God of Many Names

One of the interesting things about studying religion in a secular, academic setting was how much that study impacted my understanding of my own faith.  In each of my courses, as I learned about ways of understanding and interacting with the divine that were wholly foreign to me, I was challenged to add something to my idea of who God is and how I should worship him.

Perhaps the class that challenged me the most on this level was “Introduction to Hinduism.”  Hinduism was different.  Really different.  It was the only non-Abrahamic faith I had a chance to study in depth, and at first, the other-ness of it was almost overwhelming.  But as the semester went on and I got a better feel for the material we were covering, I was extremely intrigued.

One of the things I find most challenging about Hinduism is their conception of the divine.  I was under the impression before beginning the class that Hinduism is a polytheistic religion, one that worships many gods.  This is true to an extent, but I quickly realized it is a vast oversimplification.  Hindus do have stories of many gods, but there is no set pantheon.  Everyone worships the gods they choose, and there are many different versions of how many gods exist and who those gods are.  There are local gods that are only worshiped in a very specific geographic area, and sometimes particularly holy people are worshiped as new incarnations of a particular deity or as new deities in and of themselves.  (This is a great oversimplification in and of itself, which I am making for the sake of space.)

The reason for this fluidity is that Hindus believe that all gods are expressions of a single divine entity, the Brahman.  So Ganesh, the maker and remover of obstacles, is one expression of the divine.  Shiva, the ascetic whose frenzied dancing creates and destroys the universe, is another.  Durga, the warrior goddess; Kali, the destroyer; Krishna, the embodiment of erotic love and divine joy; all are expressions of a single divine consciousness.

As Christians, we mostly call our single divine consciousness “God” or “Father” or “Jesus.”  Occasionally we remember the third part of the Trinity and throw in a “Holy Spirit” for good measure.  But when we go back to the original Hebrew of the Old Testament, we find many names for God.  He is the Lord of Hosts, God My Strength, God My Salvation, God Who Avenges, God is There, God My Provider, and many others.  Some of these divine names even invoke the feminine!

I think it’s easy, as a Christian, to form an incredibly one-sided view of God.  We anthropomorphize, shaping God in our own image instead of acknowledging the vastness and complexity of who and what God is.  Sometimes, when I am struggling, it helps me to remember the many expressions of the Hindu divine, so that I can re-affirm that God contains within himself everything I could ever need him to be.

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New Year, New Goals

The past few years, I’ve really struggled with my faith.  Part of it was a struggle with the church I grew up in and with my frustration with the particular brand of “church culture” I had been immersed in for so long.  Part of it was a struggle with depression and anxiety and exhaustion.  I felt dead inside, and even when the pills and the therapy slowly began to coax the rest of me back to life, my connection to God remained mostly dead.  It would flicker occasionally from one end or the other in a sudden moment of inspiration or my own dogged attempts to find a prayer/worship/Bible study routine that I could stick to, but like a fire built with green wood, it would quickly die out.  I struggled to attend church, sometimes getting up on Sunday morning and driving to service, only to sit in the parking lot and cry, unable to make myself go in because of the crippling anxiety I felt.

For a while, I gave up.  I decided to put that part of myself on the back burner and focus on getting the rest of my life together, trust that when it was time to pick it all back up again, God would let me know.

Recently, I’ve been feeling that tug, feeling that it’s time to start working on my relationship with God and the church again.  I moved away from my home state in August to attend graduate school in the field of public health, and it’s given me the space I needed to continue recovering.  At the same time, I’ve been exposed to a significantly wider range of ideas and opinions than I had previously encountered, and I’m finding myself challenged to really think through a lot of things that I wouldn’t have touched when I still lived at home.  It’s exhilarating and intimidating at the same time, and I find myself pressing closer to God as I ask these questions, hoping that proximity to the source of truth will make things clearer.

In the context of all this upheaval and change, I found myself struck by a verse this morning:

“For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.  For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.  But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.”  II Peter 1:5-8

It’s so easy to get caught up in issues of orthodoxy.  Growing up in church, I was regularly reminded that in the end times, even the “elect” would be deceived (Matthew 24:24), so I developed a terrible fear of believing the wrong thing.  Now, as I begin to really search for my own understanding of the Word for the first time, this verse is incredibly comforting.  It reminds me that God accepts my best effort.  He is not waiting to strike me down at the slightest misstep.  He is not waiting to hurl me away at the first sign of misunderstanding.  Instead, he asks only that I seek to add good things to my life, to grow in my knowledge of Him, and to love those around me as He does.  That’s the best possible goal for the New Year.

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