Here and Now: Early Christians

The remaining posts in this series will be through the lens of the Christian tradition.  Upcoming posts will make selected and brief “whistle stops” in Christian history to illustrate how people have sought to live in the present moment.

We begin with the early Christians, essentially before 313 a.d. when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and the nature of Christianity became intertwined (positively and negatively) with institutional and imperialistic expressions.  The roughly 250 year period from the close of the New Testament to the Council of Nicea reveals key insights for here-and-now living. [1]

We begin with ‘The Didaché (c. 110 a.d.).  The Christians of the second century CE did not abandon their belief in the imminent return of Christ, but they had to “reset” their eschatalogical clocks, and tend more to here-and-now concerns and necessities.  The Didaché was likely the earliest document outside of Scripture describing how they sought to do that.

The document (probably used in catechesis) sought to show the path of life, in contrast to the way of death.  It has three sections: ethics, rituals, and organization.  All three are aimed to describe and direct abundant living here and now.  It was the early church’s way of saying that while Christians had their eyes on the heavens (in anticipation of Christ’s return), they must also have their feet on the ground.  Daily living is eternal life made real here-and-now.

Not long afterwards, the monastic movement began in the deserts of the Middle East.  Sometimes misunderstood (and misused) as an escape from life, it was actually a means chosen by some to be more engaged with life.  The word ‘monos’ means singular.  The monastic intent was to live in the present moment without duplicity and distraction.  It was a way of choosing “the one thing needful” and making that choice the basis, reference point, and motivation for all of life.

In the monastic movement, three things stood out as incentives to here-and-now living.  First, younger Christians would seek out ammas and abbas asking them to “give me a word that I might live.”  Second, some of the abbas and ammas held conferences to share their wisdom with groups of people.  And third, they lived in communities (cenobitic monasticism) where they supported one another in godly living.  All three things formed and fostered living in the oresent moment.

For reasons like these (e.g. Didaché and monasticism) later Christians have looked to the early-Christian era as a time when foundational dimensions of Christian living were messaged and modeled.  It is no accident that a growing number of Christians today are looking anew at the early Christians, and finding in them (as others have previously done) a wealth of wisdom and guidance for living life here and now. [2]

[1] To look more broadly and deeply at the early Christians, I recommend Henry Chadwick’s book ‘The Early Church’ (Penguin Books, 1967).  For a good overview of early monasticism, Thomas Merton’s ‘The Wisdom of the Desert’ (New Directions, 1960) is an excellent resource.

[2] I note these excellent books about the New Monasticism: John Michael Talbot, ‘The Universal Monk (Liturgical Press, 2011) and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, ‘New Monasticism’ (Brazos Press, 2008).

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Here and Now: Native American Religions

Before changing gears in this series, I want to highlight the belief in here-and-now living found in Native American religions.  As with the other religions we have looked at, there are variations between and among tribes.  But we can see the thread of present-moment living running through them all.  We see it particularly by looking at their prayers.

Most notably, they prayed that they might live in the Sacred Space.  This Lakota Prayer expresses the desire….

“Wakan Tanka, Great Mystery, Teach me how to trust My heart, My mind, My intuition, My inner knowing, The senses of my body, The blessings of my spirit. Teach me to trust these things So that I may enter my Sacred Space And love beyond my fear, And thus Walk in Balance With the passing of each glorious Sun.”

Sacred Space is the space between breathing in and breathing out, something we only do in the present moment.  The prayer is expressing the desire to be fully alive moment by moment, what the prayer refers to as walking “in Balance with the passing of each glorious Sun.”

Oglala Sioux leader, Black Elk, called living in the present moment “the first peace,” describing it in these words….

“The first peace, which is the most important, Is that which comes within the souls of people When they realize their relationship, Their oneness, with the universe and all its powers.

And when they realize that at the center Of the universe dwells Wakan-Taka (the Great Spirit), And that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us. This is the real peace, and the others are but reflections of this.”

Notice the present-tense verbs.  Black Elk spoke of an experience happening here-and-now, in the Great Spirit, and within each of us.

From this kind of praying and living, Native American religions mirrored the others we have looked at, believing that living in the present moment yielded the ability to see our oneness with everyone and everything, the motivation to act with kindness and compassion toward all, and the openness to receive everything that the Earth is created to give us.  [1]

[1] My understanding of Native American religions has been significantly shaped by Kent Nerburn’s book, ‘The Wisdom of the Native Americans’ (New World Library, 1999).  An earlier book co-authored by him and Louise Mengelkoch, ‘Native American Wisdom’ (New World Library, 1991) has also been helpful.

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Here and Now: Islam

Islam’s recognition of present-moment living flows from the sense of God’s comprehensive presence.  It shares this perception with other religions, but I write of it here because it is a major emphasis in Islam.

The Quran describes it this way: “Wheresoever you turn, there is the Face of God (2:115). [1]  Among other things this means we do not have to look to the past or to the future to experience God.  God is present here-and-now.  This includes the belief that God is omnipresent, but it is more than being.  God’s presence is active, noted by commentators in four ways: giving direction, offering forgiveness, being generous, and especially in showing mercy.  In the present moment our relationship with God is one of blessing and benefit.

Related to this, we can note that our awareness and receptivity to God’s presence is enhanced through reading and reflecting on the Quran.  In ways akin to lectio divina, the Quran is viewed as a text that is not only informative, but also formative.  When used in this way, the Quran itself becomes a present-moment text “a guide for the attainment of beatitude even in this world.” [2]

The basic understanding of beatitude in Islam is joy born out of reverence (taqwā).  This is fundamentally expressed in worship and prayer, but it is also a disposition of the heart in which we experience “other qualities as trust (tawakkul), hope (rajāʾ), piety (birr), fear (khawf), and contentment (riḍā).” [3]

So in Islam, as in the other religions we are looking at, present-moment living is the aim.  Attentiveness is the means through which we recognize that God is with us, and the means by which we live abundantly here and now.

[1] ‘The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary’ (HarperOne, 2015).

[2] Ibid., xxvii.

[3] Ibid., 14.

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Here and Now: Judaism

We looked at living here and now in the Old Testament, but that does not exhaust what Judaism teaches about it.  We gain additional insights from the word ‘aschav.’

Aschav is not in the Bible.  The earliest find of the word is in the Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q225). It is the word that Judaism uses most often to describe present-moment living.  A common rendering of the word is “right now.”  It is not only a word about immediacy, but also used to describe presence.  Living ” right here”… “right now.”

The means for this is meditation.  It is a practice, but it is more.  Meditation is the belief that the present moment contains all that we need.  When we meditate, we ruminate (like a cow chewing its cud) on a particular aspect of current reality. From this concentration, the nutrients of the moment feed us. Often it is a passage in Scripture.  But it can also be a focused attentiveness to another text, a work of art, a scene in nature, music, etc.  

Aschav means being nourished “right now.” Along with the other religions we have reviewed, here-and-now living happens as we breathe, walk, sit, eat, etc.  We likely do it best in solitude, but living “right now” can (and should) also happen when we are with others in community and conversation.  Aschav is being totally present in the moment, and in being so we are fully alive.

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Here and Now: Taoism

I have decided to write a post about Taoism because it not only extends our realization of how longstanding the belief in here-and-now living is, but through Taoism we see such living through the lens of a Far Eastern religion.

The main way to see present-moment living in Taoism is to read each of the 81 meditations in the ‘Tao Teh Ching’ and see how each of them is pondered and enacted in the present moment. [1]  The language is present-tense and the wisdom of the Tao is obviously intended to make us wise, virtuous, and strong here and now.

The fact is, Taoism does not believe either the past or present is real.  Existence is only in the present, and that is where we must live. Picking up on this, Taoists have identified signs that help us discern whether or not we are living in the present moment.  Depression is a sign we are living in the past.  Anxiety is a sign we are living in the future. Peace is the sign we are living in the present. [2]

But the most important thing is that (as is also true of other religions) the Tao is the eternal “now.”  [3]  To dwell in the Tao is to live in the here-and-now.

[1] I have used John C.H. Wu’s translation of ‘The Tao Teh Ching’ (St. John’s University Press, 1961 and now republished by Shambala) because  Dr. Wu was an acknowledged expert on Taoism, and because Thomas Merton commended it as the best translation he had read.

[2] Unfortunately, these signs have been mistakenly turned into a quote from Lao Tsu.  But he never said this.  The three signs are interpretations that subsequent Taoists have given.  In that sense, they are accurate reflections on the relation to Taoism and the present moment.

[3] This is the message of Meditation 1, and it is the thread which winds its way through the next eighty meditations.  The Eternal Tao is Mystery, to be sure, but it is “the door of all essence.”

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Here and Now: Hinduism/Buddhism

Hinduism is thought by some to be the oldest religion in the world. [1]. Buddhism grew out of Hinduism, so even though they have their differences, it is possible to speak of similarities as well.  One similarity is their emphasis on living in the here-and-now.

Hinduism roots life in the present moment through the word ‘VartamAna.’  It simultaneously means ‘living’ and ‘present moment.’  Hinduism holds the two together in a singular reality, with the resulting meaning, “We live in the present time.” [2]

But this is not merely existence.  Present-moment living is revealed in the Vedas as an active engagement with life.  The image is that of sowing and reaping, similar to Paul’s own teaching, “You reap whatever you sow” (Galatians 6:7).  From this belief, Hinduism establishes Vartamana Karma” as one of the main expressions of karma. [3]

Karma is not ‘fate’ as it is often thought to be; rather it is the effort we make to sow good seeds (especially love and compassion in Hinduism), so that our present-moment existence enriches life.  Vartamana Karma is not so much about what we get back as it is about what we give.  But whether we receive or give, Hinduism teaches we live in the present moment.

Buddhism continues the same idea.  Thich Nhat Hanh says it simply, “Life is accessible only in the here and now.” [4]  Interestingly, he sees Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God as a commendation of present-moment living, concluding that “The Kingdom of God is now or never.” [5]

Just as in Hinduism, so too in Buddhism, living in the present moment is not merely a state of being, it is also a practice: mindfulness.  This is the Buddhist equivalent of Christian meditation, a practice that creates the contemplative life.  This life is essentially ethical (productive of comprehensive goodness, and when lived, it gives us deep joy.  [6]  Living in the present moment creates what the Dalai Lama calls, “the good heart.” It is noteworthy that it is in this kind of heart where he sees the major link between Buddhism and the teachings of Jesus. [7]

Putting everything together, Hinduism and Buddhism teach present-moment living simply because it is only here-and-now where truth is living faith.  Putting truth in the past or the future reduces it to an abstract concept, which it was never meant to be.

[1] Others believe it is Zoroastrianism.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to say for sure which of the two religions is earliest because they are both believed to have arisen 2000+/- BCE.

[2]. Definition taken from Spoken Sanskrit, an online source cited by Hindus themselves as a good reference.

[3]  Arkadeb Bhattacharyya, “The Four Kinds of Karma,” Prana World, June 6, 2017.

[4] Thich Nhat Hanh, ‘You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment’ (Shambala, 2009), 9.

[5] Ibid., 10.

[6] The Dalai Lama has emphasized the ethical and joyful nature of mindfulness in his writings and public lectures.  His book, ‘An Appeal to the World’ (William Morrow, 2017) is a recent and good overview of his thinking.

[7] The Dalai Lama, ‘The Good Heart: A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus (Wisdom Publications, 1998).

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Here and Now: The Perennial Tradition

It is easy to forget that there was what we might call “religion before the religions.” Scholars are not agreed whether Zoroastrianism or Hinduism is the oldest world religion, but they are generally agreed that no matter which was actually first, it began around 2,000 BCE (4,000 years ago +/-).

Archaeology has unearthed evidence of “religion” (i.e. the religious instinct in humans) as far back as 40,000 years ago.  With no connection to a particular date, the writer of Genesis notes that people began to invoke the name of the Lord during the generation of Enosh (Genesis 4:26), clearly a time far back in history.

It makes no sense to think that God was silent for 38,000 years–the time from the expression of a religious instinct to the emergence of formal world religions.  To read the first two chapters of Genesis is to see God/human communion “in the beginning.” The creation of world religions was only the formalization (and contextualization) of what had been part of the human experience for a long, long time.

To say it another way, there has been much more time on the earth when people were religious without religions, than with them. The content is much older than the containers.  Today we call this longer, pre-religions’ period, the Perennial Tradition. [1]  I include it in this series because it too is a testimony to here-and-now living.

Because the religious instinct in the Perennial Tradition was so connected with nature, the here-and-now aspects of life were experienced almost every day: sunrise/sunset, the seasons, good weather/bad weather, agricultural cycles, etc. [2] God and the world were so intimately linked that it was almost impossible to think about anything other than living in the present moment. [3]  God was understood to be inherent in all things. [4]. God was present as Presence.

Moreover, the Perennial Tradition emphasized the immediacy of relationship.  ‘Here’ was the place and ‘now’ was the time to know God, be influenced by God, and to serve God.  There were no designated religious buildings to go to–no specifically declared religious days to observe.  It was more like what David declared, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1).

These aspects, and more, from the Perennial Tradition reveal the longstanding history of here-and-now living.  This kind of life arises from an organismic (unitive) view of life, compared to a mechanistic (separate parts) view.  It is rooted deeply in a God/human “likeness” that began in creation.  It is the sense that “God is not far from any of us, for in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28).

[1]  For more about the Perennial Tradition, I recommend Aldous Huxley, ‘The Perennial Philosophy’; Bede Griffiths, ‘Universal Wisdom’; Karen Armstrong, ‘The Great Transformation (Chapter 1); and Houston Smith, ‘The World’s Religions (Chapter 9).

[2] The first place I saw this was when I read James Michener’s ‘The Source.’

[3] This was because a view of God as imminent took precedence over a view of transcendence.  Only later, as religions took shape, did transcendence eclipse imminence, with ‘natural laws’ increasingly describing God’s interaction with creation.  In the Perennial Tradition there was no differentiating between God’s person and God’s laws.

 [4] Richard Rohr, ‘A Spring Within Us’ (CAC Publishing, 2016), Week Four: “The Perennial Tradition,” 37-51.

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