Monday, 1 October 2012

Yoga And The Church- Some Thoughts

There has been a bit of media controversy over the past few weeks concerning a couple of local-ish churches which have "banned yoga." The first is at St Edmund's Roman Catholic church, where my great-grandparents got married. The second is one of the churches in Dibden Parish (I grew up in Dibden Parish, which covers most of Hythe, although I got christened at one of Hythe Parish's churches. Go back to early Victorian times and the two local parishes were Dibden and Fawley- and at some point in the mid-nineteenth century, the Hythe part of Fawley Parish was separated out and became a parish in its own right, and as the twentieth century moved on, the town of Hythe expanded southwards into the Dibden Parish).

So, where to begin on this tricky issue? Harmless exercise like going swimming? Or religious worship?

One criticism of St Edmund's from a local Hindu is that the church is just jumping to the wrong conclusions. Yes, yoga comes from India, and that in a bit of confusion, a Catholic priest is assuming Indian means Hindu.

Now, to be honest, we do need to beware of any confusion between religion and nation. How often do you hear someone who would never darken the doors of a church apart from "hatch, match and dispatch" or the "Midnight Mass" describe themselves as a Christian as, well, "this is a Christian country, innit?" (sometimes followed by "the Queen is the head of the Church of England")? Or the idea that immigrants from ethnic minorities (never white immigrants) should leave their religions back in their home countries and can only truly call themselves British when they are attending church on Sundays (a point put, curiously enough, by a man who would never darken the doors of a church except for...[you can guess how that sentence finishes!]).

I remember being on one of Operation Mobilisation's Love Europe teams and travelling back to the United Kingdom with a lady from another team. We were talking to a man, and he was heavily into martial arts. The lady explained that she used to be as well, but when she became a Christian she gave up as one cannot be a Christian and into martial arts. Yet on another team, one friend of mine recounted that there were South Koreans on her team who were into martial arts because it was just part of their culture.

I wonder what message that guy picked up? Give up your hobby and spend your Sunday mornings listening to a man in a frock drone on and on, while sitting in a draughty church singing hymns in anachronistic English and you too could spend eternity sitting on a cloud playing a harp, perhaps?

And herein lies the danger. Do we dismiss things like judo or karate as out-of-bounds for Christians as they are from the Orient? What about yoga?

Do we make the lazy assumption that something is Christian because it comes from the Anglo-Saxon or Celtic culture?

And on the flip side, missionary work is not about making people in foreign lands good Westerners- not that modern missionaries do this, in general.

Critics of the two church's stance are often taking the stand that it's just a bit of exercise. And who, in these days of an obesity epidemic, could possibly object to anything that gets people fitter?

But is it just a bit of exercise? I saw one recent comment by one Hindu that it does improve spirituality, so surely Christians should welcome anything that improves spirituality? That is something important which I'll come back to later.

Stepping to one side for the moment, there is a common assumption among a group of young people that I know, namely that there is a common belief system called "religion", which is held by "religious people", and has been disproved by Richard Dawkins. (Although what exactly "disproving religion" means is never clear).

So, one religious person might call herself a Hindu. Another religious person believing the same things might call himself an evangelical Christian.

On this logic, if yoga has Hindu roots then, well, it's all religion, isn't it? And surely the church is there to promote religion?

Paul told the Corinthians (2 Cor 4:2) that we do not use underhand methods. If something is run by a group of Christians, then be open about it being run by Christians. Nothing which leads someone to go "I never realised it was the God Squad behind it, and now I'm in too deep". No secret language and phrases that can only be understood by those who have been washed in the blood of the Lamb.

So, if yoga is Hindu, then the practitioners should be open about it.

But if yoga can be separated from Hinduism, if you can have the physical aspects of it without the religious ones, then would that be OK? A kind of secular yoga?

Paul also outlined teaching about the "weaker brethren". Now, when two Christians hold different opinions which are Biblically based, there are two traps to avoid. The first is the contemptuous assumption that the other is a heretic, or simply doesn't love God as much as the other does. The second trap is the patronising assumption that the Christian with a different Biblically based opinion is the weaker brother whom you have to tolerate.

For example, back in the 1990s I was reading a book on the church and gender issues. The author fully supported the idea that women could serve as presbyters while also believing that the Church of England should not have ordained women as presbyters. The logic being that she was concerned at the "weaker brethren" who were uncomfortable with this. Message between the lines- "strong Christians" have no objection to women holding any position in the church- even Archbishop of Canterbury- but have to make a concession to keep the weaker Christians in the Church of England.

Paul's specific issue was meat- namely meat sacrificed to idols. Was eating the meat sharing in the worship of idols? Should Christians eat it? (By the way, this is not about vegetarianism per se).

Does yoga fall under the same category, if the spiritual can be separated from the physical? What I mean is that some Christians could do it and think "I'm just doing some exercise. I'm not worshipping Hindu deities", while another could see them doing that and think "Hmm, they're good Christians and have no problem worshipping Hindu deities, so it must be OK if I have other gods alongside God".

Earlier I mentioned the comment that yoga is spiritual and surely we should support anything which makes people more spiritual. Now, "more spiritual" is an awful term. But moving on from that, it just assumes that we're just "spiritual" people who don't really bother where the source of it comes.

Basicslly, it's the assumption that we should be enthusiastic with a Christ-free spirituality.

And the thing is, a focus on it makes me more spiritual is the wrong focus- we should focus on God, not ourselves. But is that any different to us saying "I go to X church as I enjoy it, it gives me fulfilment"?

And a final point. Sometimes we get the secular movement complaining about church involvement in things like food banks, and the smart response is to ask them why haven't they set up their own. But, turn this around- yes, criticise yoga but ask when is the Church going to provide a healthy alternative?

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