The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 47: The Paradox of God

 
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Daqing Science and Technology Museum Optical Illusion Pillars, 2018, by Jason Zhang, from Wikimedia Commons

 

Overcome with his vision, Arjuna bows and worships. He says,

Lord of the gods, you are the abode of the universe. Changeless, you are what is and what is not, and beyond the duality of existence and nonexistence. (BG, 10:10-12)

There are two statements here that I think bear exploring. The first is that God is “changeless.” The second is that God is beyond “the duality of existence and nonexistence.”

Let’s look first at God’s changelessness. This is a common statement in both the Gita and the Bible. In the Bible, James says that God is one “with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17, NRSV). The author of Hebrews says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (13:8). Likewise Krishna says in the Gita, My true being is unborn and changeless. (BG, 4:5)

The tricky bit about this assertion is that we are saying it in spite of evidence to the contrary. In Arjuna’s world, Krishna is his chariot driver… which means there was a time when he was not employed as his chariot driver, which means he changed. In Christianity, Jesus was a man who was born and grew up. Are these not changes? He is a man who died. Is death not a change?

Not from a timeless perspective. Jesus has always been both alive and crucified, because he is “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8).  All times are available to God, and God’s mercies are “new every day” (Lamentation 3:23). So while God is changeless from a perspective outside of time, God has joined us, and we are very much present within time.

The claim of incarnation is that God has chosen to dwell with us in time. God is still a God of history, who acts to free slaves and liberate the oppressed. The very act of creation and intervention makes God subject to time. It is an act of self-limiting, of creative destruction, which is present in every kind of art. The changeless one becomes subject to change, and this is one of the primary points of process theology. I quoted the Afrofuturist author Octavia Butler earlier: “All that you touch You Change. All that you Change, Changes you. The only lasting truth is Change. God is Change.”

Our understanding of God must accommodate these paradoxes, which brings me to the second one: God is beyond the duality of existence and non-existence. A God who is both changeless and becoming something else means that God must contain both being and non-being. This was theologian Paul Tillich’s main theme. God is not a “supreme being,” which would make God simply a thing among other things. God is Being Itself, or the “Ground of Being.” God is the Ultimate Reality, to whom even those who have died and no longer exist are still alive. We finite beings exist somewhere between being and non-being, and God dwells here with us, even as God contains both our being and non-being.

That’s a lot to chew on.

Prayer:
Changeless God of Being and Non-Being, your mercies are new every morning.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 46: What Arjuna Saw

 
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The Universe, by Hildegard of Bingen, from WikiArt

 

Krishna has told Arjuna who he is, but Arjuna insists on seeing for himself. Krishna then grants Arjuna a beatific vision, a theophany, and Arjuna is overcome.

Here is how Sanjaya, the narrator, describes it:

[Krishna] appeared with an infinite number of faces… clothed in celestial garments and covered with garlands, sweet-smelling with heavenly fragrances. If a thousand suns were to rise in the heavens at the same time, the blaze of their light would resemble the splendor of that supreme spirit. (BG, 10:10-12)

Arjuna continues by describing Krishna’s terrifying and complex form, filled with fire, surrounded by heavenly beings, “ancient sages and celestial serpents” (10:15). He goes on: your presence fills the heavens and the earth and reaches in every direction… the gods enter your being, some calling out and greeting you in fear. Great saints sing your glory, praying, “May all be well!” (10:20-21).

There are several similar visions of God in the Hebrew Bible.

I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, the edges of his robe filling the temple. Winged creatures were stationed around him. …They shouted to each other, saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of heavenly forces! All the earth is filled with God’s glory!” (Isaiah 6:1-3)

Above the dome over [the angels’] heads, there appeared something like lapis lazuli in the form of a throne. Above the form of the throne there was a form that looked like a human being. Above what looked like his waist, I saw something like gleaming amber, something like fire enclosing it all around. Below what looked like his waist, I saw something that appeared to be fire. Its brightness shone all around. Just as a rainbow lights up a cloud on a rainy day, so its brightness shone all around. This was how the form of the Lord’s glory appeared. (Ezekiel 1:26-28).

Even though the Ten Commandments forbid making images of God, there are visions of God in the Bible. They don’t go into detail about God’s face. They spend more detail on what’s around God. Visions of God tend to focus on God’s enormity. There are references to bright light, impossibly colorful garments, jewels, odors, and often lesser divine beings who worship the Divine Presence. The whole experience is overwhelming.

But there is always the sense that this vision is just that: a vision. Our finite senses cannot adequately register the infinite. We are blinded by the sun, or we are seeing a funhouse mirror version of God, something distorted because we cannot fit God’s glory into the box of our understanding.

I’m reminded of the hymn “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise,” by Walter Chalmers Smith. The author points out several times that God is only invisible because God is hidden by light: “In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes,” and “’Tis only the splendor of light hideth thee.”

We tend to think of God as somewhere else (like heaven), or as invisible, because we cannot see God. But God is hiding in plain sight—“in light inaccessible”—in the reality in front of us. We have to step outside our usual ways of seeing in order to see. This is why God is both hidden and revealed. The bright light and the glory are always present.

Prayer:
Lord, show me your glory.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 45: The Bold Request

 
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The Pillars of Creation, NASA, from Wikimedia Commons

 

Arjuna: Just as you have described your infinite glory, O Lord, now I long to see it. I want to see you as the supreme ruler of creation. O Lord, master of yoga, if you think me strong enough to behold it, show me your immortal self. (BG, 11:3-4) 

Moses makes a similar request in Exodus 33:18. After insisting that they will not go to the Promised Land unless God accompanies the Israelites, God reassures Moses that God will certainly go with them. Then Moses says, “Show me your glory.”

There is a long tradition in holy writing that seeing God comes with a risk. You will die, be driven mad, or be permanently changed. (And if you’re lucky, probably all three). So God grants Moses’ request, but with some conditions: Moses must hide in a cave, God will pass by, and Moses may come out and see God’s back. Seeing the face of your Creator will unmake you. Seeing God’s unfiltered glory is simply too much for us limited beings to handle.

In the Gita, the next long section of Chapter Eleven is narrated by Sanjaya (who is telling the story) and Arjuna. Krishna is silent for a moment while the author tells us what Arjuna sees. Toward the end, Arjuna says:

 I rejoice in seeing you as you have never been seen before, yet I am filled with fear by this vision of you as the abode of the universe. Please let me see you again as the shining God of gods (BG 11:45).

In other words, “tone it down a bit, please—just go back to being a God I can handle.” The vision pushes Arjuna to the limit. I cannot help but think of how Elijah also experienced God:

The Lord said, “Go out and stand at the mountain before the Lord. The Lord is passing by.” A very strong wind tore through the mountains and broke apart the stones before the Lord. But the Lord wasn’t in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake. But the Lord wasn’t in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there was a fire. But the Lord wasn’t in the fire. After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his coat. He went out and stood at the cave’s entrance. (1 Kings 19:11-13).

Elijah knows that he is limited in his ability to see God’s presence unfiltered. He wraps his face in his coat because he knows the unfiltered vision of God carries risk. Yet he also understands that as spectacular as wind, earthquake, and fire are, they do not contain the presence of God. God is in the stillness.

The consistent message is that whatever we think God is, God is both more and not what we expect. God is Other, yet also strangely familiar.

Prayer:
Infinite Motion, Eternal Stillness, fill me with your presence. Help me to hear and see You.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 44: I’ll Tell You Who I Am

 
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Detail of Elenita de Jesús our Shekinah, by by Puerto Rican artist and art therapist Tamara Liz, LMHC, from Wikimedia Commons

 

Arjuna: Tell me all your divine attributes, leaving nothing unsaid. Tell me of the glories with which you fill the cosmos. (BG, 10:16) 

When we start trying to talk about God, we quickly realize a couple of things: 1) God is indescribable, and 2) most language—even when it’s not about God—is metaphorical. The Bible is full of metaphors about God. God is a rock, a stronghold (2 Samuel 22:2-3), a master-builder and architect (Psalm 127:1), a mother eagle caring for chicks in her nest (Deuteronomy 32:11).

The second half of Chapter Ten of the Bhagavad Gita is mostly a series of metaphors. Among stars, he is the sun; among weapons, a thunderbolt; among mountains, he is the Himalayas; Among bodies of water, he is the ocean; among rivers, he is the Ganges. All of these metaphors are comparisons, and usually Krishna is the biggest, best, or most spectacular. He also uses examples from history, myth, and legend: Among priests I am Brihispati, and among military leaders I am Skanda (10:24).

Occasionally Krishna throws in a comparison that breaks the metaphor or that forces us to reconsider the pattern: Among the forces which restrain I am Yama, the god of death (10:29). Toward the end of this section, he makes a turn: Among the Vrishnis I am Krishna, and among the Pandavas, I am Arjuna… I am the silence of the unknown and the wisdom of the wise (10:37-38). 

He bookends this section by pointing, again, to the divine Atman in every being. He says at the beginning of his monologue: I am the true Self in the heart of every creature, Arjuna, and the beginning, middle, and end of their existence (10:20). And he returns at the end: I am the seed that can be found in every creature, Arjuna; for without me nothing can exist, neither animate nor inanimate (10:39).

I think the author intends us to bump up against the limits of language. How do we describe the Great Mystery in which we live and move and have our being? Even the verb “describe,” which means to put into writing, indicates the limits of language. The etymology of “scribe” is to cut or to trace, to outline. Similarly “define” is to limit or place a boundary, to make finite. By definition, God is limitless, that without boundary. We often think of God as “The Supreme Being,” but Paul Tillich pointed out that God cannot a being, but Being Itself. God is not like a large river among rivers, like a things among other things. 

I believe that is why God’s enigmatic name in the Hebrew scriptures is simply I am who I am (Exodus 3:14). There is no boundary we can place around God, no point at which we can say God ends and something else begins.

All of this sets up the cosmic vision which comes next.

Prayer:
Divine and Indescribable Word, our faltering words can reflect you, but they cannot hold you.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 43: Fruit of the Spirit

 
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The fruit of a pomegranate, by fir0002 (flagstaffotos [at] gmail.com), from Wikimedia Commons

 

Discrimination, wisdom, understanding, forgiveness, truth, self-control, and peace of mind; pleasure and pain, birth and death, fear and courage, honor and dishonor; nonviolence, charity, equanimity, contentment, and perseverance in spiritual disciplines—all the different qualities found in living creatures have their source in me. (BG, 10:4-5) 

Compare the above passage to this one from the Bible:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the self with its passions and its desires. (Galatians 5:22-24)

There is an important difference in these two lists. The Gita includes, in the middle of its list of virtues, a set of “pairs of opposites”—pleasure and pain, birth and death, fear and courage, honor and dishonor. All of these are things which Krishna has encouraged Arjuna to see as illusory opposites, things which are neither good or bad, but which anyone pursuing an enlightened path will experience as part of life.

These illusory opposites are nested within a list of virtues that we see as good: wisdom, forgiveness, self-control, nonviolence, charity, self-control. Moreover, the illusory opposites of pleasure and pain, birth and death, fear and courage are things that happen to us, whereas the others are descriptors of character.

Instead of being “found in living creatures,” which is a passive phrase, the Feuerstein translation says that all of these things are “states of existence” of the beings “who arise in all of their diversity from Me.” For Krishna, this is our “natural” state of being, when we see things as they truly are.

Paul likewise calls these virtues “fruit” of the Spirit, something that grows naturally. The natural growth of this fruit is compromise by our lower, deluded “self” that wants stupid, temporary things. Once we let that self die, we can have what the Spirit wants to grow in us.

We sometimes refer to this type of writing as a “virtue list” (contrasted with “vice list,” like Galatians 5:19-21). But I think it’s important to point out in both of these that the authors are arguing that these qualities are natural. They emerge from us as qualities of the God who created us, and the Spirit who lives inside of us. They are not qualities we have to grit our teeth and strive for, because they are already part of us. If we tend to the root, staying connected to the One who Pervades the Universe, God will take care of the fruit.

Prayer:
Root of all that is lovely and good, grow your virtues within me.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 42: A Hymn to the Divine

 
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The ceiling of Sagrada Familia Cathedral, Barcelona, Spain, by Alvesgaspar, from Wikimedia Commons

 

Chapter Nine of the Bhagavad-Gita is a hymn to the divine. Listen to some of these verses by reading them out loud, and compare them to some of the poetry of the Bible. I’ll use italics for the Gita, and plain text for the Bible:

All creatures find their existence in me. …They move in me as the winds move in every direction in space. (BG 9:4 & 6)

For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said. (Acts 17:28)

I am the goal of life, the Lord and support of all. I am the only refuge, the one true friend; I am the beginning, the staying, and the end of creation. I am the womb and the eternal seed. (BG 9:18)

I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me? Let them proclaim it, let them declare and set it forth before me… Do not fear, or be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? You are my witnesses! Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one. (Isaiah 44:6-8)

I am heat; I give and withhold rain. I am immortality and I am death. I am what is and what is not. (BG 9:19)

The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world. (1 Samuel 2:6-7)

I look upon all creatures equally; none are less dear to me and none more dear. But those who worship me with love live in me, and I come to life in them. (BG 9:29)

I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. (Acts 10:34-35)

There are some important differences in these passages, of course, especially when we examine them in context. But many of the metaphors and images we use for God, regardless of religion or culture, are similar. They express some intuitive truths: God is omnipresent and we “move inside” of God. God incorporates the beginning and end of creation. Life and death are part of the same process, and both belong to God. God pours out God’s love indiscriminately, and accepts those who seek God. God is both transcendent and imminent.

Prayer:
Beginning and End of All Things, root me in your life; bring me into your presence.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 11: Seeing God Everywhere

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By Dominicus Johannes Bergsma – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

 
Krishna is still telling Arjuna about the difference between yoga as theory and yoga as practice.

Just as a reservoir is of little use when the whole countryside is flooded, scriptures are of little use to the illumined man or woman who sees the Lord everywhere (BG 2:46).

I love this metaphor. Even the holiest scriptures do not contain God—they point to an overwhelming, ever-present reality. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” in the words of Gerard Manly Hopkins.

As I said at the beginning of this series, scriptures do not hold the same place of reverence in Hinduism as they do in Christianity. Paul specifically talked about the usefulness of the Old Testament: “Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character” (2 Timothy 3:16). For Jews, the Torah itself was given by God to Moses at Sinai. I do not imagine Jesus would say, “scriptures are of little use,” even for the enlightened person.

But what he was preaching and doing obviously rankled his Bible-believing, rule-following detractors. You can hear Jesus respond to his accusers in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). From Christian perspective, Jesus was the flood, and the scriptures could not contain him.

Christian theologians make a distinction between special revelation (the Gospel) and general revelation. General revelation is God’s character revealed everywhere, including nature: “Ever since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities—God’s eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, because they are understood through the things God has made” (Romans 1:20). Creation has sometimes been called “the first Bible.”

Evangelical Christians view “enlightenment,” or salvific knowledge, as coming to see God revealed exclusively in the person of Jesus Christ. Special revelation becomes the only kind that matters. Krishna is talking about going the other direction: seeing the Lord of Love (the divine Self) revealed everywhere; the particular becoming universal. I think this was more like the experience of the early Christians. Their understanding of God’s work in Christ was not narrowed, but broadened. It was not the Bible (they wouldn’t have a completed New Testament for hundreds of years!), but Christ who was the Word of God, and the whole cosmos came into being through him (John 1:1-5).

It’s important to note that this insight is for “the illumined man or woman,” because there’s a difference between saying, “God is everywhere” and knowing in your bones that God is everywhere, between “seeing” as an intellectual metaphor and seeing as deep understanding. I suspect that most folks who think they are enlightened and don’t need any particular scriptures to help them see God are groping in the dark.

Prayer:
Word of Life, Word of Creation, Word of Scripture, Word of God, let me hear and see your Word all around me.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita: A Note on the Text

I do not know Sanskrit and to be honest, my Greek is shaky at best. I rely on the wisdom and translations of others who spend their whole careers teasing out subtle shades of meaning.
 
For this journey through the Bhagavad Gita, I’ll mainly be using Eknath Easwaran’s translation (Easwaran, Eknath. The Bhagavad Gita. Nilgiri Press, 2007). It is readable and his commentary is helpful. Occasionally I compare it to Georg Feuerstein’s translation (Feuerstein, Goerg. The Bhagavad-Gita: A New Translation. Shambhala, 2014).
 
If you’re interested, you can compare the publicly-available 1900 translation by Sir Edwin Arnold.
 
As for the Bible, I typically use the Common English Bible (CEB) for devotional purposes. and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) for more scholarly purposes. I’ll make a note if I use a different translation. I’m especially fond of the way the CEB translates “Son of Man” as “The Human One.” 

Good Friday

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A friend who attends First United Methodist Church in Dallas said that at tonight’s Good Friday service, anti-LGBTQIA protesters gathered outside their church to condemn the church for being an inclusive congregation. He said it felt appropriate, and I agree. But I also felt moved to write the poem below, made up almost entirely of scripture references.

Good Friday

Jesus said his yoke was light
But you make it look too easy
Galloping with joy, entirely too unburdened.
So we said you were abolishing the law
Instead of fulfilling it. 
We tied up heavy burdens for you
That we did not have to bear.
We locked the kingdom of God to you,
afraid to go in ourselves.
We crossed land and sea to make converts
And told them to write unjust laws and oppressive decrees
To kill the gays in colonized lands.
We made your yoke unequal to ours;
While we enjoyed every permitted pleasure
Of marriage, family, divorce, and adultery,
We laid our sins upon you,
And pierced you for our transgressions
Insisting you take up a cross that was never yours,
A yoke none of us had to bear,
Of celibacy, of mortification, of violence,
A circumcision not of the flesh or heart,
But of the soul, of the brain.
You bright and shining ones, Children of light
Who dared to love because God is love,
We called you gluttons, and friends of harlots and drunkards.
Even our own children we smashed against the rocks,
Exiled them to strange lands
And stifled their songs,
Sacrificing them to our angry gods
Though it never entered Her mind to do ask for such.
(How could She forget her nursing children,
or show no compassion for the children of Her womb?)

The pastors among us
Talked of welcome without affirmation,
Betrayed you with kisses,
Said “peace” when there was none offered,
And dressed your wounds as though
They were not serious.

Yet wisdom is proved by her children.

You did not accept a cross
Foisted upon you by unbelievers,
You refused to be the sacrificial lamb,
To give us the catharsis we wanted,
You opened your mouth to say a mumblin’ word
About dignity
And humanity
And love

And eventually
We began to find
Jesus.


 

scripture references (roughly in order of appearance, though I may have missed some):

Matthew 11:28
Matthew
 5:17
Matthew
 23:4
Matthew
 23:13
Matthew
 23:15
Isaiah 10:1
2 Corinthians 6:14
Matthew
 5:32
Isaiah 53:4-5
Acts 15:10
Romans 2:29
Ephesians 5:8
1 John 4:8
Luke 23:26
Matthew 11:19
Psalm 137
Jeremiah 19:5
Isaiah 49:15
Luke 22:48
Jeremiah 6:14

Karen, Your Faith Isn’t Worth Sh*t

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If you’ve got a problem with this title, take it up with Jesus. He said salt that has lost its flavor isn’t fit for the soil or the manure pile (Luke 14:34-35). Maybe that doesn’t strike you as offensive. Maybe you are mindful of the wonderfully fertile qualities of shit. People refer to worm shit (“castings”) as “gardener’s gold.” Chicken and cow poo is good, too. But salt without flavor is mostly good for killing things. Even shit has redeeming qualities.

When Karen Handel says her faith “leads her to a different place” on gay adoption, I’m not playing with this toxic manure. Faith that leads you to prevent gay parents from adopting does not bring life. You aren’t “saving” kids from becoming gay, or increasing the probability of them having healthy childhoods, or reducing the suicide rate of LGBTQ youth. Quite the opposite. It isn’t spreading the Good News. You’re doing harm in the name of Jesus, and that’s some serious bullshit. Not the good kind.

And don’t give me this hypocritical tone-policing humbug that has a problem with the word “bullshit” either. I’ve got LGBTQ friends and church members who have adopted kids, and straight parents who have adopted LGBTQ kids. This is not a difference of opinion. This is an attack on people I love. There are much, much stronger words that are appropriate, but they can articulate them better than I.

Mixing your flavorless faith with bullshit doesn’t make it worthy of our community garden. You and Roy Moore can keep that manure in your own yard. I don’t need the stink.

For further reading:

On Bullshit, by Harry Frankfurt