Saturday, November 25, 2006

Introduction to Hinduism, 2

7.  The essence of every person is no different from the essence of the universe.  Hindus call the substratum of all reality Brahman.  When identifying Brahman as the essential human nature, they call it Atman.  To understand this better, consider the analogy:  a wave on the surface of the ocean is distinguishable, but is still “ocean.” In the same way, the individual, indeed all things, though distinct, are expressions of the one absolute essence, Brahman.

8.  However, to understand the nature of the Self at the level of intellect, merely from the neck up, is not enough.  What humans need is to experience our essence.  This experience is called “enlightenment” (alternately called bodhi, nirvana,jivanmukti, paravidya, etc.).  When an individual has this, only then is he released from the cycle of rebirth called samsara.

9.  To enliven consciousness so that Atman might be experienced, Hindus practice one or more yogas.  These are methods of awakening.

10.  Among Westerners, the best-known yoga is Hatha.  This yoga involves body positions called asanas and breathing exercises called pranayama.

11.  The Bhagavad-Gita, “The Divine Song of God,” often called “the Gita,” is one of the most recent (3rd century B.C.) and best-known and loved parts of the wide array of Hindu Scripture.  In the Gita, Lord Krishna tells the warrior prince Arjuna that there are three main paths to enlightenment:
  • Jnana Yoga, the “path of wisdom” (which involves the study of sacred texts, meditation, and an ascetic lifestyle).
  • Karma Yoga, the “path of action” (which involves close attention to ethics, compassion towards all living things, and service to others).
  • Bhakti Yoga, the “path of devotion” (which involves pilgrimages, ceremonies, ritual offerings, visits to temples, etc.).
12.  In spite of the way in which they’ve been characterized, Hindus do not think of themselves as polytheists.  Their basic outlook is monotheistic.  They believe that all “gods,” including Vishnu, Shiva, and Devi, the Great Goddess, are really just masks on the face of Ishvara, the One Irreducible God (see the Rig Veda X, 121).

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Introduction to Hinduism, 1

I’m reworking an “Introduction to Hinduism” handout, the kind of material that can be used in the World Religions class, but also in a church class setting. What follows is the first half of an outline. Most of this material comes from Dr. Dana Sawyer, Professor of Religion at the Maine College of Art, Portland, ME. The other source is the chapter on Hinduism in Warren Matthews, World Religions.
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1. Unlike Buddhism and Christianity, Hinduism has no particular founder.

2. The origins of Hinduism disappear into pre-history. According to prevailing theory, what came to be called Hinduism began sometime around 1800 B.C. Aryans migrating to modern- day NW India brought with them their religion, which is reflected in ancient Vedic texts. They met the spirituality indigenous to the Indus Valley Civilization. The blending of these two viewpoints was, evidently, the beginning of Hinduism.

3. For Hindus, the purpose of life is to find out the true nature of the self. That is, in Hinduism the big question is, “Who are you?”

4. Hindus believe that we reincarnate lifetime after lifetime because we are in ignorance (avidya) of our true nature. Knowledge of who we are will bring moksha, liberation.

5. Hinduism postulates two levels of the self: (a) There is the transitory self, bound by time and space and made up of the body, the mind, emotions, thoughts, and memories. (b) Underlying and implicit to the relative, transient self is an infinite, unbounded, eternal and unchanging self called Atman. The Atman, or higher self, was never more and never dies. It does not change because it is absolute according to its very nature.

6. The Atman is the essence of every human being. But this differs markedly from, say, the Islamic concept of the soul. For Hindus there is not a multiplicity of infinite Atmans. (In Islam, there are as many souls as there are people). Instead, there is one world soul at the base of all individual consciousness.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Surprised by Tears

Tears and the whole business of crying are odd.  Aren’t they?  

Sometimes you expect tears, but don’t get them.  Several years ago, a great and wonderful elder’s wife who meant so much to me died.   Not long after I got the call, I was traveling from Connecticut to Arkansas for her funeral.  

From the moment I got the news, to that first time that I saw her husband and family again, to “calling hours” and seeing her body, to the funeral, and finally the cemetery, I never cried.  Not even a little bit.  I can still remember how it bothered and embarrassed me, the absence of tears.  To this day I can’t explain it.

There are other times when tears come from nowhere.  Well, that’s stretching it.  They come from somewhere, just not the place you expected and can identify.  It happened just this morning.  

The course outline for the New Testament class said we were supposed to be covering the Letter to the Hebrews today.  After I returned the third exam (over Paul and his letters) and reviewed it with the students, I had about an hour left.  An hour.   . . .   To introduce and overview Hebrews.  . . .  Survey courses are so frustrating.

Anyway, after discussing how odd Hebrews is, and some of what’s going on behind the words of this letter, we started looking closely at the text itself.  I was eager to get to those parts where the speaker offers a theological interpretation (God’s view) of people suffering for the sake of Christ.   I was reading from chapter 2,

“In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.  Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family.  So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.”

That’s when and where it hit me.  I caught myself and within a second or two was able to go on.  But I never once expected such emotion.  And I still don’t know exactly how that happened.  

Of course I can say that I love how this prose, even in translation, seems much closer to poetry.  I might mention how Jesus owning up to me as his kid brother is such a tender image.  I can say how much it means to think that I’ve been miraculously born into the best family ever.  I guess it’s all of that and more.  

But, again, like the reasons why I shed no tears at the death of a loved one, I’m far from certain why I got all choked up this morning.

What about you?  Ever wished you could cry and expected to, but didn’t?  Ever been completely surprised by the arrival of sudden tears?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Here and There

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post, you might check out last Friday’s prayer for Ted Haggard composed by Fred Peatross.

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A few days ago, I was reading a post by Larry James about his conversations with some folks from Azerbaijan, once a part of the former Soviet Union. Almost all of the people in the delegation were Muslims. 

It just so happened that the day before I read Larry’s post, I had heard a piece on National Public Radio about American politics and the Arabic term “jihad.” Here was the gist of the report:

“Jihad” simply means “struggle (for the sake of God).” As some Muslims see it, jihad should be external, against non-Muslims, and violent. Thankfully, only a small percentage understands it that way. For many Muslims, jihad is internal, a struggle against sin. In that sense, it corresponds to a Christian’s battle with the flesh, wrestling with the old man of sin. 

So one obvious question is, Should American politicians denounce violent, extremist Muslims as “jihadists”?  To someone fluent in Arabic, such a statement sounds like, “We oppose anyone who, in any way, struggles in behalf of God.” Is that really the message we want to send? 

It would be similar to someone overhearing an abuse of prayer in the name of Jesus and then concluding, “I oppose anyone who prays to God through Christ.” In the same way that not all “Christian prayer” truly represents Jesus and his Way, not all “jihad” is external and violent. Shouldn’t such an important distinction be recognized and acknowledged in political speech and commentary?
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Wade Tannehill is currently telling the truth about “full-time ministry” in the Churches of Christ.   . . . .   which is not to say he was lying before.
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Perhaps because he lives in Wisconsin, Bobby Valentine has been thinking about Christmas. He has some book recommendations for the readers on your list.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Sad Saga of Ted Haggard

Ted Haggard’s letter to New Life Church can be seen here.  I came across it over at Mike Cope’s blog.  Someone there remarked about how ironic and sad it was that, in this case, a homosexual prostitute has evidently been more truthful than a Christian preacher.  

What bothers me as much as anything is that Haggard’s confessions have apparently been one step slower than the evidence against him.  Your thoughts and reactions to this bombshell in the Evangelical community?  To Haggard’s letter?   To the amount and kind of attention this story has received in the media?

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Did Paul Say, "Don't help widows under 60"?

My previous post is the beginning of a short project that I’m continuing here. What follows will make more sense if you’ve read the entry from Wednesday first.

Getting started, it’s probably best to explain that I’m a set-it-all-up, ducks-in-a-row kind of thinker. I do intend to explain my view of 1 Timothy 5:9. But in order to do that, I want to back up and take a run at it from the first part of the chapter. If you don’t have a Bible nearby, you can consult the NIV translation of 1 Timothy 5 here.

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In 1 Timothy 5:3-16, Paul discusses the church’s duty to Christian widows. Verses 3-8 teach that the church should honor those who are “widows indeed” (or “real widows”). According to Paul, “widows indeed” are those who have not only lost their husbands, but who stand in real financial need; that is, they have no living children who can care for them.

What should the church do for such women? “Honor” them. From the context it’s clear that Paul is not talking about a mere show of respect for destitute Christian widows. Instead, “honor” means “material support, financial help.” We would only dishonor widows if they received nothing but kinds words in response to their real needs. The Torah curses anyone who holds back what is owed to widows (for example, Deuteronomy 27:19; see also Exodus 22:22-24). James says,

“Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16).

But what if a widow has children or grandchildren? Paul says that in that case, those people should learn to practice real religion by returning something to their parents. I love what David Lipscomb wrote in his commentary on this passage:

“None can ever know the intensity of a mother’s love for her child, her constant self-denying life to help the child she has borne. Now a child should remember this and return it in kindness, when the mother grows old. . . . What we render in kindness and love to our parents, God accepts as service to him.”

The description of the “true widow” does not end with this one point. Beginning with verse 5, Paul describes her as a praying woman who trusts in God (like Anna in Luke 2:36-37). On the other hand is the widow who chases after only pleasure (verse 6). A widow who lives like that has no claim to on-going support from the church. Paul closes this section by saying that if any one does not provide for his own, he’s denied the Christian faith and is actually worse than an unbeliever.

It’s my belief that in verses 9-16 Paul is not talking about any and all true widows in the church. Instead, he’s talking about a special class or distinct order of widows. Notice that Paul does not say, “Don’t help a widow who is less than sixty . . .” Instead, he says, “Do not enroll (or, put on the list) a widow who is less than sixty . . .” It’s a vast difference.

In all probability, the group Paul refers to beginning with verse 9 was responsible for taking care of certain tasks in the church. Notice that there is a character sketch of the kind of widow the church allows to be enrolled. It’s no accident that at other points in this letter where Paul provides a character sketch (for elders, 1 Timothy 3:1-7; for deacons, 3:8-10, 12-14; and for “the women” who may be female deacons, 3:11), the description pertains to someone who will be in a position of responsibility in the church.

My main reason for taking this view, which draws a line between the end of verse 8 and the beginning of verse 9, is simple. It makes no sense to think that only widows who matched the description in verses 9 and 10 (including “the rule of sixty”) would have received support from the church.

No doubt there were many near-helpless Christian widows, much younger than sixty, who could and did receive support from the church (Galatians 6:10; James 1:27). Not to mention that it’s inconceivable that Paul, a Christian rabbi, could have issued instructions to the contrary. A self-described “Hebrew of Hebrews,” Paul knew that the Jewish Scriptures spoke up for “the orphan, the widow, and the stranger in your midst” more than 50 times; and he likely knew a tradition that says the more often a teaching is repeated, the more important it is. No right-thinking person believes that a young, godly, but destitute widow suddenly becomes worthy of the church’s support upon turning sixty years old.

For these reasons, it is better to understand verse 9 as the beginning of a new section which speaks of a different group. According to this view, a “true widow” is a Christian woman of any age who has no family to care for her. But beginning with verse 9, Paul is not speaking about “true widows” in general, but about a unique group of widows who were placed on a list, enrolled. That is, past the common age for remarriage, they were qualified for and committed to what most of us would call full-time ministry.

If this view is on target, then no one should say, “There was a time when Paul said, ‘Be sure not to help a widow unless she’s at least sixty years old'.” Again, not only is that inconceivable, it also ignores the fact that the verb in 1 Timothy 5:9 is not “help” but rather “enroll.”

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

1 Timothy 5:9

Over the last couple of years, 1 Timothy 5:9 has become a popular verse among some folks in the Churches of Christ. Strange.

In the New International Version, it reads as follows: “No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband,” . . . The character sketch of the widow who may be placed on the list obviously continues. But verse 9 is enough for those who want to make a point. And their point goes like this:

What group of elders would want to say, “We’ve decided that, as a church, we’re no longer going to help any widow of the congregation unless she is--in the words of 1 Timothy 5:9-- over sixty.”? What church would stand for a decision like that? Wouldn’t we think it was foreign to the Spirit of Christ for a group of elders to announce a policy like that? And yet, there it is in black-and-white in your Bibles! If a widow is only 59, don’t help her.

That’s a near verbatim statement from a recently-preached, wide-distributed sermon which, of course, has a larger point to make. And that larger point goes like this:

When we come across a passage that says “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent” (1 Timothy 2:12), maybe we should treat that statement the same way we treat the one in 1 Timothy 5:9. Paul didn’t intend for it to be applied in every church in every time. Because if he did, then in order to be consistent, we would have to cut off all widows 60 and under from services and assistance provided by the church. So, again, this means that twenty centuries later we have the same right, even responsibility, to look at 1 Timothy 2:12 in a different way, just as we look at 1 Timothy 5:9 in a different way.

I’d like to suggest that 1 Timothy 5:9 says no such thing. As the week goes on, I'll explain why.