Saturday, October 9, 2010

In Defense of Christian Yoga


Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.
Rumi, 13th century sufi poet and mystic

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?
James 4:1

Because I'm a high school teacher and currently working on honing my own instructional strategies, I'd like to begin this blog by testing your prior knowledge: If you haven't already heard, what do you think the president of the Southern Baptist Convention just wrote about yoga? Some readers, no doubt, have already picked up on this recent "news" item that has, just this week, covered Albert Mohler's September 20 blog post entitled The Subtle Body: Should Christians Practice Yoga? Others haven't heard, but, could probably put the whole blog post together right now without reading it. Mohler writes:

To a remarkable degree, the growing acceptance of yoga points to the retreat of biblical Christianity in the culture. Yoga begins and ends with an understanding of the body that is, to say the very least, at odds with the Christian understanding. Christians are not called to empty the mind or to see the human body as a means of connecting to and coming to know the divine. Believers are called to meditate upon the Word of God — an external Word that comes to us by divine revelation — not to meditate by means of incomprehensible syllables.

Mohler's convictions about yoga appear to be solely based on his reading of Stefanie Syman's book The Subtle Body which chronicles the growing American obsession with the physical-spiritual practice of yoga all the way up to Michelle Obama's announcement at the White House Easter Egg Roll:

Our goal today is just to have fun. We want to focus on activity, healthy eating. We’ve got yoga, we’ve got dancing, we’ve got storytelling, we’ve got Easter-egg decorating.

Apparently, Syman writes that it is impossible for Christians to pick up yoga and remain Christian because of its inherently Eastern spiritual connotations. As a result, Mohler dreadfully sees this as not only another component of Christianity's waning influence in the United States, but also a threat to destroy a pure version of Christianity as we know it.

To begin, we would like to propose that Christianity itself is a highly contested concept. Mohler speaks for the 21st century Southern Baptist version of Christianity and, of course, claims to speak for The One Legitimate Form of Christianity Itself. This is the first dilemma of having a dialogue with virtually all fundamentalist Christians of every denomination and when I use the word "fundamentalist," it is actually not meant pejoratively, as most people do. "Fundamentalist" is the label that this kind of Christian used for their movement early in the 20th century (publishing a series of pamphlets called The Fundamentals from 1910-1916) when they responded militantly to various trends that threatened their understanding of Christian faith such as evolution, Mormonism, European style biblical criticism and the "social gospel" focus on fighting injustice and inequality. Notre Dame's George Marsden has done a fabulous job chronicling the Fundamentalists and their convictions:

->Biblical Inerrancy—-believing that the Bible does not contain errors and that it is a Spirit-inspired absolute guide for timeless truths and principles

-->Proclaiming the Gospel—-we are on this earth to save as many souls as possible.

-->Penal-Substitutionary Atonement—-the cross of Christ was primarily about being an atoning sacrifice to cleanse humanity of their sin and guilt and shame

-->Premillenial Dispensationalism—-Jesus will return to rescue believers from this world and then reign for 1000 years—the vocation of Christians is to get people saved to prepare for death or His Second Coming [when non-believers will perish]

-->Personal piety—-Faith is individualized: people are either saved or not. Fundamentalists approached politics in one of two ways: shun it altogether [Christ's kingdom is in the heart--spiritual] or embrace social conservative policies that ensure America's status as a Christian nation.

-->Ambivalence towards wider culture—-shifting back and forth between two options: (1) either trumping ‘political’ engagement by emphasizing the importance of the ‘spiritual’ life or (2) working hard to change leaders and laws to reflect a Christian nation.

This is the air Mohler breathes, but the only problem is that many (most?) Christians in our world (and historically) believe differently. Although EasyYolk does not subscribe to an "inerrant" understanding of the Bible, we passionately read the Bible as an authoritative Script that, interpreted contextually, critically, carefully and creatively, guides the community of believers into rugged faithfulness. We would like to note that the Apostle Paul, when writing letters that eventually became part of the New Testament, drew on Hellenistic culture and reason to make key points with Christian communities (see Acts 17 and Romans 1). When Jesus calls his disciples to be in the world but not of the world (John 17), he is not condemning all forms of culture (including practices, like yoga, that are rooted in other world religions). Of course, as Christians engage culture, there is always a threat to its faithful way-of-life (we should consider how followers of Jesus started participating in the military from the 4th century on and lending with interest throughout the course of Western Civilization, despite the rather clear-cut biblical admonitions against both of these practices) and we acknowledge Mohler's concern. However, we believe his arguments are not compelling and that Christians should be given freedom to implement spiritual disciplines like yoga to form them into more faithful Christians, judged by the fruits of our life (Matthew 7).

Our key argument in support of Christian yoga is how it is actually being practiced by Christians in real life. This summer, my wife and I participated with Plymouth Congregational Church of Lawrence, Kansas in a twice-a-week yoga session in the church fellowship hall. Our instructor focused on restful, meditative poses and breathing, highlighting a different yama or niyama each week. These included non-violence, contentment, truthfulness, sexual responsibility and austerity, which are all Christian virtues (I'll save the time and space and withhold quoting hundreds of Bible verses backing up my claim) that are so sorely needed in our culture (only Captain Obvious would need to write a paragraph of supporting arguments). We experienced a deep appreciation for the complexity of the human body as the magnificient climax of God's creation of the world and the vital need for human rest in the midst of a busy life of distractions, pressures and absorbing anxieties. In addition, we thoroughly gloried in the opportunity to sit under the guidance of a Christian woman (Shannon Gorres) who led us into restful freedom and transformation ("neither male nor female...but all are one in Christ Jesus"--Gal 3:27-28), unfortunately a rare experience 2000 years after the female disciples boldly proclaimed to the male disciples that Jesus had, in fact, risen from the dead (this summer we also had the terrific experience of worshipping with the Peace Mennonite community, under the guidance of Joanna Haradar)!

Although Yoga is a spiritual discipline rooted in Eastern religion, Christians are discovering its usefulness at a key moment in time. I found that as I focused on my breathing, I was reminded of the active presence of God's spirit coming into me as I breathed out all the fear, worry and built-up anger that flood my mind and emotion throughout the day. I continue to find that the more I am cognizant of this deep, focused breathing consistently throughout the day, the more I experience the stillness of God's presence that I may intentionally pass on to others (after all, the love of God = the love of neighbor).

Mohler concludes his post with a lament:

The embrace of yoga is a symptom of our postmodern spiritual confusion, and, to our shame, this confusion reaches into the church. Stefanie Syman is telling us something important when she writes that yoga “has augured a truly post-Christian, spiritually polyglot country.” Christians who practice yoga are embracing, or at minimum flirting with, a spiritual practice that threatens to transform their own spiritual lives into a “post-Christian, spiritually polyglot” reality. Should any Christian willingly risk that?

Mohler models clearly the fundamentalist Christian confusion over the mysterious and rarely defined concept of "postmodernism," roughly equating it with relativism (the flippant shrug of the shoulders, believing whatever the hell one wants). Postmodernism, in fact, offers us a tremendous opportunity to transcend the polar opposites of late-modernity: absolutism or relativism. Postmodernism is more complex, unveiling the myth of objectivity (everyone understands reality from a unique perspective), rejecting reductionistic and dualistic thinking (much more holistic), emphasizing practices over beliefs ("it's what you do that defines you"--Batman), listening to the perspective of the periphery (those without power, wealth, and therefore without an amplified pedestal) and embracing humility, patience and the process of truth-seeking (as opposed to triumphalist, self-evident truth-claims). Postmodern sensibilities intuitively know that both late-modern options are counterfeit and that there are other, more compelling, ways of construing the truth about God and whatever else there is.

In short, Mohler's faith and leadership highlight a 21st century Christian option that is characterized by fear of the unknown other. Mohler is convinced that when followers of Jesus "flirt" with fresh ways of understanding God (and whatever else there is) it becomes too "risky." The God I worship is far bigger than that. Of course, that doesn't just mean that we can do whatever we please, but at its very core, Christianity is about trusting in a God Who is "far more than we could ever ask or imagine" (Eph 3:20) and transforming into the peace-loving, gentle, courageous, humble and simple way of Jesus. Why can't yoga be one more discipline that brings us closer to this reality?

--Theological Autopilot

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