The question of karma came up this afternoon and whether or not I believe in it. I’d already addressed the Karma question in my second post of this series, but I thought it might be advantageous to revisit. Of course, karma is the idea in the four major Indian religions that all of life is a cycle of death and reincarnations (samsara). This cycle of life, though, actively rewards or punishes deeds. So, the better you are, the closer you come to reaching moksha, or being released suffering this almost-endless cycle of rebirths.
In the bastardized western reading of karma, it’s less about the samsara and more about the idea that the universe is fundamentally just. If you treat people terribly, karma will eventually get you and the universe will once again right itself. It’s basically the Libertarian economic ideal applied to the universe: don’t interfere or get revenge, because the universe will eventually right itself like the free market. You can just sit back and say, “Well, karma’s a bitch, I’ll tell you that,” and watch the universe mete out justice eventually.
I think the worst misreading of karma comes from Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret (2006). She basically tells her readers that the universe only gives you what you put out. So, terrible things happen because you’re thinking/doing bad things to attract those terrible things. This “law of attraction” is like the American fast food version of karma, as it were. But this universe is just and efficient to mete out these punishments.
All of these, from the purest ideal of karma to the bastardized bourgeois self-help version, rely on the belief that the universe is fundamentally just. God or the universe will eventually right all the wrongs of the world. The proud will be cast down and the righteous poor will be raised up. Unfortunately, it’s always vague just who or what exactly will do all this righting (just like it’s kind of vague just how exactly the free market will right itself).
This belief in a fundamentally just universe is what gave rise the horrible caste system in India. After all, if you were born into the worst poverty, it’s because you’ve done something in a previous life to deserve it. Your poverty is just, as your poverty is the universe righting itself. So, be good in your poverty and, maybe, in the next life you’ll move up to the middle class.
Barbara Ehrenreich in Bright-Sided:How Positive Thinking is Undermining America (2010) does a good job of exposing the terribleness of this bastardized version of karma. In America, it has not led to a caste system, per se, but to a meritocracy. In this land of opportunity, the belief is that you are only poor because you’re lazy. After all, our society only rewards hard workers; you are responsible for the life you build.
We claim karma for everyone else, but we do not believe it when it comes to our own lives. When misfortunes befall us, we do not believe that it is because anything we’ve done. The just universe never hurts us, it only hurts the people who hurt us. I’m poor not because of what I’ve done, but because of what’s done to me. I’m poor because the system is stacked against me. So on and so forth.
This is why the belief in a just universe leads to the worst injustices. Telling someone they deserve what they’ve been given is the worst kind of cultural control. Go, read Bright-Sided.
I believe in God, but I do not believe in a just universe. Scripture confirms this in several places: the rain falling on the unjust, a season for everything under the sun and elsewhere. People get rich because they work hard, yes, but also because of luck. Also, people get rich because they cheat, know how to work the system and are immoral. People are poor in much the same way. But there is no “secret” to making the universe work in your favor, because the universe — whatever the hell that is — doesn’t care. Because “the universe” doesn’t exist.
Based on Aristotle, the Medieval Church taught that one could find holiness in any station of life. You could be close to God if you were poor, just as close as if you were rich. The worldly goods were temporary and only revealed the soul. The amount of charity they could give was the only difference between the rich and poor. Seemingly, the Medievals taught that it doesn’t matter where the universe places you, but, rather, in being faithful to God wherever you are.
Or, as Alexander Schmemann liked to say, “Spirituality consists in how you deal with what you’ve been dealt.” Usually, that means fighting against an unjust system that everyone just thinks is a just universe.