The Best Ocean View in the World

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

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

Hanging out at the hotel

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

View from El Mirador

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

The Boat and the Crew

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



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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

An Interrupted Journey



The Church of Magdala, on the Sea of Galilee, featuring a striking boat altar. Personal photo, 2019.

Since we’re in one of these “Five-hundred year rummage sales” where all our old ideas and values are being reevaluated, I thought it would be a good idea to look at past rummage sales. Two thousand years ago (or four rummage sales ago), when a small group of Jesus-followers started spreading his message, the new movement met in peoples’ homes. The early movement called themselves “ecclesia,” or “the called-out ones.” This usually gets translated as “church,” but the old name, ecclesia, implies that this new community would be an alternative to religion as usual. Many of those house church leaders were women, and Paul names them: Chloe, Nyssa, Junia, Lydia, and others. They were explicitly egalitarian and inclusive. Paul wrote “there is no longer Jew or Greek, enslaved or free, male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Paul and his companions sailed around the Mediterranean, networking these new communities and doing what we might today call “community organizing.” He was trying to get several different communities to cooperate as one. 

This history is one reason I chose “sailing uncharted waters” as my proposal theme. The early ecclesia had no idea where the future would take them. There was no chart. They had no idea what hazards lay ahead, or who might try to hijack their movement. They did not know how the currents and tides of history might move their boat off course. 

Boats, of course, were an important symbol in the early church. Jesus preached from a boat, stilled the storm on the Lake of Galilee, and hung out with fishermen. 

My first experience with sailboats was when I was a teenager. My parents bought a single-sail 14-foot dinghy and we learned to sail on Alabama lakes. But in 2019, in order to get a sense of what the leaders of the early church faced, I decided I needed to learn how to sail on the sea. Part of my proposal would include sailing lessons. We made a plan that included sailing on the Mediterranean and visits to Greek archeological sites where Paul met with early church leaders. 

But after my proposal was accepted and I received the grant for my renewal project, the pandemic hit. We had to cancel our plans. I wasn’t just disappointed. I was heartbroken. But I realized that plagues have also been part of the “uncharted waters” that church and society have faced in past centuries. We know that pandemics will occur more regularly in the future as our climate changes. Perhaps it was fitting that my journey began with an interruption. I realized that we really are sailing uncharted waters. 

Prayer: God, our Guardian and Guide, you are with us on the journey, even when we are standing still.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Introduction: Shoeing Horses


At a scenic stop in Ireland in July, we were visited by a friendly (and huge) work horse.

In addition to being a pastor, I have a Ph.D in religion, with an emphasis in homiletics (preaching) and social ethics. But as I watch the many crises affecting churches and academia, sometimes it feels like I did an incredible amount of work to get a degree in shoeing horses. There just aren’t a lot of jobs for farriers these days. It’s a niche occupation. 

I don’t think religion will ever be obsolete. But I do think religious institutions, and the clergy who maintain them (my online friend David Dark refers to clergy as “professional god-talkers”) will become more rare in the coming years. In addition to all the evidence of plummeting church participation, churches are polarized and splitting. There is a well-documented trend of pastors burning out and giving up, especially during COVID. I’ve felt it, too, that sense of hopeless dread. This is a hard season in which to try to build or maintain a religious community. 

As a society, I’d argue that in many ways, we’re becoming more religious. Back in the 1960’s, the General Social Survey reported that only 22% of Americans said they’d had a life-changing spiritual or mystical experience. By 2009, according to a Pew Religion and Public Life survey, it was nearly half of all Americans. Spiritual experience increased even as church participation decreased. 

Some of this may have to do with the growth of a population who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” In the sociological research, they are often described as “SBNRs.” Twenty years ago in his book After the Baby Boomers, sociologist Robert Wuthnow described what younger generations did as “spiritual bricolage,” sampling from multiple streams of faith traditions.   

In many ways, I feel like the work I did to earn a Ph.D in religion prepared me to have a ringside seat at this period of the Great Emergence, to observe of this work of spiritual bricolage as an anthropologist might. 

Even though church and academy are struggling, on my good days, I don’t feel that my effort in church or academia has been wasted. I didn’t go into ministry for the career advancement opportunities — I did it because I love God and I love people. And I didn’t go into academia so I could fight to earn a tenure-track position — I did it because I love learning. That’s why I proposed the trip I’m about to share with you: Navigating Uncharted Waters. If you’ve signed up for these devotionals, that probably means you do, too. This moment in history calls for people who love God, love people, and love learning. 

Thanks for joining me on this journey. 

Prayer: God, you who are both hidden and revealed, reveal to us the path toward truth and life. Amen.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Navigating Uncharted Waters: Starting Soon


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Are You Religious?

I’m teaching a class at UAB called “America’s Religious Diversity.” One of the themes of the class is that it is difficult to define religion. Not all religions have scriptures. Not all have supernatural beings. Not all have dietary laws. Not all have clergy. Not all focus on beliefs. Not all focus on practices. It is unlikely to find a definition of religion that accurately encompasses them all.

This becomes clearer as you study world religions through history. Before contact with European colonizers, most indigenous people in the Americas and in West Africa didn’t think of what they did as “religion.” It was/is simply part of culture. It’s what your people do. Have a life question? Visit the wise woman and consult your ancestors. Have an ailment? Consult the herbalist for physical and spiritual medicine.

On contact with colonialism, many of those religions were forced to adapt, to re-organize themselves in order to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the dominant culture. Even “Hinduism,” some argue, is an invention of British occupiers of “Hindustan,” the Persian name for residents of that country.  

There are two important points here. First, “religion” is an idea, a framework, a mental model or a lens we use to look at culture—especially a culture different from our own. Like imagining light as a wave or a particle, what you see will depend on what you are looking for. Second, you can practice a religion *without ever recognizing it as a religion.* To you, it’s just your way of life, one you share with your community.

This is why I find it fascinating that among both conservative and liberal folks today, “religion” is almost a universally negative term. “I’m spiritual but not religious,” is the phrase preferred by many who don’t go to church. But someone who does go to church is likely to say “Jesus is about relationship, not religion.” Stephen Prothero writes that “One of the most common claims among Hindus of the West is that ‘Hinduism is a way of life’ rather than a religion,” but what I observe is that nearly every sincere religious practitioner would make the same claim about their own beliefs and practices. People don’t practice their religion in order to be religious. They practice in order to find God, or enlightenment, or meaning, or connection.

If I’m following a typical progression of human faith development, by the time I’m an adult, I don’t do things just because my parents or neighbors did them. I do them because they are meaningful to me — not to someone else.

In other words, “religion” has come to mean what OTHER people do—people whose beliefs and practices don’t hold sway over me. Calling something a religion is a way to delegitimize and mock it, as Michael Pollan does in his book Second Nature when he describes the absurd cultural symbolism of American lawns: “Think of nature as Spirit, the collective suburban lawn as the Church, and lawn mowing as a kind of sacrament.” This tremendous waste of energy, he says, reflects an aesthetic and cultural belief in democracy. We all have to pitch in and work to create this unbroken fake prairie that is the American lawn.

I often do the same thing when I compare sports to religion. At sporting events, we have collective singing and chanting, rituals and superstitious practices offered to the gods of chance and fairness (like the coin toss), animal-headed gods (mascots) who function as symbols for our team (just like the ancient Egyptians), and the sport itself, which echoes the ancient Greeks and Aztecs offering their ritualized combat to the gods.

But I think both of these things—sports and lawns—DO represent a civil and cultural religion. It’s just not one we question or regard through a religious lens, because alien colonizers haven’t shown up on our doorstep and told us how strange these practices are. They haven’t told us what we do is quaint, or primitive, or backwards, or barbaric.

So while I think “religion” is a particularly Western and colonial idea, I also think it is practically inescapable. It is a trap we have created for ourselves. We want to believe our particular rituals, practices, and beliefs transcend our culture, that they have universal significance; but it’s so easy to see other people’s spiritual striving as mere religion.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 5: Understanding Time

512px-Geological_time_spiral

Geological Time Spiral, from United States Geological Survey

 

Arjuna recognizes that he will have to fight his own family, and he despairs. Krishna responds:

You speak sincerely, but your sorrow has no cause. The wise grieve neither for the living nor for the dead. There has never been a time when you and I and the kings gathered here have not existed, nor will there be a time when we cease to exist.

…Every creature is unmanifested at first, and then attains manifestation. When its end has come, it once again become unmanifested. What is there to lament in this? (BG 2:11, 28)

I’ve often heard that the greatest difference in Eastern and Western cultures, or between Abrahamic religions and most of the world, is the conception of time. Does time march forward, like a digital clock? Or does it move cyclically, and everything that has happened will happen again?

Time doesn’t only move forward in the Hebrew scriptures. We get a minority opinion in the book of Ecclesiastes. The author of Eccelsiastes is referred to as Qoheleth, “The Teacher.” Listen to how much Qoholeth sounds like Krishna:

Whatever has happened—that’s what will happen again;
    whatever has occurred—that’s what will occur again. There’s nothing new under the sun.
(Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Einstein informed us that time is relative—it behaves differently depending on how fast we are moving, or how much gravity we are experiencing. Time is part of the created order, so much so that we cannot “see” back before the Big Bang. What existed “before” time got its house in order in those first few milliseconds of the universe?

C.S. Lewis pointed out that God is outside of time, and doesn’t measure time by the clock. God “has all eternity in which to listen to the split second of prayer put up by a pilot as his plane crashes in flames.” We experience one moment after another, but from the perspective of eternity, our moments are spread out like a sheet of paper. All moments are NOW to God.

While I think this is a powerful perspective and I believe its theological truth, let’s not ascribe the same worldview to the ancient Hebrews. In the Bible, while God has an eternal perspective, there is still the notion that God experiences time:

You return people to dust,
    saying, “Go back, humans,”
because in your perspective a thousand years
    are like yesterday past, like a short period during the night watch.
(Psalm 90:3-4)

The ancient Hebrews understood God as a liberating God who acts in history: Tell [your children]: We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. But the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand (Deuteronomy 6:21). Creation has a start and an end, and both are held in the hands of God as time moves in one direction.

But there is a place where Jesus turns this notion inside-out. When he is debating with Sadducees about the resurrection, he says: “…haven’t you read what God told you, I’m the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?  He isn’t the God of the dead but of the living” (Matthew 22:31-32). Of course, everyone listening had always thought that God really meant “I was the God of Abraham.” Jesus puts the weight on I AM.

So to understand our relationship to time and to God, Jesus tells us that either a) we are resurrected—or “manifested” in the words of the BG—again at some point in the linear future, or b) all times are present to God as now, because the advance of time is simply an illusion we are bound up in. Eternity and eternal life is either on the horizon, or it is present even now.

Either way, in both traditions, this thing we call “death” does not have the last word.

Prayer:
God, my world is full of moments. Help me to experience them all as now. Bring eternity into our time.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 4: Harmony and Dissonance

lossy-page1-753px-John_Coltrane_House,_1511_North_Thirty-third_Street,_Philadelphia,_Philadelphia_County,_PA_HABS_PA,51-PHILA,756-9.tif

John Coltrane House, 1511 North Thirty-third Street, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, PA — Public domain

 

On Saturdays, I plan to take some time to reflect on what we’ve covered the previous week, and perhaps follow a rabbit trail or two.

As I describe the Bhagavad Gita, I’m taking my time approaching the things you may already know about Hinduism that differ from Christian theology: reincarnation, multiple gods, karma, the goal of the afterlife, cosmic unity, and the practice of meditation. I want to come at those things from the side, as it were, so that we understand them in context. When Christians encounter a different religion, I want our response to be not, “Wow, that’s weird,” but “Wow, we’re weird.” Or better yet, just Wow. Exposure to other cultures helps us to realize the things we assume are universally true are not necessarily so—and things we may have thought are unique to our culture are more universal than we expected. What we’ve been taught about other cultures or other religions is often a cartoon version of reality.

It’s also true that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. I take great care to make clear that anything I say about “Hinduism” is provisional. First, I may not know enough to know that I’ve misrepresented something. Second, there is great diversity in Hindu religion and philosophy.

But that exposure makes me even more aware that the same is true of Christianity. Saint Patrick and Joel Osteen can hardly be said to represent the same religion, and the same could be said of Dorothy Day and Mike Pence. Ask these famous Christians to define a word like “salvation,” and you’d likely get very different answers. What does it mean to say they all represent something called “Christianity?” How do they understand the call to “follow Jesus?”

“Enlightenment” in Hinduism and Buddhism is not the same thing as “salvation” in Christianity. They reflect different worldviews on what the central problem facing humanity is. When Christian missionaries showed up in India quoting scripture and saying, “You must be born again,” Hindus replied, “Are you crazy? We’re trying to stop being born again.”

So I reject the conventional wisdom that says “All religions basically say the same thing,” because a) even one religion doesn’t say the same thing! And b) because all members of a choir do not sing the same notes. In the most beautiful music, there is dissonance as well as harmony, places of tension and resolution. We do not have to collapse or ignore those differences to appreciate the polyphonic beauty.

Nor do we need to pretend that some things aren’t just flat out wrong. Sometimes in an ensemble, people get off key, or sing what they think is right, but it just ain’t. Even if you’re making it up as you go along in a kind of jazz improv, the professionals will wince and shake their heads when you hit a sour note.

My hope in listening to the music of different cultures and religions is that we come to a deeper appreciation and understanding of the whole, and our particular role in it.

Prayer:
Composer and Director of the Cosmos, let me be one with your music.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 2: Literary Context

30 x 40_Ranbhoomi

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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