As an aspiring eco-theologian/activist/citizen, I am very grateful and fortunate to be part of the GreenFaith Fellowship Class of 2014. GreenFaith is an ecumenical/interfaith organization building bridges between the worlds of environmental justice, eco-theology, and stewardship.
The executive director of GreenFaith is Rev. Fletcher Harper, who is a Union alumnus and a good friend of many people here in our community. The Fellowship is a wonderful opportunity for like-minded and like-hearted souls from across the spectrum of faith to join with each other to create a green-rooted momentum to overcome inertia and create ecological inspiration in our faith communities.
I came upon the Fellowship when Fletcher spoke about GreenFaith in eco-theological courses I took last year with Dr. Chung Hyun Kyung and with Dr. Larry Rasmussen. I was impressed with both the competency and clarity of GreenFaith’s work in relation to the many myriad ways in which traditions of faith can serve the global environmental movement. GreenFaith was and is able to see, and act upon, how the local pictures of environmental justice work in dialogue with the larger systemic issues of our economic, cultural, and theological misconceptions in relation to how we live on the planet.
The Fellowship is an immersion experience in GreenFaith’s inclusive and expansive vision. Along with monthly webinars, guided readings, and chances to write and discern our own ecological biography, identity, and theology, the highlight of the Fellowship are three retreats where we join our Fellows in intimate community.
The first of these retreats happened recently (Nov 11-14) in Newark, New Jersey. We focused on the issues and realities of environmental justice (EJ), and it was an emotionally intense and challenging experience. Our Fellowship class was a diverse blend of Christian ministers and lay folk, agnostics and seekers, Muslims and Hindus (including myself). We came from Finland, from the Midwest, from Harlem, but in large part few of us had extensive experience dealing with issues of environmental justice. I know that my own budding ecological identity struggles to find a sense of cause and place in the realm of EJ. This retreat was a step forward for me and for many of us in helping to move beyond just thinking and theorizing about environmental justice towards feeling what this injustice is like.
On the first day we took a tour of the industrial areas around the port and airport of Newark, led by the Ironbound Community Corporation, a local EJ collective. The gray weather combined with the images, visages, sights, and smells of the pollution we were taking in created the sense we were in some kind of Limbo or Purgatory. This was an area that had been industrial since colonial times, and was now becoming a post-industrial landscape of empty shipping containers, piles of scrap heap, dioxin-infected Superfund sites (with small pine trees growing out of the top for “atmosphere”), ruined high-school football stadiums, and areas still affected by sewage-steeped flooding from Superstorm Sandy.
One image stood out for me: a eternal line of trucks attempting to enter into the port area. We could not see where this line of trucks began or ended. We could see the angry frustrations of the drivers, truly stuck in limbo. We were confronted with the truth that even if we have the privilege of being able to leave this hellish place, these drivers, and the people living in very close proximity to all of this pollution, do not have the luxury to leave this place, physically, emotionally, and economically.
How many times in our lives, even as we drive our Prius, as we compost our food, as we avoid GMOs, shop organic, conserve electricity, vote Green, and participate in GreenFaith Fellowships, do we ignore environments like this, the people who live in them, and the injustice which permeates and supports the whole rancid edifice? This tour of the Newark port, at the beginning of our retreat, was a prayer to us and from us that we should learn to no longer ignore these kinds of realities if we have the privilege to do so.
After the tour, we stopped at the Greater Newark Conservancy to absorb a healing, hopeful, and sensual urban garden experience. The Conservancy didn’t dull our outrage and disgust, but it showed us that people in the Newark community did not think their situation was hopeless, and that we could learn a great deal from their faith, grit, and determination.
The other confrontational experience of the retreat was a talk done by John Pajak, a leader in the Local 78 union who works in the Newark oil refinery. John talked about his experiences dealing with toxic exposures and safety regulations in his work, and how he constantly has to fight against decisions by management to shortchange these regulations in the name of profit. John considered his work to make sure the refinery ran as ethically and environmentally sound as possible his way of stewardship. Yet, when asked about alternative energies and his union participating in “just transitions” away from the work of the refinery, he was adamant that this was not a realistic possibility. He was frank that his livelihood and the livelihood of his fellow workers was of primary importance, and if people were to insist on advocating for the abolition of fossil-fuel energy, he would fight against it.
For me, it was yet another experience of being forced and compelled to see through the eyes of those who don’t share the instincts and misconceptions of my privilege. It is easy for those of us who don’t work in such an oil refinery to demand that such “monstrosities” be condemned from the face of the Earth. How often do we understand that such condemnation is also a condemnation of the honest efforts of the workers, many of whom are much more acutely aware of the justice issues surrounding their work than we give them credit for. There are no easy answers to the ethical and environmental dilemmas that places like the Newark oil refinery present to us, but there will be no answers at all if we don’t listen to those immersed in these realities, and how their experiences can qualify our naiveté.
Our first retreat together was a not-so-gentle reminder that to stand up for the planet, and the living beings that we share this planet with, as people of faith is no easy undertaking. We experienced the depth of reality not only in the deep undersides of Newark, but also in the wealth of wisdom in the multiplicity of our faith traditions. We took in perspectives on faith and ecology in the Hindu tradition from Dr. Ved Chaudhary and from the Jewish tradition from Rabbi Larry Troster, GreenFaith Rabbinic Scholar in Residence. Rabbi Troster shared with us a call from eco-theologian Mary Evelyn Tucker to retrieve, reinterpret, and reconstruct the substance of our personal faith and of our faith traditions in order to relevantly, compassionately, and justly apply that wisdom to our existential ecological crisis.
I will continue to share my journey into the GreenFaith Fellowship here on the Union in Dialogue, the Union Forum, and the Union Voice.
There are two kinds of people in this world. Devotees and demons.
I think this is absolutely true.
But let’s parse this out a bit.
First of all, what is the source of my seemingly eccentric and dogmatic statement?
In the sixteenth chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna speaks of two kinds of natures that exist in this world and in our being: the divine and the demoniac. After listing a number of qualities that are of the divine nature, such as charity, aversion to faultfinding, purification of one’s existence, cultivation of spiritual knowledge, and freedom from envy and from the passion for honor, Krishna lists six qualities-pride, arrogance, conceit, anger, harshness and ignorance-which mark the demoniac nature. In the remainder of the chapter, Krishna unpacks further how the demoniac nature unfurls in our reality.
In the ninth verse of the chapter, Krishna says:
Following such conclusions, the demoniac, who are lost to themselves and who have no intelligence, engage in unbeneﬁcial, horrible works meant to destroy the world.
In his commentary on this verse, renowned Vedic scholar/teacher A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada writes:
The demoniac are engaged in activities that will lead the world to destruction. The Lord states here that they are less intelligent. The materialists, who have no concept of God, think that they are advancing. But according to Bhagavad-gītā, they are unintelligent and devoid of all sense. They try to enjoy this material world to the utmost limit and therefore always engage in inventing something for sense gratiﬁcation. Such materialistic inventions are considered to be advancement of human civilization, but the result is that people grow more and more violent and more and more cruel, cruel to animals and cruel to other human beings. They have no idea how to behave toward one another.
As a follower of the Gita, there is a straightforward-ness in Swami Prabhupada’s presentation which I find refreshing, important, and essential. It cuts to the rotted root of injustice, oppression, and hatred which exists in our world. It points to a deeper conception of why this injustice exists, in that without a conception of a divine reality, or a divine ethic, we all-too-fallible humans will all-too-often inevitably fall prey to the demoniac nature which surrounds us, and within us.
At the risk of appearing as a heretic (even more so than I appear to be already) to some more orthodox/literalist followers of the Gita, I want to critically examine what Krishna and Swami Prabhupada are saying in tandem in this chapter of the Gita. A surface interpretation of the dichotomy of the divine and demoniac here may provide a certain sense of clarity, but often what seems absolutely clear can lead to absolute expressions of theology and morality which can alienate and marginalize. This seeming clarity can also be at odds with people’s actual and visceral experience in the world, so I want to make a humble attempt to go a little bit deeper.
In thinking of my own experience doing Interfaith work in New York City, I have always made a sincere effort to be as open-minded and open-hearted as I can, with the appropriate respect and understanding of the natural boundaries that exist between different faith traditions. This mood has allowed me to develop wonderful relationships with Russian Orthodox priests, Reform Jewish rabbis, Wiccan priests, and just about everything else in-between. Being able to build, and walk across, bridges between faiths is one of the most important aspects of my spiritual journey. Real Interfaith work is a vehicle for creating the kind of deep and active compassion that is the most needed quality in this world at the present moment.
Yet as I went deeper into this work, I began to wonder what are the mechanics, as it were, of extending this joyful sense of communion towards those who identify as atheist/agnostic. More distinctly, I challenged myself to be as open-minded and open-hearted, with the same understanding of boundaries, with those I may encounter in my work and service who may not believe in God or a divine reality beyond the material reality we all inhabit together. This was a particular challenge for me, as I mentioned above, because to many within my tradition the terms atheist and demon go hand-in-hand. As usual, my innate sense of curiosity, or to put it more plainly, my independent streak, my desire to understand the truth beyond what may be “obvious” or “comfortable”, compelled me to question the basic assumption at hand: Does being atheistic mean one is inherently demoniac as described by Krishna in the Gita?
My opportunities to interact with serious and intelligent atheist thinkers were few and far between, so I was grateful to be invited to the 2012 World Faith Gala at the NYU Center for Spiritual Life this past December, with Chris Stedman as the featured speaker for the evening. Stedman is a unique figure in the world of Interfaith, as many of you already know. He is one of the founders of our esteemed community of thinkers here at State of Formation along with the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. He is the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University and a prolific writer, including blogging gigs at the Huffington Post and the On Faith blog at the Washington Post. Last year, Stedman published his first book Faitheist: How An Atheist Found Common Ground With The Religious, detailing his journey from being a “born-again” Christian through the acceptance of his alternative sexuality and eventual turn towards identifying as an atheist, along with his concurrent work and experience organizing for justice with communities of faith, even as he became someone for whom faith as most religious know it no longer necessarily applied.
As I listened to Chris that evening, and had the chance to meet him, the thoughts I had been having about my desire to understand the humanity and reality of the atheistic perspective became more intense. First of all, the work that Chris is doing is indeed of an enlightened nature. He is someone who understand the values of wisdom, empathy, and compassion. These are indeed spiritual values, but to understand them as spiritual values in the context of the work and convictions of someone like Chris Stedman means that one has to take a much broader, inclusive, open, and truer understanding of what it means to be spiritual. Hearing Chris speak, meeting him, and reading his words, it struck me that one cannot automatically assume that someone who is an atheist is inherently demoniac. Chris Stedman, who he is and what he does, is proof enough to me that what Krishna is saying in the Gita has to be understood with discretion, intelligence, and compassion. It has to be understood beyond the surface.
As our human civilization faces a massive existential crisis in understanding that our consumerist way of life is no longer, and never was, a sustainable way for us to interact with the web of ecology that surrounds us, what is needed most is the kind of dynamic communication that builds a sense of community across not only the boundaries of different faith traditions, but across all unnecessary boundaries between people who sincerely want to create justice on this planet today, tomorrow, and going forward. There is a tremendous courage that is needed to cross through these boundaries, and the realm of Interfaith is a place where this cutting edge exists. In Faitheist, Stedman writes:
I believe that change will come from within-that by participating in Interfaith work, the nonreligious will broaden the meaning of such efforts and that the language used to describe them will change accordingly…I cannot begin to recount all of the times Interfaith work has opened up a space for robust conversations on problematic religious practices and beliefs. In fact, it has been a hallmark of my experience working in the Interfaith environment. Furthermore, it has allowed me to engage religious people about atheist identity and eradicate significant misconceptions about what atheism is and what it isn’t
I regularly hear from atheists who are leading the charge for Interfaith cooperation on their campuses and in their communities, and their experiences echo mine. They too have found that Interfaith is expanding to incorporate them and that, when done well, Interfaith engagement doesn’t require that people check their convictions at the door; it invites people to try and understand and humanize the other.
This understanding, and this shared grasp of what it means to be human in this world, at this time, is immeasurable more powerful and effective in organizing, working for, and living by the principles of divinity than by any surface labeling of who is divine and who is demoniac.
Let us look again to what Swami Prabhupada said above, to truly understand what is demoniac. The demoniac nature is that which exploits the material nature simply for the selfish exploitation of the senses, an exploitation that invariable leads to violence and cruelty. It does not take a great leap to understand, through the examples of our shared history and also our contemporary experience, that those who may claim to have an obvious “concept of God” can easily become wrapped up in the demoniac qualities. This is not a black-and-white equation. There are “devotees of God” who act demonically. There are “demons” who act divinely. If we stay on the surface of this dichotomy, without diving deeply, without the kind of courageous thought and activism that someone like Chris Stedman is offering, we will add nothing to the equation but the kind of irrational hatred that scars our very existence.
As I said before, the Gita is straightforward, and everything I have said above is not to discount that there are people who are obviously divine and obviously demoniac, and that those categories can fall alongside certain accepted parameters of faith/lack of faith. But instead of condemning every atheistic/agnostic person to be inherently demoniac, I challenge anyone who is challenged by this to think a little deeper, to broaden their experience working with and knowing the non-religious, to try to understand that the religious and the non-religious have a lot to learn from each other, and to read Faitheist. The true arts of compassion and communication require much more than intellectual and theological complacency. They require a courage based in a divine sense of love that belongs to all beings regardless of what they identify as.
This “lapsed Catholic”/retired Hindu monk/bhakti-yogi/radical seminarian gladly received ashes on his forehead at the culmination of our annual Ash Wednesday retreat at Union Theological Seminary. Although I am going through the spiritual irony and cosmic comedy of coming to a Christian seminary and realizing that I no longer belong to Christianity, my resonance with receiving ashes, with hearing the stern yet liberating reminder that “from ashes I have come, and to ashes I will return”, that I am, in one sense, just “dust in the wind”, hits many of the same notes in my spiritual sense of identity as my experience in receiving communion in our Chapel services. On the unique ground that I stand on, I include to an extent the traditional Christian understandings of these rituals, understandings that I was raised in and accepted as a child without much actual knowledge as to the meaning behind them. Yet as my spiritual sense of self grows (hopefully into some sense of steady and sincere adulthood at some point) I am compelled to see different angles of vision not only from my Hindu faith but also from my concerns as an ecological citizen of this planet.
I appreciated the dirtiness of our Ash Wednesday retreat, and by dirtiness I mean the reminder that the soil, the ground, and the earth that is the very foundation of our bodily existence is something that we must not lose touch with. I was very glad to have that contact with the soil, in its symbolic marking upon my forehead, and as it crumbled and smudged on my head at the Meditation station at our retreat where we could hold the dirt and ashes in our hands.
Having and holding that soil was a solid moment of prayer, aspiration, and reflection for my hopes that my development as an ecologically literate person will include the chance this summer to intern/volunteer with communities growing food in a just and sustainable way. Beyond that, to have the chance to answer my calling to be part of these communities after I leave Union, to participate in their natural revolution, their paradigm shift which will reconnect me and perhaps many of us, if we so choose, to the roots and soil, to the natural ecology, which is our primary mode of sustenance and inspiration, a mode we have grievously set aside in the last few centuries of our industrial/technological experiment in our civilization.
This reconnection to our roots is not just concerned with the sources of the elements that give us our ability to survive, thrive, and enjoy our bodily life, but it is a deeply spiritual concept. In the roots and in the soil is the spirit we are looking for, the relationship to the Divine that tends to be largely obscured in the way we live today. As living beings, we are yearning to reconnect to the soil and to these roots, even if we are not so conscious of this yearning. I am grateful that in my practice as a Hindu, in the tradition of bhakti-yoga, has given me a sense of this yearning in my own self. The term yoga itself means to reconnect to the Divine within and without us, and more and more I see that our ecological concern must become a yoga of ecology. If we are truly to reconnect, as much as we possibly can to the natural support that surrounds us, we must see our ecology, our household, in a spiritual context with a spiritual foundation.
The Hindu tradition is rich with connections to the soil that provide us with reminders and re-connections to the presence of the Divine. There is a congruous similarity to the Christian ceremony of ashes in the Hindu custom of applying tilaka to one’s body. Many of us are familiar with the different kinds of markings we see on Hindu practitioners, these different markings acting as ways for members of the dynamic diaspora of the Hindu spiritual culture to mark their different allegiances and devotions to different aspects and divine personalities in the tradition. In the bhakti-yoga tradition, when we are to enter a temple or any other spiritually important place, we mark our bodies with the symbols of the Vaisnava sect (worshipers of Vishnu) on twelve different places on our bodies.
Our friends at ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) Mauritius tell us:
“Tilak is worn for both sanctification and protection. When one wears tilak, he is reminded that his body is a temple and should be respected as such. Both body and mind should be kept clean. It also reminds others who see the person wearing tilak of Krishna. There are many different understandings of what the shape of the tilak represents for Vaishnavas, but generally ISKCON devotees accept that the U-shaped mark represents the heel of Lord Krishna, and the oval part represents a Tulasi leaf (sacred basil).
Tilak is made of clay from any sacred place, usually the banks of a sacred river. Gaudiya Vaishnavas usually use cream-coloured clay from a sacred lake near Dwarka, India, called gopi-chandan.”
A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who transplanted the bhakti-yoga tradition to the Western world in his missionary work in the 1960′s, encouraged some of his young students to create sustainable communities based on the ideals of traditional Hindu village communities. Swami’s celebrated saying, which for him was an inspiration from a similar saying from Mahatma Gandhi, was “Simple Living and High Thinking.” The understanding behind this statement was that a lifestyle based on a simple and sustainable connection with the soil, with the ground, with the source of our basic necessities, would free our minds from the clap-trap, whiz-bang, and bleep-bloop of modern life which gets largely in the way of our efforts at self-realization, at finding a happiness that is based in the eternal reality of our spirit and our loving relationship with God.
Vandana Shiva, in her essay “Homeless in the Global Village” from her excellent collection of essays titled Ecofeminism, done in conjunction with Maria Mies, echoes this clarity of the very spirituality of the soil. She writes:
“For communities who derive their sustenance from the soil it is not merely a physical property situated in Cartesian space, for them, the soil is the source of all meaning. As an Australian aborigine said, ‘My land is my backbone. My land is my foundation.’ Soil and society, the earth and its people are intimately interconnected. In tribal and peasant societies, cultural and religious identity derive from the soil, which is perceived not as a mere ‘factor of production’ but as the very soul of society. Soil has embodied the ecological and spiritual home for most cultures. It is the womb not only for the reproduction of biological life but also of cultural and spiritual life; it epitomizes all the sources of sustenance and is ‘home’ in the deepest sense.”
The sacred clay or ashes on my forehead, and the sacred soil I pray to have encrusted in my fingernails after a long, honest day’s work in the nurture of the fields, air, and sun are indeed intimately connected. As the shape of our civilization changes, as we try to adjust to the changes we have brought upon the climate, as we accept the firm reminders from Mother Earth that our industrial/technical dream has run away from itself, we are going to be drawn back to the dirt that is our life, a dirt we have forgotten, that we have tried to scrub away. In a way, to go forward, somehow into a new paradigm of civilization, we will look back towards the natural and indigenous traditions, the ideas, both material and spiritual, which have shaped us, and we will find what we need to survive and endure.
The rituals of holy days like Ash Wednesday can remind us that back to the ashes, back to the soil, we gladly return.
Now that we have had some time over the holidays to reflect further and perhaps even find some meaning in the inconceivable meaninglessness of the tragedy at Newtown, we can begin to move towards a healing that is not superficial, which can acknowledge the pain we all feel, and which can move to prevent such tragedies in the future. While the debate on the question of gun control in America moves into a new urgency, I can’t help but think and feel that when we give too much attention to this particular issue, as important as it is, we are missing something else about human nature which we should not ignore and which is also so essential to the answers we are seeking.
What is often the most difficult thing to do in circumstances like these is to understand the pain that such individuals as Adam Lanza, James Holmes, Jared Loughner, Eric Harris, and Dylan Klebold were feeling as they were drawn to commit such terrible atrocities. Who are these people? What caused such pain in their hearts and in their lives? We so easily condemn these young men to the pits of hell, dehumanizing them as we recoil from the vicious ways they dehumanized so many others. It’s a perfectly natural reaction, and in so many ways it’s also justified, but it’s one I cannot personally abide. Two verses from the Bhagavad Gita comes to my mind as I try to comprehend what was in the minds and hearts of these troubled souls:
From anger, complete delusion arises, and from delusion bewilderment of memory. When memory is bewildered, intelligence is lost, and when intelligence is lost one falls down again into the material pool.
These verses compel me to ask: what did these young men really want? I really don’t think it was to be a harbinger of massacre. A great teacher from the contemporary Vaisnava tradition of the Gita has said that are actions are either an act of love or a cry for love. When our desire for love is corrupted, ignored, and seemingly destroyed, it manifests instead into selfish and lustful desires, from which the most obscene and nightmarish acts can manifest. How did the natural and human desire for love in these young men’s lives become so perverted?
As I have read the sporadic and incomplete accounts of Adam Lanza’s life, and as I recall the life stories of some of these other young men who were drawn to such evil, I can’t help but feel some sympathy and some resonance. They are often described as ostracized loners, deeply introverted individuals struggling with intense mental illness. The structures of family, society, and culture which surrounded them did not do enough to cure the sense of marginalization that they felt. They were not like “everyone else” and they didn’t fit into the mainstream of what’s cool, what’s hot, and what’s sexy. From those dark margins, they lashed out in ways which are truly beyond mercy. In order to be seen, to be known, they killed as many innocent people as they could.
How much of the recent news coverage of the Newtown massacre has really attempted to try to understand the pain that Adam Lanza felt? How much of our own thought and conversation about what happened in Newtown has been about Adam’s pain? This is no way condones what he did, nor should it take our focus and care away from the victims of this tragedy, but I feel that we must try to understand the sources of Adam’s pain to truly understand what happened and what we can do to prevent it from ever happening again. No amount of gun control can prevent this evil from showing its face if we choose not to confront this evil where it truly lies, from where it truly came from.
In my first semester at Union Theological Seminary, I have deepened my encounter with the marginalized voice from across many different social, sexual, and religious perspectives. In my own experience, as a straight-white-middle class-North American male, I cannot say I suffer in any way the same marginalization that most people in this world face, yet I cannot say I am free from its curse. All of my life, up to this very day, I share a lot of similarities with someone like Adam Lanza. Like him I am also introverted, not entirely comfortable in the crowd and in the scene, often unable to find a secure place in the social sphere. Like Adam, going back to the days I was chased around my junior high playground because I was a “nerd”, to my struggles today to find a place in the intensely extroverted and passionately activist environment at Union, I have felt a sharp and certain pain at being left out of the crowd.
As I’ve grown, I have seen that the cause of my own marginalization has often been my own fears and paranoias, and I am deeply grateful for my friends, family, and comrades and colleagues who have and continue to give me the love and support to help me become who I am and who I want to be. I am very grateful for my spiritual path which has given me so much meaning and clarity as to the reality of my nature and the nature of reality itself. I am also very grateful for my mental health as well. Perhaps I may be on the “spectrum” of Asperger’s/autism as Adam and many of these other individuals were and are to greater or lesser degrees, but I am secure in being able to discern when my mind is my friend and when my mind is my adversary in terms of having a sane bit of ground to stand on in this seemingly insane world.
I can imagine that perhaps many other introverts may also feel this kind of sympathy and resonance with Adam Lanza. Being an introvert means feeling a certain vibe of exclusion from those who are not introverted. As I have said, sometimes that vibe is simply a projection of one’s own fears, but very often it is quite real. Those who are extroverted, who are “socially adjusted”, often simply do not know how to deal with those who are introverted. They may call the introverted person “mysterious” without understanding how that can be taken as a sort of epithet, as the extrovert’s own failure to see outside of a limited socialized vision. Because one doesn’t fit in what the expected ways and means of socializing, one can be expected to face a certain kind of conscious and unconscious marginalization. This is my experience at least, and I feel it is a kind of marginalization which has to be considered alongside all of the other kinds of marginalization we study and agonize over and fight to transcend.
In many ways, our contemporary culture is geared towards the marginalization of the introvert, and from the darkest corners of this space, individuals like Adam Lanza are pushed by others and pushed by the illness within their own mind to lash out as they do. We live in a culture which is exquisitely geared to the passion of extroversion, of the fashion of being able to impress and of wanting to be impressed, often for the shallowest of reasons, of profit and prestige. The great Christian philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr, in Nature and Destiny of Man, writes that the individual shaped by the most superficial modalities of modern industrial and technical culture has an “easy conscience”, since they refuse to look and think deeply into the shape of the reality that surrounds them. We are, in many ways, a culture which has tremendous difficulties accommodating and acknowledging differences which reveal aspects of human nature which don’t adhere to the so-called values of conformity. In that ignorance comes a tremendous price to pay.
It is a common realization and frustration amongst many of us who seek truth and spirit that the art of introspection and introversion, the art of being alone, the art of being comfortable with oneself in solitude, has become devalued. In the “one great big festering neon distraction” we have lost touch. Another fellow Christian mystic of our times, Thomas Merton, writes in New Seeds of Contemplation:
The need for true solitude is a complex and dangerous thing, but it is a real need. It is all the more real today when the collectivity tends more and more to swallow up the person in its shapeless and faceless mass. The temptation of our day is to equate “love” and “conformity”-passive subservience to the mass-mind or to the organization…True solitude is the home of the person, false solitude the refuge of the individualist. The person is constituted by a uniquely subsisting capacity to love-by a radical ability to care for all beings made by God and loved by Him. Such a capacity is destroyed by the loss of perspective. Without a certain element of solitude there can be no compassion because when a man is lost in the wheels of a social machine he is no longer aware of human needs as a personal responsibility. One can escape from men by plunging into the midst of a crowd!
I think we can all agree that something like the tragedy in Newtown has happened because we have lost perspective. It is so overwhelming to try to figure out where we have gone astray, and what we have lost. It is incredibly confronting to admit that one of the root causes of something like Newtown is because we live in a culture which no longer places the personal responsibility for each other’s human needs at the center of our lives. Those who get lost and thrown in the cracks, the Adam Lanzas of the world, bear to us a tremendous reminder of the transvaluation of natural and spiritual values and morals which we all too often take for granted and conform to in our own ways.
The question of gun control is but one facet of a deeper corruption of our human society and nature which is the real cause of the tragedies in Newtown, Columbine, Tucson, Aurora, and Virginia Tech, what to speak of the countless daily massacres we hear too little about here and across the world. One humble suggestion in this case is a call to honor introspection and to honor the introvert. We need to understand, especially if we of an extroverted nature, that if marginalize those who are introverted, we are causing tremendous pain, which rarely but all too often manifests in something which is so inconceivably terrible. There are many like Adam Lanza around us, if not in the potential to cause so much grievous harm, but in those who are solitary people either comfortable or uncomfortable in that skin, and who experience great pain at being ostracized from the love and acceptance they crave and need.
The history and legacy of Union Theological Seminary is to speak to truth, through the lenses of deep theological wisdom and courageous convictions of justice, which is often left unspoken in the timeless struggle between those taking dignity and those seeking dignity We are called here at Union, each in our own way, to confront the existential limitations of our individual and collective being, and to find meaning and transcendence beyond those limitations, towards a better world.
After three months at Union, I am coming to understand that to seek a better world means to be deeply concerned with the very health of the planet that we live on, and to be deeply concerned with the shape and burden of the civilization we have placed on the ground we walk, the air we breathe, and the water that we drink.
My calling as a seminarian, seeker, and spiritualist in service begins to take shape towards the realm of ecological ethics and justice. Our current existential ecological crisis underlies every other struggle for justice. The struggles against poverty, and for peace, civil rights, and human dignity and quality of life, while each vitally important in their own right, cannot be seen in a separate light from the concern over how our collective human experiment on this planet is changing and will change as the climate changes.
As Union has been vital in shaping new strands of thought and action in the realms of liberation theologies across lines of color, gender, and sexuality, we must now take on the reins of spiritual leadership to address the urgency of our ecological crisis. We have no choice. We have many differences in how we think and how we act, in what we specifically fight for, but we all share the same foundation, the same ground, the same air, the same water, the same planet. The justice we fight for is inherent to the ecology that surrounds us.
Recently the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life at Columbia University invited renowned environmental scientist Wallace Broecker, the “grandfather of climate science”, to speak as part of their Apocalypse Now: End Time and the Contemporary Imaginary series of conversations “that explores our current fascination with apocalyptic visions.” Broecker was blunt, as he said that he has very little hope that we will be able to prevent many of the drastic changes that climate scientists are predicting will happen to our civilizational structure due to climate change.
Recently as well, in the Huffington Post, Tom Zeller Jr. reported that the United Nations Environment Program has stated that ”greenhouse gas emissions levels are currently around 14 percent above where they need to be by the end of the decade in order to avoid what many analysts believe could be a risky level of planetary warming.” The report quotes Leo Johnson, a leading partner in PricewaterhouseCooper’s Sustainability and Climate Change unit, who says that ”even doubling our current rate of decarbonization would still lead to emissions consistent with 6 degrees of warming by the end of the century. To give ourselves a more than 50 percent chance of avoiding 2 degrees will require a six-fold improvement in our rate of decarbonization.”
This figure of two degrees of warming is considered the general benchmark beyond which the potential changes in the atmosphere would be catastrophic for millions of people across the globe, and largely people already in socially and economically marginalized positions. Leading climate activist Bill McKibben, currently on his “Do The Math” tour with 350.org, writes in Rolling Stone magazine that “so far, we’ve raised the average temperature of the planet just under 0.8 degrees Celsius, and that has caused far more damage than most scientists expected. (A third of summer sea ice in the Arctic is gone, the oceans are 30 percent more acidic, and since warm air holds more water vapor than cold, the atmosphere over the oceans is a shocking five percent wetter, loading the dice for devastating floods.) Given those impacts, in fact, many scientists have come to think that two degrees is far too lenient a target.”
He adds an anecdote from the failed efforts at the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, in which a “spokesman for small island nations warned that many would not survive a two-degree rise: ‘Some countries will flat-out disappear.’ When delegates from developing nations were warned that two degrees would represent a “suicide pact” for drought-stricken Africa, many of them started chanting, ‘One degree, one Africa.’”
In the same article, McKibben relates that there are 2795 gigatons of potential carbon dioxide waiting to be burned, used, and emitted by the major petrochemical and fossil-fuel industries. This supply is already figured into the economic balast, the share-prices, of the major energy companies on the planet, and science be damned, they will burn this supply for their profit in any way that they can. The problem with that number, according to McKibben, is that it is well above the number of 565 gigatons that could be emitted by the middle of the 21st Century in which there would still be some “reasonable hope” that the two-degree limit would not be breached.
Despite the math, despite the science, despite the recent images of destruction in our own seemingly indestructible metropolis from Sandy (with the consideration that it is very difficult to directly blame climate change for her unique and specific ferocity), this crisis of conscience, of the reality of our very future, still remains disturbingly on the fringes of mainstream social, political, and religious/spiritual discourse.
The effect can be easily explained in one sense. The very worst of the predicted effects of climate change seem to be way off in the distance from our present lives. Human nature is stuck with, as described by psychologist Robert Gifford, “dragons of inaction”. Beth Gardiner, writing for the New York Times in an article titled “We’re All Climate Change Idiots”, says that “we have trouble imagining a future drastically different from the present. We block out complex problems that lack simple solutions. We dislike delayed benefits and so are reluctant to sacrifice today for future gains. And we find it harder to confront problems that creep up on us than emergencies that hit quickly.” She quotes Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, who says that “you almost couldn’t design a problem that is a worse fit with our underlying psychology.”
My personal confrontation with these facts leaves me with a very clear but very complicated question: What is the spiritual response to the urgency of our ecological crisis? This is not solely a response meant to encourage prevention of the crisis, but it is a response meant to help us adapt and accept the changes that cannot be prevented. The very structure of how we live together, of our conceptions of ourselves as human beings on this planet, and of our activism for justice, equality, and dignity, is changing and will change. As theologians, ministers, priests, nuns, monks, swamis, llamas, rabbis, imams, women and men of the Divine, how do we respond to this? It is literally something we cannot ignore.
In the contemporary bhakti-yoga tradition of the Hindu/Vedic paradigm, of which I am a practitioner, esteemed teacher A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada laid out a vision of sustainable communities centered around essential dharmic ideals of loving service to God, of centering agriculture and community around the idea that all that is harvested, grown, and produced is not meant for capitalistic profit, but for the pleasure of God and his dearest devotees. His motto was “Simple Living and High Thinking” and his vision was and is a true alternative cultural model which is my deepest pragmatic and spiritual inspiration. In the decades since his worldwide mission was established, communities in Hungary, Brazil, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, among a few others, have devoted themselves to creating the kinds of communities he envisioned, communities which represent ideals of traditional Indian spiritual village culture, where sustainability is inherent, and which speaks as a certain kind of definite response to the crumbling precipice of our current civilization, towards something more natural, harmonious, and enlightened.
This response is not perfect. For as many examples of communities of bhakti devotees who are committed to this, there are many times more who have tried and failed, their sincerity unable to overcome the inertia of the most difficult parts of human nature, and there are some communities and practitioners who are completely oblivious to their inherent ecological responsibility as human beings. Their temples and their homes are devoid even of the simplest mechanisms of recycling, or consideration as to where there food comes from and what exactly might be in it. This is something I find very troubling and embarrassing, and which I know is a common hypocrisy to be found in many other religious cultures.
I refuse to let these various imperfections in our nature and our response, in my own nature and response, to leave me hopeless. There is something very specific in the nature of transcendent grace, in the love and mercy of God, which allows us to overcome our limitations. As I continue to explore this question of the urgent spiritual response to our ecological crisis (and I beg and pray for your feedback and support and guidance), I keep a faith that, if we can be very determined to reach into the depth of our spiritual traditions to respond directly to our abilities to prevent, adapt, and accept the changes ahead, we may yet come to a place in our collective humanity and spirituality that could actually be harmonious with Mother Earth’s desire as to how she wants us to live on her ground.
Union, along with all other spiritual communities, can no longer afford to hesitate in any way in seriously shaping this response. It is our call to create a sense of urgency infused with compassion and wisdom that can take us beyond the obvious fear we face when encountering this truth.
The James Memorial Chapel is a truly sacred space within the sacred space that is Union Theological Seminary. During the week, we gather in the Chapel to pray, exult, meditate, and commune together in expressions of worship which are resonant for Christians and for peoples of all spiritual traditions.
Chapel has been a remarkable experience for me so far, as I come to be reunited with the sacrament of communion. Communion was something that, as a Catholic child, I never thought about too deeply, and which I took for granted along with the whole experience of worship. I was usually more eager to get home and watch Barry Sanders juke-and-jive his way for a touchdown for my beloved Detroit Lions. Returning to communion for me is a chance to reclaim a part of my spiritual identity, to fully form and own an understanding of my development as a seeker and servant of God.
This reunion has opened up emotions and contemplations both deeply moving and challenging. My experience in Chapel, in communion, has first of all made me realize how disconnected I am with the mood and meaning of worship in general. Even though I would worship everyday during my time as a monk in the bhakti-yoga tradition, often I would not be there mentally or emotionally even though I was present physically.
It was sometimes a “familiarity breeds contempt” kind of experience. Experiencing the power of worship through the lens of other traditions has often acted as a reminder for me of the unique gift of worship I carry with me everyday as a practitioner of bhakti-yoga Through the grace of my time in Chapel, I am already experiencing a sense of reunion in my own practice as a Hindu, as I feel distinctly at home again worshiping in the temple of Radha-Krishna at The Bhakti Center, and in my own daily mantra meditation practice, chanting the names of God.
This sense of reunion is truly an upwelling from the heart. During one of my first experiences taking communion together in Chapel, I was moved practically to tears by the combination of the intimate and vulnerable ceremony of taking the sacrament, of the stirring music that surrounded us, and of seeing very clearly a moment of unity in the intense diversity that we have here at Union. The emotions emanating from my heart were the kind of rare but exquisitely special feelings we get as gifts of grace from the Divine in our life, in which we intuitively know we are with something much deeper than ourselves. For me, it was a sign that I had come to the right place in my life, part of the larger gift God has given me in being here, at this time, in my own way, at Union.
I come to these experiences no longer identifying as a Christian, and while being in a Christian service does not make me uncomfortable, there are aspects of the worship that I don’t literally believe anymore. My relationship with Jesus as a person, and as an ideal, is framed through my Hindu lens, where we see him as a great teacher whose example is to be emulated. We don’t see him in any particular or exclusive theological position.
I continue to wrestle with, even more directly through my studies at Union, of the meaning of the sacrifice of Jesus which underlies the communion experience. I do not look at the Christian experience with the literal eyes I had, more or less, as a child. Yet my upbringing identifying as a Catholic stays with me, if it is not something I particularly belong to anymore. I can intellectually and theologically identify with critical and historical approaches towards Christianity, but there is also a strange reluctance in my heart to let go of some of the literal beliefs I have had in my life in relation to Jesus and the Christian doctrine.
Yet, I am beginning to understand that to let go of my sense of belonging as a Christian is a natural evolution of my spiritual journey here at Union, and it doesn’t preclude me from fully understanding and living and being in the natural and correct resonance I can and should have with the Christian tradition as someone who deeply identifies now with a Hindu tradition. How funny that I come to a a Christian seminary and realize that I no longer belong to Christianity!
How then am I resonating so much again with the sacrament of communion? Is my experience with communion something has become too emotional or sentimental or nostalgic? I brought some of these issues to the kind presence of Barbara Lundblad, who is the Joe R. Engle Professor of Preaching here at Union, and who is also a pastor at Advent Lutheran Church in the Upper West Side here in New York City. I wanted to hear from her what exactly communion meant to our community, what it meant on a deeper metaphysical and spiritual level, and what it meant to her personally.
For Prof. Lundblad, the experience of communion at Union has also re-formed her experience of the sacrament in a maturing way from her childhood experiences. In the Lutheran churches of her youth, she recalled communion as being a somewhat solemn, austere, and even alienating experience. “The very word communion was belied by what was actually happening,” she recalled. “We tried to forget we were there with other people.”
Being part of the worship team here at Union, along with her experiences as a Lutheran pastor has helped her to become aware of communion as something that truly bonds a spiritual community together. “This is the thing that is different for me here,” she says of being at Union. “I experience people coming together from so many different traditions, from Catholics who believe something different about this than what I believe, and Unitarians who are welcome to come for a simple blessing if they so desire.”
In this diversity, the meaning of communion can no longer be such a fixed or static thing. Prof. Lundblad adds that “if you ask every person there what does this meal mean to you, you would get as many different answers as the people who were there.” In our Chapel at Union, communion becomes part of the fabric of our diversity, which shines new and dynamic colors on the essential prism of our spiritual identities as individuals and as a community.
The sacrament and experience of communion is something meant “for you”, no matter where you are coming from, or how literally or symbolically you want to take it. “Here in this community, these words “for you” are very personal, but we say it surrounded by everyone else,” Prof. Lundblad shares. “This has been the huge change for me from my childhood. The word communion for me is being recovered in my life.”
I am still learning what the sacrament of communion means for me. I can speak of essentials, of having faith that God is present when I chant the holy names of God in my own practice as a bhakti-yogi, or when we are drawn together in our worship in Chapel. That faith for me is the bond of communion with the Divine, a faith that draws me closer and closer to knowing and acting in the reality of my loving relationship with God. It is also a faith that draws me closer to knowing what it means to have an active communion with God in this world, fighting for justice through courage and compassion.
I am deeply grateful for Chapel here at Union. I yearn for it actually, even though adjusting to the rush of academic life here in my first semester makes it difficult to always be present there. There is no doubt that I need it to ground and shape my daily life here at Union, and to draw me forward through my misconceptions and aloofness towards the sacred space within my own heart, the space we all share together here.
This is an interesting question. Perhaps a more interesting question would be: What is a “Hare Krishna” doing at Union Theological Seminary?
I have spent the past five-and-a-half years living as a monk in the Gaudiya Vaisnava aka bhakti-yoga (“Yoga of Devotion and Love”) aka “Hare Krishna” religious strand of the Hindu/Vedic spiritual culture of India. My most recent monastic stint was at The Bhakti Center, our Krishna temple in the East Village here in Manhattan, which some of you have visited for the “Religions and The City” course.
In the last year I retired from monastic life and began a new journey here to Union. I still practice and identify as a devotee of the bhakti tradition (and I also identify as a Catholic too, which is a whole other can of worms we’ll perhaps talk about later). As far as I know, I am the only practicing Hindu here at Union right now, and this leaves me in a tough spot.
This is because I am not sure how I, as a Hindu, as a “Hare Krishna”, fit into the fabric of social justice that defines Union. Personally, I consider myself an activist, although my experience is limited. I consider myself deeply concerned with justice, although my understanding of justice is very limited. Where the hitch is is in how my identity as a bhakti devotee may or may not be compromised by an active interest in fighting for justice in this world.
How could such a tradition as bhakti be against the idea of justice? At its theological heart it isn’t. A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the bhakti teacher/scholar who risked his life and well-being (he had two heart-attacks on the boat-ride to America) at the age of 69 to bring the tradition of bhakti to the West, is one of the greatest spiritual activists of our time. He combined erudite scholarship and deep personal love and care to touch the hearts of thousands upon thousands of people during his ministry. His work was the work of the deepest justice, of giving people spiritual identity, clarity, and eternity in a world where the search for meaning can be so crippling.
Swami Prabhupada also inherits a liberative legacy from his immediate teachers in the bhakti line, who actively opposed the caste system in India, and who opened initiation in the tradition to all, regardless of caste, creed, race, gender, or nationality, echoing the universal essence of bhakti described in the sastra (scriptures). For this reason, Swami Prabhupada traveled to the West to implant a spiritual culture that is, by all rights, ours to inherit, as it is for anyone in the world. Swami Prabhupada established his legacy by creating a worldwide society of devotees of bhakti, touching every continent during his 11-year active ministry.
The humble sages, by virtue of true knowledge, see with equal vision a learned and gentle brāhmaṇa, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater [outcaste].
What this means is that as a bhakti-yogi, my spiritual practice is meant to guide me towards seeing all living beings as their essence, as individual spirit souls. What this also means is that I should never discriminate against anyone because of the color of their skin, the content of their sexuality, or the concrete reality (or shifting reality) of their gender.
Yet us “Hare Krishnas” aren’t exactly on the frontlines of Occupy, helping to protect someone’s home from being foreclosed. We aren’t in the media using our timeless wisdom to rail against the economic, fascistic hegemony of the modern corporate “octopus”. While I personally feel, and many others in my tradition feel the same, that there is no prohibition to these kinds of activist works, there is a deeper consideration, or aspirational dimension as the great Beverly Harrison writes, to be considered, which opens up to any person of faith working in justice. The “social gospel” at play here isn’t perhaps what is commonly defined as such, but it exists for the devotee of bhakti nevertheless.
Mundane is a loaded word, but let us consider it. We don’t want our works to be mundane. What does this mean in the spiritual context we are dealing with here? It means any works which don’t liberate the soul at the same time the body is being liberated from its suffering. The bhakti tradition has as its goal the liberation of the soul from the bodily construct, so that it may enter into its perfected loving relationship with the personal God, represented in the feminine/masculine personhood of Radha/Krishna.
In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna speaks about how material nature is made up of three distinct modes (goodness, passion, ignorance), and of how the key to enlightenment is to transcend these three modes, towards pure goodness, which is free of such aspects of existence as greed, envy, and hatred which keep us attached to this temporary material world. The love ethic that God gives through the Gita and through the bhakti tradition is essentially a vertical one, but which still calls to us interact horizontally with society, as long as that interaction guides those who encounter it back to its inherently spiritual transformative and liberative essence.
I want to go out on a limb and give a personal example of how this affects my vision of activism. I have always felt, and kept, a certain distance from the activities of Occupy, because I have felt that the passion of this movement, however justified it is, and it certainly is, has not as deep a grounding in the transcendent as it needed and needs. Occupy is calling for a radical reversal of the corporate-fascist takeover of this planet that has developed over the last century and beyond, and this calling is deeply spiritual, but without cultivating this inherent spiritual foundation, we can then find, as one symptom, a lot of the conflict and loss of momentum which currently frustrates this movement.
I point you to another meditation on Occupy, called “Don’t Dehumanize The Evil Bankers”, which I wrote earlier this year for Huffington Post Religion as further thoughts that I have on this. These are just my observations and feelings, and I beg to be corrected and enlightened further. After all, I have been living as a monk for the last five years.
Yet in no way do I feel, that as a bhakti-yogi, I, or the society of devotees, should accept the status quo. We are a revolutionary spiritual movement, but the nature of our revolution is to go straight to the heart. Our revolution goes right at the inherent causes of the sufferings in this world, the greed and envy and pride which poisons the spirit. Through spiritual practice, in philosophy and activism, we aspire to shape this world for the better, for the transcendent.
This is the particular calling I carry as a bhakti-yogi. Its not a unique calling, for its one I share with all spiritualists and seekers. So you may see me as a “Hare Krishna” on the front lines of your action, trying indeed to understand what it means in the Lord’s Prayer that “Thy Will be done on Earth as it is Heaven”. My front line may also be different, being of a “social gospel” that may exert its energies on the microcosmic, on the personalized spiritual needs of the oppressed, and on the oppressor, where hatred can be transcended and where the spiritual principle of the activist can be fullest served and actualized. In any case, I’m pretty sure we’ll meet on the same road after all, and that our hearts point to the same goals.