The Ultimate Consciousness

In the 1930s, Indian author and scholar Shri Purohit Swami wrote his English translations of Hindu scriptures, and he did so making an effort to translate these ancient texts in a way that Westerners unfamiliar with Hindu concepts and mores would find accessible. These words are from his translation of the Bhagavad Gita [12:1-10]:

Arjuna asked: My Lord! Which are the better devotees who worship Thee, those who try to know Thee as a Personal God, or those who worship Thee as Impersonal and Indestructible?

Lord Shri Krishna replied: Those who keep their minds fixed on Me, who worship Me always with unwavering faith and concentration; these are the very best. Those who worship Me as the Indestructible, the Undefinable, the Omnipresent, the Unthinkable, the Primeval, the Immutable and the Eternal; subduing their senses, viewing all conditions of life with the same eye, and working for the welfare of all beings, assuredly they come to Me.

But they who thus fix their attention on the Absolute and Impersonal encounter greater hardships, for it is difficult for those who possess a body to realize Me as without one.

Verily, those who surrender their actions to Me, who muse on Me, worship Me and meditate on Me alone, with no thought save of Me, O Arjuna! I rescue them from the ocean of life and death, for their minds are fixed on Me.

Then let thy mind cling only to Me, let thy intellect abide in Me; and without doubt thou shalt live hereafter in Me alone. But if thou canst not fix thy mind firmly on Me, then, My beloved friend, try to do so by constant practice. And if thou are not strong enough to practice concentration, then devote thyself to My service, do all thine acts for My sake, and thou shalt still attain the goal.

The Ultimate Consciousness

October 1, 2017 – The Rev. Evan Keely, Interim Minister

I’ve been a guest preacher in many Unitarian Universalist congregations over the years — at one point I tried to get a rough estimate, and while I couldn’t get the precise figure, I did ascertain that I have lead worship in UU congregations in over a dozen US states and one Canadian province, and I’ve preached in every North American time zone except Mountain. I don’t say this to toot my horn, but merely to point out not only that I feel very fortunate to have had these encounters with the lived experience of Unitarian Universalists in various locales across the continent; I hope (though I am far from sure) that these are among the experiences that have given me at least the opportunity to form a breadth of perspective on what’s actually happening in Unitarian Universalism in North America.

I have in mind one such experience from some years back that occurred during the coffee hour after worship. Of course I have not the slightest recollection of what I preached about that morning; what I remember was this woman asking me about my perspective. I can still remember the look on her face, which suggested not an enticed curiosity, but a genuine concern — I might even say she appeared afraid. I don’t remember the content of our conversation except for one (it seemed to me) rather pointed question she asked me: “You don’t believe in a personal God, do you?”

To this day I can’t really be absolutely sure what she meant by this question. A “personal God”? I know what a personal trainer is; I’m not certain what a personal God is. I can perhaps hazard a guess as to what she meant not only by the look on her face and her tone of voice, but by the similarity this conversation bears to many, many others I have had in a life lived among Unitarian Universalists. I think she was troubled, as many I have encountered in UUland over the years seem to be, by the idea of the divine as having a kind of personhood, a consciousness — and perhaps more so by the possibility that someone who is not only a fellow Unitarian Universalist, but an ordained minister in this tradition, might actually believe in “a personal God.”

I do not claim any great wisdom nor any especially shrewd insight into Unitarian Universalism. All I can say with certainty is that I have been the minister of ten congregations (and prior to that, the ministerial intern in two others), and that among the things that can be said about those twelve congregations is that they varied considerably — in numerical size, in location, in the age of the institution — and that they also showed great variety in less easily-measurable ways, such as in their culture. What I have observed quite consistently is that Unitarian Universalist institutions — I am not speaking of individuals, but organizations — have a strong tendency to avoid what we might call a theology of the personal; perhaps the “personal God” of my aforementioned interlocutor was an attempt by one person to articulate this tendency. For example: we do not often petition God, we do not often thank God, we do not often praise God. I consider the absence of these phenomena to be of profound significance, if for no other reason than because petitions, thanks and praise are so intrinsic to the religious observances of so many peoples all over the face of the earth, and have been for thousands upon thousands of years. The problem inherent in this is that there is an inescapable cognitive dissonance associated with the actual day-to-day experience of Unitarian Universalist institutions. We proclaim loudly and frequently to the world that we are open-minded, we can’t wait to tell everybody how accepting we are, and yet the actual scope of our theological exploration appears to be fairly narrow.

I have mentioned before that my spiritual practice for 2017 has been to read two slokas (verses) of the Bhagavad Gita along with eight commentaries by various sages on those verses. One thing that this has forced me to contend with the vastness of theological thought that at least three and a half millennia of Hindu culture and practice have produced — and how I know next to nothing about any of it. Add to this the immense panoply of theological discourse that fourteen centuries of Islam have produced; the astonishing variety of theologies that predate Christianity and Islam that are to be found in cultures all over Africa, throughout Asia, plus Australia and all the islands of Oceania, and of course through the entirety of the Americas from Beringia to the Strait of Magellan; and the varieties of Buddhist theologies — yes, Buddhism does have theologies — and we realize that theology is one of the most abundant, diverse and complex of all human disciplines. All that is without exploring the oft-cited “Judeo-Christian roots” of Unitarian Universalism and of much of the culture we inhabit here in North America, a great deal of which is actually profoundly influential on Unitarian Universalist practice — for instance, at the moment someone is preaching a sermon, a very (though not at all exclusively) Judeo-Christian phenomenon.

Yet the tendency I have observed in many of our congregations is an apparent rule, unspoken yet very much in effect, that the common liturgical denominator in communal Unitarian Universalist worship should be atheism — that the lingua franca of our worship should be grounded in the assumption that atheist-friendly language will appeal to everybody, since of course the atheists will like it and the theists won’t mind it. All of this is predicated upon fallacies too plentiful to enumerate comprehensively, so let me select just two of them: the idea that worship ought to offer us something that we like — aside from being an appallingly self-centered and consumerist misapprehension — is itself a theological statement, and the idea that Unitarian Universalists should have any one common theological language — atheism or anything else — flies in the face of everything we say we’re about.

I have not the slightest problem with atheism; I certainly do not subscribe to the preposterous notion that believing in God somehow confers some kind of indelible virtue upon the believer. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Osama bin Laden both had a steadfast belief in God; one of them grounded his theology in love and justice, the other in exclusion, terror and mass-murder. I am not suggesting that anyone who denies that God is a consciousness is mistaken; I myself am not prepared at this moment in time to assert or deny that God is or has a consciousness. My point is simply this: if we Unitarian Universalists are going to go on crowing about how accepting and curious and theologically diverse we are, then we had damned well better actually do it. If we ever did a lot of hard theological work in order to reach the conclusion that God is not a consciousness, I must have missed it. I miss a lot — it’s no joke — but I have to wonder how I could have missed that in twenty years of puttering around dozens and dozens of congregations in this denomination and meeting and interacting with actually thousands of Unitarian Universalists. I would like very much for the suppositions I have articulated from this UU pulpit this morning to be mistaken, but if there is evidence for that, I have not seen it.

One thing I have learned from my journey with the Gita is that there are a number of ancient and venerable schools of theological thought responding to that text and other scriptures of that tradition which assume that God is a consciousness. Theologians such as Madhvacharya, Sridhara Swami and Keshava Kashmiri all define Yoga as “the science of the individual consciousness attaining communion with the ultimate consciousness,” and all eight of the commentators I am reading are quite insistent that God is understood to be (among other things) the Ultimate Consciousness. The Bhagavad Gita is a dialogue between the Supreme Lord Krishna and his devotee Arjuna, so of course the idea of the personality, the personhood of the divine is articulated very clearly in that tradition. I am not saying we too should embrace that same theology or that we should reject it; I am saying that if we are as serious about religious exploration as we say we are, concepts like the Ultimate Consciousness ought to be included in our communal religious life. We can accept those ideas, or reject them, or ponder them, or rejoice in them, or debate them, or denounce them, but what we do instead, as far as I have seen in a life lived among Unitarian Universalists, is almost entirely ignore them. Thousands of years of theological inquiry have unfolded in every language on every continent, but how much effort do we make to do more than scratch the surface? And of that surface that we do scratch, how much of it is selected because it doesn’t make us too uncomfortable? Theology, by definition, can never be always comfortable. We cannot contemplate the nature of the universe and the meaning and purpose of existence without some discomfort — unless, of course, we make the choice to explore only those theological explorations that are carefully selected to keep us from being uneasy.

I honestly don’t know what it would look like if our espoused theory of openness and inquiry matched our theory-in-practice, but I can only assume it would be something so vastly different as to be virtually unrecognizable to us. Perhaps that’s what Unitarian Universalism will become in the next two hundred years or so. Or perhaps sometime in the next two hundred years or so, we’ll find a way of describing ourselves that more closely matches what we are actually doing than may be the case in the here and now. In the meantime, we either should do a lot more theology in our congregations, or we should stop saying what we say about ourselves and start saying something else.