Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Upanishads and Christianity

A couple of months ago I picked up a copy of Swami Paramananda's translation of The Upanishads on sale while browsing at Powell's City of Books. (Those of you who have only experienced Powell's online don't know what you're missing.) After my recent tour of Franciscan spirituality, I was in the mood for something mystical, so I pulled this off the shelf.

For the past sixty years or so, Western culture has had a sort of infatuation with Eastern religions. They give us something we find lacking in our own culture. They're mysterious and offer a view on esoteric wisdom from the farthest reaches of human history. And so Westerners are particularly drawn to these religions in contrast with our own religions. We read things like the Upanishads and are immediately struck by the fact that the Bible doesn't have anything like this.

We've been told that the Bible opens a window on another world, but when we pick it up and read it, we find it full of this world. We see lying, cheating, jealousy, greed, adultery, murder -- and that's just Genesis. But the Upanishads really look like a window on another world. These are the kind of things we wanted to be thinking when we were lighting up a doobie and saying dreamily, "What if our solar system were just like one atom in...."

As I was reading Parmananda's introduction today, it clarified for me what's at the root of this and why Christians shouldn't be ashamed of the Bible in the face of it, without dimishining the value of the Hindu scriptures.

For one thing, the Upanishads are just a part of a larger work (the Vedas). They are the wisdom writings, freed from prescriptive cultic instruction on sacrifices and the like. How much more would people like the Bible without the book of Leviticus? But Leviticus is there, and the Upanishads still have their lofty view.

The real meat of the difference is in the way that Judaism and Christianity approach religion as contrasted to Hinduism. Parmananda writes, "The value of the Upanishads, however, does not rest upon their antiquity, but upon the vital message they contain for all times and all peoples. There is nothing peculiarly racial or local in them." There it is. The wisdom of the Upanishads is grounded in the Universal. The wisdom of the Bible is grounded in the Particular.

Parmananda quotes Thoreau as saying, "What extracts from the Vedas I have read fall on me like the light of a higher and purer luminary which describes a loftier course through a purer stratum free from particulars, simple, universal." Free from particulars -- is that really something to be commended? Yes, but also no. This quality is necessary for the universal quality of these writings. It also, undoubtedly, makes them more accessible. By contrast, the spirituality of the Judeo-Christian scriptures is grounded precisely in the particular. Rather than ponder what God is like, the Bible is concerned to tell us what God has done.

The trouble in all of this is that Christianity, while it inherited this view of particularlity from Judaism, doesn't always seem to know what to do with it. We often seem to want to be universal and "free from particulars." And as post-Enlightenment Christianity has tried to shuck its dogma, the particularity has often gotten lumped in there. And so instead of a God who acts in history -- a God who becomes history -- we end up with a great teacher and wonder what to do with the fact that he was crucified. And the fact is, Christianity can't support its own weight in this sort of construction.

So you've probably noticed I'm not talking about the Upanishads anymore. Everything brings me back to Christ. And so what I see in this is a lesson for Christian mission. While the Christian gospel is universal, it is also, and must be, particular. The particularity is the Gospel. The Gospel is not that God is love. The Gospel is that God so loved that world that he sent his only begotten son. And so as Christians, we aren't in the business of showing people our great wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:17-25). We are in the business of telling people what God has done. If our mission is to succeed, we need to learn to get people excited about the particular.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Church and America

It's been said that the best argument for Christianity is the Church, but also that the best argument against Christianity is the Church. The idea of the Christian Church, as I understand it, is that it is the breaking-in of the Kingdom of God into this world. And yet, whenever you look the Church is doing something abominable or at least mundane.

It occurs to me that there is a great parallel between the Church as bearer of the Kingdom of God and America as bearer of Liberty. When you look at the history of the United States -- that is, when you look at any particular time -- we're always, and I mean always, doing something that is simply attrocious. And yet, I think the record is clear that over time our trajectory is toward Liberty.

You could look at the history of the United States as a continual process of the people our country struggling against the government to gain their freedom, and I don't think that's wrong, but the beauty of it is that somewhere, at least as far back as the Magna Carta and possibly dating all the way to the Exodus, someone built Liberty into the heart of a machine of injustice.

And that, I think, is also the mystery of the Church. The Church (institutional and otherwise) is deeply flawed, but it carries within it the seeds of the Gospel and, although the Church itself is constantly warring against its own purpose, it is also constantly bringing forth the fruits of the Kingdom of God.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


I've been reading William Short's book Poverty and Joy, an introduction to Franciscan spirituality. As I read today a section discussing the significance of St. Francis' stigmata in the Fransciscan tradition, I found myself thinking about the 1999 movie Stigmata.

The movie is your typical conspiracy-theory/bash-the-Catholic-Church/promote-the-Gospel-of-Thomas piece and isn't too bad as conspiracy-theory/bash-the-Catholic-Church/promote-the-Gospel-of-Thomas movies go. That is, the theology is terrible but the action is good. Of course, I'm not the type who can just let the terrible theology bit pass.

In the movie, a young woman receives the rosary of a devout priest who has recently died and begins manifesting the stigmata in graphic horror-film style. The priest sent by the Vatican to investigate naturally points out that this usually only happens to the holiest of people -- so far, so good. But it turns out that the woman has been possessed, as it were, by the recently deceased priest. OK, so that's wierd, but it still isn't what was really bugging me today.

The thing that was really bugging me is that the reason the priest was possessing this woman was to let someone know where they could find a copy of a gospel that might have been written by Jesus himself -- a gospel which the Catholic Church had attempted to repress. That's the movie-world description of the gospel though the "opening words" reveal it to be the Gospel of Thomas.

Now I have nothing in particular against the Gospel of Thomas. The thing that gets me about this is that the stigmata are, in this movie, completely incidental -- nothing more than a stepping stone to get to the real meat -- the lost book. A sign and symbol of the cross of Christ is used to point to a book that says the Gnostics were right all along. It's something like the Virgin Mary appearing to reveal the location of an ancient book forbidding the veneration of the saints.

But there's something more here that I'm not sure I can quite put my finger on. The whole fascination with lost gospels (Gnostic and otherwise) is a part of it, but so is the evangelical dogmatism about the Bible. We don't want God -- we want a book. We have taken the ad fontes of the Enlightment and run with it until our very relationship to the ancient text has become a reductio ad absurdum argument against the ad fontes approach. If God has not been living and active in the world, what difference could it possibly make what some ancient book says?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Rest of the World

I listened today to a lecture by Marva Dawn which she gave at Seattle Pacific University. (I downloaded for free from iTunes U -- check it out if you haven't already.) Her overall message was about what God is doing through each of us to use us collectively to build up the one body of Christ in and for the world. Good stuff, but you'll have to download and listen for yourself because all I'm sharing here is a joke she used.
A worldwide survey was conducted by the UN. The only question asked was: "Would you please give your honest opinion about solutions to the food shortage in the rest of the world?"

The survey was a huge failure.

In Africa, they didn't know what "food" meant.
In Eastern Europe they didn't know what "honest" meant.
In Western Europe they didn't know what "shortage" meant.
In China they didn't know what "opinion" meant.
In the Middle East they didn't know what "solution" meant.
In South America they didn't know what "please" meant.
And in the US, they didn't know what "the rest of the world" meant.
This is brilliantly targeted at Americans. The humor sucks us in as we laugh at what we know is "wrong with them" and then nails us with what we should know is wrong with us, though most of us still try to point at them even on the last line.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Assurance of Things Hoped For

Reading the Biblical texts for this week, I see the weakness of my faith. I want to look to "an unfailing treasure in heaven" and to "be dressed for action and have [my] lamp lit." But I more often find myself identifying with Abraham, saying, "O Lord God, what will you give me?" For I have not seen the promise.

Sometimes I'm not even sure what the promise is. I look to the God who says "See, I make all things new" (Rev. 21:5), but I don't see everything new. O Lord God, what will you give me, for the world crumbles around me?

I happen to have been reading something today from John Zizioulas where he talks about the tension between the historical and eschatological models of the Church. The Church is on a mission from God in history, but we live at the end of time. That helps me make sense of it all. We're in history and beyond history at the same time.

And this is what the readings for the week offer me. "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Need encouragement? Here's a list of people who lived in the promise and never saw what they were hoping for. Thanks. That helps a lot.

But it does, really. It shows me that I'm not doing this wrong. I'm not (necessarily) looking for the wrong things. It's not going to be easy. This is our calling.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Busy Doing Nothing

Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain.
-Mark 4:7
You may have noticed that I haven't posted much lately. That's because I've mostly had not much to say. It's been a busy summer. Too busy. I haven't been busy with the traditional "cares of the world" (money, work, etc.) but with things like vacations, camping trips and so on that are supposed to bring balance. Yet they've thrown me out of my rhythm and my spiritual life has suffered. I've drifted away from God. Time to refocus.