The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 35: Two Natures

 
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An artist’s depiction of the binary star series, J0806; by NASA, from Wikimedia Commons

 

In these two aspects of my nature is the womb of all creation. The birth and dissolution of the cosmos itself takes place in me. There is nothing that exists separate from me, Arjuna. The entire universe is suspended from me as my necklace of jewels.  (BG, 7:6-7) 

We looked at the feminine imagery of this passage yesterday. Now let’s take a brief dip into metaphysics.

Krishna has been talking about “two natures,” a lower nature and a higher nature. In Hindu philosophy these are usually called prakriti and purusha, or “the elements” and “pure consciousness.” Here, Krishna calls the higher nature jiva-bhuta, or life-force.

These two natures don’t map directly onto Western categories like human and divine, or matter and spirit. We’ll notice a difference when we start listing the elements: earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intellect, and ego. The “elements” in this system include both tangible and intangible aspects of our world, including our own thoughts, feelings, and narratives. The experience of our subjective selves, in Hindu philosophy, is very much a part of the material world.

There are three gunas, states or forces, that act upon the elements: tamas (tending toward disorder, delusion, and inaction), rajas (tending toward desire, the ego, and passion), and sattva (tending toward enlightenment and unity). These are the forces of evolution and change.

Krishna is saying that both changeable realm of prakriti and the unchangeable purusha are part of the divine dance of creation and destruction. There is a place where we experience time and change and separateness, and there is a place where we experience Oneness, where all times are now. These two places are connected; they are part of the same reality. This divine dance is “The Womb of Creation,” Krishna says.

This mystical awareness of the unity of all things is difficult to put into words, and metaphysics is our attempt to do so: to try to describe how our essential unity—we are all part of the same reality—can be experienced as separateness, as me and you and dog and tree and rock and ocean, as thought and emotion and this Self that is neither, both, and more. Trying to understand the elements of reality is like putting creation under a microscope so that we can understand the big picture.   

When Krishna says There is nothing that exists separate from me, I also hear Paul quoting a pagan poet, saying that God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). The Womb of God is such a powerful metaphor, especially because even though we are “born,” we are still present in God. There’s nowhere we can go and be “outside of God,” because all of creation is still inside, and still part of God, and God is in every strand of creation’s DNA.

Prayer:
God in Whom we live and move and have our being, overcome our illusions of independence.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 24: Divine Worship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And second, for society:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 21: Unity with God

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Veil Nebula, by Ken Crawford. From Wikimedia Commons

We’re spending a few days unpacking these lines:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider this passage from Paul:

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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From Wikimedia Commons. Click image for source

We’re spending a few days unpacking these lines:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More tomorrow.

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

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 19: Moral Panics and the Divine Self

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United Press International photo, August 1966. Students in Waycross, GA burn Beatles albums. From Wikimedia Commons.

After telling Arjuna that Krishna is one of many incarnations of the Divine, Krishna continues:

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

There is so much here that we will pause on these lines for a few days.

1) One thing I’m illustrating in this devotional series is a critical concept called intertextuality. That’s simply a fancy academic word that means we cannot hear a text “purely,” without hearing it in dialogue with lots of other texts. For example, whenever I read Amos 5:24, I hear it in Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s voice: “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” This was part of his famous “I have a dream speech” he delivered in 1963. Whenever I read Amos, I think of the struggle for Civil Rights in the country. I cannot bracket or close off those associations—nor do I want to. The words of Amos and Dr. King, 2500 years apart, present an intertext, a space where words meet, overlap, expand each other, and sometimes wrestle. This is a valuable space.

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When I read the Bhagavad Gita, I automatically hear it in dialogue with the Bible. That’s the obvious intertext. But for me, there is another an implicit intertext. I’ve alluded to it already, but I want to make it explicit as I delve into these verses.

2) Growing up in the 1980’s, I remember a lot of moral panics. Ouija boards, Satanism, New Age beliefs, Eastern philosophy, Dungeons & Dragons, comic books, tattoos, heavy metal music, healing crystals, all were threats to Good American Christianity™. One of the most dangerous beliefs, I was told, was the New Age belief promoted by people like Shirley MacLaine (among others) that you are God. “We are that God force, we are perfect,” she said (in this linked article from 1987). “I most certainly am not God,” came the evangelical retort. In evangelicalism, salvation depends on admitting one’s sinful imperfection and need for Jesus’s forgiveness. We are in a state of original sin, of separation from God. New Age beliefs that emphasize our unity with God, from a conservative evangelical perspective, undercut the gospel. “If we are already in unity with God, why do we need Jesus?” goes the reasoning.

Moral panic is why, in the 1990’s, Alabama even made it part of state policy to forbid the teaching of yoga and meditation in school. This law was only recently rescinded.

Today, those moral panics continue about both beliefs and practices. Recently, a debate about the practice of burning sage erupted on social media, with one popular pastor calling it “satanic aromatherapy.” He connected it to the New Age belief that people can “become their own gods.”

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A screenshot of an evangelicalist website ginning up moral panic. I will not link it, but you can certainly Google it if you like. Pretty sure that I qualify as hell-bound in their framework. 

3) I share all of this about intertext and moral panics because in order to address the first line of the above verse—Those who know me as their own divine Selfwe have to acknowledge the intertext of moral panics in American Christianity, of a decades-long culture war waged on multiple fronts. Moral panics have been a weapon in that fight. There is an intellectual front: Are people basically good or basically sinful? And a political front: How should we structure policy in light of it, and who gets to decide?

Though I’ve spoken dismissively of moral panics, I do recognize that there were and are beliefs and practices that are dangerous, that do harm to bodies, souls, communities, and the planet. You can make a convincing case that institutional Christianity is one of them! Capitalism is another. There are plenty of people who keep trying to gin up a moral panic about Christianity, who refer to religious teaching as “indoctrination” and claim raising children to be religious is child abuse.  

But if we are to understand the line Those who know me as their own divine Self, we have to acknowledge and name that a) there is a fundamental misunderstanding between Christian Evangelicalism and Eastern religions, and b) that there are social and political forces who benefit from maintaining that misunderstanding. We see it so clearly today, in disinformation campaigns and political rhetoric. There is a concerted effort to gin up moral panic, to advance a worldview that people are fundamentally evil, lazy, selfish, and out to steal souls from Jesus.

This worldview is not biblical. And it isn’t true. It harms people.

More tomorrow.

Prayer:
God of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, deliver us from false religion and oppressive power. Bring about your kin-dom where all people can thrive, and no one has to live in fear.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 18: Incarnation and Creation

Image by Villy Fink Isaksen, from Wikimedia Commons

I want to take a moment to linger on Krishna’s statement that I mentioned yesterday: My true being is unborn and changeless. I am the Lord who dwells in every creature. Through the power of my own maya, I manifest myself in a finite form. (BG, 4:5-6)

Maya can refer to physical reality, the world reported to us by our senses, or to a power like magic or the conjuring of illusions. The proto-Indo-European root word magh means “might” or “ability.” The idea is that there is an ultimate reality that lies underneath or behind this one, and maya is the power to shape our experienced reality. Krishna says that in his most true form, he is everywhere and in everything, but that this pure consciousness can manifest in finite, changeable form. 

A growing notion among diverse scientific fields is panpsychism, the idea that the universe itself is conscious, and that we are simply participants in that larger consciousness. These scientists do not necessarily think of this theory in religious terms, or think of what they are doing as theology, but theologian Sallie McFague suggested decades ago that the universe is actually God’s incarnate body. When God creates, God incarnates.

Similarly, Christian mysticism points to several related truths:

  • This thing called “I” is not separate from the universe. Separateness is an illusion. (We can actually see particular brain structures responsible for this sense of separateness).
    • What we call “God” or ultimate reality is not separate from the universe, nor is constrained by it.
    • “I” am not separate from God.

For some Christians, this gets dangerously close to pantheism (one of many heresies), but there are plenty of warrants for incarnational theology. Saint Paul had no problem borrowing from pagan Greek poetry when he quoted Aratus, saying that God was the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.” There is nowhere and nothing that is independent of God. God is incarnate, made physical, in us, and our life is God’s own breath (Genesis 2:7). We say as much when we share communion, saying, “Make this bread and wine the body blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the Body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.”

It was radical when early Hebrew authors claimed that all humans are made in the image of God. It was also radical when they claimed that God gave their nomadic tribe the gift of the Tabernacle so that God could physically live in the midst of God’s people. Early on, they realized this was a metaphor, intended to teach them something profound about God’s presence. Solomon prayed: But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! (1 Kings 8:27).

Jesus’s answer to Solomon’s prayer is, “Yes, God will indeed dwell on the earth. Want to see God? Look at your neighbor.”

Prayer:
Lover and Beloved, I recognize you dwelling in every creature—including myself.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 17: From the Beginning

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Timeline of the Universe, by NASA/WMAP Science Team. From Wikimedia Commons

 

Krishna says to Arjuna, almost in passing: I told this eternal secret to Vivasvat [the sun god]. Arjuna, stunned, replies: You were born much after Vivasvat; he lived very long ago. Why do you say that you taught this yoga in the beginning?

Krishna answers: You and I have passed through many births, Arjuna. You have forgotten, but I remember them all. My true being is unborn and changeless. I am the Lord who dwells in every creature. Through the power of my own maya, I manifest myself in a finite form. (BG, 4:1-6)

If you’re familiar with the gospel of John, you may hear echoes of Jesus’s conversation:

“Your father Abraham was overjoyed that he would see my day. He saw it and was happy.”
“You aren’t even 50 years old!” the Jewish opposition replied. “How can you say that you have seen Abraham?”
“I assure you,” Jesus replied, “before Abraham was, I Am.”  So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and left the temple. (John 8:56-58, CEB)

In Christian theology, Jesus is speaking here as the pre-existent Word of God (John 1:1), who has always existed outside of time, the one through whom all things were created (1:3), and who was a sacrificial lamb “slaughtered from the foundations of the world” (depending on your translation; see the note on Revelation 13:8, NRSV). Similarly, Krishna, in human form, makes a claim that he was pre-existent. The main difference is that Krishna includes Arjuna in this timeline—they’ve both been around forever.

I’m not going to delve deeply into incarnational theology in Hinduism and Christianity today. I just want to point out the similarity in these dialogues. Both Jesus and Krishna reveal that a) they have known characters outside their obvious mortal timeline and b) they have a claim on divinity. Jesus pretty much calls himself God; “I Am” is the nameless name of God revealed to Moses (Exodus 3:14).

And while I think we could talk about theological differences between Hindu and Christian understandings of incarnation, I want to point out a feature of John’s story that is often overlooked: Jesus hides and escapes a lot. It’s in the last sentence of the above scripture, and also in 7:10, 10:39, and 12:36. I do not think this is simply because Jesus is shy, or trying to save his skin long enough to be executed on the right day. I think John is making a point about the way Christ is hidden in the world. The Source of Life, dwelling in every creature, is simultaneously hidden and revealed, manifest and hidden:

What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people… The light was in the world, and the world came into being through the light, but the world didn’t recognize the light. (John 1:3-4, 10).

Prayer:
Life and Light of All People, show yourself to me; help us all to recognize you, present everywhere and in every creature.  

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 16: Etymologies

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Detail of Language Family Tree, by Minna Sundberg. Poster available hereAlso check out her amazing webcomic Stand Still, Stay Silent

 

I love finding out the meaning and origins of words. Etymology is the study of word origins. When we explore where words come from, we become aware of a couple of things: 1) meanings change over time, and 2) much of our speech is metaphorical.

Think about how often we use metaphors of the body: we talk about the hands of a clock, the legs of a chair, the neck of guitar, and the nose of a rocket. Bakers admire the ear of a loaf of bread, and sewers appreciate the hand of a piece of fabric. Mountains have foothills, and canyons have mouths. We have many body metaphors because we humans all have bodies, and we see the world through our own experience.

It is impossible to speak without metaphors. Metaphor means to carry over. The idea is that a word can carry meaning over from one context into another.

Last week I talked about the origins of two words: yoga, which is related to yoke, and religion, related to ligament. There is another Sanskrit word I should mention: sutra, meaning “thread,” is related to suture and to sew. In Hinduism and Buddhism, a sutra is a teaching or a scripture. You may have heard of the Kama Sutra (love-teaching) or the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. (There are also Sutras of Jesus, which are a fascinating glimpse into early Chinese Christianity.)

I love this metaphor because we can follow the thread of a conversation. Teachings from different teachers can be woven together to form a fabric. We use thread to sew things together, to tie them to each other (remember yoke and ligament?)

These metaphors of sewing and tying (sutra, yoga, religion) are so different from our usual way of talking about “institutional religion” and “private spirituality.” Ancient communities had a notion that what they were doing with religion was fundamentally creative. They were weaving stories and lives together, sewing a beautiful garment. Or perhaps they were making something useful: a bag that could carry important treasures with us.

The sewing metaphor had another aspect: a sutra or thread could also be unit of measure. You cut a straight line. You measure a garment to fit. This is where the rule and measuring sense of religion comes from. Garments should not be ill-fitting. Weaving should be done skillfully.

One thing I want for today’s church—and for the world—is for us to reclaim the creativity and skill of our ancestors in their religious and spiritual practice. The idea that “religion” should be a purely private endeavor is contradictory. You learn sewing from teachers. There is a community of practice which shares best practices. You can go off with a needle and thread and learn by trial and error, of course, and there is no substitute for experience. But there is so much we can learn by honoring the wisdom of our ancestors.

Prayer:
God who binds us together, help us attend to the threads of teaching in our lives. Help us weave a way of life that is a good fit for this world.