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.

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.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 56: The Ashvattha Tree

Ficus carica, an edible fig, aka pipal or ashvattha, by Dinesh Valke from Wikimedia Commons

Krishna uses a striking metaphor for reality: an upside-down tree.

Sages speak of the immutable ashvattha tree, with its taproot above and its branches below. …Nourished by the gunas, the limbs of this tree spread above and below. Sense objects grow on the limbs as buds; the roots hanging down bind us to action in this world. (BG 15:1, 2)

This is not just any tree. It is the “sacred fig,” or bodhi tree, the same kind of tree the Buddha meditated underneath when he received enlightenment.

The notion here is that we can see all of reality as such a tree, with its roots “upward,” in the heavens, and its branches “below,” manifesting as the created world. In truth, there is no up or down, but the image is intended to show us how the created world of sensible, changeable things grows out of timeless, eternal, ultimate reality. It’s a visual metaphor for how all of existence is “rooted” in God and grows out of God’s being. The taproot grows from Being Itself. All we tiny buds of sense-experience, with our thoughts and feelings about the changeable world, draw consciousness like nutrients from the root. Existence is not some static, dead thing. God does not merely exist, but lives, and we live because God lives.

Christians will likely hear two resonances in this description of reality: The Tree of Life and Jesus’ description of the vine and branches.

In the Garden of Eden, there are actually two trees, one of Life and one of Knowledge. Adam and Eve choose one and forego the other. They opt for an experiential understanding of opposites, “good and bad,” instead of intimate life with God. Christians have generally interpreted this decision as “the wrong choice,” or the doctrine of the Fall, but it isn’t clear from the text that the author understands it that way. The story makes no value judgment on their disobedience. They get what they want: intimate knowledge of shame and alienation. It’s only a “bad” decision from this side of the story, from the perspective of already knowing the difference between good and bad. Before that? It’s like asking what existed “before” time or the laws of causality. In a way, we’re still living that story, making choices about which tree we want to live by: the tree that offers a world of “pairs-of-opposites” or one that offers us transcendence and connection to God. In Hinduism, they are the same tree.

Jesus tells his disciples that they are the branches, and he is the vine. Abiding in him is a choice, something one has to will to do. Abiding is an act that connects us to what he calls “abundant life.” And when we get to Revelation, we see the Tree of Life again. This time its leaves are for “the healing of the nations.”

The interdimensional tree makes appearances in other faith traditions. In Norse mythology, it is Yggdrasil, and connects different worlds to each other. We can call it an archetype, if you believe in such things. Perhaps it is rooted in our collective unconscious, or perhaps it is a natural and handy symbol that different cultures attached significance to independently. Trees, after all, are mysterious to us. They are simultaneously familiar and alien to us. They typically outlive us, and many go through cycles of life and death (or hibernation) through the seasons.

I find the upside-down tree image particularly compelling, though, as a representation of multidimensional reality. We living consciousnesses are so much more complex than we know. There is more to us than meets the eye, more than meat held together in a skin-sack, running back and forth in a state of worry and lust to preserve a handful of microscopic genes. The world of sense-objects is held together by something vast, organic, and alive. We are part of it.

Those who attain enlightenment recognize that we are not locked in the isolated prison of our own subjective experience. We are connected, like limbs of an enormous tree, and we grow from the same Ultimate Reality.

Prayer:
Great One, you are so much more than animal, vegetable, or mineral can understand.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 55: The Gunas

Street art at Chet Singh ghat. Shiva’s trident, representing the three gunas, 2015. By juggadery. From Wikimedia Commons.

Sattva binds us to happiness; rajas binds us to action. Tamas, distorting our understanding, binds us to delusion. …When sattva predominates, the light of wisdom shines through every gate in the body. When rajas predominates, a person runs about pursuing selfish and greedy ends, driven by restlessness and desire. When tamas is dominant a person lives in darkness — slothful, confused, and easily infatuated. (BG, 14:9, 11-12)

The three gunas are what Easwaran calls “forces of evolution.” Brahman sets them up to play, and they spin the universe into action. They operate in the realm of prakriti, the created cosmos, and all action comes from their interaction.

While sattva tends toward enlightenment (“upwards”), it is still a guna. It is not better or worse than the other forces, because there are no value judgments here. And while tamas pushes downwards, it is not “bad.” It is simply a force of evolution. And while rajas is about restless activity, it isn’t actually “going” anywhere. Krishna says, those [who live] in rajas remain where they are. (BG, 14:18).

From a human perspective, sattva, harmony and happiness, are desirable. Sattva moves us toward wisdom and enlightenment. But true enlightenment is what Krishna refers to as “going beyond the gunas.” The enlightened, like God, enjoy the play of the gunas without becoming attached to them. It is possible for human beings to become “attached” to seeking enlightenment, to chase spiritual experience the way some people chase money or sex or getting high. This becomes rajas, “restless activity,” born from attachment and unfulfilled desire.  

The goal is to become like God, to enjoy the play of the gunas without becoming bound by them or attached to them. Krishna describes the one who as gone beyond the gunas as someone characterized by equanimity: Clay, a rock, and gold are the same to them. Alike in honor and dishonor, alike to friend and foe, they have given up every selfish pursuit (BG, 14:24-25).

This reminds me of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus tells his disciples to give up pursuing treasures on earth, and to show impartial, unconditional love to friends and enemies alike. The life Jesus commends to his disciples is not ceaseless busy-ness, but a balance of work and rest. Those following the way of Jesus give up petty grudges, coveting pleasures they cannot or should not have, and delight in peace-making and the simple pleasures of universal love.

Going “beyond the gunas” means that we are no longer bound by or attached to the value-judgments of human society or our ego’s motivations. When we see things as they really are, we do not see them through the lens of “good” and “bad.” They simply are. My enemies are not “bad;” they are simply motivated by different things, subject to different gunas in their own context. I can view them with compassion instead of judgment. And in my own life, though I am still subject to these forces of evolution—activity, inactivity, and enlightenment—I can view my life from a divine perspective.

Prayer:
Wise One, fill me with your wisdom. Help me live with radical acceptance.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 54: The Changeless and Ever-changing God

Mosaic from an archeological site in Jerash, Jordan

[Brahman] dwells in all, in every hand and foot and head, in every mouth and eye and ear in the universe. Without senses itself, it shines through the functioning of the senses. Completely independent, it supports all things. Beyond the gunas, it enjoys their play. (BG, 13:13-14)

Yesterday I wrote of Tillich’s theology of being and non-being, and how the paradox of God creates tension. I ended with “there is no creation at all without tension.”

Hindu metaphysics says something similar. In the next chapter (14), Krishna will addresses how the world we experience through our senses comes to exist, but here he lays the groundwork. How can this world, this finite creation of change, of pleasure and pain and “pairs of opposites,” come from a changeless, non-dualistic God? How can a God who is pure Consciousness, beyond time and space, give rise to a bunch of little consciousnesses who, most of the time, don’t really know what they are doing as they go about their limited time and space?

Krishna introduces the concept of the gunas. Easwaran describes these as “forces of evolution.” These are the fundamental kinds of activity from which everything else in the created universe emerges. They are forces of change: toward activity and passion (rajas), toward inactivity and dormancy (tamas), and toward enlightenment (sattva). All change falls into one of these categories.

But Brahman, God, Being Itself, is beyond all such change. For example, God does not “see” the way we see. We see because photons bounce off of objects, penetrate our eyeballs, and activate photochemical receptors on our retinae. This is not how God “sees.” In one sense, God is not a body and has no eyeballs. In another sense, God actually has ALL the eyeballs in the universe, sees through them, yet does not need any of them to “see.” God animates all things, and is animated by none. This is why Krishna says, “Without senses itself, it shines through the functioning of the senses. …Beyond the gunas, it enjoys their play.”

The very sense of sight, in this way, is a revelation of God, because God “shines through the functioning of the senses.” Sight is not just about receiving data from passing photons. It has deep personal meaning. “Being seen” by other consciousnesses makes us feel real and alive. The Zulu greeting “sawubona” literally means, “I see you.” Hagar, feeling abandoned and abused, names God “the God who sees me” (Genesis 16:13). Our senses gather data from our world and keep us alive, but they are so much more than that. They bring us joy, relationships, and beauty.

What does this tell us about the relationship between our changeless God and changing creation? It’s not like God woke up one day, felt bored, and decided to create something. Yet God experiences everything we experience, included waking up, feeling bored, and creating something. God is deeply involved in change. The gunas, in Hindu metaphysics, are how God gets to remain changeless yet create change and, in some sense BE change itself. The gunas allow God to have God’s cake and eat it, too. They are the foundational forces of creation, like gravity and electromagnetics.

Prayer:
Changeless and ever-changing God, change us. Help us delight in creation as you do.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 53: Being and Non-being

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

I will tell you the wisdom that leads to immortality: the beginningless Brahman, which can be called neither being nor non-being. It dwells in all, in every hand and foot and head, in every mouth and eye and ear in the universe. …It is both near and far, within and without every creature. It moves and is unmoving (BG, 13:12-13, 15)

I’ve mentioned Paul Tillich a few times in this series, and here in the first sentence the resonance is most powerful: Brahman, Krishna says, can be called neither being nor non-being. Tillich referred to God as the “Ground of Being,” or “Being Itself.” We often refer to God as “the Supreme Being,” but that implies God is one sort of thing among other things, just bigger or more perfect. But if God is the author of existence itself, then God is not just the biggest and best, one being among other beings. God is All.

This “Ground of Being,” Tillich said, also contains non-being. The very possibility of things to exist requires their non-existence. There is a point where they stop. This is not the case with God. So being and non-being are contained with the Ground of Being.

So we mortal creatures exist somewhere between being and non-being. We have a temporary existence. We experience finitude and have boundaries. We die. Tillich said that this experience of finitude causes us anxiety, and we often try to escape, either by puffing ourselves up with pride to delude ourselves we are more important than we are, or by indulging ourselves in hedonism and forgetting our mortality.

To face our finitude and connect to the Ground of Being, Tillich said, requires an act of courage. This is the title of his book, The Courage to Be.  

I believe Krishna is getting at a similar philosophy here. Brahman can be called neither being nor non-being. It pervades all beings, lending us some existence so we can live for a while and experience love, so that we can come to knowledge and bliss in unity with our Self and with the Ground of Being.

While I appreciate Paul Tillich’s theology, I recognize it’s pretty deep for the average church-goer. We are not usually taught Christian existentialism in church. But I believe we’d have a deeper appreciation for all life if we did embrace the paradoxes of our theology, if we spent some time wrestling with the question of Being. I think part of the reason we avoid the heavy questions in church is not because they are difficult, but because they are scary. Most of us would rather not talk about the terror of our own finitude or anxiety about our own mortality.

But if we do not, I do not think we can enjoy the bliss of unity with God, either. The paradoxes create tension, and there is no creation at all without tension.

Prayer:
God of being and non-being, create beauty in the paradoxes of my life.  

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 52: The Knower and the Field

Depiction of the concept of soul (Ātman) in Jainism, by Vijay K. Jain, 2012. From Wikimedia Commons.

The body is called a field, Arjuna; the one who knows it is called the Knower of the field. This is the knowledge of those who know. I am the Knower of the field in everyone, Arjuna. (BG, 13:1-2)

If you start practicing meditation with a guide, they will usually say something like this: “Let’s begin by drawing your awareness to your body. Feel where your feet make contact with the floor. Feel the position of your spine. Is there tension anywhere? Feel the way the cool air enters your nostrils and fills your chest.” We go on paying attention to the body and its senses because it slows us down and draws us into mindful awareness.

Mindful awareness lets us begin to understand the relationship between our emotions and our body. I carry anger high in my chest and in my neck. I carry my grief in my face and shoulders. I carry my tension by pressing my tongue into the roof of my mouth. When I pay attention to these places in my body where I feel my emotions, I can relax them. I can take a step outside my thoughts and feelings, which are very much rooted in my physical body, and become aware of my Self as something other.

Most of us walk around thinking that the chaos of our thoughts and our feelings is “I,” my self, when it is really just part of a story we are telling ourselves. This is a false self, and it is often frustrated because it only exists to meet short-term goals: to find pleasure and avoid pain, to meet my needs and keep me alive. But there is a deeper, truer Self, who recognizes that my body is part of the universe, my needs are temporary, and that my true Self does not end at the periphery of my skin.

Krishna says this conscious awareness is God: “I am the Knower of the field in everyone.” This used to sound like heresy to my Christian way of thinking, but I’ve come to understand it from a different direction. I’m not saying I, David, my ego, my thoughts and feelings and the story I’m telling myself, am divine. I’m saying that the animating Breath of God in me still belongs to God. The animating force that God breathes into the first human wakes up this lump of clay and gives it awareness:

…Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7, NRSV)

In Genesis, when God decides to limit the length of a human life, God says this enigmatic phrase:

Then the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.” (Genesis 6:3)

I do not think there is enough in the Bible to construct a metaphysics of life and consciousness, but there are hints that the authors think along the lines of Krishna, here: We are sustained by the breath, or the spirit of God. The stuff in us that gives us life is God, and when it departs, it returns to God. Without it, we are just dirt.

Of course, the dirt is also God, just in a different way.

This is different from the usual mind-body or soul-body split we think of in Western philosophy. The field and the Knower are both different manifestations of God’s endless creative action.

Prayer:
God within me and beyond me, draw me out of my false self and into unity with You.