Al Mohler Is Right About Yoga (and It Doesn't Matter)

On a recent podcast, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler enlisted the research and expertise of Candy Gunther Brown to prove that he is, in fact, right about yoga.

And guess what?

He is.

If you're shocked that I would say such a thing, on the Patheos Progressive Christian Channel no less, let me make something clear. I have not had a recent conversion experience. I am not switching teams, joining an Acts 29 church, subscribing to The Blaze, and making donations to Southern Seminary. I'm still the blogger that lives in the heart of progressive New England where everyone does yoga as a matter of course, like going to the farmer's market on Saturday and listening to NPR pretty much exclusively. And I'm still the blogger who has no problem with any of that (even though I don't do yoga, mainly because I am not athletic).

But Mohler is right.

He's right that yoga is, fundamentally, religious. He's right that those who are honest about yoga and other forms of complimentary and alternative health are aware and celebratory of their religious rootedness. And his interviewee, Dr. Brown, is really right about religion as more than just propositional information -- the physical, liturgical and ritual dimensions are just as religious as, say, quoting Calvin's Institutes. 

The people I know who are passionate about yoga are certainly clear that you don't have to identify as Hindu or Buddhist in order to practice it. Christians can go to their yoga class and still be Christian, and so can Muslims. But they are also clear that the worldview of Hinduism and Buddhism informs their lives in general and their yoga participation in particular. Once simply cannot make a black-and-white distinction here between religion and "exercise."

And one certainly cannot superficially co-opt something like yoga, change a few terms around, and make it Christian yoga.

Or worse - Christoga.

Mohler is right that, in order for Christians to practice yoga, some degree of syncretism must happen. There must be a combining of one religious practice with another religious practice. One can't just abstract the physicality of yoga and leave behind the religious, protecting their Christianity from other religious contamination. One cannot keep them separated.

But Mohler is wrong to be flabbergasted, appalled and outraged that Christians would participate in yoga.

Because, to answer his question in the episode heading, yes, we are all syncretists now.

And we always have been.

The Christian faith, rightly understood and practiced, is both syncretist and separatist all at once, and in different ways. In fact, syncretism is at the core of Christian identity, as the very definition of the faith is the expansion of first century Judaism to include Gentiles without requiring total change to their religious practice! It was an honest-to-goodness combining of Greco-Roman religious practice with Israelite religious practice, seen through the lens of a new Messianic identity. Christianity IS syncretism! (And this is to say nothing of the syncretistic identity of first century Judaism itself, which was certainly not free of pagan, Hellenistic and Greco-Roman influences!)

When Jesus overruled ritual Sabbath law, he was a syncretist. When he welcomed Gentiles, women, and the unclean he was a syncretist. When he talked about the end of the Temple system and called for "spirit and truth" worship that could even include Samaritans, he was a raging syncretist.

When Peter and Paul "went to the Gentiles" against their physical, liturgical, ritual religious scruples, they were syncretists. Israelite separatism -- which is no different than the evangelical separatism that Mohler is advocating -- was clear on the necessity of non-participation in "other religions." But for the apostles, a new identity -- "through faith" -- would make that which was unclean clean, in a grand act of Spirit-filled syncretism.

And when Paul preached to the philosophers on Mars Hill, identifying with the Temple to the Unknown God and subsuming the theology of their poets -- "in him we live, and move, and have our being" -- he was a flat-out, bonafide syncretist.

That is not to say that the new Messianic Way did not include some separatism. It most certainly did, and still does. But it is not a separatism that rejects all the stuff of "other religions." The counter-intuitive worship and ethics of the Way separate the people of God from those following other ways (especially the empire way), but it is not pitted primarily against anything religiously different. Instead, it is the embracing of a new religious identity that may include, assimilate and combine with all that is spiritually, physically, psychologically and scientifically true in God's good world.

If all truth is God's truth, then the fundamentally religious nature of yoga is not a problem. Christian identity can, in fact, subsume another religious practice, just as it is, without superficial co-opting. It has always done this. It will always do this.

Indeed, if there is anything good, true, and beautiful in the world, then it belongs to Jesus the Liberating King and may be combined with a holistic life in the kingdom.

And who knows?

If we stop calling "other religions" unclean, and practicing all this un-Christian separatism, we just might begin to understand the true nature of evangelism again.

We might be able to love, embrace, and serve all the people in our place, and in the world, without self-righteous antagonism or colonial control, as witnesses to the restoring, redeeming, renewing work of Jesus and his new creation.