A Couple of Passages that Have Struck Me Today from the Hindu Scriptures

Those closest to me (and many of those who aren’t so close to me, thanks to the wonderful advent of social media) know that I am deeply interested in philosophy, religion, theology, and the like.  For most of my life up to this point, that has meant exploring the Christian tradition I was raised in despite the fact that I have believed for years now that all religions contain divine truth.  Now, however, as I approach my twenty-ninth year, I have reached a point where I am no longer trying to hold on to my faith.  What I mean to say is that I have grappled with questions surrounding my own Christian identity throughout most of my twenties and have discovered that faith that must be constantly grasped and clung to isn’t really faith.

This is not to say that I have abandoned Christianity in any sense, but that I feel (notice I did not say “believe”) that whatever those of us who use such language mean when we speak of God or of the Divine cannot be contained within the confines of any one religion or book or, God-help-us, dogma.  Instead, for my part, I have decided that I will let the Spirit blow my intellectual and spiritual curiosity wherever it will.  I now float in my faith rather than grasp at it, to paraphrase the philosopher Alan Watts.

There is a book entitled “The Bible of the World” that has been sitting rather neglected on one of my bookshelves for quite sometime.  It is a considerably old book, at least from my perspective.   It was published in 1939 under the editorial guidance of Robert O. Ballou and contains English translations of many of the world’s major religious texts.  I am currently making my way, albeit more slowly than I’d like, through the section containing a selection of Hindu texts.  While my study of Christian theology and first-hand Christian experience has taught me that a religion is much more than its own revered books, reading through the Hindu scriptures has, over the past few days, filled me with incredible peace.

I’ve found the two following selections particularly beautiful.

“Even in bondage thou shalt live with the virtuous, the erudite, and the truthful; but not for a kingdom shalt thou stay with the wicked and malicious.  The vile are ever prone to detect the faults of others, though they be as small as mustard seeds, and persistently shut their eyes against their own, though they be as large as Vilva fruits.”  This was taken from the Garuda Purana. Obviously, I can’t help but notice the similarity to the words of Jesus in the Book of Matthew when he asked, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3).  It makes me wonder to what extent Christ and the biblical writers were exposed to the predating Eastern philosophy of the Indian people.  It also begs the question of why is it that if these themes are so well-entrenched into all of the world’s religious traditions that we have such a hard time applying them in our daily lives?   I can’t help but feel a tinge of guilt as I know that the capacity to judge others is definitely within me, even as I often give myself a pass on my own faults, much to my own detriment.
I was also especially struck by this passage in the Vishnu Purana:

It should therefore be the assiduous endeavor of wise men to attain unto God.  He dwelleth eternally in all beings and all things dwell in him; and thence the lord Vasudeva is the creator and preserver of the world.  He, though identical with all beings, is beyond and separate from material nature, from its products, from properties and from imperfections; he is beyond all investing substance; he is universal soul; all the interstices of the universe are filled up by him; he is one with all good qualities; and all created beings are endowed with but a small portion of his individuality.  Assuming various shapes, he bestows benefits on the whole world, which was his work.  Glory, might, dominion, wisdom, energy, power and other attributes are collected in him.  Supreme of the supreme, in whom no imperfections abide, lord over finite and infinite, god in individuals and universals, visible and invisible, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, almighty.  The wisdom, perfect, pure, supreme, undefiled and one only by which he is conceived, contemplated and known:  That is wisdom.  All else is ignorance.”

A final note on this blog update.  I’m in no way claiming to be an expert on comparative religion or anything of the sort.  I am very much a student of these things and have much to learn.  If anyone who considers themselves a member of the Hindu tradition should read this, know that if I have incorrectly made any assumptions, misstatements, or have presented any un-truths about that faith that such things were done out of my own ignorance, not out of any sort of willful maliciousness.  I only wanted to share with my own small readership that which I had learned today.

The Bible of the World, published by Viking Press.

The Bible of the World, published by Viking Press.

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Birth and Death

I can conceive of no imaginable purpose for the meaning of man’s seemingly brief existence apart from community.

My, my, my, what mighty big words you have, Rance Garrison.  But I really can’t.  It is for this reason that I have trouble with traditional notions of both religion and irreligion or secularism.  So much of our modern religion, or stance against it, in the United States today comes from a long tradition of individualism.  I am not a believer in individualism to a great extent.  It is through a community, a Communion, to use “Christian” language, I suppose, that man achieves his greatest heights.  Without the community lifting him, challenging him, even at times, fighting against him, man is nothing.  It has been said that no man is an island.  Forget the island, no man is apart from the web of life.  And those who seek to go it completely alone for long never it make it very far.

These thoughts poured into my mind earlier tonight while I reached an almost transcendental state while making love to my (soon to be) wife.  It is ironic that we live in a society that teaches a man to fear the two things that are most readily at his disposal to achieve the ever elusive immortality he so desperately seeks, birth and death.  As younger men, many of us, or at least in my own case, view the approach of fatherhood with an almost dreadful apprehension.  On the one hand, we long for the opportunity to pass on our knowledge, our philosophies, however half baked, and, at a more subconscious animal. level, our genes, onto our offspring.  On the other hand, though, we long to live in a state of perpetual boyhood like billions of grown-up Peter Pans, desiring a life of adventure, swashbuckling, skirt chasing ahead of us on into eternity.  What we fail to realize is that time stands still for no one, and if we pursue that life of constant adventure, danger, non-commitment, and individualistic “freedom” we will find ourselves not as Peter Pans, but more likely, as the sad old man protagonist of the 1977 Pink Floyd song, “Dogs,” in that we will be “just another sad old man, all alone and dying of cancer.”  How strange it is that the number one regret of dying men is that they wished that they hadn’t worked so hard and that they had spent more time with their wives and families.  For as we men age, our work becomes our play, and the pursuit of money, fame, the respect of our fellow men and more importantly, the sexual adoration of many women, the ultimate set of prizes in the cracker jack box. To many men, the thought of being domesticated into the family life might as well be the same thing as being neutered.

As for death, here I must divert from earthly matters and expand a bit upon my (quite often misunderstood) religious views.  See, I call myself a Christian because it is the religious path that I am most comfortable and familiar with and because I feel especially close to the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  When I pray, it is Jesus that I imagine on the other end of the line if you will.  At the same time, I understand that this very personal theistic conception of God is a symbol, not God-in-entirety.  This conception of God which lives in my mind is no closer to being the true “God beyond God” than a single cell in my pinky fingernail is to being me.  But the only way that I can even begin to be in relationship with that which is Infinite is by constructing within my finite mind a finite symbol which can serve as a doorway into the Infinite God.  And while I personally have my reasons for believing that there is some historical basis for the Christ as viewed in much of traditional Christianity, even if it was proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that Jesus of Nazareth never existed, that wouldn’t shatter my faith because I understand that the Infinite God could never be completely bound in anyone symbol or person or book.

And so, believing therefore, as I do, in a God that is Infinite beyond my own comprehension, I also dare to believe that this same Infinite God is Infinitely Loving beyond all comprehension, and that this existence, created as it was through Love, will not perish.  That God truly will call all things unto Godself in due time.   I unapologetically say that in my heart of hearts, I feel that all sentient beings are in the process of growing into a complete union with God.  To be said again, I believe that each of us, as individuals and also as a fully integrated cosmic body of stars, planets, people, cats, spiders, sponges, jellyfish, pine trees, microbes, and atoms, are part of a process that is the universe not only becoming aware of itself but aware of its Source and transcending mere consciousness into a form of superconsciousness, that from our perspective, would indeed be God-like, if not God.  And on the day that this state of perfect love and perfect infinity is reached, the union of God and cosmos will make all things as One.

And so, with the vast and hopeful expanse of eternity ahead of, we understand that death is nothing to fear.  Yes, we may lose a part of our individuality in dying, a statement to which I imagine neither theist nor atheist would disagree, but we gain a greater stake in our community.  Our bodies become food for other creatures and feed the earth with needed nutrients.  And those thoughts, feelings, and experiences that we’ve shared with others live on in their minds and in whatever we’ve managed to leave behind.  If we have children, what we have taught them as well as our biology lives on in them.  As for us, I believe that we begin a process of further spiritual growth in which we grow, like weeds, toward the source of ultimate goal of our lives:  godhood.  But this is a communal thing, because we are all heading there, each and everyone of us, each and every soul, each and every atom, and as long as one single soul is left behind, the journey is not complete.  We will reach the promised land, but when we do, it will be together, growing out of the Ground of all Being, toward an Omega Point. The Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.

But if ultimately all are not redeemed and brought home, is there true grace? And that is why I feel in my gut that all will be.

For as long as one individual is allowed to fall, then we have not achieved what I view as the ultimate purpose of man, to live in and through his communion with his fellow sentient beings.

I love my wife.  And no, we’re not having a baby right now.  🙂

 

The Messiah, Ironically

Recently, I recommended the book Christ:  A Crisis in the Life of God by Jack Miles to a friend.  The truth is, I had never read it, but had read the first book in this two part series, God:  A Biography by the same author.   I knew that Christ would at the very least equal Miles’ first book in quality.  Having given the friend the recommendation (this friend was interested in modern biblical scholarship) I decided to give Christ a read for myself.  For those unfamiliar with Miles’ work, Miles studies the Bible quite differently from many theologians who come at it from a pastoral perspective or from biblical scholars who approach the Biblical text historically.  Miles is far more interested in analyzing the Bible as we would any other work or art or literature, from the creative perspective.  The conclusions he comes to in taking on an artistic and literary analysis of the biblical texts would be quite startling to many orthodox believers.  Since I have never claimed to be an orthodox person of faith, I’m not particularly bothered by them.

So far, I’m only about half way through the first chapter, but I am very impressed.  In chapter one, titled “The Messiah, Ironically” Miles explores the many ironies of the New Testament’s account of the life of Jesus Christ.  The chapter headings alone are worth reading and include:  

“He talks, but to himself, of God as illness and remedy.”
“He speaks of a new creation, but privately.”
“He admits, but to a heretic, that he is the Messiah.” 

Of course, each of these headings is followed by an in depth explanation of what is meant, but that isn’t my purpose in writing this tonight.  As some of you reading may recall, my last blog was focused on the issue of Appalachian poverty and why I have decided, at least for the time being, to attempt to stay in the region and make a life for myself and my wife here.  Poverty and economic and social justice are two issues which are frequently on my mind in part due to some of my own financial strain for the time being and also due to the hardships I have seen poverty and lack of resources cause many of those around me.  

Furthermore, we can look globally and see a world where powerful interests seek to bend the human spirit to the profit motive of the invisible hand.  Those who find themselves unable to adapt to these powerful interests are often chewed, swallowed, and vomited out of the belly of a great beast we have deemed “the market,” acting as if this Market is a type of God, an ultimate and transcendent being, that is benevolent, omniscient, and utterly beyond our control.  This Market has become modernity’s Golden Calf, and like all idols, it must one day yield to that which is truly Ultimate.

We see a world where children are born and die in such abject poverty that it baffles the imagination that this can be allowed to go on, and yet at the same time, there is a “captain of industry” who owns a private yacht and five luxury vacation homes.  Some will accuse me of making an emotional argument for wealth redistribution of some kind.  I can only reply, if there is one issue in the world that is worth getting emotional about, isn’t it the suffering of our fellow human beings?

Truth is, I don’t have a solution, I can only look at the world in its current state and conclude that there is something wrong, very, gravely wrong, with a global society that allows this to happen.  We should be rioting in the streets until every child is fed and well nourished, until every homeless person has a home, dare I say it, until every human being has access to health care that doesn’t put them at risk of bankruptcy.  But we don’t, including myself, because we are cowards, and at the core of our being, we feel that maybe, perhaps one day, if we work hard enough we will be the man on the yacht.  The man with the five homes.  The man who has it all.  Because we are hypocrites.  And in the words of Saint Paul the Apostle, “I am chief among sinners.”  So, instead, I sigh, and moan, and write my blog, and post to my twitter feed, and wonder if I am not just perpetuating a system that I claim to despise.  It is so hard for us to trust our own motivations, is it not?  

Perhaps an older, more experienced, more jaded, version of myself will look back on this in ten years and laugh at how foolish and idealistic his younger self was.  Perhaps not.  Only time will tell.  

You might be wondering what in the hell these past few paragraphs have to do at all with a work of religious scholarship by Jack Miles.  “The Messiah, Ironically.”  The Irony of God.  The Weakness of God.  Pretend, even if you don’t believe in God at all, that the traditional Christian belief that God was Incarnate as a poor carpenter from Nazareth in one of the poorest regions of the world in one of western civilization’s most chaotic time periods is true.  

I had an atheist friend who once challenged me and asked why would God reveal himself in such a backward part of the world when he could have revealed himself amongst the more learned Greeks or the more powerful Romans.  Why would God reveal himself to a people who by most accounts had suffered defeat after defeat and who were, according to some secularists, much more backward than the people who surrounded them?  Why would God operate in this way?  

But I cannot fathom God, assuming that God exists, working in any other way.  A God who was truly loving would reveal himself in the poorest of places and give hope to the most downtrodden of his creations.  A God who would reveal himself only to those who were in power, whose ways were the ways that were so responsible for the crushing of the human spirit, would not be God at all, but Satan himself.  And as religion, the political establishment, and the large multinational corporations have grown more and more intwined, it makes you wonder just who they’re serving.

How’s that for irony?