Monday, July 8, 2013

Is God Dead? Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

I’ve been studying the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: the Lutheran theologian and pastor who opposed Hitler and who was executed by the SS two weeks before the concentration camp where he was interred was liberated by Allied troops.[1]

As a young Catholic, raised in the ‘50’s bubble of the west coast version of the “Bells of St. Mary’s, the surging debates and trends of Protestantism were unknown to me, though modernism in religion was. By modernism or what is sometimes referred to as liberalism, Christianity is reinterpreted socially and generally with little, no or minimal regard to dogma, saints, miracles or transcendental realities.

The impact of rationalism and the scientific method are well known to us. The 20th century saw the explosion of materialism even into the sanctuaries of religion. Frank Laubach, a well known pastor in the first half of the 20th century, campaigned to remind ministers to mention God and Christ in their sermons.[2] I used to think this was probably an exaggeration until I began reading about Bonhoeffer’s life. While there were (are?) many variations in the forms of religious liberalism, it was at the heart of the famous 1966 Time Magazine cover that asked, “Is God Dead?” The “dead” part essentially meant, “Is God irrelevant to modern life?” How many, even religionists of the 20th century, held high hopes for the unrelenting march of scientific and economic progress? The hope was that all there could be left to affirm were basic human virtues and Christian ethics. There surely was no need for belief in unprovable dogmas that bore little relevance to the vicissitudes and demands of modern, daily life! The liberals championed progress as the solution to the ills of society and saw ethical and social idealism as the real mission of religion for the modern age. Modernist religion, taking its cue from scientific and social materialism, essentially agreed with Karl Marx and atheists everywhere in saying that the most important thing in life is food, shelter, and security, oh, and, sure, maybe beseeching God for the good things of life. Indeed a part of this “theology” equates material prosperity with Divine favor.

Ah, but does not the slaughter of perhaps two hundred million people in the name of this glorious age of reason, equality, prosperity and the greatest good for the greatest number surely shows the lie of this philosophy? For all the knowledge and education today, are we happier? Are we no less prone to the demons of abuse, addiction and violence? Has reason produced the Nietzschean super race?  

Bonhoeffer was an impressive thinker and theologian who became a martyr and, in his own way, a saintly man, given to doing the will of God at all costs. In the strictest forms of religious liberalism during Bonhoeffer’s higher education, belief even in God was subject to question because unprovable. That left all other Christian “traditionalist” beliefs pretty much hanging in mid-air. Bonhoeffer struggled against that heartless, devotionless trend that relegated God to outward shows of socially acceptable piety and dry, empty rituals. When the mainline German churches succumbed to Hitler’s authority and accepted Nazi revisionist thinking, Bonhoeffer declared religion the enemy of spirituality. He vainly attempted to persuade fellow church leaders that it was the German church’s obligation to oppose Nazi segregation and persecution of the Jews and, going further, to actively oppose the Nazi regime.

Another impressive fact of his life was that Bonhoeffer had an abiding desire to go to India to meet Mahatma Gandhi. Twice he attempted the trip and in both cases his efforts were thwarted by either circumstances or his own conscience calling him back to Germany. Clearly, however, he was wanting to find an alternative to the spirit of conquest and superiority his own so-called Christian culture had forged as heirs to Christ.

While in America, he was put off by the American church which embraced religious liberalism uncritically even while viciously attacking fundamentalism (which naturally paid the return compliment).

On the other hand, he was deeply moved by his encounter with the negro churches, both their music and the deep and heartfelt devotion he felt there. The experience changed his life. The contrast between America’s founding ideals and the ugliness of its de facto racism put the aristocratic Bonhoeffer firmly on the road to appreciating and, by degrees, exploring the relationship of suffering to the integrity of one’s spiritual search.

When Paramhansa Yogananda came to America in 1920 the battle between religious liberals and fundamentals was in full swing, with the fundamentalists in retreat (at least in the northern cities among so-called intellectuals). It was therefore in the divine plan, answering the call of sensitive souls for God to show himself, as it were, that such a one as Paramhansa Yogananda was sent. Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita “that whenever virtue declines and vice predominates, I incarnate to combat evil.”

The seemingly irreconcilable struggle between spirit and nature, between science and religion, between belief and rationalism could not be resolved by debate nor by the intellect. It could only be resolved by one “who has seen Him.” It reminds me of the story of St. Anthony of the desert who helped resolve the first great challenge in early Christianity[3] when, being called out from his self-imposed desert seclusion, declared in front of hundreds, “I have seen Him.”

Therese Neumann, a Bavarian woman, who lived during Nazi Germany, had the wounds of Christ and ate neither food nor water except in taking the communion host on Fridays while in a trance reliving the crucifixion of Christ.[4] She was examined by medical doctors and even by one doctor who set out to prove her a fraud but who converted to her defense. Paramhansa Yogananda met her and explained that the purpose of her life was to be a living testimony to “I have seen him.” Yogananda, in his visit to Germany in 1935, attempted to have an interview with de Fuhrer in hopes of stimulating Hitler’s latent interest in eastern philosophy—but, to no avail!

Paramhansa Yogananda came to America to teach the “science of religion.” His mission was to show that all men are seeking happiness and seeking to avoid suffering. By trial and error and experiment, he encouraged Americans, whom, he said, “loved to experiment,” to see what attitudes and lifestyle brought lasting satisfaction and which proved empty, despite their promises. An unselfish life will bring you lasting happiness while selfish, merely sensual, or materialistic behavior would disappoint you, if not immediately, then soon enough.

He brought yoga and meditation techniques to show how to be healthy, focused, creative, and connected with one’s own superconscious mind. He urged students to put aside “installment plan” living (by which he referred to the superstition that “If only I had more possessions, kept up with the Joneses, a bigger bank account, and a larger income, I’d be happy.”) “It is all right to have possessions, but don’t let them possess you!” he counseled.

In his orations, Paramhansa Yogananda thundered: “The time for knowing God has come.” Through meditation, and especially kriya yoga, the most advanced technique for this modern age, we can have a direct perception of divinity as our own Self, hidden in the silent cave of meditation, in the bubble of joy that is our heart’s natural love, and in the perception of God as sound or as light. The experience of peace or joy in meditation is living proof of the existence of God within you. By experimenting with right attitudes, as described above, he said you could prove in yourself your connection with all life.

Returning, then, to the debate of whether “God is dead,” Yogananda saw in the teaching of the triune nature of God (the Trinity) a resolution for what modernists insisted was God’s absence in the world. The concept of the Trinity has been taught in India since ancient times. It offers a way to bridge the otherwise unconquerable chasm between the human experience and infinity.

Yes, it’s true that God, as transcendent and as infinite bliss, exists beyond and untouched by his creation, even though He is its sustaining source. He accomplishes the manifestation of the universe by becoming it. To do this, he uses a trick: an illusion of movement in opposite directions from a point of rest which is His center. His “son” is His reflection in creation. His reflection is the silent and invisible intelligence and intention that rests at the heart of every atom and in every soul, endowing even the atoms with individuality. This illusory trick of motion, of vibration, in opposite directions is His Ghost;[5] it is his “consort,” the mother of creation into whose womb the seed of his reflection is sown. This movement gives rise to the illusion of separate objects just as the spinning blades of a fan or the spokes of wheel give the illusion of solidity. This illusory movement is thus the mother of creation. It produces a sound, called, Aum, the Word, the Amen, the voice of God and the true and faithful witness to God’s immanence in creation. The Word produces Light, the face of God.

And the “Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us.” Those souls, sent to return to the world, in whom God’s reflection and vibration is fully realized are his messengers and his sons. As St. John the Evangelist in the first chapter of his gospel wrote, “And as many as received Him, give he the power to become the sons of God.” Jesus, and others like him, come in every age to awaken all those in tune with him and to him “by my Father.” Jesus is not essentially different than you or I, but he, and others like him down through the ages, has awakened to his sonship in God.

Towards the end of Jesus’ life, the bible tells us "And many walked with him no more.” For he challenged their credulity and their intuitive attunement with him when he said, “Eat my body and drink my blood!” In so doing, however, he spoke of the teaching of the Trinity. His body, which is sustaining “meat” is the “Christ consciousness,” which is to say, the only begotten reflection of the Father which is immanent in creation. His blood, which is the vibrating Life Force (known as “prana” in its individual form) of Aum which creates, sustains, and withdraws all atoms in the creation.

To eat the flesh of Christ is to become attuned to the divine presence within us and in silence. To drink the blood of Christ is to attune ourselves to the cosmic divine life that flows within us and within all. We are One in creation and One beyond creation and One in infinite Bliss. "Christ" is a title and a code word for divine consciousness immanent in creation.

All of the various and sundry distinctions of race, religion, gender, social status, and nation dissolve in the unifying light of God as the sole reality within and beyond creation. This experience comes in deep meditation and by meditation (and grace), God’s presence in the world can be known. This is the eternal promise and it has come again in special dispensation with meditation and kriya yoga into this world of disbelief.

Jesus taught, “I am the vine and ye are the branches. He that abideth in me and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit. For without me, ye can do nothing.” To become attuned to the wisdom presence of God and to the power of God which gives us life is to have life “more abundantly.” A further understanding of the vine and branches is that God, which is infinity and bliss, is far to powerful to be known directly, at least not without the enlargement of consciousness that is the attribute of high spiritual advancement. Instead, God's presence comes through living instruments. Not only, as explained above, in the latent state and center of each atom, but in its Self-realized state in those living instruments whom he sends. In sending his “son” as Jesus Christ or any of the great masters, he sets into motion the means by which souls are to be freed: through others! So “Me” refers both to the impersonal presence of God and also the divine presence in the true guru.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer dedicated his life and sacrificed his life for those who “had ears to hear” that Christ’s teachings would become a living reality. Few are asked to make the ultimate sacrifice that Bonhoeffer made, but, as Jesus put it, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil (the challenges) thereof.”

Yogananda brought to the West the means by which we can contact this living, divine reality within us, and within all.

Joy to you,
Swami Hrimananda! (aka Hriman)

[1] “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy,” Eric Metaxas, Thomas Nelson Press.
[2] “Letters by a Modern Mystic,” by Frank C. Laubach.
[3] The so-called Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Jesus Christ.
[4] Ɓutobiography of a Yogi,” by Paramhansa Yogananda, Chapter 39.
[5][5] Old English: his spirit, soul or breath.