently squeezed my arm every thirty minutes, monitoring my body for signs of distress.

What I was thinking was, “Man, this is kind of a let-down. If I’ve gone through all this—taking time off work, telling my life story three or four times, filling out hours of screening forms and questionnaires, and this is all I get—I will be pretty disappointed.”

“And what will I do with my disappointment?” The question came floating up from deep inside me.

I looked down and realized I was holding my disappointment. I was cradling it, like a baby. And I was weeping with deep, wrenching sobs. I realized I had been carrying so much unacknowledged disappointment, hopes for ministry and for life and relationships. I had been unwilling and unable to acknowledge it. And almost as suddenly, I realized that God was also cradling me, like a mother, while I cradled my disappointment. She was telling me that it was okay to have hopes, and okay to be disappointed, and that I was loved more deeply than I could possibly imagine. And then she proceeded to show me how much I was loved.

I realized that I could not be truly grateful if I did not acknowledge my disappointment. I could not simply “put a brave face on it” and pretend to be cheery. And once I had acknowledged it, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for all that was right and good in my life.

And that was all in the first 45 minutes.

At the end of a six-hour session, I felt as if I had been through six months of psychotherapy, as though I had lived a whole other life before coming home to my own skin and my own reality. In the days after, I felt more grounded, grateful, and stable. I felt more loving toward my friends, family, and even strangers. I was overwhelmed with appreciation of the beauty and mystery of life. Almost two years later, I still feel the lingering effects and the lessons of that first session. I know in my bones that God does not expect me to act grateful when I’m not, to feel the way I think I “should” feel. And that makes me more free to be truly grateful and to love.

Psychedelic-assisted therapy is an emerging field. It is being tested as a treatment for drug addiction, PTSD, and treatment-resistant depression. It has shown promise in reducing recidivism among ex-prisoners. One friend I know kicked a 30-year heroin habit after one session with an indigenous plant medicine. He has been clean ever since.

There is a lot of hype about psychedelics and psychedelic-assisted therapy, and I think it is important to remain cautious about “new” therapies. People who are chasing an experience may not reap the full benefit of these substances because there is psychological, internal work that needs to happen in tandem. It cannot replace talk therapy. Our capitalist, consumerist, pharmacological approach to physical and mental health is about pill-popping and miracle cures, about “superfoods” and consuming or avoiding the trendy ingredient du jour. Big Pharma, like other industries, only makes money by commodifying wellness. My fear is that psychedelic therapy will experience the same fate.

But its roots are in positive psychology, indigenous practices, and holistic understandings of mental health and human society. Not only does it have the potential to help people who are suffering from mental illness, it has the potential to help “well” people thrive.

I wanted to spend this week focusing on drug policy and the church because this is a prime example of the way racism hurts everybody. These substances have been locked away for fifty years because the Nixon White House—and subsequent leaders—wanted to disrupt Civil Rights and the antiwar movements. Instead of healing people, we’ve been locking them away for decades, creating more generational trauma instead of healing it.

But there is a better way for us to be.

Prayer:
God of Salvation, you salve our wounds and heal all our diseases. Help us to be agents of healing in our selves, our culture, and our planet. Amen.


Drug Policy and the Church, Day 4: Harm Reduction

Needle Exchange, by Danielteolijr. From Wikimedia Commons

How should we treat people who use drugs? There are two general schools of thought. The first is that users “should” experience all the negative consequences of their drug use: poverty, homelessness, illness, pain and suffering—in order to coerce them into better behavior. Actions or policies that are not geared toward total abstinence are considered “enabling.” We often call this “tough love.” This is an individualistic approach, and it is what we as a society have been trying for centuries. It doesn’t work.

The second school of thought accepts that drug use happens and is part of human society. While drug abuse does harm to people and society, this approach is about harm reduction: helping people avoid some of the worst consequences of drug use, empowering them to make their own choices about what will ultimately make them happy and productive, and giving drug users a voice in designing policies that will help them. It looks at addiction as a systemic problem exacerbated by poverty, hunger, poor relationships, and homelessness—and not just as the cause of those things. Harm reduction might be providing clean needles to heroin users to reduce the spread of HIV, or giving community organizers training in the use of naloxone to prevent deaths by opioid overdose. It might even mean giving people a safe place to use drugs so that they are not robbed or sexually abused by others, where they can be prevented from harming themselves or others.

I need to distinguish between harm reduction and enabling. Parents of adults, for example, are not obliged to provide their sons or daughters with a safe space to get high, especially if that drug use impacts their ability to earn a living or pay for their own upkeep. In such cases, firm boundaries may be most appropriate. Enabling is making excuses or being dishonest about the harm caused by drug abuse. Harm reduction acknowledges harm and reduces it.

It’s worth asking, though, why a society that has plenty of homes sitting empty (often due to foreclosure) and more than enough food cannot provide food and shelter for all of its citizens. When people who abuse drugs have secure housing and enough food, they are better able to curb their addictive behaviors. Homeless persons who use drugs are better able to get clean and sober if they have a safe place to live. This shouldn’t be surprising! Abraham Maslow talked about a hierarchy of needs. Food, clothing, and shelter are prerequisites to long-term decision making. Making these needs contingent on socially-acceptable behavior—as our current policy does—is a set up for failure.

As I said Tuesday, I tend to believe that people will thrive under the right conditions. Sure, there is a nature and nurture argument to be made about whether our environment determines our destiny, or whether our will and character do. But living things have a built-in drive toward living—not self-destruction, and when we see large numbers of people failing to thrive, it is an indicator that something is wrong in the environment. We do not blame plants for failing to grow without sunlight, or babies for failing to grow without love!

I believe there is more than enough suffering in the world that occurs naturally, but that we—as individuals and a society—manufacture more than necessary. This is a somewhat Buddhist way of describing what Charles Wesley called “our bent to sinning.” It is not so much a moral or judgmental statement as a practical one: we do harm to ourselves. We do not participate in the abundant life God designed us to live.

For followers of Jesus Christ, our primary task is figuring out what embodied love looks like in our world. The Wesleys came up with three general rules for the people they called Methodists: Do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God. While I think there are situations where “tough love” and boundary setting are necessary and appropriate, I think Christians have to be the public voice of “do no harm” in policy discussions. For too long, we have chosen “tough love” over genuine love, and this attitude has lent influence to both white supremacy and greed.

Prayer:
God of Abundant Life, help us live according to your present abundance instead of imagined scarcity. Teach us to do no harm.


The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 24: Divine Worship

 
Notre-Dame de de la Daurade - Chapelle des anges adorateurs

Chapel of the worship angels, Basilica of Notre-Dame de la Daurade in Toulouse. From Wikimedia Commons

The process of offering is Brahman; that which is offered is Brahman. Brahman offers the sacrifice in the fire of Brahman. Brahman is obtained by those who see Brahman in every action. (BG, 4: 24)

Krishna has been telling Arjuna that one can reach God [Brahman] by several paths. He has been explaining two paths, contemplation and action, though neither are as unlike each other as we often suppose. He will go on to say there are many sacrifices, besides material sacrifice, that we can offer in true worship.

Here we need to pause again. I’ve been using the word “God” rather loosely. I am fond of saying, “The word ‘God’ is a placeholder.” God is a role, not a name. When pushed to tell God’s name to Moses, God simply says, “I AM,” and one of the first commandments given to God’s chosen people is to rarely use God’s name! God resists being defined and hemmed in.

In the Hebrew Bible, God is very much a personal character—speaking to people, making promises, getting angry, changing God’s mind. In Greek philosophy, all this activity seems a bit barbaric. For the Greeks, God is the unmoved mover, unchanging and untouched by human concerns. Christianity holds these two perspectives in tension: God is both active in history, whose mercies are “new every day,” but simultaneously the creator of time and “the same yesterday, today, and forever.” God won’t be restricted by time and space, nor boxed out of it!

Hinduism explores the same tension. Brahman can mean both the uncreated Ultimate Reality, and the “world-ground” [Feuerstein], the foundation of the universe. Theologian Paul Tillich called God “Being Itself” who incorporates both being and non-being, who is both changeless and ceaselessly changing. Afrofuturist author Octavia Butler wrote, “All that you touch You Change. All that you Change, Changes you. The only lasting truth is Change. God is Change.”

What Krishna describes above is an archetype: Brahman is the ritual, the sacrifice, the one offering, and the fire itself. The creation of the universe itself is a ritual offering of God to God. Like a fractal, this action is repeated by all the Creator’s creatures: A monk sitting alone in meditation is sacrificing her time and attention. The prince (like Arjuna) charging into an epic battle against overwhelming oppressive forces is making a sacrifice. The student sitting at the feet of a master is making a sacrifice. The person giving alms to a beggar is making a sacrifice. All replicate the sacrificial action of God.

Christians refer to Jesus as “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” The whole world exists for the sake of this one historical event, an expression of God’s self-sacrificial love. We also often say that when we serve others, “we are being the hands and feet of Christ.” Yet Christ also claims the place of those being served, the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40). When we take part in such simple acts of love, we are participating in God’s own action, returning self-sacrificial love to its Source.

Prayer:
God Who Will Not Be Constrained, may my life and vocation reflect your self-sacrificial, creating, redeeming love; may all our actions and lives be worship.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 23: The Principle of Non-Dualism

 
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Lorenz attractor by Wikimol. From Wikimedia Commons (click for source)

[The wise] live in freedom who have gone beyond the dualities of life. Competing with no one, they are alike in success and failure and content with whatever comes to them. They are free, without selfish attachments; their minds are fixed in knowledge. They perform all work in the spirit of service, and their karma is dissolved. (BG, 4: 22-23)

Krishna casually drops another big principle here: Non-dualism. Dvandva is a word that Easwaran translates as “dualities” and Feuerstein translates as “pairs-of-opposites” (see my note on the text here). Hot and cold, pain and pleasure, up and down — all of these are reported by our senses, and we begin to perceive the world in terms of them.

But the awakened see that the world is not so one-dimensional. Our senses mix things up: at the first unexpected shock of an ice cube touching the back of your neck, your brain reports the sensation not as cold, but as burning. There are plenty of examples of pain and pleasure being almost indistinguishable, like when you scratch an itch. And the direction “up” only has meaning when you are planet-bound; get on a rocket and go “up” long enough, and up ceases to have any meaning in outer space.

These pairs-of-opposites are mental models, but they only have meaning in our heads. We get used to them and we use them to make value judgments: beautiful and ugly, good and bad, friend and enemy, human and non-human, valuable and worthless. We stop seeing things as they are and see them only in relation to our desires.

We extend this to all kinds of social and political relationships. It is a truism that we are more polarized than ever. We see the world through the distorted lenses of race, class, and gender. If something falls outside our binary mental models, or if more than one thing is true at a time, we struggle to fit it into our worldview. Can something be both trash and treasure? Ugly and beautiful? Can a person be both sinner and saint? Masculine and feminine? Human and divine?

Not only does taking a step outside of our mental models can help us cope with stress and the world’s craziness; it also helps us understand reality. Jesus himself is a paradox, an example of non-duality. He speaks in riddles and parables: you find your self by losing it. God shows power by becoming weak. Here’s Paul on the subject of non-duality, first for himself:

… I have learned how to be content in any circumstance. I know the experience of being in need and of having more than enough; I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor. I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:11-13)

And second, for society:

There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

Prayer:
God in whom all things hold together, we live in the midst of duality, division, and polarization caused by selfish attachment. Help us leave behind mental labels when they cease to be helpful, and see things as they are.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 22: Why Hinduism is Dangerous to Evangelicalism

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YouTube Still of evangelical author and pastor David Platt, explaining why he believes Buddhists and Hindus are hell-bound.

I use Saturdays to summarize, reflect, and chase rabbit trails.

I spent some time this week addressing the hostility some Christians have toward Eastern religions. (This video by David Platt is an example). The hostility stems from some implicit and explicit assumptions of Evangelicalism.

We need to distinguish between “evangelism” and “evangeliCALism.” Evangelism simply means “sharing good news.” It comes from the Greek root words eu (good) and angel (messenger). But it is ironic that the related word, “evangelicalism,” has come to mean conservative, exclusive, and hostile to other religions and cultures. When Paul was confronted with the philosophical paganism of the Greeks, he did not lambaste them about false religion or worshiping idols. He found points of connection so that he could share the good news (Acts 17:16-34).

I’m part of the United Methodist Church, which was formed when the Methodist church joined with the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB). My grandfather was a member of an EUB church. They were evangelical because their mission was to spread the good news. I’m a preacher—my vocation is to tell people about Jesus! I am evangelical because I spread good news. I want people to have a life-altering conversion experience with Jesus. But Evangelicalism has come to mean the politicization and weaponization of the Good News. It has become a toxic word.

I find it telling that what Evangelicalism finds most threatening about Hinduism and Eastern religions is not the existence of many gods and demigods (as in the Paul story above), but the assertion that the Self is divine. Hinduism is largely philosophical about its collection of many tribal and local gods of myth and legend. “These all point to an ineffable God or Ultimate Reality, Brahman, that transcends them all,” says Hindu philosophy—which is not terribly different from the perspective of some authors of the Bible! (See Psalm 82).

But what evangelicalism can’t abide is the notion that there might be something good or divine in us, something that makes us worth saving, because it believes—incorrectly—that this idea might take away our need for Jesus Christ. The reasoning goes that if people believe they have a divine Self that simply needs discovering within, they won’t look outside themselves to the saving action of Jesus Christ on the cross. They wouldn’t need a personal relationship with him because they would already have a sense of God’s love, peace, and forgiveness in their hearts.

“And wouldn’t that be tragic!” I say in my sarcastic voice.  

I want to make clear that Evangelicalism’s biggest problem with Hinduism is not a theological one. It is a rhetorical one. A theological problem would be the existence of many gods, or maybe the uniqueness of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Instead, the fear is that people won’t be persuaded to give their hearts to Jesus: “How can we save people if they don’t understand how awful and sinful they are?” 

In the coming weeks, I’ll continue  to share why I think this reasoning is short-sighted and simply demonstrates the limits of our mental models for what God in Christ is doing in the world. I believe, as Paul said, “God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him. In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us.” (Acts 17:27)

Prayer:
God, you have expressed your creativity and joy in the diversity of cultures and religions you have brought forth on the planet. You are never far from us.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 21: Unity with God

2048px-Veil_Nebula_-_NGC6960

Veil Nebula, by Ken Crawford. From Wikimedia Commons

We’re spending a few days unpacking these lines:

Those who know me as their own divine Self break through the belief that they are the body and are not reborn as separate creatures. Such a one, Arjuna, is united with me. Delivered from selfish attachment, fear, and anger, filled with me, surrendering themselves to me, purified in the fire of my being, many have reached the state of unity with me. (BG, 4:9-10)

The central revelation in Hinduism is that Atman (the soul, or Self) is Brahman (God, ultimate reality). The Self is divine. But—not to make light of this revelation—it depends on what the definition of “is” is.

When we say “self,” we aren’t talking about the ego self, the functional self that we identify with most of the time. In my day-to-day world, I am locked in my own head, imagining conversations, dreaming dreams, carried along by the flow of thinking and feeling that makes up most of human existence. I get angry because someone moves their car in front of mine in a way I don’t like. I feel slighted because someone didn’t give me the attention I felt I deserved. I worry about tomorrow because I imagine lots of different scenarios that might happen but that aren’t actually real.

My brain is generating all of this, of course, because it has evolved this ability to keep me alive. It is a problem-solving and problem-anticipating organ. I am grateful for this amazing organ. But I am not my brain.

In times of deep prayer and meditation, deep stillness, I become aware of this other “Self” riding along with “me.” In psychological terms, we call this “metacognition,” thinking about thinking. I can take a step outside of my thoughts, as it were, and observe them impartially, but with compassion. “Oh look, David is imagining how a conversation might go, and it’s causing worry. Poor Dave!” From this perspective, I can give myself the grace to change.

This impartial, observer self is not disturbed by anger, or fear, or worry. It regards my life with equanimity and love. Even my mistakes and boneheaded decisions it looks on with compassion. In this state, I am most like Christ, and I understand how intimately I am connected to God.

Consider this passage from Paul:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus… (Philippians 2:1-5).

I used to think that Christianity demanded self-negation. I heard church people pray to God, “Less of me, more of you.” And when I read this passage by Paul, where he says to “regard others as better than yourselves,” I thought it was about false humility.

But I have since come to understand that Christianity is not about denigrating the self. It is about seeing Christ in those who are struggling (Matthew 25:40) and identifying with Christ ourselves: “Let that same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” And Jesus did not regard himself as a worm, as unworthy of love, as deserving of death; He saw himself as God’s own child, and even more intimately, as “One” with the Father.

Prayer:
God, you love me as your own child. Let me see that family resemblance, your incarnate self, everywhere I look—in the poor and oppressed, in Creation itself, and in the mirror.

 

*(Richard Rohr is one of the most well-known teachers on Christian mysticism and Oneness with God. You can read more on his perspective here and here.)

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 20: Our Changing Sense of Self

Atman

From Wikimedia Commons. Click image for source

We’re spending a few days unpacking these lines:

Those who know me as their own divine Self break through the belief that they are the body and are not reborn as separate creatures. Such a one, Arjuna, is united with me. Delivered from selfish attachment, fear, and anger, filled with me, surrendering themselves to me, purified in the fire of my being, many have reached the state of unity with me. (BG, 4:9-10)

I wrote yesterday about how “knowing [the Lord of Love] as one’s divine Self” sparked moral panic among American Evangelical Christians in the 1980’s, and I said that this was due to a deliberate misunderstanding.

The misunderstanding is about what we mean when we talk about “self.” Our understanding of self grows as we grow. In David Benner’s Spirituality and the Awakening Self, he describes the way our understanding of self changes as part of natural human development. As infants, we have little sense of where we end and where our mothers begin. At some point, we discover our hands and the rest of our bodies, and as we develop language we think of this “I” as our bodies. As we grow, we develop a social sense, and our notions of identity change: “I” becomes my reputation or my role, how people around me see me. This is one among many reasons young teenagers are so easily influenced by peer pressure.

Eventually we expand our sense of self to include our larger tribes, which are often defined by beliefs and practices: I identify with my religious denomination, my political party. Or for the more introspective, I may identify with my emotions and my personality: I’m an INFP, or ENTJ, I’m an introvert or an extrovert.

Healthy development at any stage involves recognizing, “I am this, but also more.” At any of these stages, it is also possible to get stuck. Those who get stuck identifying with their body spend their lives chasing pleasure and avoiding pain. Those who identify with their social self, with their reputation and the way others see them, spend their energy preening, worrying, gossiping, or manipulating. Those who get stuck identifying with their beliefs become fanatics and exclusivists, and those who get stuck identifying with their feelings spend too much time in their heads.

The truth is that while you are a body, you are also more than your senses; you are also a social being. While you are a social being, you are more than your roles and reputation; you are also an intellectual and emotional being. While you are an intellectual and emotional being, you are more than your thoughts and feelings; you are also a spiritual being. The point is that in healthy human development, our understanding of “self” is constantly growing.

Here I want to recall what I wrote yesterday, and observe that not only do many Christians get stuck identifying with their beliefs, but many institutions encourage getting stuck. Anxious institutions, like anxious people, believe—wrongly—that their identity and survival depends on maintaining us/them distinctions. Moral panics are a reflexive response to fear of loss of identity. It’s a fear of death.

This is where I think Hinduism and Buddhism have something very important to teach Christianity, but it’s a lesson taught by Jesus himself:

All who want to save their lives [Greek: ψυχή, psyche] will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them. (Mark 8:35)

There are three Greek words for “life” – bios (biological life), psyche (mental or inner life), and zoe (life energy). The Greek psyche means both “life” and “self,” or soul. I am increasingly convinced that Jesus intends this wordplay here. We have to lose our sense of self to find it.

Once we realize that we are not our bodies, our roles and reputations, our beliefs, thoughts, and feelings, our past or our future, what is left? If I am not any of these, what—or who—am I? Who or what is it that is having this experience?

More tomorrow.

Prayer:
Great I AM, I am a tiny reflection of you.

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.