Yoga and Science, from East to West and from West to East

6. Hinduism and the Scientific Paradigm: Quantum Physics compared with Vedanta, from Erwin Schrödinger to Fritjof Capra; Robert Oppenheimer, the military-industrial complex, and the Bhagavad Gita.

The pertinent chapter from Goldberg (American Veda, pp. 282-308) will be the basis of our conversation on these themes. Keep in mind that America was born from the Enlightenment and was formed, culturally and spiritually, in the 19th century; hence Rationalism and Romanticism are blended in America’s spirit. You can find in Emerson and the Transcendentalists both the affirmation of reason over religious dogma and ritualism and the fascination with Asia as a font of wisdom and a way of deeper communion with Nature (capital ‘N’ intended).

There is something deeply Romantic about the Autobiography of a Yogi (the miracles, the psychic powers of gurus, the apparitions of Divine Mother, etc.), while at the same time Yogananda and many other gurus like him insisted that yoga be understood as a science and its spiritual fruits as the repeatable outcome of experimentation. The AY is perhaps the first book that brings into the presentation of yoga in the West what Thomas Kuhn and Fritjof Capra later called “new-paradigm science,” that is, a new, scientific world-view no longer predicated on the assumption that the universe is constituted and functions like a machine, the metaphor that underlay the thought of Descartes and Newton. In 1946, the AY cited two recently-published popularizations of the new (non-materialist, non-mechanistic) scientific paradigm: Arthur Eddington’s The Nature of the Physical World and James Jeans’ The Mysterious Universe (AY 1972, pp. 313-314).

Goldberg (p. 282) refers to two of the founders of the new paradigm: Werner Heisenberg, whose work in the 1920s introduced the ‘uncertainty principle’; and Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems of 1931; their scientific hypotheses undermined the ideological certitudes of mathematically-expressed science as the only way to truth. Of course, Swami Vivekananda (well before Yogananda) had conversations with Lord Kelvin and Nikola Tesla, who in his later years did extensive reading in Hinduism. Nobel Prize winner Erwin Schrödinger also delved into Vedanta philosophy. Aside from these personal anecdotes, can we find something intrinsic to Vedanta, Buddhism, and yoga philosophy — a model of spiritual realities — that is more amenable to scientific models than is Christianity? Are the Abrahamic religions, with the biblical doctrine of creatio ex nihilo sui et subiecti, inherently less amenable to dialogue with science than are the Dharmic traditions?

Questions: Robert Oppenheimer was deeply involved in the military-industrial complex — how does this connect with the ahimsa/satyagraha of Mahatma Gandhi? Oppenheimer read and even quoted the Bhagavad-Gita, on seeing the first atomic explosion in the Nevada desert: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Yet does not this shift of context — from the great theophany of the Gita, ch. 11, to the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki — show a fundamental misunderstanding of the text? Does the Shiva Nataraja, dancing before the CERN in Geneva, indeed depict the triumph of modern physics over ignorance, or is it there only in contraposition to the eternal Adonai of Genesis, who said, “Fiat!”, and saw it was all good?

[See my dialogue with Fritjof Capra and David Steindl-Rast in Belonging to the Universe (London: Penguin, 1992): Capra revisits his Christian roots after The Tao of Physics.]

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Hinduism in Anglo-American cinema

5. Hinduism in Anglo-American cinema (e.g. “The Razor’s Edge”, “Around the World in Eighty Days”, “A Passage to India”) and pop culture; Reincarnation for the masses; Health-club Yoga; rock-stars and transcendental meditators; is the culture itself ‘spiritual but not religious’?

This theme within the course offers space for ample reflection on personal impressions and celebrity anecdotes. India, of course, has its own cinema, with an enormous production several times that of Hollywood (the Mumbai studios are referred to as ‘Bollywood’). Both religion and spirituality are there, as transient episodes or underlying implications in both India’s art cinema and its pop films. The two great epics (Mahabharata and Ramayana) have been serialized on television; they seem to appeal more to credulity than to a spiritual faith seeking understanding and expression through art (this observation has been voiced also by Indian critics).

I have noted the absence (in Anglo-American cinema) of native Indian actors and actresses in roles that called for them. Some examples are: Shirley MacLaine as ‘Princess Aouda’ (Around the World in Eighty Days, 1956); and Alec Guinness as ‘Professor Godbole’ (A Passage to India, 1984). Present-day critics and the public generally deplore the use of face-painted Caucasian actors for persons of color; in the film “Cloud Atlas,” whose script demanded that the same actor or actress play plural roles of differing ethnicity and gender, this practice might be considered tolerable (CGI has now superseded makeup in some cases), but critics noted the ambiguity of such casting.

Aside from the question of ethnic realism, one should ask whether and how Indian thought and spirituality find their way into otherwise American-situated movies. We hear passing references to karma, reincarnation, yoga etc. in everyday conversation, and so also we hear them in the movies. Do these references actually reveal the ‘vedic’ side of America?

Yogananda, like many another Indian guru in the West, did appeal to the masses, but I find something more serious in his home-study lessons, as also in the AY. He accompanied his solid belief in free will with a strong insistence on commitment to ‘the path’ and on loyalty to his lineage, once one had received initiation into Kriya Yoga; he often said that those who fell away during his lifetime would have to reincarnate many times before having another chance at God-realization. But note here, how he implies a ‘punitive’ function of reincarnation, an implication contained in many Western adaptations of the pan-Indian myth of transmigration.

Most gurus in the West have lived with this ambivalence between popular appeal and serious spiritual commitment. Others have insisted openly on yoga and meditation as means to a more healthy, prosperous, and happy life in the here and now; some resemble Christian televangelists with oil lamps and Shiva Nataraja in the background. If pop culture has sometimes degraded those elements of Indian spirituality that it has absorbed, it has also degraded Christianity in other instances.

Please do not take these points for conversation as expressions of contempt for pop culture and ordinary persons’ search for spiritual meaning in their lives. I know from years of listening to seekers that many who have approached India through an urban yoga school or by reading top-selling books on Indian (or generally Asian) themes have been drawn into intense practice and deep experience of what India has brought to the West, and many have also thereby discovered the spiritual and mystical riches of traditional Christianity.

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Yogananda, S.R.F., and other offshoots of Yogananda’s mission

4. Yogananda’s idea of ‘Christianity’ as opposed to ‘Churchianity’ (this expression was first used by Vivekananda). Offshoots of Yogananda’s mission, whether institutional or charismatic: Self-Realization Fellowship, Kriyananda and his Ananda Community, Roy Eugene Davis.

The opposition between Christianity and Churchianity was something I took for granted as a child. Both my parents had been born into strongly religious households, but they chose to raise me in the liberal understanding of moral and spiritual values that they had acquired as young adults. So I was encouraged to seek spiritual realities, without naming them in dogmatic terms. This twofold dichotomy — spiritual v. religious, Christian v. churched — is connatural to American culture and is not something that has arisen in recent decades. While it is a statistical fact that Americans attend religious services more frequently than Europeans, an individual American’s identification of religious practice with church membership is often more tenuous and fluid than it is even in Britain or Germany, whose religious pluralism is somewhat similar to that in the United States.

Today, large numbers of Americans raised in a specific denomination migrate to others, experiment with practices and teachings rooted in Asian traditions (Yoga, Zen, Sufism), and sometimes reconnect with their original heritage. At least one fourth of those raised Catholic in the U.S. are now practicing members of other churches (Episcopal, Evangelical, Mormon; some have membership in a Jewish congregation) or have received initiation into a lineage brought to America by a teacher from India or Japan. A significant number of these persons accept a condition of dual or plural membership, sometimes invoking the examples and writings of Henri Le Saux, O.S.B. (Catholic-Vedantic), and Hugo Enomiya-Lasalle, S.J. (Catholic-Zen), among others.

Yogananda’s model of religious fellowship was a guru surrounded by a small number of disciples, ideally under a tree or in a similar natural environment. The paradox — perhaps one should say, inconsistency — of Yogananda’s insistence on both the inner freedom of the individual soul and the loyal devotion to one’s guru has been characteristic of the history of Self-Realization Fellowship and its offshoots. S.R.F. constantly reiterates its claim as the one and only vehicle for transmitting Yogananda’s writings and effecting initiation into discipleship (a prerequisite for being instructed in Y’s meditation technique of Kriya Yoga). Kriyananda (J. Donald Walters) has been subjected to a number of law suits brought against him by S.R.F., with claims that he has illegally published Yogananda’s works without consent of the copyright owner. Most of the suits were adjudicated in S.R.F.’s favor, with the notable exception of the copyright of the 1946 Autobiography of a Yogi, now in the public domain.

Significant in the history of S.R.F. has been the influential presence of the Wright family of Utah, especially Faye Wright, Daya Mata, president of S.R.F. from 1955 to 2010. She and her siblings seem to have favored, in S.R.F., an understanding of hierarchical authority and doctrinal secrecy that are characteristic of the L.D.S. church. An objective, historical reading of Yogananda’s statements and actions during his first two decades in America might show a more liberal understanding of the kind of community he wanted to establish, and of the ways he intended his yoga to be transmitted.

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Yogananda’s Autobiography, 1946, and Thomas Merton’s, two years later

3.    Autobiography of a Yogi, 1946: Yogananda’s song of himself in India and America; compare with Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven-Storey Mountain, 1948, and with Merton’s subsequent, wide-ranging dialogue with the East.

The opening lines of AY: “The characteristic features of Indian culture have long been a search for ultimate verities and the concomitant disciple-guru[1] relationship. My own path led me to a Christlike sage whose beautiful life was chiseled for the ages. He was one of the great masters who are India’s sole remaining wealth. Emerging in every generation, they have bulwarked their land against the fate of Babylon and Egypt.

“I find my earliest memories covering the anachronistic features of a previous incarnation. Clear recollections came to me of a distant life, a yogi[2] amidst the Himalayan snows. These glimpses of the past, by some dimensionless link, also afforded me a glimpse of the future.” (Read the whole book, in epub format, in my Dropbox folder.)

Analyze the literary style: Do you hear the voice of a non-native speaker of English? Note some unusual words: ‘verities,’ ‘concomitant,’ ‘chiseled,’ ‘bulwarked.’ Y footnoted the few Sanskrit terms he used, and otherwise he tended to avoid Sanskrit as much as possible, to the point of inventing English neologisms, like ‘lifetrons’ for prana. He was in America on a mission both to propagate yoga and to rethink yoga — inculturate it — in Western terms. His disciples of the first generation generally went along with him in his Americanizing, but after his passing, they went back to some Hindu externals and sought accreditation of their monastic initiation from the head swami of Kanchipuram (‘Conjeeveram,’ Y’s transliteration) in Tamil Nadu.

“The disciple-guru relationship”: note who comes first, the disciple. India has the saying, “When the disciple is ready, the guru will appear.” In other words, the status of guru is conferred by the disciple; the latter’s recognition is what ‘ordains’ the former. So being a guru is not like having an academic degree or being elected to some office. No one hangs out a sign with “The Guru is in” on the front door. Y believed this and for the most part practiced it.

Why has India outlived Egypt and Babylon? I suggest an answer: Because India had no hierarchical structures of cultural transmission. Think about it: the West is all about hierarchy: I’m the instructor, and you are the students, and we’re here in the GTU, which transmits theological culture from those who have it to those who want to have it (and then transmit it to others). In India, when you wanted to learn something, you went on pilgrimage and searched for someone who had practiced and experienced what you were looking for. The teaching was not in the guru’s talking about it or making the disciple do it, but just in the guru’s doing and being. The disciple learned by seeing more than by hearing. Thus has India survived without Academia.

“Yogi”; “previous incarnation”: constant themes in Vedic America. Today about a fourth to a third of Americans say they believe in reincarnation, but is this a new number? I think the percentage has risen and fallen along with the waves of Indian cultural presence here. The way Americans imagine this transmigration of the soul has not much in common with India’s mythical imagination of the process. How do you imagine it?

The opening lines of The Seven Storey Mountain: “On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell…”

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America’s Parliaments of Religions, 1893 and 1993

2. The Parliaments of Religions in Chicago, 1893 and 1993; Vivekananda’s resounding voice at the first, the subtle Catholic presence at the second (Joseph cardinal Bernardin and the Benedictines). Gurus on the lecture circuit.

When we realize how important newly-translated Hindu texts (Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads) were for the Transcendentalists of Concord, MA, we can understand Swami Vivekananda’s striking success in Chicago, at the 1893 Parliament of Religions (this was in fact an event within the context of the Columbian Exposition, celebrating the first century of the United States). America was ready for the Swami, and surprisingly enough, so was the Church. The Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago was not officially represented, and diocesan authorities even considered participation by Catholics to be illicit (as did the Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking for Anglicans). However, the archbishop of Baltimore (remember that this was the first Catholic diocese in the U.S.A.) gave permission to a priest who was eager to attend, as if heading into a sort of mission territory. Many other Christian participants had this same missionary purpose in mind.

Vivekananda’s opening phrase at the Parliament was: “Sisters and Brothers of America…” He was interrupted by several minutes of a standing ovation. Note the word order: “Sisters” first. This feminist theme appeared again in another of his talks. He also established a parallel between India’s culture as spiritual and America’s as scientific and efficient: this was his way of affirming the complementarity of East and West. We could suppose that he would not have objected to the current, official stance of Catholic exponents, to the effect that the other religions are not to be considered complementary to Christianity. For his part, Vivekananda affirmed the elder status of Hinduism among the religions, as well as the value of Vedantic thought as the universal and abiding truth underlying all religions, Christianity included. For Swami V, Christianity was true insofar as it could be understood in Vedic and Vedantic terms. So V was not in any way a pluralist, in the sense we use the word today. He firmly believed in his Sanatana Dharma, to which all religions were related, without being complementary to it.

Vivekananda, by adopting the language of Indian non-dualist philosophy (Advaita Vedanta), made available an academically respectable framework for America’s Vedic spirit. Remember: Swami V expressed something that was exotic for Americans, but not wholly alien; in fact, you could read him in the light of Emerson & Co., and conclude that the Transcendentalists actually influenced the swami’s way of speaking, if not the substance of his thought.

About Chicago 1993: I was there; so were Hans Küng and Cardinal Bernardin. My fellow Benedictines were behind the scenes on the organizing committee, and one of the lesser presentations offered at the Parliament was a memorial to the recently-deceased Dom Bede Griffiths, of our Ashram in South India. Of course, all religious bodies were represented, in one way or another, in the various events of those days, and the concluding session, in a vast outdoor amphitheater, had the Dalai Lama as the keynote speaker, and Cardinal Bernardin was on the stage with representatives of many other religious bodies.

Read the Wikipedia article on Parliament_of_World_Religions, and follow the links therein.

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January Course @GTU “Vedic America”, first day

1. Transcendentalists: Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, together with poet John Godfrey Saxe, 1816-1897 (whose poetry, in his own day, sold better than Hawthorne’s and Tennyson’s), best known for his poem on the Indian parable “The Blind Men and the Elephant”, with its sarcastic conclusion. See also Walt Whitman, “Passage to India”.

Before we start reflecting on the Transcendentalists (with the respective chapters of Syman and Goldberg — see the readings offered in my Dropbox folder), we need to examine our motivations for engaging in this study. Each participant will of course have her or his special motivations, but we all have an underlying ecclesial sense of what we are doing here, within the context of the other, more specifically theological courses offered at JST.

One principle I wish to emphasize is the dialogical nature of the Church’s relationship with other religions. For the Second Vatican Council (see the Declaration Nostra Aetate), the Church indeed relates to the religions as socio-cultural realities, and not only as individuals, either to be evangelized or to be tolerated as ‘invincibly ignorant’ of the truth of the Church’s teachings. Recent Catholic thinkers have in fact returned to this conceptual isolation of individual, other-faith persons, but this concept contradicts a theological principle: the inseparability of an individual’s faith from her/his faith community. It is not true, as I once heard a cardinal affirm, that only Muslims, as individuals, are part of God’s plan for humanity, and not Islam. It should be obvious that there would be no Muslims without Islam and no Hindus without Hinduism, etc.

Another part of the ‘reform of the reform’ in act today is the return to a diplomatic paradigm in the Church’s approach to other faiths. Since (as an eminent professor emeritus of Regensburg University has repeatedly affirmed) “there can be no inter-religious dialogue in a theological sense,” the chief use for our conversations with Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims et al. is to protect Catholic interests in those countries where the others are the majority and the Church represents a minority (often in single-digit percentages). My objection to this reduction of dialogue to diplomacy is that it ultimately secularizes the inter-faith relations of Christians with others; it also implies that the goal of the conversations is to reach some sort of compromise amenable to the interests of all concerned. The risk I see here is to hide the authentically spiritual dimensions of our own faith and the support that our faith itself (faith as spirituality) offers to our dialogic relationship with others. My question is this: do persons of other faiths want to meet with us as diplomats? And: do they not rather have every right to expect us to engage in the conversation as spiritual persons, that is, as persons who practice and intimately experience what they believe in?

The last question is especially important in our meeting with religious/spiritual persons from India or formed on the basis of the vast, spiritual culture of India, ancient and contemporary. We are also challenged to understand the motives of those who speak of themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (motives for which, for my part, I have the deepest respect). Keep in mind that Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke of his own inner life in almost the same terms as our spiritual-not-religious contemporaries. Speaking again for my own part, I certainly do not want to be or even seem “religious but not spiritual”, which I think I would appear to be, were I to take the diplomatic approach to others’ faiths that is currently being promoted among Catholics.

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Vedic America

The following is a draft of the syllabus for a new course that I’ll be teaching next January (N.B.: I revised this syllabus on June 5, 2012).

Hinduism in American philosophy and culture, following the historical outline of Philip Goldberg’s recent book, American Veda (NY: Harmony Books, 2010), accompanied by the more focused and scholarly treatment of the same themes by Stefanie Syman, The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010).

1.    Transcendentalists: Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, together with poet John Godfrey Saxe, 1816-1897 (whose poetry, in his own day, sold better than Hawthorne’s and Tennyson’s), best known for his poem on the Indian parable “The Blind Men and the Elephant”, with its sarcastic conclusion. See also Walt Whitman, “Passage to India”.

2.    The Parliaments of Religions in Chicago, 1893 and 1993; Vivekananda’s resounding voice at the first, the subtle Catholic presence at the second (Joseph cardinal Bernardin and the Benedictines). Gurus on the lecture circuit.

3.    The Autobiography of a Yogi, 1946: Yogananda’s song of himself in India and America; compare with Thomas Merton’s autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain, 1948, and with Merton’s subsequent, wide-ranging dialogue with the East.

4.    Offshoots of Yogananda’s mission, whether institutional or charismatic: Self-Realization Fellowship, Kriyananda and his Ananda Community, Roy Eugene Davis, Yogacharya Oliver Black. Yogananda’s ‘Christianity’ as opposed to ‘Churchianity’. Read Kriyananda, The Path.

5.    American gurus: the Bernard family (Theos Bernard, his uncle Pierre, his father Glen); Hinduism in Anglo-American cinema (“The Razor’s Edge”, “Around the World in Eighty Days”, “A Passage to India”) and pop culture; Reincarnation for the masses; Health-club Yoga; rock-stars and transcendental meditators; the current claim to be ‘spiritual but not religious’.

6.    Hinduism and the Scientific Paradigm: Quantum Physics compared with Vedanta, from Erwin Schrödinger to Fritjof Capra; Robert Oppenheimer, the military-industrial complex, and the Bhagavad Gita.

7.    From West to East: Western scholarship and comparative religious studies and their influence in India: Raimon Panikkar; Mircea Eliade and the Chicago school. The controversy surrounding Jeffrey J. Kripal’s reading of Sri Ramakrishna. The work of Georg Feuerstein on Yoga and Tantra, and the spread of ‘Neo-Tantra’ in India.

8.    Christian alternatives to (or clones of) Yoga: John Main’s meditation movement and his initial Hindu inspiration; Centering Prayer; the use of mantras; the Christian embrace of the Hindu greeting gesture, the namaskara. American devotees of Hindu gurus who have converted to the Catholic faith (Alex Lipski and others).

9.    Building a traditional Hindu presence in America: the arrival in greater numbers of Indian immigrants, the building of temples across the continent, where authentic vedic rites are celebrated by immigrant Brahmins.

10.    Provocation and golden opportunity: the possibilities of a new Christian inculturation in Vedic America. The Hindu Premise: rethinking Judeo-Christianity through Indian philosophical models.

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Creating a disturbance in the temple

Another talk I gave last Sunday, on the gospel story about Jesus chasing merchants and moneychangers out of the temple (John 2:13-25).

I’d like to begin with the gospel acclamation: “God loved the world so much, he gave his only Son, that all who believe in him might have eternal life” (John 3:16). This was one of two Bible verses I remember memorizing during the two years I attended Baptist Sunday school. We were also made to memorize the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm. There were other readings, which I don’t remember. In fact, at that time I was beginning to be interested in spiritual texts, like the Bhagavad-Gita, which in my mind were equal to the Bible.

The other verse I memorized was from Psalm 19, today’s responsorial, minus the last verse: “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight.” Of course, this prayer is addressed to the Lord, but I might address it to you, asking your patience with my use of the first-person singular today. I hope my words will be acceptable in your sight.

When I feel trapped by the gospel at Mass, I find a way out through the verse that goes with the gospel. In this case, we have the statement that “God so loves the world;” with this key we can unlock any prison, including the prison of our sacred structures, whether material temples or literal translations or hierarchies of teachers.

One locked door I come up against is the “whip of cords.” I feel trapped by this thing that seems to wound my personal image of Jesus: is the whip a sign of strength, and does it make Jesus a strong man? I am also blocked by his attempt to cleanse the Jewish temple, and I cannot understand why the Rabbi of Nazareth, who preached from a boat on the lake and from a grassy meadow on a hilltop, would even bother to purify outward religious forms, when his life and teaching seemed to prophesy their end.

Moralism is not a way out of these problems. Today’s first reading, about the Commandments, doesn’t help us make sense of the story about Jesus purifying the temple. If I had been free to choose, I might have preferred Ezekiel 5, where the prophet cuts off his hair and beard, as a sign of the cutting off and scattering of the people who will be taken off to Babylon, after the temple has been destroyed.

I cannot isolate the sign of Jesus and his whip of cords from the total message of his life, which is a message not of scattering but of gathering and healing. Jesus is not a prophet of doom and destruction, but a messenger of hope and forgiveness. At least, that is the best sense I can make of his life and teaching. But I do look at that whip, which, by the way, is a detail found only in John. What I see in it, is a sample of the bittersweet humor that is found, here and there, in the prophets and the gospels.

The whip of cords is one thing; the whip of the Roman soldiers and the temple guards is another. Their whip was a cat-of-nine-tails, made with leather thongs tipped with metal balls having sharp points on them, which ripped deep into the flesh. In fact, Jesus with his whip of cords is a schlemiel, a comic figure whose strongest gesture is really a sign of weakness. His whip could harm no one, neither the animals, upon which I suppose he used it, nor, much less, the moneychangers and the sellers of doves, upon whom he cannot have used it. Before Jesus went up to the temple, he had been traipsing all over Galilee, teaching people to love their enemies and to judge no one. So I imagine that, when Jesus made his whip, he made it out of the rope they tied up the lambs and calves with, and he used it to free the animals from their doom as sacrificial victims and to herd them out into the open air.

We also listened to words of Paul, which give us another key to unlock the gospel. “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” The weakness and foolishness of God and of Jesus are the cross. Jesus was whipped and crucified outside the sacred precincts, where he died and was resurrected. This event purifies both the sacred and the profane, if we will let it. The strength of the cross works upon us through the Eucharist, which is the Body of the weak Redeemer risen from the dead. May we learn wisdom from this sign, and become like Jesus in his weakness and strength.

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Transfiguration

Thoughts I shared today with friends gathered to worship at Incarnation Monastery in Berkeley.

Our gospel reading today (Mark 9:2-10) shows us Jesus transfigured, talking with the prophets Elijah and Moses, that is, a prophet of Spirit and a prophet of Law. Today, many Christians, especially the Roman Catholics currently running for public office, present their faith as Law and little else. I hardly hear in them the voice of Moses the meek and humble lawgiver; much less do I hear Elijah, who communes with Spirit as a still, small voice. So for now, let us forget today’s tornado of words and share the quiet of Elijah at the mouth of his cave, as we prepare to celebrate this second Sunday of Lent.

Sunday readings go through three-year cycles, as we all know, and 2012 is the year of Mark. Since all three of what are called the “synoptic gospels” contain stories about Jesus’ being tempted in the desert and his transfiguration on a mountain in Galilee, these stories give us the gospel readings for the first two Sundays in Lent.

But these stories are told differently in the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. With regard to the transfiguration, none of these evangelists was present at the original event, and even if they got the story from one or more of those present — Peter, James, and John — the memories of the three apostles must have evolved over time. So the story of the transfiguration of Jesus cannot be experienced by us directly, but only through those who handed down these memoirs of the apostles. Of course, we can experience directly our own transfiguration, and that is why we listen to the gospel.

When we listen, we hear not only the stories Mark hands down to us but also his global sense of what the gospel, the good news of Jesus, ultimately means. Mark’s meaning is conveyed especially through two recurring themes: that of Jesus as Son of God and that of his messianic secret. We often hear Jesus order people not to tell anyone about what he did: whether about his healing miracles or, in today’s reading, his transfiguration: “Jesus ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”

The purpose of this secret was not to make the event of Jesus mysterious, an arcane revelation for a select few, a spiritual elite. This kind of elitism was very attractive to people of Jesus’ time, as it is today, but instead, Jesus came to bring the good news to everyone, even the most simple, ordinary people, and not just to spiritual sophisticates or to the learned scribes.

Mark’s meaning focuses on the revelation of Jesus as Son of God, as he says in the first verse of his gospel. All the stories tell us about a human being who mediates God to us, because he, the Son, is one of us and is like us in all things. He is not a god; he is the Son of God. His relationship to the Abba, the absolutely loving Father, is not a special privilege but a gift that is his by birth and ours by grace.

There are three revelations of the divine birth of Jesus in Mark. The first is a revelation to Jesus himself: as Jesus comes up out of the waters after his baptism in the River Jordan, he hears a voice that says, “You are my Son, in whom I am well pleased.” The second is a revelation to the disciples of Jesus: on the mountain of transfiguration, a voice speaks to Peter, James, and John: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” The third revelation is given to a Roman soldier who stands by the cross of Jesus and says to himself, when Jesus has died, “This man was truly God’s Son.”

So, according to Mark, the Father speaks directly to Jesus, awakening his human mind and soul to the consciousness of being God’s Son; then a voice from the cloud of God’s hidden presence awakens the disciples to the divine voice that speaks through Jesus the beloved Son; finally the mind and soul of a pagan soldier realizes in himself who Jesus is, and the way is opened to him and to all human beings to realize divine birth by participation and grace.

The gospel according to Mark does not have a proper ending. The ending that is given in most of our Bibles was actually written by another disciple years after Mark. Many scholars think that it was supposed to be as Mark intended: the written gospel ends with the death on the cross and the empty tomb. The real conclusion is in the presence of Jesus as we come together to receive his bread and wine, which are truly his Body and Blood. And then we become him, we realize that we are truly God’s daughters and sons, and we go forth into the world with good news and a revelation that speaks to the heart and soul of every human being. This is our gift and our task, and may God help us to fulfill it.

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Cartesian paranoia and the real quest for truth

Matt Segall gave his readers the following in his latest blog post:
“The Cartesian ego’s paranoid search for absolute certainty and formulaic Truth neglects the ambiguity of our world-in-process. The problem for the metaphysician, it seems to me, is not that Truth is ‘merely’ a fiction–that the real world is forever beyond our grasp–but that the world’s meaning is immense, immeasurable. There is too much meaning! It is for this reason that metaphysics has so often failed the polyphonic psyche and short-circuited its soul-making.” [footnotes2plato.com]

I wish we Christians would recover the awareness of ‘too much meaning’ at the heart of our fides quaerens intellectum (‘faith seeking understanding’). True theological apophaticism is premised by the dialectic between excessive meaning in God and the poverty of our senses, as Origen said, and among the ‘senses’ he included the intellect, the faculty by which the created mind ‘tastes’ and ‘sees’ the truth. We never gain more than a hint of its flavor, a glimpse of its beauty, but if we never cease in the quest (and live faith as hope), the glimpses and hints will grow.

I feel that a sort of ‘Cartesian paranoia’ pervades too much our doctrinaire Christianity, with the result that we sink into the illusion of having all the meaning we need, while meaning slowly leaks out of our narrowed minds.

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