Yoga and the Incarnation
“In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things come into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people… And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” –From John 1:1-4, 14
The following is a point of view article I sent today to the Raleigh News and Observer in hopes that they will publish it in response the AP article about the President of Southern Baptist Seminary and his condemnation of yoga.
Southern Baptist Seminary President Albert Mohler just shared his pronouncement that yoga is an unacceptable practice for Christians. Mohler said in his comments published by the Associated Press on Friday that he objects to “the idea that the body is a vehicle for reaching consciousness with the divine.” Mohler added to his statement that such a view of the body is ” just not Christianity.”
As a Christian myself and as someone who spent the last10 years studying Christian views of the body to write my recently published book on just this topic (Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ, WJKP, 2010), I find President Mohler’s statement startling if not deeply tragic. The startling part comes from the fact that the uniqueness of Christianity traces itself back to a well-known miraculous event in a barn in Bethlehem in which Christians proclaim that God, yes God, took on a flesh and blood body in the person of Jesus Christ. Surely the Divine made a categorically different statement with such a radically cellular move than Mr. Mohler is making to us today. Christianity is nothing if it is not an incarnational faith—and that word, incarnation, points literally to the meat of the matter—God with us, in the flesh. The body for Christians was and is a crucial point of contact with God—it is how God made God’s self known to humanity with utter compassion and with the power to transform our lives from sin and despair to redemption and hope. The very root theological fact of Christian identity makes Mr. Mohler’s unequivocal rejection of the body’s spiritual capacity startling indeed. Christianity is first and foremost, from its first borning cry, about the body.
My labeling of his comments as “tragic” comes from a deeper place in me than my work as a theologian and even as a minister. It comes from the enfleshed human being that I am—from someone who has lived as a body now for over 41 years. I, along with many others who follow Jesus and claim Christianity as our faith tradition, have been physically and spiritually harmed by this misguided and poorly grounded idea that Christianity is a body-hating, body-denying religion. And the Church as a whole has also been harmed by this false claim about Christianity especially in the Church’s Western contexts. Mr. Mohler can look around, just like most mainline Protestants can, and see the Christian church in America and in the larger Western world is languishing. The Church is shriveling up and dying in many places. And in other places, our bones are brittle and our muscles atrophied. Christian beliefs and practices have been distorted and contorted by viewpoints like the one President Mohler is espousing and we are feeling the effects of it today. I grieve for all that we have lost because of these distortions.
Just ask any Christian mystic from the last 2000 years of Christian history about whether the body is a pathway to God. They did not think their way into these brushes with Divine love, grace and beauty. They felt God’s presence and the redemptive power of Divinity in their flesh and blood. Their bodies were their testimonies to the good news that Christians are supposed to carry in our very hearts, in our flesh. To be sure, there are traces of body ambivalence in the Bible from the priestly standards of Hebrew scriptures to the Pauline household codes of the Christian Gospel. These texts, however, are not a theological trump card when placed against the Incarnational message that Christians through time have cleaved to and experienced in our bodies.
Yoga is about integrating one’s body with one’s proper nature, one’s created nature, with everything in creation, and with everything that lives and breathes. Christianity, too, is about God’s embodied hope that humanity could wake up to our intimate relationship with Divinity, with each other, and with all that lives and breathes. The Incarnation was a moment of truth for people who were living in illusion, who were living a lie. Life lived fully and without fear of death is the gift of Christian redemption. Christians have eyes for new life, for resurrection in all of life’s trials. Surely the world we live in today is full of such challenges. Mr. Mohler may choose to preside at the funeral for Christian bodies, but I pray that more of us can be like midwives helping along our faith’s rebirth.