An Atlantic Monthly article yesterday took a look at some comments made by one of the candidates in the race for Virginia’s lieutenant governor, Bishop E.W. Jackson, about how yoga makes people susceptible to Satanic possession. Several other prominent evangelicals were quoted, including Al Mohler whose comments are very instructive. My wife does a fair amount of yoga and so far she hasn’t exhibited Satanic behavior (but maybe the next time we have an argument I’ll bring this up). I thought I would share Jackson and Mohler’s comments and add my own thoughts.
Here’s what Jackson had to say about yoga’s Satanic potential:
When one hears the word meditation, it conjures an image of Maharishi Yoga talking about finding a mantra and striving for nirvana. . . . The purpose of such meditation is to empty oneself. . . . [Satan] is happy to invade the empty vacuum of your soul and possess it. That is why people serve Satan without ever knowing it or deciding to, but no one can be a child of God without making a decision to surrender to him. Beware of systems of spirituality which tell you to empty yourself. You will end up filled with something you probably do not want.
Well it’s clear that he’s not a Calvinist. The bishop says that God doesn’t make us His children; we have to “make a decision” to surrender to him. Even though I’m on the Arminian side of the theological divide, I share the Calvinist aversion to the works-righteousness of the widespread heresy of “personal decisionism” that began with Charles Finney and 19th century altar call revivalist culture. I’ve written a lot about how much of a misrepresentation it is in so many ways to call God’s salvation my “decision.”
But what about this question of self-emptying? If I wanted to be malicious, I could just say that clearly Bishop Jackson hasn’t read Philippians 2 (where Christians are told to “empty ourselves” just like Jesus did for us on the cross), but I realize he has a specific meaning in mind that is different from “taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:7). To “empty yourself” in a pop spirituality sense means to do something that sets aside the clutter and anxiety inside of you. In secular culture, this is primarily understood and addressed with physical exercise, whether it’s running in the woods, doing the elliptical trainer at the gym, or taking a yoga class.
God has a word for this in His Torah: shabbat or Sabbath as we say in English. I suppose that for fundamentalist Christians like Bishop Jackson, the purpose of Sabbath has nothing to do with rest, but only with demonstrating your loyalty to God by setting aside a day to glorify Him. But Jesus says very plainly, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). In my spiritual journey over the last couple of years, I have come to a place where I see shabbat as the primary goal of prayer: to set aside everything and rest in God. To me, shabbat is the goal behind everything we do in prayer: confession, praise, thanksgiving, and petition.
One of the ways that I pray is with my prayer beads (what Catholics call a rosary except that I don’t talk to Mary when I pray with them): I go through them and alternate between the Jesus prayer and the Lord’s prayer in Greek (because I’m weird that way). Sometimes I substitute lines from psalms that I have learned in Hebrew for the Jesus prayer. There’s something about praying in Hebrew and Greek that empties me more than speaking in English. It’s not asking God for stuff; it’s begging Him to let me be His breath.
So I would say it’s very misguided to say that the problem with yoga is that it calls for people to “empty themselves.” We need to be emptied on a regular basis of the day-to-day concerns that dominate our thinking and drown out God’s voice. That’s why God made the Sabbath. One of God’s greatest concerns is for us to rest in a way that is real rest, rather than throwing ourselves into the furious workaholism of American culture. If you have a theology that seeks to prove itself through its contempt for the legitimate human need for rest that God has been trying to help His people address for thousands of years, then you’re not going to understand Sabbath any more than the Pharisees Jesus argued with.
Now here’s where I would quibble with yoga (in the limited, perhaps insufficient exposure to it that I’ve had). I’m convinced like Augustine that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. I believe that true rest and self-emptying can only be gained in the context of a conscious relationship with God. Now I don’t think that God is such a weak sovereign of the universe that He can’t expropriate a practice like yoga, no matter what its religious origins, as a context in which to commune with people He loves. E.W. Jackson is talking as though Satan is more powerful than God. I only have a problem with yoga insofar as it presents itself as a technique by which we acquire for ourselves the spiritual rest that only God can give us.
The peace of shabbat is something we receive by grace from the Holy Spirit. Even if it seems like we have gained peace as the result of our own efforts, it is always a gift of the Holy Spirit. The reason this is so important to understand is so that we will not evaluate ourselves as successes or failures according to the peace we receive from prayer. The same “technique” will result in different outcomes every time we pray. It is very important in my prayer life to trust in God’s mysterious purpose when I am not given peace or rest from a time of prayer. I generally presume that His “absence” is His means of preparing me for deeper intimacy and revelation. Jonathan Martin talked a lot about this in his recent sermon “Obscurity.”
I haven’t been exposed to a form of yoga which builds itself around a recognized relationship with God. We have a woman at our church who is planning to start offering Praise Moves. Why shouldn’t we be incorporating Christian prayer and worship into our bodily exercise? I think yoga is fine as a means of fitness and even mental focus. But I would still say that for “spiritual but not religious” people who are using yoga as a substitute for having a prayer life, that’s like masturbating instead of having sex. It gets the job done in a biochemical sense, but without the profound intimacy and personal presence that we can only receive from another to whom we have made ourselves absolutely vulnerable. This isn’t to say that Christians shouldn’t do yoga, but that we shouldn’t substitute it for prayer.
All this that I’ve just written about prayer would be a bunch of hogwash to Al Mohler. If you look at what he has to say about yoga, it becomes clear that he is not only opposed to yoga; he is opposed to contemplative prayer as such:
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…
I’m assuming that when Al Mohler says “the Word of God,” he’s referring to the Bible and not Jesus Himself, because he presents the external Word of God as a contrast to “connecting to and coming to know the divine” through the human body. What Mohler is expressing here is not so much an opposition to Hindu spiritual practice, but an opposition to a sacramental understanding of reality in general (he is Baptist, God bless him!). You could use the same argument to say that Christians shouldn’t take communion because it will give them the delusion that they can connect to and come to know Jesus through a bodily means instead of mediating their relationship to Christ entirely through the Bible.
Mohler’s words here offer a very instructive illustration of the consequences of having such a high view of scripture. If we cannot connect to and come to know the divine through our bodies but only through the Bible, what this amounts to is a disbelief in the current presence of a living Christ or Holy Spirit in the world. If Jesus and the Holy Spirit only speak through the Bible, then they are only historical figures. This mentality comes from an overly rationalistic form of Christianity which has made itself paranoid about God communicating with people outside of the scriptural text since there’s no way to adjudicate whether it’s really God speaking. The only way to know for sure that God is the one speaking is to limit your conversations with God to reading His book (which itself becomes God instead of the living Creator who breathed into the people who wrote the book).
Contemplative prayer has no meaning to someone like Al Mohler because we cannot put into plain, logically deductive language what Jesus is saying to us when we rest in Him that way. Because it isn’t a what; it’s a who! If I had to put into words what Jesus says to me in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament at the basilica, I couldn’t really give you more than something really trite like “I’m here” or “I love you” or another Hallmark-ism that would be unjust to the mysterious beauty I’ve tasted and even spoken about in utterances that weren’t in any language I knew. He says so much, but it’s not anything that could be plotted into any grammatical system that can be systematized and controlled, which is why modernists like Al Mohler hate the possibility of God speaking in that way.
In any case, Mohler’s dispute is not really with Hinduism; it’s with the sacramental conception of the body in pre-modern Christianity. It’s with the possibility of divine mystery. He’s defending the pseudo-Platonic understanding of bodies and rationality that belongs to modernity, not Christianity. I think the most important evangelism that needs to happen within the body of Christ today is to help people like Al Mohler to stop confusing modernity with Christianity. In the meantime, if you want to stretch your bodies, go ahead and do yoga, but there’s no reason not to talk to Jesus while you’re doing it. Maybe Praise Moves is worth checking out!