Our Bodies Matter...


The president of the seminary where I completed an M.Div. (he was not president when I was there!) has apparently come out with an attack on yoga and encouraged Christians not to participate in it.

You can read an article about that here.

Now, I'm fully aware of ways the press can misconstrue and misrepresent what church leaders say. For the most part I think it's not a question of malice on the part of the press, but actually an inability to translate the "insider speak" of the churches and our fairly intricate polity and theological distinctions to a wider audience. We know what we're saying to each other "inside," but others who overhear us may have few clues what we're really talking about.

I say all of that to make the point that what I'm about to say may or may not be an accurate reflection of or response to what Dr. Mohler actually said as reported in the above-cited article. All I can actually respond to is the article itself. 

So what I'm about to say should not be heard in any way as directed to Dr. Mohler per se. I just don't know what he actually said, fully, in any sort of context.

But the article says he said this:

Mohler said he objects to "the idea that the body is a vehicle for reaching consciousness with the divine."
"That's just not Christianity," Mohler told The Associated Press.

Then later in the article there's another statement. 

He said his view is "not an eccentric Christian position."

You see the problem here. We have three statements, but no clear assessment about their context relative to each other.

So here's my reply to the statements as they stand. They're correct. This is not an eccentric Christian position. It's not a Christian position at all.

The statements as they stand can be read as heresy.

They're heresy in part because they are fundamentally gnostic. As stated, they posit that our bodies cannot be a channel by which we connect with God. Some gnostics believed that, and taught it widely. The body/flesh is evil and irredeemably corrupt. Only the "spirit" is capable of connecting with God. 

Christianity, however, rejected that. We embrace the doctrine of the Incarnation. God became flesh in Jesus, who was fully human, and fully divine. Christian leaders spent centuries working out ways to talk about that-- ways embodied in the Creeds, especially the Nicene and Athanasian creeds. The body matters. Indeed, the body is precisely the means God chose to encounter us, because it is the only means we actually have to encounter God. 

In rejecting gnosticism (and really, gnosticisms-- plural-- over the ages), Christians have continued to assert in our Trinitarian theology that just as God is One, so human beings are one-- body, mind, spirit, soul (whatever terms one uses), all of this is continuous, deeply interrelated,  and so one. Christians reject gnostic dualism of spirit/body. We call that a false, wrong view of humanity.

But being wrong about something wouldn't be enough to convict of heresy in much of early Christianity. You could be wrong and even state wrong ideas, but it wasn't until you then sought to teach others the same and then break them away from the teaching of the Church by doing so, that you would have crossed the line into actual heresy. 

Heresy is error plus schismatic intent.

As a significant teacher and leader of a teaching institution in his own denomination, unless the Southern Baptist Convention has now embraced a dualistic understanding of humanity and thereby rejected the doctrine of the Incarnation, this statement calling for persons to reject yoga on these grounds at least participates in teaching error and seeking to break others from the established teaching of the whole church.

And so as represented in this article, the statements can easily be read as heresy.

But more than that, they're also bad science. To be sure, science can make no speculations about the Divine, and in fact, in its own methodologies, rules out anything like "divine intervention" as a first principle. So to describe how this is bad science, we also have to get rid of the word "Divine," since the Divine is simply not subject to scientific investigation. 

The basic premise in the the alleged objection to the notion that "the body is a vehicle for reaching consciousness with the divine" isn't actually harmed in this way. The core of the premise is that "the body is a vehicle for reaching consciousness"-- with whatever! That would be simply obvious in science-- and easy to test and confirm, again and again.

Consciousness is precisely a product of bodies and occasionally among bodies and can even, as can be shown, incorporate inanimate objects. (Experiments such as those where the body responds to tactile stimulation of a rubber hand not actually connected to the body, but mapped by the brain as if it were so connected, are cases in point).

So a rejection of this idea leaves one wondering-- assuming the Divine should exist in some way, by what possible other means than the body would one be able to reach consciousness with it? 

Heresy and bad science. Sort of a "double-play" for you baseball fans out there. (Go Reds!).

But again-- only if what this article asserts, and as it seems to assert it, actually reflects what Dr. Mohler himself said and intends. That we do not know.

And in fairness, I tend to think he didn't. Or at least I'd like to think so. 

I would like to think that he was trying to point out something more factual than philosophical or theological-- namely, that the practice of yoga is in fact a practice that is embedded in Hindu philosophy and religious beliefs, and that even in America yoga actually also comes "packaged" that way. Trying to sever the practices from the philosophies could do violence to both. 

So yes, it would be the case that if one is practicing more or less genuine yoga, one is simultaneously being taught a variety of religious and philosophical principles that are not grounded in Christian faith. Indeed they couldn't be grounded in Christian faith because yoga predates Christianity.

The final sentence of the article may suggest that this is what Dr. Mohler was driving at.

Mohler said many people have written him to say they're simply doing exercises and forgoing yoga's eastern mysticism and meditation.

"My response to that would be simple and straightforward: You're just not doing yoga,' Mohler said.

Here, I'd argue he may be right on every count.

But then a larger question-- and perhaps a different rationale for pushback-- comes into play. Are yogic teachings about the body as a vehicle for consciousness with the Divine so completely averse to Christian understandings of the Incarnation and discipleship to Jesus that one should be warned against yoga altogether, utterly reject it and teach others to do likewise?

Is there something more helpful than harmful that we Christians-- especially in the still at least semi-Gnostic, profoundly Platonic West, thanks to the Enlightenment-- could learn from yogic understandings of the connections between body and consciousness that may. Is it possible that such learnings may, as several in the article report, actually enhance our discipleship to Jesus?

Yogic instruction rarely posits itself in opposition to other religious teachings. Might we learn from Jesus here that "whoever is not against us is for us?" 

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards 

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Used by permission under a Creative Commons License.