Yoga, the Manger, and the Grumpy Old Fart.

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The Word became flesh, and lived among us.” –John 1:14

“Are magazines getting trashier and trashier, or am I just becoming a grumpy old fart?” I asked the cashier in a St. Paul, Minnesota convenience store, gesturing toward the racks of periodicals.

“Well, sir,” she deadpanned, “both of those things could be true.”

Those of us with Incarnational, or “God with skin on” religions–Christians, Vaishnavas, anyone who organizes life around the idea that God could appear in a form at once  divine and human– shouldn’t, theoretically, be in the business of setting up false dichotomies.  At very least, we ought to be comfortable with paradox. We should be both/and people in an either/or world.

But because the urge to parse distinctions–to say “this, but not that”–is as strong in us as in everyone else, we get sucked into the either-or-ness of it all. And so doing, we lose the subversive power of putting things together that the world wants to keep separate.

Saints and sinners, for example. “Good people” expect other “good people” to give “bad people” a wide berth.

“Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” the Pharisees and Torah scribes asked Jesus’ disciples.[i] Whom one sat down to eat with was very serious business in ancient Israel.

Jesus answered:

Healthy people don’t need a doctor–sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.[ii]

Nevertheless, I suspect Jesus knew there was no right answer with these people.

John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you said, ‘He is possessed!’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him–a glutton and a drinker, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’[iii]

So not only did Jesus hang out with undesirables, He also liked to eat and drink, apparently.  And while this fact offended the scribes and Pharisees, it positively scandalized later generations of theologians. Origen (c. 185–254 CE) for instance–who in many ways is one of my heroes–only grudgingly admitted that Jesus ate and drank at all, while insisting that He did it in a way unique to Himself, in which the food “did not pass from His body.”

The idea that the incarnate God didn’t poop brings us to another false dichotomy: the “spirit” vs. “the flesh.”

The idea that the two are at war simply does not appear in the Hebrew Bible, and the few New Testament passages on which the idea is based are generally misunderstood.

For instance, Paul’s famous instruction to the Roman church to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires”[iv] must be understood in the context of a movement that believed the end of the world was imminent. Paul therefore encouraged Christians to remain single and celibate, in the belief that there was no future in founding a family (or anything else.)

It is with later theologians like Origen and Augustine, mostly North African and under the influence of Plato, who began the long process of driving a wedge between “the spirit” and “the flesh”–a process that continues to this day.

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…see the human body as a means of connecting to and coming to know the divine […] The physical is the spiritual in yoga, and the exercises and disciplines of yoga are meant to connect with the divine.

Christianity certainly does distinguish between “spirit” and “flesh.” “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit,”[v] said Jesus, explaining why spiritual rebirth is not contingent on physical rebirth.

Yoga makes this body/spirit distinction also; the purusha, or “in-dweller,” who looks out through our eyes and is identical with the Atman, is eternal, while the body is temporal­. But where I believe the Yogic tradition trumps the Christian tradition is in its recognition of the sacramentality of the body–the ability of the body to raise our God-consciousness.

The supreme irony is that the whole of the Gospel faith is predicated on God becoming flesh. Jesus not only affirmed the holiness of the body, He seemed to revel in fleshly existence.  “Eat for me and drink for me,” He told St. Teresa of Avila, because she could do things for Him in the body that He could no longer do for Himself.  (The similarity here to the practice, recommended in the Bhagavad Gita, of “sacrificing sense objects in the fires of renunciation”[vi] is striking.)

Jesus affirmed and cherished the flesh at every turn, feeding people, healing their physical illnesses, eating and drinking with them. He even restored human bodies to life after physical death had occurred, sealing His sovereignty over death by rising from the dead Himself. Whatever the meaning, interpretation or historicity of these events, they plainly emphasize the high value God places on our physical being.

So is the baby in the manger “the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity,” or the rabbi who, at his first meeting with his disciples after His resurrection, made them breakfast?

Does He “dwell in the high and holy place,” or “with the one who has a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble and to revive the heart of the contrite”?[vii]

Is this Jewish avatara a physical being destined to death, or an immortal spirit Who is beyond the limitations of time, space and the body?

Does the unseemly and all-too-human birth narrative of Jesus (whatever its historical truth) proclaim the humbling of God, or the divine reality of human life behind the maya of earthly existence?

All of these questions, says the Christmas story, pose false dilemmas, and to each one the God-baby offers the same answer:

Well, both of those things could be true.

[i] Mark 2:16

[ii] Mark 2:17

[iii] Luke 7:33-34

[iv] Romans 13:14

[v] John 3:6

[vi] Bhagavad Gita 4:26

[vii] See Isaiah 57:15

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anonymous Dec 14, 2012 8:13am

[…] to believe that the body is somehow “sinful”; the whole religion is predicated, after all, on God becoming flesh. But it’s true that we Christians are seldom given specific encouragement to regard the body as […]

anonymous Jan 1, 2011 11:22pm

[…] Yoga, the Manger, and the Grumpy Old Fart by Scott Robinson […]

anonymous Dec 20, 2010 7:42pm

So what now?…Jesus was a Yogi? – Yawn – More BS about Christian God and Man being overlapping, positive, holistic (and even therapeutic) enterprises. At the VERY LEAST yogis should be looking at ALL the possibilities and not CHERRY PICKING binary logic to suit a preconceived belief. I SUGGEST that the most significant permutation of the theologic is the NEGATIVE: "not this, not this", or "neither this, nor that". Tamingauthor is on a wild goose chase with the empirical quest since whatever this God may be, universally or personally, when we attempt to assert it POSITIVELY we are limiting ourselves only to transcending something that I would argue does not exist in the way we hope it does. If you want to skip the heaviness of negative theology and cut straight to the bottom line – try Prasaṅgika Mādhyamaka. It is not to everyones taste but sure beats the hell out of listening to beardy, Christian yogis bang on about all this "unity" BS don't you think?

    anonymous Dec 21, 2010 12:13am

    Huh? Not sure what set off your alarm bells.

    There are many steps when the apophatic approach is important, and even primary. And then there is that which goes beyond that step. Eventually, it is important to understand the entirety of steps involved and how they interlock and support one another.

    Not sure what "wild goose chase" you perceive. Can't imagine what fantasy arose in your mind in that regard. Maybe you are speaking to some experience you have had that you imagine applies to what I said. (?) You offer criticism of my view — which you do not even know (nor state). Hard to track with that other than to realize something set you off.

    The Prasangika Madhyamaka approach is limited, and has created confusion where none need exist. Even in the Dalai Lama's discussion in The Universe in a Single Atom one sees confusion and the resultant obfuscation. If one moves beyond that confusion one finds the Yogacara model offers more insight.

    Not sure who the beardy Christian yogis are of whom you speak and what their B.S. is …. that sounds like perhaps a lack of understanding rather than a helpful distinction. Maybe you had something specific in mind that you have experienced. (?)

      anonymous Dec 21, 2010 4:13am

      TA, I think the "beardy Christian yogi" referred to was me.

        anonymous Dec 21, 2010 8:50am

        Oh, you are that guy! Oh, my.

        So the line was an attempt at a clever insult.

        Guess we both got told where to stick it.

        That is the beauty of discussion on matters of spirituality. There will always be a cry of pain or disgust or dissension. Hot topic no matter how well presented.

        Would love to hear more from the Mat on what set him/her off with regard to our comments.

    anonymous Dec 21, 2010 4:11am

    Gosh, YM; I'm having a hard time sorting out what the word "suggest" means when TYPED ALL IN CAPS.

    Ramakrishna said that the jnani climbs the stairs of renunciation, saying "neti, neti" all the way, and when he reaches the roof he finds out that it is made of the same bricks and mortar as the stairs.

anonymous Dec 20, 2010 6:13pm

Thanks, TA.

anonymous Dec 20, 2010 5:22pm

Very nice writing, Scott.

I share your admiration for Origen, St. Francis, and Patanjali.

This topic, of flesh and spirit, is a source of so much confusion. The great mystical tradition of Christianity helps bring some clarity to the topic—as seen in Francis, Bonaventure, St. John of the Cross, Thomas Merton and others.

But rarely does the discussion reach the clarity one finds in the Yoga Sutras—though oddly enough I find many, if not most, read the yoga materials, the Sutras and Gita, and walk away not seeing the clarity but rather redacting the material to remove anything that hints at a supernatural aspect to our essence. It may be there on the page but it is ignored.

Thus, I surmise this may be a topic that cannot really be understood without direct experience. Reports of direct experience, from mystics or yogis or advanced buddhists and from those who have had NDE's or OBE's pique general interest but do not push the reader over the line. I believe one has to experience separation of spirit from flesh personally before the combination tumblers fall into place and the vault to the mysteries is opened.

Once again, a very sensitive and artful presentation of a fascinating topic.

anonymous Dec 19, 2010 2:12pm

Thanks Scott. You have given much food for thought in my exploration and expansion of spirituality.


    anonymous Dec 19, 2010 2:42pm

    Thank *you,* Steve; I am all about exploration and expansion!

anonymous Dec 19, 2010 1:52pm

Many thanks, Bob.

Bob Weisenberg Dec 19, 2010 1:49pm

Amazing thinking and writing, Scott. I'm kind of speechless with the wisdom of all this.

I will spread the word on this one. The first thing I'm going to do is post it on the new Elephant Yoga Facebook page. That's exactly what this new page is for–to make sure the great blogs like yours don't get lost in the shuffle!

Thanks for writing this. I hope it generates lots of discussion like some of your other fine blogs have done.

Bob W.
Yoga Editor

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Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson taught college music at a Christian university for ten years before leaving to pursue creative work and fatherhood.  He has written for Sojourners Magazine, PRISM, Cross Currents, Minnesota Parent, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.  He currently composes, records and performs original kirtan with his band Mandala Scott is a professed member of the Third Order of St. Francis,  and lives in Philadelphia with his wife, two children, and two incessantly shedding dogs.