Tag Archives: Bhagavad Gita

Religious literacy: What do kids need to know about religion?

We’ve tentatively identified four big educational goals for the religious education programs in our church, and one of those goals is to make sure children have basic religious literacy compatible with the society they’re living in. More specifically, we want children who have gone through our program to know: (a) the main Bible stories they’re likely to encounter in Western culture (in literature, film, painting, etc.); (b) stories and facts about the main world religions they will encounter both in their immediate environment and in current events; (c) a basic knowledge of the history of Western religion (primarily Western Christianity), and in particular the history that led to the formation of Unitarianism and Universalism; and (d) the main characters and stories of Unitarianism and Universalism in North America.

Yesterday I had lunch with three of the lay leaders in the children’s religious education program to talk about assessment strategies for our religious education program. I suggested that part of our assessment strategy for this educational goal of religious literacy should be a list of the specific things we want to teach our kids; i.e., which Bible stories should kids know? which famous Unitarians and Universalists should they know? etc.

Below is my first attempt at generating such a list, with material to be covered from ages 3 to 18. I would love to have your comments on, suggestions for, corrections to, and additions to this list.

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Gandhi and prayer services

From Book of Prayers by Mohandas K. Gandhi, ed. John Strohmeier (Berkeley Hills Books, 1999), this passage in the introduction discusses why Gandhi took the time for daily worship:

Why, one might wonder, take the time to do all this [daily prayer services] in the middle of a revolution? Gandhi was not one to cling to empty forms. An answer may be found in the testimony of someone who observed Gandhi during one of those evening prayers. As you read it, bear in mind that the nineteen verses of the second chapter of the [Bhagavad] Gita, the description of the illumined man [sic], is widely regarded as the Sermon on the Mount of Hinduism:

“The sun had set when we got back [from his regular evening walk]. Hurricane lanterns were lit; Gandhi settled down at the base of a neem tree as ashramites and the rest of us huddled in Some hymns were sung, then Gandhi’s secretary began reciting the second chapter of the… Bhagavad Gita. Then it happened.

“Not that I can describe it very easily. Gandhi’s eyes closed; his body went stock still; it seemed as though centuries had rolled away and I was seeing the Buddha in a living person. I was what we had almost forgotten was possible in the modern world: a man who had conquered himself to the extent that some force greater than a human being… moved through him and affected everyone.”

…Gandhi had the power to shake India, in part, because he drew on resources within himself that are not normally accessible. And that access happened, among other occasions, at the high point of these prayer meetings….

There is a tendency to think that meditation and action are opposties, that one chooses between one way of life or the other. But as the Bhagavad Gita insists, meditation and selfless action are inseparable. They are opposite sides of the same coin, as complementary as breathing in and breathing out….” [pp. 14-15]

While of course we might phrase this differently to fit the context of our Western religious tradition, it is still true that worship services in our tradition are not escapes from the world, but a way for us to change the world. Worship unleashes powers that can heal us and heal the world; and it is probably dangerous for us to ignore this point.


This week, I somehow committed myself to preaching a sermon on Henry Thoreau’s Walden. I think I’m going to connect Walden to ecotheology. Not that Walden is a work of theology (or of philosophy), but I think the book has implications for ecotheology.

Henry James wrote that Thoreau is worse than provincial, he is parochial — in other words, Thoreau is so focused on his “parish” that he isn’t even aware of the “province” or region in which he lives. James is right on the mark, although in the postmodern world being parochial may be a compliment rather than the indictment James meant it for.

Others have criticized Thoreau for being worse than parochial. Communitarians have accused Thoreau of being far too individualistic, to the point where Walden becomes a manifesto for rampant individualism. From a theological viewpoint, the communitarians might criticize Thoreau for encouraging individuals to think it is possible to do religion on your own without a religious community. You might call this “bootstrap religion” because you pull yourself up by your own religious bootstraps.

But I’m not sure it’s fair to accuse Thoreau either of excessive individualism or of parochialism. It’s hard to accuse him of excessive individualism when he devotes chapters of Walden to subjects like “Visitors” and “Former Inhabitants.” He may be shy and introverted, but he recognizes his debt to other people. And it’s hard to accuse Thoreau of being parochial when he quotes widely from religious texts from around the world, including such works as the Bhagavad Gita and the Confucian Analects. Rather than being parochial, he is expanding his conversations beyond the Protestant Chrstian tradition — which is farther afield than Henry James went.

Indeed, from a theological viewpoint Thoreau goes beyond individualism or traditional parochialism — because he expands his religious thinking beyond God and humanity to include all of the natural world. It’s a radical step he takes: he equates Nature with the transcendent. I’d say he equates God with Nature, and then goes further to imply that the divine is immanent in all beings, and even in inanimate objects such as rocks or bodies of water. So rather than taking a stance of radical individualism, Thoreau seems to extend subjectivity beyond humanity and God to all of Nature.

I don’t know how this train of thought is going to turn into a sermon, but it sure is fascinating.

What a book

Notes from my week of study leave

Made my bimonthly pilgrimage to the Seminary Coop Bookstore, down in the basement of Chicago Theological School in the South Side of Chicago. (I still say it is the best academic bookstore I have visited on this side of the Atlantic.)

As usual, I walked out with ten or twenty pounds of books, including a copy of The Mahabharata: A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epic, by R. K. Narayan, a prominent 20th C. Indian novelist.

I remember reading a review of this book a few years ago, probably when the University of Chicago Press edition came out in 2000. The reviewer said it was the best short version (179 pages of the massive 100,000 stanza original poem) of the Mahabharata in English. I’ve been meaning to read it ever since.

Having never read the full Mahabharata, I am in no position to judge how good an abridgement it is. But Narayna’s book is well-written, gripping, entertaining, and even manages to retain something of an epic feel to it in spite of its short length. Best of all, I now have a better sense of the context of the Bhagavad Gita, one of my favorite religious texts, which is but one small part of the entire Mahabharata.

Highly recommended.