Ganesha, Descartes, The Self and the Secular Age

The Yoga Instructor Said

At the beginning of her class the yoga instructor gave a mini-meditation about the Hindu diety Ganesha. She said that she knew Ganesha was the destroyer of evils and obstacles but she recently learned that Ganesha was also the placer of obstacles to give us challenges to overcome. This caught my attention for at least two reasons.

First, it is not very different from what I’ve been working through in my Joseph series, not about Ganesha but about Yhwh in the book of Genesis. I could easily imagine someone listening to my sermons and hearing this aphorism to say “see, you are both saying the same thing!”

Second, the manner, the tone, the language that the Yoga teacher used very much reminded me of some preachers or worship leaders that off the cuff a bit of spiritual teaching on the informal way to the grouping of praise songs.

Lions and Tigers and Pluralists Oh My

One of the ways we like to smooth our religious differences is to deny them and in this case it might be easy to fill in an awkward moment with “Well probably Ganesha and Yhwh and Jesus are just all the same. Truth is truth whether you learn it in a yoga studio or in a church or at home.”

That statement deserves no small amount of consideration in multiple directions.

  • Truth is truth, and if Christians are right there is only one God, and even CS Lewis flirted with these kinds of notions in “The Last Battle”.
  • Even Joseph in the book of Genesis was nimble on his feet to switch to the more generic Elohim when dealing with polytheistic Egyptians rather than asserting that Yhwh or El Shaddai was enabling him to interpret the dreams of pagan Pharaoh and manage Egyptian grain to save the world.

All that being said, however to blithely equating Ganesha and Yhwh or Jesus is the kind of move that rightly gives serious Christians and Hindus pause. Ought divine identity and the serious assertions (sometimes maintained at the cost of lives) be simply waved away to keep a conversation light and easy? It’s certainly a habit we possess to avoid awkward conversations of many kinds but at some point serious questions like these should matter.

Pop Spirituality Always Has a Theology, Even if Possessed Unconsciously

Another is the recognition that psychological and cultural space where we’re off the cuffing notions of divine activity are deeply conditioned by our context. It is easy to attribute this to others, usually in the form of criticism. “Backward creationists believe stupid things.” “All Arabs are terrorists, they can’t help it because that is how they are raised.”

As a pastor I’m regularly reminded at the power of folk religion. People carry around with them all sort of aphorisms that express what they more practically and probably deeply believe than what I say in sermons. I commonly find that what they think they heard me say aligns with their present ideas more than any idea I’m trying to get across.

The specifics of the church or religion they may publicly relate to or associate with are often secondary to what they really believe. Christian Smith’s writing about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a terrific example. Across the religious spectrum American youth had strikingly similar metaphysical assumptions regardless of their formal religious education or upbringing.

This of course frustrates professionals (like pastors) part of whose job it is to try to maintain a religious tradition. This is why Al Mohler (conservative Christian) and Aseem Shukla (American Hindu) have similar anxieties. It’s also not much different from many people who have agendas for other people’s thoughts and beliefs. Gawker complains that Virginia Heffernan is simply skating when they say “Yes Virginia there is a Darwin”. The community of people asking for a deeper, more serious engagement with a more objective world is a diverse community indeed.

Rene Descartes, Skepticism and Pop Spirituality

If you have even a cursory understanding of Hinduism and you listen to folks imbibing in what is commonly called the New Age movement you’ve got to wonder why it has taken the shape it has. In the last two years there has been a fascinating and energetic conversation about this mostly between American Hindus of Indian descent and popularizers of the movement.

Charles Taylor’s attempt to trace the West’s movement from medieval Christendom to contemporary secularism is an ambitious one.  Key I think to understanding why the western-secular appropriations of traditional Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism is the skepticism of our secularism. Because of our deep suspicion that only the scientific method can produce public, certain knowledge, and because religious pluralism invites us to doubt the religions we received in our youth, the only true foundation we imagine to construct a self upon is itself. We have deeply assumed “we experience therefore we are” and the only project left is to attempt to reshape that self into something we think is strong, proud or noble.

To Be or Not To Be

If you listen to the yoga teacher the self is finally all that you have and all that you are and so the highest “ought” that grips you is to discover or construct that highest, truest self. That truest self is one with the yoga mat or to be discovered by jettisoning your marriage, traveling to India (on your book advance) and finding the love of your life .

Because all spiritualities are suspect (beyond appropriation of the scientific method) and because all religious traditions must be limited and incomplete (because good, moral, admirable people disagree with one another) therefore being true to myself is the only safe passage.

Part of where this of course rubs against dominant themes of Hinduism and Buddhism is that the goal of yoga or meditation is something closer to the annihilation of the individual self rather than its glorification. The Hindu-American Society claims this is the goal of YogaYoga is a combination of both physical and spiritual exercises, entails mastery over the body, mind and emotional self, and transcendence of desire.  The ultimate goal is moksha, the attainment of liberation from worldly suffering and the cycle of birth and rebirth. 

This makes for a very interesting contrast between the promises of a stronger, sexier, more powerful self inside and out that pervades American practice and values. So is the individual self a thing we want or not?

Anyone Remember High School?

Many note that at the developmental stage that is associated with high school adolescents are trying to “find themselves” by pushing back against received identities from their parents. So many try to “be themselves” but also behave and believe pretty much in sync with their peers. This is a forgivable offense for a group of teenagers, but one might wish that as adults our “selves” would be a bit more solid, complex and differentiated.

We are all deeply conditioned and impacted by our contexts and the people we chose to spend time with. Maturity involves being aware of this and figuring out how it should play in one’s life. Appropriation of a self always begins with being first a reflected self but as we go we ought to increasingly become more a more solid self.

Churches and Theologians Engaging Their Context

Vague pop spirituality flourishes when churches and Christian teachers don’t do their jobs or do it poorly. North American Christian leaders should take a look at the table of contents in Timothy Tennants “Theology in the Context of World Christianity”. Consider his list:

  • Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad?
  • Hindu Sacred texts in Pre-Christian Past
  • Human Identity in the Shame-Based Cultures of the Far East
  • Christ as Healer and Ancestor in Africa
  • Is “Salvation by Grace through Faith” Unique to Christianity?
  • The Holy Spirit in Latin American Pentecostalism
  • Followers of Jesus in Islamic Mosques

Whatever you think of how he addresses these topics, what he shows is that he’s got a handle on the kinds of issues our post-Christendom context requires.

How do I engage the yoga teacher in a profitable conversation rather than reinforcing stereotypes of Christians as a closed minded, privileged caste in America that relishes the destruction of their enemies?

How can I present Christian narratives and claims in a way that many who are predisposed to be hostile towards Christianity find attractive, inviting and serious?

How can the church alter its posture of fear and anger at the loss of its position of cultural privilege towards theological engagement that helps its people with a wise critique of simplistic pop spiritualities while respecting and loving its advocates?

This is simply an application of loving one’s neighbor and loving one’s enemies in some cases, but this is never easy.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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2 Responses to Ganesha, Descartes, The Self and the Secular Age

  1. Pingback: Being Not Sure About the Bible |

  2. Pingback: Making Up Our Mind on the God of Lean Years |

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