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Does Yoga Conflict With Christianity?

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Does Yoga Conflict With Christianity?

A Response to Yoga Journal
Robert M. Bowman Jr.

In the cover article for the March/April 2001 Yoga Journal*, contributing editor Alan Reder argues that yoga can be practiced by Buddhists, Christians, Jews, and Muslims — and by implication, just about anyone else — without any conflict with their religion. Yet the two major articles that precede Reder's piece illustrate in unmistakable terms that yoga, in the usual sense employed in the magazine itself, is incorrigibly religious. The matter of definition is key: "yoga" is not, properly speaking, physical postures (such as sitting in the "lotus" position) or bodily movements; it is a discipline, a path to what is variously called self-realization, divine potential, oneness with the absolute, and the like.

"Moses, Muhammad, and Jesus were all awfully clear on one point: there is only one true God, and that God is the One who created the universe and who revealed himself to Abraham."

Thurman: Yoga is for Reality, Man

In his article "Reality Check," Robert Thurman explains rather clearly the Eastern religious roots of yoga. Oddly, he claims that he went East in search of truth because Western civilization's "authorities all said you could not know reality" (67). He soon narrows the field of Western "authorities" to the modern materialistic philosophy that views the mind as a mere function of the brain, a notion that implies that we really cannot know ourselves. But of course - the same point has been made from the Christian side by C. S. Lewis and others. Materialism implies that all of our thoughts are the manifestation of material processes; there is no "I" to know or be known. Unfortunately, this observation undermines the Eastern monistic philosophy that Thurman favors as well, since in that tradition the concrete existence of the individual "I" is also denied. The only philosophy that can deliver true knowledge of the self is a biblically based philosophy: human beings are concrete individuals with inherent meaning and value because God created them, and we can know ourselves because God created us with that capacity in order to make it possible for us to know and love him. As John Calvin pointed out in the opening paragraph of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, we cannot truly know ourselves without also knowing God.

According to Thurman, the "gods" were unable to deliver happiness, so human beings must attain it on their own (67, 68). This premise obviously implies a repudiation of the biblically based religions of Judaism and Christianity, especially the latter, according to which our eternal happiness is dependent entirely on the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

Although Thurman sees some movement in the right direction in other traditions, it is in India that he locates the path to truth and reality. The civilization of India "created a science of the soul" in which the mind is viewed as determining a person's happiness or suffering. This is an experimental science in which the laboratory is the mind-body complex and the "technology is yoga, the yoking of conscious attention to empirical exploration, transformative discovery, and healing modification" (68). This is quintessential New Age thinking: reinterpreting Eastern religious rituals and practices as a science. 

Thurman acknowledges that most of the "inner scientists" (his name for the gurus and other movers and shakers in the development of yoga) belonged to a religious tradition, of which he names the Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu religions (68). The "inner scientist" on which he focuses is Patanjali, the Hindu guru who authored the Yoga Sutra (69). Thurman explains that according to Patanjali, "Yoga is the actuality of our union with the absolute, the supreme reality of ourselves and everything, the blissful void, freedom, or what is called Absolute Glory (Brahman, nirvana), God (Ishvar), or Buddha, Reality Embodied (Dharmakaya), and many other names"(70). The rest of Thurman's article expands on this understanding of yoga. Suffice it to say, he has set forth the religious significance of yoga quite plainly.

Life: You Are Your Own Yoga Teacher

David Life runs the Jivamukti Yoga Center in New York City. In his article, Life tells about his guru's visit to New York. The religious role of the guru for Life is established immediately. Life tells us, "I pray to a picture of Pattabhi Jois every day," and he points out that the guru "backs up everything with Sanskrit scripture" (73). According to Life, Pattabhi Jois "pulsates with the auru of a true siddha, one who has acquired unusual powers through dedication to yoga practice and teaching for more than 70 years" (74). Heady stuff, and Life admits that being around his guru makes him nervous.

Each day after class the guru's followers lined up to take turns bowing down to Guruji, touching the guru's feet and then touching their own heads. When one of Life's students expressed uneasiness about bowing down to the guru, Life told him, "Don't bow down to just a man ... instead bow down to your own Self that you recognize inside him. Then bowing down to him is no different than bowing down before your own higher nature" (76). The student complied, apparently deciding that he didn't have a problem worshiping himself. After all, according to the pantheistic philosophy he was taught, we are all one divine Self.

Reder: Yoga (ummmph!) Fits All Religions

Alan Reder, a "disaffected Jew" who followed the Swami Muktananda, admits that he found the mystical chantings of the ashram more to his liking than the traditional synagogue services of his youth (80). While admitting that some people left the religion of their childhood to pursue the promise of yoga, Reder points out that many people today are taking yoga with them to their church or synagogue.

"In general," Reder says, "yoga is taught here in a way that strips away much of its Indian context" (81). This is true, but the Indian context that remains includes very specific religious elements. As Reder acknowledges, "teacher and students" in yoga classes commonly greet each other with the Sanskrit "Namaste," meaning, "I honor the Divine within you." According to Reder, "Fundamentalist religious leaders of any major Western tradition would probably say that pursuing a God within subverts worship of God without" (81). No surprise that objections to mixing yoga with, say, Christianity, are attributed to the nameless bogeyman fundamentalists. This is classic move Number One in the religious apologetics of the left these days.

Classic move Number Two is to invoke the opinions of erudite scholars of religion who assure us that there's nothing to the views of those narrow-minded fundies. So Reder offers a choice comment from Huston Smith, author of the recent book Why Religion Matters, and refers to the arguments for religious relativism mustered by Matthew Fox (One River, Many Wells) and Jacob Needleman (A Little Book on Love). According to these scholars, "all of the major religions at their deepest level offer alternate routes to a common destination" (81). Translation: If you dig around long enough you can find pantheistic mystics in the annals of every major world religion-somehow proving that all religions at their core are mystical paths to discovering the divine in ourselves. Believe it or not, this is the kind of argument that passes for serious scholarship in religious studies these days.

According to Reder, the world's religious institutions resist admitting this mystical commonality with each other to protect their power (82). I almost fell of my chair when I read this old chestnut. The fact is that the Eastern religions actively promote the unity of all world religions. As for the Western religions, the Big Three all resist such a claim because it is contrary to the explicit teaching of their founders and scriptures. Moses, Muhammad, and Jesus were all awfully clear on one point: there is only one true God, and that God is the One who created the universe and who revealed himself to Abraham. If Judaism, Islam, and Christianity give up this core conviction, they might as well disband and tell their members to go become Buddhists.

Reder completely misconstrues the problem here as the narrow-minded unwillingness of religious people to allow that God could be known by other names (84). This is not the issue at all. Christians are very comfortable with the idea of God being known by many names-after all, the Bible uses many names for God, and encourages us to translate biblical names into their equivalents in other languages (e.g., "God" instead of Elohim or Theos). But there are limits. I don't think, for example, that "Alan Reder" or "Rob Bowman" or even "Pattabhi Jois" are among God's names.

Since the monotheistic religions are not likely to disband, what New Agers are doing today is to try to transform them into Western versions of Buddhism. Reder comes very close to admitting as much. He speaks of a "true cross-fertilization" taking place as yoga becomes entwined as part of the new spirituality of "progressive" religious elements in the Western faiths (156). In other words, yoga is being used as a wedge in the door of churches and synagogues to bring in mystical beliefs. The strategy: reinterpret the Abrahamic faiths in mystical terms and dismiss all resistance to this approach as the foot-dragging of power-hungry clergy or reactionary fundamentalists.

In a sidebar, Phil Catalfo, a senior editor of Yoga Journal, asks, "Is Yoga a Religion?" This is an easy one: of course not. But this is like asking if prayer is a religion. No, but it is an incorrigibly religious practice. The same is true of yoga. Catalfo tries to finesse this fact by an appeal to the standard New Age distinction between religion and spirituality:

Spirituality, it could be said, has to do with one's interior life, the ever-evolving understanding of one's self and one's place in the cosmos-what Victor Frankl called humanity's "search for meaning." Religion, on the other hand, can be seen as spirituality's external counterpart, the organizational structure we give to our individual and collective spiritual processes: the rituals, doctrines, prayers, chants, and ceremonies, and the congregations that come together to share them (83).

Apparently, in Catalfo's mind one's "understanding" of the personal and cosmic issues of life can somehow be separated from the "doctrines" of one's religion. (A question: Is the distinction between religion and spirituality a doctrine – and if so, is it therefore religious, not spiritual?) Another translation would seem to be in order: What Catalfo probably means here is that spirituality can be pantheistic and transpersonal even while one's religion is monotheistic and interpersonal. In other words, the Jew can somehow recite the Shema or the Christian recite the Nicene Creed while at the same time having the "understanding" that these words are not to be read "literally" and that God is really the divine in everyone. Of course, no one suggests that Buddhists do their chanting while thinking to themselves that what their Buddhist faith really means "at the deepest level" is that they are lost sinners who can enjoy eternal life only through faith in Jesus as their Savior and Lord! No-this "cross-fertilization" works only in one direction, and the distinction between spirituality and religion is a conjurer's trick to convince people that monotheistic religion can and should accommodate pantheistic spirituality. The pantheistic religions, meanwhile, may remain safely pantheistic in their spirituality as well. 

Does yoga conflict with my religion? You betcha. Anything that tells people that God cannot bring them ultimate happiness (as Robert Thurman argued) conflicts with my belief that the chief end of human beings is to love God and enjoy him forever. Anything that encourages people to worship their yoga master (as David Life attested) conflicts with my belief that the Lord is God and there is no other. Anything that encourages people to believe that spiritual fulfillment can be attained in any religion (as Alan Reder claims) conflicts with my belief that without Jesus Christ people of all religions (even Christianity!) are lost.

*Thurman, Robert A. F. "Reality Check: Renowned Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman reflects on the Yoga Sutra and how we can know reality for ourselves." Living Yoga column. Yoga Journal, March/April 2001, 67-71.

Life, David. "My Guru, My Self: Even a longtime student like Jivamukti Yoga Center founder David Life gets nervous when his teacher comes to town." Profile column.Yoga Journal, March/April 2001, 73-76.

Reder, Alan. "Reconcilable Differences: A Buddhist, a Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim share how they blend yoga with their religious beliefs." Yoga Journal, March/April 2001, 78-85, 156. Cover title: "The Question on Everyone's Mind: Does Yoga Conflict with My Religion?"