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Mental spirituality

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The latest dispatch from the Hampshire Independent, a progressive frontier outpost broadcasting to the local fundamentalist savages, in the blood-red hills of Bible-belt West Virginia:

It's the second installment of the Independent's "Sunday Morning Gospel Hour," and much to my surprise, it turns out to be Round 2 of the Hindu vs. Radical Pantheist Turborama (I find unradical pantheism a little stodgy for my taste)--again featuring this week's guest of honor, for a return engagement--my highly honored and deeply loved yoga teacher and spiritual mentor of many incarnations, Swami Ramachandrananda (Swami Rama to you non-Sanskrit types)--versus the world's foremost living radical pantheist (and I hereby issue my pro forma Scots-Irish dare to anyone to challenge me), yours truly.

The reason I'm surprised to be writing about yoga class again is because, by the second week of the Sunday morning program here (actually Sunday night, by this point--people may think me a slacker, but it was an extra long Saturday), I think it's kind of rude of me not to be talking about the many different varieties of Christians living around me here in these West Virginia hills--especially since they make up the majority of the people in Hampshire County (though the New Agers are a mushrooming movement--so to speak).

I realized as soon as I became a columnist at the Hampshire Review in 1996 that, even though I had been writing about politics since I was in grammar school, and had spent my childhood fascinated particularly by two books--an illustrated book of Bible stories, and "The History of America in Pictures"--I had not dug into the roots of either religion or politics enough to comfortably address the fundamentalist savages that I, a merely daffy progressive missionary, had come to convert.

See, there's no surly wilderness in the universe any angel walks by weak-kneed that I won't tread right into, wearing my foolish grin--if I think the cause is right and just and necessary. I know who God protects, besides little children (though She apparently has had a lot of other things on her mind, seeing how little children suffer lately; but I think the negligence is more because Her own adult children, feeling subconsciously threatened by their own growing and unsustainable numbers, are doing too much hoarding. There are some real psychopaths out there, too--their victims being the kids gone ruthlessly wild in Africa, terrified as youngsters into becoming drug-crazed, heavily-armed guerrillas).

But it was my dive into the subterranean bowels of Western thought, in preparation for writing the Review column, that led me to the final path of my long journey from Christianity to pantheism--a "religion" (if you can call it that) in which everything is divine--and for that goad that lightened the path, I will be (in a way that only pantheists and a few mystics know) eternally grateful.

Where Christianity really went off the path that Jesus taught--Jesus of Nazareth, the enlightened "son of man" (as they like to say in ancient Aramaic, still spoken in areas of southern Syria)-- is when Paul mixed his ruling class collaborator's Hellenistic mumbo-jumbo in with an already pluralistic Hebrew mysticism, both to buttress his sense of self-importance, and to entertain his fellow Roman citizen plutocrats at their high-class parties (now there was a catty fellow, Saul of Tarsus, his secret most likely sniffed out by Bishop Shelby Spong--a terrifying read for any staunchly Christian man repressing hidden longings).

Paul's magical transformation of the simple message of loving God and loving neighbor into a hybrid mystery cult was followed by the knockout punch--Constantine's appropriation of the up-and-coming messianic social order, to stage a second coming for a dying Roman Empire.

It worked. The brutal and cunning Constantine, who slit the throats of several loved ones to maintain his power, transformed the Empire into Christianity. And there have been few outbursts of freedom in that faith ever since. They are usually suppressed (like the Albigensians, for example) in the piously bloodthirsty manner that the first official Christian emperor would dispassionately approve of.

Ah, but Constantine, although a ruthlessly efficient imperial bureaucrat, was fooled--as bureaucrats frequently are by prophets. Because Jesus of Nazareth had planted seeds of love in his followers that keep returning like perennial flowers in every generation. And the seeds of love that Jesus planted in their forebears' hearts keep blossoming in the hearts of the Christian children who live around here, including the most radical fundamentalist pups. That's something the secular humanists I often hang around with have trouble understanding--which is too bad for them, really. They're missing out. A pure and open heart can find love anywhere, because, as every radical pantheist knows, love is all around us.

(You can see why I get nervous if I have to speak extemporaneously. I think I have the most parenthetical mind of anyone I've ever met. I can turn a half-hour lecture into an all-nighter, if I don't have a prepared something or other. Here I wasn't supposed to be talking about Christians, yet have parenthesized away half the Gospel Hour on that very subject. But let's return to where we started: the Hindu v. pantheist faceoff, floating twenty feet higher than Romney's Main Street in the balcony of the public library, every Saturday morning at ten.)


Monday morning now--for those who think of pre-dawn darkness as morning. Actually, before I get back to what happened in yoga class (which is more interesting than funny, anyway), let me tell you something funny (parenthetical as clockwork; didn't I tell you?).

The reason I know the Swami and I have been matching wits for God knows how many incarnations in our friendly little mystical dance kind of way, is that I first met him in my dreams many years before I met him in the flesh. Of course we've known each other for millennia. I think we both knew that the first time I shook his soft, strong, welcoming hand. He's like my cats sometimes--all we have to do is look into each other's eyes to communicate volumes.

Anyway, back in dreamland, I can't remember exactly when it was, but I'm thinking I was still chasing tight, attractively-patched bell-bottoms, when the Swami tapped me on the shoulder in my dream to wonder how I'd strayed so far from the path. I mean that metaphorically, of course. What he actually did was just change the dream channel, and suddenly I was in one of my early nocturnal subconscious flying lessons, and crashing into everything. And my flying teacher in the dream, this short Indian guy with a long beard, was totally exasperated with my clumsiness, and I was ashamed--not to get too Freudian about it, but the same way I sometimes felt with my Dad growing up.

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Michael Hasty wrote a column for 7 years at the Hampshire Review, West Virginia's oldest newspaper, named "best column" in 2000 by the WV Press Association. His writings have appeared at hundreds of websites, including Online Journal, Common (more...)

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