In the discussion of what spirit is and what matter is, and how culture intersects with both, I find myself again, as usual, pondering the differences of religions that are otherwise extremely similar in many ways.
Culture I am defining here as the habits, behaviors, practices, expectations, and understandings of a particular group of people. Cultures tend to form around a value or a belief. For example, we have our generic Western culture, that is both heavily influenced by and built up around the values of immediate gratification and worshipping the self (“It’s all about YOU! What do you want? What is your dream? How do you feel? That’s what is really important in life.”).
This is a material value, a value based on the mind, body, desires, senses.
There are cultures, however, or at least what slices of them we can get, that are based on other values. For example, there is the value of the eternal soul and its relationship to God, and the subsequent value of the duties, behaviors, and patterns of living that nourish and orient the soul towards life on this platform. This is a value based on consideration of one’s eternal position, rather than on the temporary, sense-based pains and pleasures of the temporal world.
To understand and accept, even, that there IS a soul, and that we ARE fundamentally spiritual beings, rather than bodily/animal ones, is rare in the world today. But it is not lost. The next question, then, becomes how do we clarify ourselves as a soul rather than as a body? How do we get information about who we really are?
The spiritual world is founded on the relationship of the soul with God.
The material world is founded on the soul’s illusion that he IS God, or that he can be and so desires to be.
The material world is full of suffering, and disquiet, and many other indications that we are not situated the way we are supposed to be.
But God made that world.
The premise then is that we want to understand how the things of this world can be used to access and strengthen our spiritual position, our relationship to God.
Christians often call this “baptizing” things. Pagan holidays, microphones, artistic talent, whatever can be used as a means to glorify and worship the Lord, or to serve Him, can be “baptized”, just as a soul in a body, who must be “born again” to spiritual life, is baptized to the service of God and the spiritual life, and is no longer subject to the flesh and the world.
John 3:1-8 describes:
“There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”
Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
The Vedic scriptures describe this process as yukta-vairagya, which is defined as the sacrifice of using the mind, body, senses, objects in the world, and everything else in the service of God. This is a higher sacrifice than simply renouncing things or controlling the senses, for everything used in the service of God becomes immediately purified, and the user is also purified as he works in this way. Bhagavad Gita devotes many verses to describing the proper attitude towards work in this way, a discipline known as karma yoga.
The culture and philosophy of India and the Vedas is very grand, full of useful tools, practices, medical, scientific, and astrological knowledge, not to mention the delicious food, the practical and modest clothing, the simplicity of life, the science of health and diet, the opulent traditions of worship with water and fire and incense and flowers… so it is a wonderful culture.
Though it is not a Christian culture, it is a culture designed and very strongly oriented toward the remembrance of God. Along with its monotheistic and devotional goals, the Vedas map out dozens of different paths and practices of worship, for all sorts of people, depending on what they desire, deserve, and have the facility to accomplish and make progress. Even the most demonic person can, if he chooses, make progress towards God in some way. Every soul is precious and shall not ultimately be lost unless its desire is to be lost.
Bhagavad Gita chapter 16.18-24 describes:
“Bewildered by false ego, strength, pride, lust and anger, the demons become envious of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is situated in their own bodies and in the bodies of others, and blaspheme against the real religion.
Those who are envious and mischievous, who are the lowest among men, I perpetually cast into the ocean of material existence, into various demoniac species of life.
Attaining repeated birth amongst the species of demoniac life, O son of Kuntī, such persons can never approach Me. Gradually they sink down to the most abominable type of existence.
There are three gates leading to this hell — lust, anger and greed. Every sane man should give these up, for they lead to the degradation of the soul.
The man who has escaped these three gates of hell, O son of Kuntī, performs acts conducive to self-realization and thus gradually attains the supreme destination.
He who discards scriptural injunctions and acts according to his own whims attains neither perfection, nor happiness, nor the supreme destination.
One should therefore understand what is duty and what is not duty by the regulations of the scriptures. Knowing such rules and regulations, one should act so that he may gradually be elevated.”
Such an intelligent culture surely offers illuminating philosophical understanding, as well as time-honored traditions and practices designed to help the soul remember God.
Those of us who are Christians, who are called to be in the world and not of it, in the same way, are messengers and servants of the Supreme Lord. We are given the teachings and mercy of Jesus Christ and commanded to make disciples of all nations, to love one another, and to let the lamp of our eye be FULL OF LIGHT, to walk according to the Spirit and not to the flesh.
The Vedas command the same thing. So my question is, can the Vedic culture be “baptized”? As human beings in the world we need a culture, and the culture of our mainstream society is not in the least conducive to spiritual life–it is a culture engaged in walking according to the flesh. A friend of mine once described Christianity as a chameleon, an essential mechanism, in a way, that brings the power of God to earth no matter the nation, people, or culture. Everything can be used as a vehicle for celebrating God and of bringing ourselves into the walk with Him.
That is not to say that all things are alike–Jesus makes this very clear as he tells us that we can always tell the true nature of a thing, or an activity, or a circumstance, by the results that it gives:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.”
In considering our question of elements of different cultures and how much we should accept them and live by them, and for what reasons, this–their fruits–will be our measure.
All my life has been a meandering exploration of–very many things–related to matter (the flesh), and related to spirit, and the intense struggle to truly understand the difference. The illusion of our own sinful nature and desire to be God, to be the controller and enjoyer of the world around us, is very strong. We cannot conquer it alone, because it is a thing, a consciousness, generated by our very attempt to be alone.
I have always found Jesus’ instruction to judge a tree by the fruit it bears to hold me true eventually. Even if I cannot see all the factors, or am deluded by my own feelings or expectations of something, in time, you always see the real results of a thing.
That is why spiritual values have my loyalty over self-aggrandizing ones. The latter sows the seeds of misery and destruction, while the former creates the undeniably nicer qualities of peace and steadiness.
God bless you all!