A week ago I spent a fascinating day in a San Diego courtroom hearing arguments for and against the teaching of yoga in schools. The question is: can yoga ever be a non-religious exercise?
The case is crucial because of the massive spread of yoga in the West, particularly as it is taught both in schools and in some Christian churches. We await with baited breath the decision of the San Diego judge.
This court case raises the issue of belief and experience now engaging much of evangelicalism. Many claim that yoga provides a needed spiritual experience. More generally, T. M. Luhrmann, professor of anthropology at Stanford who studied evangelicalism, claims in the New York Times (May 29, 2013) that for evangelicals, “Belief Is the Least Part of Faith.”You read right! Professor Luhrmann says evangelical people go to church “to experience joy and to learn how to have more of it,” rather than to focus on propositions one has to believe. She summarizes her academic research: “If you can sidestep the problem of belief—and the related politics, which can be so distracting—it is easier to see that the evangelical view of the world is full of joy. God is good. The world is good. That’s what draws people to church.”
Churches should be places of joy and goodness, but not at the expense of truth and of the worship of the God of Scripture. There is no Christian joy without the presence of the personal God, and that personal presence is revealed only by the Spirit through God’s self-revelation in the Scriptures and given to us because of Christ’s death and resurrection. In other words, in Christianity, belief precedes experience. The Gospel is about what God has done, not about how we feel.
I love the subtle innuendo “sidestepping belief and the related politics” which, in the context, means not taking a position on gay marriage nor dwelling on who God is as Creator and Law Giver. Such “sidestepping” becomes joy and goodness with no content, no sense of judgment, no essential morals and silence on the issue of sin. All is “good” (because all is One!). How many people will be drawn to these warm and fuzzy churches and how many pastors, eager for big churches, will bite the apple of temptation to be silent on controversial moral issues?
Let’s return to the San Diego courtroomand listen to the expert witness for the prosecution. Dr. Candy Gunther Brown, trained at Harvard, and presently professor at Indiana University, described the essence of both Protestant Christianity and Hinduism and how fundamentally different they are. She showed that Protestant Christianity privileges the “Word”—the sacred text of the Bible, verbal proclamation of the “gospel,” intellectual affirmation of doctrinal beliefs, and recitation of creeds. Protestants fail to understand the subtleties of a religion like Hinduism, which is based on embodied experience of the divine within, and in which “practice is itself an essential expression of religious devotion.” In her words, “in yoga, body and spirit are not separable categories but aspects of each other, and bodily practices are spiritual as well as physical.”
Dr. Brown appealed to the evidence of prominent Hindus who warn that Christians who practice yoga will inevitably adopt Hindu religion. A western practitioner states that “you can’t practice yoga and not be affected by these deeper meanings…that each person’s ‘inner being’ is ‘like God,’ a ‘perfect’ and ‘eternally wise being.’”
One Christian yoga weekend included yoga exercises while saying the Lord’s Prayer,hand-washing and worship through movement. A Christian participant stated that at the end she didn’t think she could easily “get back to traditional ‘up front’-centred worship” that didn’t involve her whole body. It was “a wonderful way of quieting and coming to a quiet center, to God, through movement.”
Here is the tendency, in this case expressed via the practice of yoga, which I take as one example of this larger problem. The problem is to seek God through almost pure experience (so typical of the spiritual world of the East) rather than through belief, doctrine and Scripture. What will come of this tendency among evangelicals?
The future is now. The Coming Interspiritual Age, a programmatic book that appeared last year, documents the cutting edge spiritual movement that it claims will take over the world to bring unity and peace. Here is a powerful pagan/interfaith movement that believes that the religious experience at the heart of all the religions and philosophies, both East and West, is the same. Sharing this spiritual experience will thus bring global harmony.
Christian experience derives from hearing the good news of God’s act for us, embodied not in Oneist experience, but in the living Word, Jesus, whose Spirit, works new life in us.