Strange New Thoughts

The place where I slam down gauntlets and pick up the pieces.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Bodhisattva, Won't You Take Me By the Hand...

(Or, One Clue to the New Age as a Royal Scam)

In their 1973 song "Bodhisattva", Steely Dan (the jazz-tinged pop group masterminded by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen) pokes fun at "the way western people look at Eastern religion -- sort of over-simplify it. We thought it was rather amusing -- most people don't get it," says Fagen.

I certainly didn't. At that time I was twelve years old, but my whole family was already steeped in a quasi-eastern "mysticism" that encompassed reincarnation, astrology, karmic principle, spirit guides, aura readings - anything we thought might enlighten us. (Fortunately, I didn't let these wildly anti-biblical deviations interfere with my duties as an altar boy at Holy Rosary Parish.) While affluent types such as the Beatles and the Beach Boys were able to go directly to India for their "enlightenment", I had to be content with the locally available brands. But that was fine - this was "The Dawning of the Age of Aquarius", remember. While many hippie types were discovering and proclaiming Jesus, many other people, including myself, were seeking spiritual understanding anywhere but there. Jesus was fine, but orthodox Christianity was too narrow. Mustn't exclude anything. As long as we're sincere, anything goes.

Reincarnation was a hot topic. Unlike astrology, there is no strictly scientific evidence against it. And since most religions agree on some sort of afterlife, why couldn't the soul have another go? (For those whose authority is the Bible, Hebrews 9:27-28 settles this debate conclusively, but I'm not assuming that all my readers recognize that authority.) My mother, lovingly indulging my interest in birds, introduced me to reincarnation through Richard Bach's novel, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, in which anthropomorphized seagulls explore their spirituality and aerodynamic capabilities in a reincarnational/afterlife setting. Since she was my mother, I never questioned her assertions, including the one that I personally was "a very old soul" - one that had already lived many lives. She was getting this stuff from Edgar Cayce and other proto-New Age teachings, so, unlike many New Agers, I didn't have to go out and find it - she spoon-fed it to me.

Looking back, I see that the only thing I knew for certain was myself. At 12 I was already finding ways to make a mess of my life. I was scrawny, unpopular, unathletic, eccentric, and not even good at academics (I'm pretty sure I was ADD, a condition little understood back then.) The thought of having to live dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of lives after this one terrified me. Karmic principle, the Yin and Yang dualism I faced, erased all hope I had of escaping the cycle. I couldn't even bring home a good report card - how could I get free from the wheel of karma?

Still, it was trendy to believe something esoteric, especially since nobody in the Catholic Church seemed to be able to point out to us the total incompatibility between our Sunday faith and our actual practice. I managed to suppress my fears about karma and reincarnation and to enjoy this vague, pantheistic smørgasbord of spirituality that promised so much and required so little responsibility. All is one, it will all work out in the end, all roads lead to the cosmic oneness, etc. Besides, it's time to go play guitar in Folk Mass! How spiritual is that?

I'm not here to single-handedly refute the New Age. (It often even refutes itself, since it's more of a movement than a cohesive way of thinking.) But Messrs. Becker and Fagen have (perhaps unwittingly) given me some ammo, so being a huge Steely Dan fan and a self-styled Christian apologist, I'd like to draw a bead on the sacred cow of reincarnation.

Sacred cow? That's my point. To Hindus, cows are sacred precisely because they are thought to be reincarnations of people. Now, we here in the West get our basic idea or reincarnation from them, don't we? (Trust me, we do.) Okay, then where do we get off thinking we were Napoleon in another life, or Cleopatra (or at least somebody interesting) instead of a cow, a rat or a bug? If we must borrow such a concept outright from another belief system, it seems we have to sanitize it first. I never met anybody here in the West who even claims to be open to the possibility of having been an animal in a previous incarnation. And if they do, I either don't believe them, or I figure they're so far out there that their opinion isn't something I'm interested in. A truly open mind must at times embrace narrow-mindedness.

Not only do Hindus revere cattle instead of eating them, they also allow rats (to them, other incarnations of loved ones) to eat a large percentage of India's grain stores, contributing significantly to malnutrition, particularly among the lower castes. I'm not trying to say that Hinduism is the blanket cause of India's woes, but where it differs from Christianity, it contrasts sharply with a worldview that treats the poor, the outcast and the downtrodden with compassion and dignity. And rats don't count.

In case my earlier reference to Hebrews 9:27-28 didn't make you reach for your Bible, I'll just give it to you: "Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him." This passage wasn’t intended to dispel some rampant Hebrew obsession with former lives, but it would require a
quantum leap of reason to suppose that it allows George Patton to rightly think himself the reincarnation of Hannibal, or an impressionable altar boy to think he'd been a Viking in another life. Either reincarnation happens or it doesn't. They can't both be right.

It's not wishful thinking (i.e., the understandable desire to avoid "rebirth", common even among Hindus) that compels me to reject reincarnation as supernatural truth. It's sheer force of argument. Reason. Reincarnation simply doesn't hold up under scrutiny, despite circumstantial evidence to the contrary. Even the lowly beer commercial once proclaimed "you only go around once - you gotta go for all the gusto you can!" Even more ironically, Hare Krishna devotee George Harrison's Sgt. Pepper masterpiece "Within You Without You" states (against a backdrop of sitars and tabla drums) that "it's far too late/when they pass away." In fact, if you look at this neo-raga's lyrics, it states probably the most clearly Christian worldview of any Beatles song! If the Beatles must be blamed for leading western youth down a path of malignant mysticism, then this song at least should be removed from the list of perceived Fab foibles.

Meanwhile, few religions (or none) are in total conflict with Christianity, and Hinduism does in fact share much of Christianity's morality. Hinduism's karmic principal and the Judeo-Christian principal of sowing and reaping are more compatible than many Christians would care to admit (in which case we could tell a Hindu that Jesus "levels our karma"!) I don't think God's going to send anybody to hell for believing in reincarnation, but if we are in fact headed for Judgment, as described above, then we'd best try to get it right this time around, and trust God to take up the slack. And share this hope of eternal (and immediate) freedom with anyone we can.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Preach it, Big Bother!

I much prefer "My Old School" (Cowbell solo, anyone?), but that has nothing to do with your blog. Just stating my unasked for yet freely given opinion. :0)

Mom used to wonder whether I was Grampa Eddie reincarnated, which both fascinated and creeped me out at the same time...but even for several years after I became a Christian, I couldn't resolve the reincarnation issue within myself. After all, it's so "harmless"; what was so wrong with it, other than the horrific thoughts of enduring Bozeman's Jr. High School system again? That should have been enough to scare me away from it!

I remember distinctly the day God opened my eyes. I was sitting in Christian Center, listening to Pastor Joe teach, and though he wasn't talking about reincarnation, something he said just gave me one of those "lightbulb" moments-if reincarnation were true, than there would have been absolutely NO reason for Jesus to die for our sins on the cross. It would have been pointless for Him to do so if we can keep coming back to try to "do things right this time". Reincarnation, like evolution, implies that humans don't matter. To say that we evolved from a bang or a walking fish, or that we are just recycled dead people, is to say that we don't matter. DING!!! So simple, yet that's how God made it abundantly clear to me on that day.

Of course, until we can make unborn babies or the millions of AIDS victims in Africa (or countless others perishing worldwide) more sacred than the spotted owl, I suppose my little revelation is much too simplistic. Don't get me wrong, I have a healthy respect and fascination for our nocturnal feathered friends...but, "Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father's will. But the very hairs of your head are numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows." Matthew 10:29-31


Gee, guess I better get my own soapbox...sorry...

Little Sister Out

9:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good for you to put it so simply, but then some of us who agree with you on the point that we really do matter and that God cares and that He is doing something(borrowed statements from Phillip Yancey) could readily say that it's much harder to believe other religious systems than Christianity. "There must be some way outta here" and lyrics from famous people in the arts have much influence more on us than we can realize, especially when we are feeling all alone. But are we?
I enjoyed reading the article and 'lil' sisters comment as well. keep it up. Montana Pete

6:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cool groovy gear fab tuff and solid!!!!!!

11:55 AM  
Blogger Jonathan Hatch said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8:07 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Hatch said...

There are oversimplifications of Hinduism here significant enough to comment upon.

Some of your tone troubles me, a general feeling in much Christianity that sees other faiths only as inherently ridiculous or dangerous or destructive, but always according to our own criteria, with little or no input from representatives of those faiths. Firstly, Hindus do have a deep respect and reverence for the cow, and harming a cow or eating beef is an important cultural taboo, but the idea that Hindus don’t kill cows because they’re afraid of killing a reincarnated relative isn’t true. Not every Hindu is a vegetarian, and while vegetarianism is certainly prevalent- indeed preferred- in Hinduism, both for cultural and ethical reasons, this has more to do with local culture than to religious dogma as Christians understand it. Many millions of Hindus eat chicken, lamb, and fish every day, without any care that they’re consuming a beloved aunt or uncle. The understanding of the soul in Hinduism- that energy which is the primary component of consciousness and being- doesn’t encompass such an understanding.
Then there’s your assertion that ‘(Hindus) also allow rats… to eat a large percentage of India's grain stores, contributing significantly to malnutrition…’ This is patent nonsense. It’s probably a hyperinflation of Rajastan's famous Karni Mata Temple, which does revere the rat as an incarnation of the goddess and lets several thousand run free in the temple. India’s agricultural sector accounts for about 16% of GDP and 10% of export earnings. India is among the top three global producers of many crops, including wheat, rice, peanuts, fruits, and vegetables. And while you do note that you’re not saying that ‘Hinduism is the blanket cause of India's woes’, even if a nation could be superstitious and ignorant enough to allow pests to eat the majority of its primary food sources because of its religious beliefs, I can’t imagine how many rats you’d need- and how much they’d need to eat- before India even started to notice.
But there you begin to touch on a notion that Hinduism contrasts sharply with Christianity, which you describe as ‘a worldview that treats the poor, the outcast and the downtrodden with compassion and dignity’ with the implied assertion that Hinduism does not- or maybe even cannot. The notion that poverty in India points to the inherent absurdity of their main faith as opposed to Christianity simply doesn’t hold up- not with the history of poverty and death in Christian societies over two millennia that even our notions of compassion haven’t been able to quash. Unfortunately, we tend to push blame for our own social ills on other factors separate from our faith. But if we’re going to do that, we need to give other faiths the same privilege. There are a lot of reasons for poverty in India, just like there are a lot of reasons for poverty in Russia. Religion historically contributed to both and both, including Hinduism, can lead to its alleviation.
Finally, there’s the issue of reincarnation, which you say that ‘simply doesn't hold up under scrutiny, despite circumstantial evidence to the contrary.’ Again, you might really think that, but it doesn’t come across as particularly well-reasoned or as an opinion that has come out of positive engagement with Hindus who hold to it. You don’t ever have to agree, but you need to have a solid understanding of what you’re disagreeing with- at least to the point of acknowledging that a few thousand years of thought and reflection went into the belief, and that deserves a basic respect. I don’t hold to reincarnation either, but the constancy of energy is a cornerstone of physics, and does make a basic scientific sense. It’s certainly not worthy of being dismissed as completely bonkers.
And there’s my main rub: all this leads me to wonder if you’ve ever truly engaged with practicing Hindus about their life, culture, faith, or belief system. I hope you know me well enough to know that I say all this with upmost respect, but I think this piece would benefit from it.

8:10 PM  

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